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Our Kind of People…Indeed! A Review and Analysis of a Lawrence Otis Graham Novel

Updated on February 15, 2015
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The Blues of the (Black Elite)

I was beginning to do research on a topic for a book that deals, primarily, with the issue of the Black elite in America. I was perusing sources when I came across Lawrence Otis Graham’s book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. This book gives its reader a birds-eye view into the lives and the world of America’s Black elite…a world seldom noticed by most Americans. Graham, himself, a child of wealthy Black elites and a member, speaks from his own personal experience and the experiences of the people he grew up with and met along his road to success. Graham is a Harvard Law School graduate, a nationally renowned attorney and commentator on race and politics in America.

Like many of its Patrician counterparts, the world of the Black elite is governed by a set of rules that limit entry into their well-shrouded and exclusive enclaves. Much of their wealth and pedigrees are old and historically, well-documented. In many cases, skin hue favors heavily. Often, those who don’t pass the “brown paper bag” test don’t gain access to the inner sanctum. Education, material wealth and social status are also measuring devices in the “selection” process. Initially, upon reading the first few chapters, I, at 43, thought I would’ve never encountered a group of people so shallow and phony in all my years. However, as I read on, I came to the sobering understanding that being Black in America is a liability no matter how much money and pedigree one possesses. These tightly-knit, well-protected enclaves exist for a reason…to preserve and maintain the frail balancing act of the apparent oxymoron of Black affluence in America.

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Living On Shaky Ground

Of course, any thinking, red-blooded adult would assume that a place like America, if one is willing to work hard, make the proper investments and sacrifices and get to know the right people, the American dream can become a wonderful reality for them. But, for elite African-Americans, dealing with the harsh reality of the history of slavery and racism casts a dark pallor of anxiety over any level of achievement gained, both in early American history, as well as the present day. For me, the question arose as to how one guards hard-earned and long-amassed wealth and status without losing a sense of who they are at the same time. Surely, any African-American who happens to be born into wealth or acquires their wealth shouldn’t have any reason to apologize for it. Do rich WASP’s, White corporate CEO’s and Wall Street hustlers apologize for the billions they steal? Of course not! So, why shouldn’t African-Americans strive to do well, want and gain better for themselves and their children? However, for all appearances, being Black and rich in America doesn’t divorce one from the reality of the "so-called" permanence of racism. Ultimately, he who controls the money controls the wealth…all wealth. Woe unto those whose status, lineage and sense of self is tied in with the so-called “American Dream.” For me, Graham’s book reveals that without a strong sense of “self” and the presence of “community,” that dream can quickly become a living nightmare.

Cotillions, black tie balls, sororities, fraternities, Jack and Jill (a Black elite children’s social club), The Links, The Boule, country clubs, exclusive vacation spots and neighborhoods are just some of the many “safety nets” of the American Black elite. Many of these well-moneyed individuals attend, graduate from and give generously to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). They also give generously to charities that serve the poor, sick and disenfranchised of the Black community. They create foundations and put in countless amounts of volunteer hours toward causes they hold dear. While reading, I was largely impressed with all this until my skepticism tapped me on the shoulder. Why would any rich person put so much into philanthropy, a charity or a cause? One has to wonder, in some cases, whether all this is being done as a diversion to keep the large masses of poorer African-Americans from focusing in on the Black elite. Why all the exclusivity?

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Carving the Niche

Graham’s book helped me realize that the class barriers that exist between the Black haves and the have nots are no different from any other racial group’s class struggles. The middle and upper class Blacks get to protect themselves, their wealth and their reality from the scrutinous eyes of their less wealthy and often resentful detractors…most of whom are Black. Words like “uppity Negroes” and “bougie” come to mind. It’s no secret that many of the Black elites, since Reconstruction, have fought long and hard to effectively distance themselves from the reality of their slave past by moving toward “acceptability” within the American status quo by means of higher education, lighter skin hues, family wealth and pedigree. This essentially created a class rift and a semi-penetrable social barrier between the African-American public and its gifted (talented tenth).

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Livin' the Dream

On the issue of skin-color, I, myself, am no stranger to the strife it can cause between myself and my darker brothers and sisters. This is a shameful outgrowth of American racism that African-Americans are still sadly afflicted with. I used to hear stories of the “brown paper bag” test growing up. I thought it was a silly joke then, when I was a child. I almost dropped the book when I found out it was a real practice! Graham devotes an entire chapter to this phenomenon among the Black elite. Some African-American elites are the products of a long line of mixed-race, African-Americans (mulattos) who very carefully intermarry…sort of like the “Blue-Blood” aristocracy in Europe. (In some cases, there is actual in-breeding). Again, just like their European counterparts, they seek to maintain certain characteristics like light, almost white-looking skin hues, as well as physical European features like a narrow nose, thin lips and straight hair. Within the African-American community, Blacks who don these features are able to “pass for White.” In some cases, these people live out their lives as Caucasians and literally disavow their families and their African-American heritage completely. They literally disappear! According to Graham, this is a fairly common occurrence. Graham highlights an incident he and his friends encountered when he was a freshman at Harvard Law School. Apparently, they attempted to “blow a classmate’s cover” by approaching him and asking him if he was Black.

“Although he’d long insisted on his White racial background, the rest of us had just taken it as a fact that he was a Black man in denial. We didn’t need further confirmation. ‘What I’d like to know is whether his girlfriend knows,’ Clarence asked no one in particular as we sat at an all-Black table in the Harvard Law School dining hall. Several of us glanced over at the ‘suspect.’ He was holding the hand of a slender White woman with blond hair and blue eyes. Sara rolled her eyes. “Of course she doesn’t know. They never know.” (Graham 376-77)

To me, this dilemma of “passing for White” is understandable, given the nature of American racism. Yet, it’s still completely psychotic. If one has everything they could ever want or has the means to obtain it, then the very real question arises as to whether the American dream is to have it all or simply, to not to be Black?

Graham’s book was truly an eye-opener for me. I always knew of Black folks that had money, but I didn’t know the great depths to which sank the proverbial “rabbit hole” they lived in. He clearly lays out, through his experience and his interviews, the need for Black solidarity and community—wherever or however we are in American society. W.E.B. Dubois speaks of the “double consciousness” of the American Negro. Apparently, money, pedigree and status don’t guarantee escape from the perilous, gaping vortex of American racism. For those of us with black skin, there is no escape from that reality no matter who you are.

© 2015 Dana Ayres

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    • kndashy41 profile image
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      Dana Ayres 2 years ago from Houston, TX

      I think he is best known for his bitter rivalry with Marcus Garvey. It seemed that after Booker T. died he felt he would be the next "Black leader" and then along comes Garvey. DuBois may have been elitist in his youth; however, later in life he conceded that Garvey was right all along. He was regretful of his key role in Garvey's imprisonment and deportation from the U.S. There were a few things that DuBois left the U.S. bitter about, but his "talented tenth" notion stuck. It appears that some of our appointed "leaders" hail from that class of "acceptable" Black people. Interesting stuff...

    • william landis profile image

      William L 2 years ago

      Its funny you mentioned Dr. Du Bois he was very elitist. He participated in and founded many organizations that promoted classism and colorism hist talented tenth theory in itself developed many of the issues that we are talking about.

    • kndashy41 profile image
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      Dana Ayres 2 years ago from Houston, TX

      Hi William. Thanks for your comment. I, too, spent 2 years at an HBCU and I agree with you about the "birds of a feather" credo. Naturally, good parents will want what is best for their children and exposing them to the right people in the environment of their choosing is very important. But, I think that part of that exposure means allowing a child to view Black reality from more than one or two perspectives. The African-American culture is an extremely diverse one...as diverse as the American culture. To me, a truly educated African-American is one that has an in-depth knowledge and understanding of every aspect of his/her people, especially those who are in a position to "lead" as W.E.B. Dubois once decreed. I believe those who lead all the Black people should learn to "love" ALL the Black people and not just be limited and privy to a particular class or upbringing. It seems to me that many of the people described in Graham's novel are "self-serving" and shallow, to some degree...as if their "Black" experience can't be understood by their lower-class brethren. I also experienced the whole "light-skin/dark-skin" phenomenon, myself. Frankly, it kinda irks me even when I am questioned about the "authenticity" of my natural. I don't believe in "good hair." This implies that Black hair is normally bad. Nonsense!

      Although I received my degree from another University, I feel deeply esteemed and privileged to have attended an HBCU and I'm better for it!

    • william landis profile image

      William L 2 years ago

      I loved the book. Perhaps not analysising it as deep as you but as a black person in America you are often taught and reminded of your expected mediocrity. We are supposed to be lazy poor and stupid. It was during my time at an HBCU that my eyes were opened to a different class of African Americans. Yes the light skin tone is a big part of it but there are many darker skinned people among this class. It amazed me. Many are uppity and snobby and do there best to separate themselves from the lower class but if you look at it from a logical perspective it would make sense. If you want your children maintain your families social and economic status if not advance it why wouldn't you restrict your families interactions with those of your economic and social bracket?

      There was an article I read this week about how the children of middle class African Americans are not as likely to maintain the economic status of their family. That is because in the middle class you have more interaction with lower class sensibilities and that culture rubs off and they adopt some of it and soon they become a product of that culture. Don't get me wrong classism is wrong but who you are is all in the company you keep.

    • kndashy41 profile image
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      Dana Ayres 2 years ago from Houston, TX

      I agree the "passing for White" thing is about survival. That's why I stressed that it is crucial that wherever African-Americans are in their life walk, they need that sense of community to stay grounded. That's one message that I gleaned from Graham's novel. I also think that racial self-hatred is a learned phenomenon that is passed through the generations. Like I said, I have the same issues with some darker-skinned African-Americans, even to this day, concerning my skin hue and curly hair...as if I can help it. I was raised in the 70's and I was taught very early that "Black is Beautiful" no matter what the hue. If you read this book, there are some parts that will definitely hit a nerve.

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 2 years ago from The Great Midwest

      The "passing for white" phenomenon may be understood as a survival reflex. However, the whole paper bag test mentality stikes me as a form of idolatry of another group of people. I will check this book out. A book I have, "The Emperor of Ocean Park" also explores the lives of blue blood African Americans.

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      Roz 2 years ago

      Excellent piece, thought provoking and informative.