Book Review: Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class
Publication Date: Jan 06, 1999
List Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Parent Company: News Corporation
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Book Reviewed by Paige Turner
A comedian joked that ethnic groups need an elite "Royal Family" to look up to. He mentioned that most WASPS identify with the British Royal family, and that Irish-Americans perceive the Kennedys as their Royal Family. He then, tongue-in-cheek, speculated that African Americans embrace the Jacksons (yes, Michael, Tito, Janet, Marlon et al), as their Royal Family! Readers may conclude that black Americans are not quite that desperate, but the need for a cultural elite does exist, and is a common characteristic of all cultures through out the ages.
In Our Kind of People, author Lawrence Otis Graham offers his "insider's" perspective to define and chronicle America's Black upper class. Graham is author of Member of the Club, (1995), and Proversity, (1997). OKOP, with its examination of the qualities of belonging-ness and exclusion might be perceived as a "black face" version of Member of the Club.
Our Kind of People is one of the most controversial books of 1999 and serves as a pulse check for the current state of black America. Exploring Black America's upper class is a dicey proposition, for somebody's toes are going to get stepped upon, and somebody's hackles are going to be raised. Any but the most diplomatic and well-researched arbiter risks "Who-does-he-think-he-is?" condemnation.
Graham barely straddles the fence of diplomacy versus wrath. His biggest downfall is that his research consists exclusively of oral commentaries from current members of the Black elite, and is hardly objective. (His research methodology amounts to asking members of the elite to attest to their own self worth and fabulousness). He probed no social science professionals or journalists for definitive and substantive insights on the composition of the black elite. Other missing elements include: The role of political affiliations; Categorizations of the accomplishments that merit inclusion; Advice on how to become a part of the black elite; And examples of this group's signature class, style and taste.
The book begins in an irksome manner, with an anonymous listing of celebrities that are -- and are not -- members of the black elite ("Bryant Gumble is but Bill Cosby isn't."). Sheeeesh! This sounds like the absolutely worst kind of schoolyard clique. As long as readers keep in mind that Our Kind of People is just one person's point of view, the book will be more palatable. But to perceive Graham's perspective as the final say, will make for infuriating reading.
Despite OKOP's nettlesome qualities there is poignancy though out, mostly due to Graham's "wanna be" status with this group. He sees the heartbreak and flaws in a system where acceptance is based on the superficiality of skin color and straight hair (the brown paper bag and ruler test), yet his divided-ness, his willingness to compartmentalize himself, in order to be a part of this world where he does not qualify, is puzzling.
Or perhaps Graham does qualify for membership in the black elite? One of the "carrots" continually dangled before aspirants is the fuzzy criteria for inclusion. Some inclusions and exclusions are downright perplexing. Attorney and power broker Vernon Jordan, son of a caterer, renowned for his chocolate smooth good looks, is deemed to be a member of the black elite, where light skinned Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, equally humbly born, equally accomplished and well renowned, is not. Go figure.
Graham is to be commended for his mostly even handed treatment though out the book. Observers and commentators appear to be quoted in the proper contexts, and with out undue misinterpretation. Graham even reveals his own humiliation at the hands Washington DC's black elite when he initiated a "jump the broom" ceremony at his brother's wedding reception. "The [broom] ceremony lasted no more than five minutes, but it turned into a total disaster. What had been considered one of the few lasting traditions from pre emancipation black southern culture was suddenly seen as a hostile and unwelcome gesture. "Why would he bring a nigger-ish thing like that in here?" announced a woman. "These country-ass blacks always have to drag in this slave history crap", added an older gentleman. When I came back--with the broom no longer in sight-- the Washingtonians in attendance ignored me The fact that I would be ostracized for embracing this tradition still leaves me stunned. Though I have had many since then, it was a Washington moment I shall never forget."
These moments of honesty and genuineness are refreshing, and transfer OKOP from a song of praise to the black elite, into a decent-enough book. Indeed one of OKOP's best features is its unvarnished, peek-behind-the-curtain quality. Many of the observations are politically incorrect, but clearly indicate what (certain) people really think. "Maybe it sounds a little pretentious, but I simply can't waste time getting to know women who aren't [members of a certain club]. It is an automatic screen that lets me know if this person comes from the right background and has the same values. I'm almost fifty and I live a busy life. I don't have the time for people who don't have the right stuff. Rich educated white women don't hang round with middle class college dropouts, so why should I?" says a San Francisco woman who rarely socializes outside this circle."
Another commendable feature in OKOP is a brief examination of the role that a strong black elite plays in helping American cities achieve world class renown. For example, racial acceptance and utilization of the wealth of black talent contributed to Atlanta's emergence as an international city, where as Memphis has been left in the dust due to its failure to leverage these assets. More of this kind of analysis would have elevated OKOP form an average book, to a highly recommended one.
There exists an abundance of African American contributions that deserve documentation in the areas of social life, achievements, families of note, the amassing of prosperity, wealth and abundance, volunteerism and philanthropy. This makes Our Kind of People's limitations especially disappointing. A chronicle of African American aristocracy and gracious living is still needed, and the current time is right and ripe, but Our Kind of People does not fulfill this mission and is not the definitive book on this subject.