Saturday, July 08, 2006

Book Review: Our Kind of People

I’ve been reading Lawrence Otis Graham’s 1999 book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. It’s Graham’s account of the world he grew up in, a world that I – a white, public school-educated Midwesterner – had little knowledge of, or exposure to.

The book starts with a controversial epigraph, a distillation of the sentiments of the black elite regarding their own:
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.
Those lines, Graham says in his new introduction to the book, made some celebrities angry. He explains how he asked “old-guard blacks” in various cities which famous people they considered their peers: “In Philadelphia, Bill Cosby’s hometown, I asked wealthy black socialites if the well-credentialed and wealthy Dr. Cosby was in their crowd. They told me, ‘No he’s not our kind of people, but his wife, Camille [because of her Spelman College background and her light complexion], is.”

The business of one’s skin tone is an uncomfortable one in this book. Graham explained the infamous “Brown Paper Bag and Ruler Test” to PBS’s David Gergen back in 1999 when the book came out:
Well, that's something that goes back to slavery -- when blacks were divided into the dark skinned slaves that worked in the fields and then the light skinned slaves that worked in the house at the "prestige" jobs -- the butlers, the cooks, the family servants. And the rule was the Brown Paper Bag and Ruler Test was nothing more than you had to be lighter than a brown paper bag and your hair had to be as straight as a ruler. So it's an ugly and unfortunate way of looking at skin color and hair texture, but that was what the attitude of the black upper class has been and certainly had been.
This reminds me of a story I read for an American literature class called “The Wife of His Youth,” by Charles Waddell Chesnutt. The story, which appeared in the July 1898 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, was about a well-to-do light-skinned black man whose poor, dark-skinned wife finds him after searching for decades. At first he spurns her, but later he welcomes her back. It’s a moving and well-written story. It’s very strange to read this from a 1899 review of Chesnutt’s story collection in the Boston Evening Transcript: “Even though the stigma were removed which differentiates the black race in the estimation of the white, their own class distinctions, based on shades of color, will carry on the evils of the situation indefinitely.” How far we have come in 106 years. Or should I phrase that as a question? The reviewer actually seems more optimistic about the relations between blacks and whites than among blacks.

It was this tension and sensitivity that moved Graham to get himself a nose-job when he was 26. “Sometimes I knew where I was lacking and sometimes I didn’t. For example, I knew my complexion was a shade lighter than the brown paper bag, but that my hair – while not coarse like our ancestors – had a Negroid kink that made it the antithesis of ruler-straight.”

Graham belongs to a group of African Americans who have dispatched generations ago with the question of whether success makes you less black. It doesn’t, they reason – it makes you more black, even if your skin is lighter. These are people who know their ancestry better than most Americans. Light skin is the sign of a legacy of education and refinement. Graham recalls in his introduction telling a critical young Yale graduate, “Some black folks may be uncomfortable to learn that there are several generations of elite blacks who live in a separate world, but like white people, blacks also have to learn to accept the facts in our history. I don’t think the black upper-class crowd should be ashamed of its success any more than the WASP elite, Italian elite, or Jewish elite.”

That’s all true, but the black elite doesn’t accept new money any more than the wealthy old-guard whites do. They do, however, give a ton of money to African American causes.

In the first chapter of the book, Graham discusses the discomfiting situation he and his find themselves in:
One can find both pride and guilt among the black elite. A pride in black accomplishment that is inexorably tied to a lingering resentment about our past as poor, enslaved blacks and our past and current treatment by whites. On one level, there are those of us who understand our obligation to work toward equality for all and to use our success in order to assist those blacks who are less advantaged. But on another level, there are those of us who buy into the theories of superiority, and who feel embarrassed by our less accomplished black brethren. These self-conscious individuals are resentful of any quality or characteristic that associates them with that which seems ordinary. We’ve got some of the best-educated, most accomplished, and most talented people in the black community – but at the same time, we have some of the most hidebound and smug. And adding even further to the mix are those of us who feel we need to apologize to the rest of the black world for our success and for our being who we are. For me, the black upper class has always been a study of contrasts.
Graham's book is a fascinating read. I find the black elite just as baffling and captivating as I do the helmet-haired women in pearls and twin-sets walking pink poodles on the Upper East Side, or the squeaky-clean Mormon families in Salt Lake City, teeth gleaming through bewilderingly genuine smiles, decked out in full Gap regalia. These are uniquely American subcultures -- three groups that tend to keep to themselves and look down upon the rest of us.

As controversial as the black elite may be, reading about them forces all of us to think about race in a new way. What does skin color mean to us? Is black an ethnicity or a way of looking at the world? Whose black is more black? How much are race and class linked in this country?

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1 Comments:

Blogger k said...

Our Kind of People is the epitome of bourgeois class that America loves to deny in egalitarian romance. Everyone in my family has read that book. I have been in at least one of the organizations mentioned in the book and when I look at my family, someone's in almost all of the groups that are not strictly East Coast.
Some are for good causes and helpful. Others are full of themselves. A lot volunteer work that I did as a kid was sponsored through the network that the book discusses. My sisters' debutante balls probably highlighted the Black Experience as portrayed in the book. To me, it was a part of growing up. Just as it was for my mother.
You know people from the group that is talked about, you have just never asked enough to realize it.

1:18 PM  

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