Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class

Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class

by Lawrence Otis Graham


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Debutante cotillions. Million-dollar homes. Summers in Martha's Vineyard. Membership in the Links, Jack & Jill, Deltas, Boule, and AKAs. An obsession with the right schools, families, social clubs, and skin complexion. This is the world of the black upper class and the focus of the first book written about the black elite by a member of this hard-to-penetrate group.

Author and TV commentator Lawrence Otis Graham, one of the nation's most prominent spokesmen on race and class, spent six years interviewing the wealthiest black families in America. He includes historical photos of a people that made their first millions in the 1870s. Graham tells who's in and who's not in the group today with separate chapters on the elite in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Nashville, and New Orleans. A new Introduction explains the controversy that the book elicited from both the black and white communities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060984380
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/22/1999
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 83,307
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

The author of fourteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People, and a contributing editor for Reader's Digest, Lawrence Otis Graham's work has also appeared in the New York Times, Essence, and The Best American Essays. He lives with his wife in Manhattan and Chappaqua, New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Origins of the Black Upper Class
Bryant Gumbel is, but Bill Cosby isn't.
Lena Horne is, but Whitney Houston isn't.
Andrew Young is, but Jesse Jackson isn't.
And neither is Maya Angelou, Alice
Walker, Clarence Thomas, or Quincy Jones.
And even though both of them try extremely
hard, neither Diana Ross nor Robin Givens
will ever be.

All my life, for as long as I can remember, I grew up thinking that there existed only two types of black people: those who passed the "brown paper bag and ruler test" and those who didn't. Those who were members of the black elite. And those who weren't.

I recall summertime visits from my maternal great-grandmother, a well-educated, light-complexioned, straight-haired black southern woman who discouraged me and my brother from associating with darker-skinned children or from standing or playing for long periods in the July sunlight, which threatened to blacken our already too-dark skin.

"You boys stay out of that terrible sun," Great-grandmother Porter would say in a kindly, overprotective tone. "God knows you're dark enough already."

As she sat rocking, stiff-lipped and humorless, on the porch of our Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, summer home, she would gesture for us to move further and further into the shade while flipping disgustedly through the pages of Ebony magazine.

"Niggers, niggers, niggers," she'd say under her breath while staring at the oversized pages of text and photos of popular Negro politicians, entertainers, and sports figures who were busy making black news in 1968.

Great-grandmother Porter, the daughter of a minister and a homemaker, was extremely proud of her Memphis, Tennessee, middle-classroots. While still a child, she had worn silk taffeta dresses, had taken several years of piano lessons, and had managed to become fluent in French. Her only daughter had followed in her footsteps, wearing similarly elegant dresses, taking music lessons, and attending the private LeMoyne School a few years ahead of Roberta Church, the millionaire daughter of Robert Church, the richest black man in the South. She often reminded us that one of her sisters, Venie, then grown and married, had lived for years on Mississippi Boulevard next door to Maceo Walker, the most affluent and powerful black man in Memphis. Great-grandmother was proud of many things, such as being a Republican like the Churches and most other well-placed blacks in those early years. Like all blacks in racist southern towns in the early 1900s, she despised the insults, the substandard treatment, and the poor facilities that the Jim Crow laws had left for blacks. But like many blacks of her class, she was able to limit the interactions that she and her family had with such indignities. Rather than ride at the back of the bus and send her daughter to substandard segregated public schools, she and her husband bought a car and paid for private schooling. For my great-grandmother, life had been generous enough that she could create an environment that buffered her family against the bigotry she knew was just outside her door.

Even though it was 1968, a period of unrest for many blacks throughout the country, Great-grandmother -- like the blue-veined crowd that she was proud to belong to -- seemed, at times, to be totally divorced from the black anxiety and misery that we saw on the TV news and in the papers. In public and around us children, her remarks often suggested that she was satisfied with the way things were. She often said she didn't think much of the civil rights movement ("I don't see anything civil about a bunch of nappy-headed Negroes screaming and marching around in the streets"), even though I later learned that she and her church friends often gave money to the NAACP, the Urban League, and other groups that fought segregation. She said she didn't think much of Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin or their loud Baptist music ("When are we going to get beyond all this low-class, Baptist, spiritual-sounding rock and roll music?"), even though she would sometimes attend Baptist services. She was proud when a black man finally won an Academy Award, but was disappointed that Sidney Poitier seemed so dark and wet with perspiration when he was interviewed after receiving the honor.

An outsider might have looked at this woman and wondered whether she liked blacks at all. Her views seemed so unforgiving. The fact was that she was completely dedicated to the members of her race, but she had a greater understanding of and appreciation for those blacks who shared her appearance and socioeconomic background.

Disappointed and disillusioned by how little she saw of herself and her crowd in the pages of Ebony magazine, Great-grandmother looked up and once again focused her attention on me and my brother.

And then she thought about her hair.

Stepping back inside the house for her ever-present Fuller brush and comb, she was, no doubt, frustrated by the fact that her great-grandchildren were several shades darker than she, with kinky hair that was clearly that of a Negro person.

My brother and I noted her disappearance into the house and thus once again ran out of the shade and danced around the sand- and pebble-covered road, breathing in the sunshine and the fragrance of the dense pine trees that rose from the layers of sand and brush.

"Young men -- young men," her voice called from the rear bedroom, "you aren't back in that sun, are you?"

"No, ma'am. We're in the shade, ma'am," my eight-year-old brother, Richard, called back with complete conviction as he stopped just out of my great-grandmother's range of vision, thrusting his bare brown chest and oval face into the ninety-six-degree July sun, boldly willing his skin to grow blacker and blacker in defiance of her query.

Our Kind of People. Copyright © by Lawrence Otis Graham. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1 The Origins of the Black Upper Class
CHAPTER 2 Jack and Jill: Where Elite Black Kids Are Separated from the Rest
CHAPTER 3 The Black Child Experience: The Right Cotillions, Camps, and Private Schools
CHAPTER 4 Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse: Three Colleges That Count
CHAPTER 5 The Right Fraternities and Sororities
CHAPTER 6 The Links and the Girl Friends: For Black Women Who Govern Society
CHAPTER 7 The Boule, the Guardsmen, and Other Groups for Elite Black Men
CHAPTER 8 Vacation Spots for the Black Elite
CHAPTER 9 Black Elite in Chicago
CHAPTER 10 Black Elite in Washington, D.C.
CHAPTER 11 Black Elite in New York City
CHAPTER 12 Black Elite in Memphis
CHAPTER 13 Black Elite in Detroit
CHAPTER 14 Black Elite in Atlanta
CHAPTER 15 Other Cities for the Black Elite: Nashville, New Orleans, Tuskegee, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia
CHAPTER 16 Passing for White: When the "Brown Paper Bag Test" Isn't Enough

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Our Kind of People : Inside America's Black Upper Class 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While Graham's account of the black elite might have upset many African Americans because it shows the divisiveness of our people instead of the solidarity, the book does shed light on an area of Black history many were obviously unaware. Graham exudes a fondness for some of the people in the book with whom he is familiar however, it is no different than a 'non-elite' would feel for his or her 'big mama' or 'madea.' Some of these are the people with whom he grew up and who he grew to love. Well-deserved respect and admiration should be expected, if not desired. People who are upset with the book may well be because in reading it, they realize their exclusion. While not apart of the elite, I found it fascinating and was proud to know people of African decent were doing so well during times when others 'found it kinda hard.' Fascination continues as I am able to drive through Mississippi and see the exit for the Piney Woods School and imagine the rich history and culture that must adorn the halls. While I am not apart of the black elite and with my milk chocoalate skin will never be, I am neither discouraged nor saddened not to be apart of the group. The reader must not fail to remember the essence of a good book -- to be able to transfer you to a world you might not otherwise have been able to explore. Only if the reader keeps that in mind can Graham's book truly be appreciated.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am quite upset that I spent my money on this trash! I find the "elite" people in this book to be very wordly, materialistic, and superficial. I would not want to be associated with these people nor have my kids around these people children. Furthermore, I find it very hard to believe that these people give to back to the black community at all since they do not want any association with the average working class black person. Eventhough I am a graduate of one of the elite colleges mentioned in the book (and am currently pursuing a graduate degree), I still would find it very hard to relate to any of these people in the book. A professional is not someone who has a college degree, but a professional is someone who has the right attitude. It is an attitude of excellence in whatever work he/she is called to do. Furthermore, a real elite is someone who surrendered their life to God and committed to doing His will, a person that is confident yet not cocky, a person that can relate to men of both high and low status, and lastly, he/she is a person that understands that the true worth of a person is not the car he/she drives or amount of money he/she has in the bank account, but the size of their heart. New Orleans,La.
godpsent More than 1 year ago
I am thinking maybe this book was written for those are not middle class, Black Americans. If you are not a Black American and interested in Black American culture, then this book will be great for you. Of if you are a member of the Black American elite and would like a neat, little journal of your collective experiences, then this book might be for you. I was not very impressed only because as a middle class Black American I am all too familiar with the information in this book. And the information is not presented with any particular critique or opinion. I was quite bored and wish I had not purchased this book. Caveat: the author presents the information rather unsentimentally and without judgment. It is more or less a "just the facts" type of memoir.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is very informative and inspiring. The stories inside this book are great American stories of triumph over tall odds. All too often the success stories of African Americans not involved in athletics or entertainment are overlooked. The book "Our Kind Of People" reveals the many success stories of African Americans who utilized their intellects to achieve success in America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really didn't like this book at all. The author, throughout the book, lists titles and acolades for every person that he quoted and I thought that was completely unneccesary. He also gave too many details about vacations, status (in terms of various professions), and socioeconomic elitism that made the book a chore to read. I would not recommend this book to anyone unless you want a surface perspective of the life of 'our kind of people'. I prefer a description and history of this group of so called elite black people and how there exlcusion of lower-class black people henders the progress of the black community rather help it. I am a professional and I am not in any of the groups described in the book nor would I ever choose to be.
Guest More than 1 year ago
First, let me say I am proud and happy to read and learn about the black upper class, when the history books would have all believe blacks were poor slummers and coutry bumpkins. But what I cannot stand, is the outright discrimination upper class blacks imposed upon all other blacks. Really, what made them any different than whites. Both groups thought they were better than and snubbed their noses at a majority of blacks. What is the point of having an upper class of blacks, if they do not elevate the race, the whole race? Many people would believe these old fashioned prejudices and slights do not exist anymore but I know they do. I applaud the book for showing a side of blacks people rarely see but it is also devastating to realize with so much power and money, litte to none was done to help other struggling blacks
Guest More than 1 year ago
Informative; not too biased for or aginst the upper class. I appreciate this book. More people need to know all aspects of the black community.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Finally a book has been written about the Black Upper Class. A class some people don't even think exists. I did enjoy the book but at times it did portray the black upper class in a negative light.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jenee Moody More than 1 year ago
The underline message within this book is education. This book gives much clarity into Black America... the clarity that show we are different. Everyone within the black race isn't the same but we all have the same goals at the end of the day.... EDUCATION. A lot of people, African Americans included, will be offended but why? Why are we offended about the truth? The truth is... African Americans, Blacks, Colored, Negros (whatever lable we may use) had to build from nothing and made it into something. Every other race, unapologetically, claim, respect and try to emulate their blue bloods (royal, wealthy). African Americans are the only race that's apologetic about our success, our differences and uniqueness. We need to celebrate our wealthy black Americans because they did it without selling their souls... I love this book... the good, the bad and the ugly!
ThePinkPanther on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While this book was at times insightful and shed light to the relatively unknown world of the black upper class, it felt at times that the author was more focused on dropping names and repeating the same information, than on looking deeper. After about getting halfway through the book, I started to skim, because of this. I felt that on many different topics/chapters, the author took a more superficial stance and stayed close to the surface, instead of delving into subjects or situations that were interesting and more engaging. In short, it's an interesting read, but after a while, it starts sounding like a broken record.
jeaneva on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ever heard of the "brown paper bag and ruler test"? (It refers to skin color and hair type.) Do you know which colleges and fraternities/sororities are identifiers of "belonging"? Have you heard of the Girlfriends or Jack and Jills? Do you know who the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S. was? (Hint: She was an African-American). There is also a look at the history of black achievement in various cities (Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Memphis, Detroit, Atlanta, Tuskegee, New Orleans, L.A, Philadelphia and Nashville). The last chapter addresses "passing for white."A fascinating look at the Black Elite through the eyes of a member.
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Loved this book!
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Graham did an excellent job of going in depth of the mysterious life of the Black elite class. He drops a lot of names in the book, some individuals I didn't care to know. Overall, the book was a good read.
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