Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Roots Of The Rich

By Leonard Gill

JANUARY 25, 1999: 

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

By Lawrence Otis Graham

HarperCollins, 400 pp., $25

It’s a club called Jack and Jill and a camp called Atwater for the kids. No question about it. The Alphas, the Kappas, or the Omegas for college men; the AKAs or the Deltas for college women. For the wives, it’s a toss-up: the Links or the Girl Friends; for the husbands, the Boule or the Guardsmen. And depending on where you live, who you are, whom you know, and what you make, make that Oak Bluffs, Sag Harbor, or Highland Beach for a real taste of an old-guard summer.

If the names of these clubs, fraternities, sororities, and vacation spots mean nothing to you, to a segment of America’s upper-crust that positively prides itself on pickiness and rank, they can mean only one world – a separate world made up of and exclusively for a membership that is professionally accomplished, socially well-connected, supremely status-conscious, avowedly elitist, wealthy to superwealthy, and black. Gate-crashers, it must needs emphasizing, need not apply. This is invitation-only territory, and if you’re expecting an invite, expect your background to count, your money to matter, and the lighter your skin tone and straighter your hair, the luckier you are. Fail the brown paper bag test and your chances of cracking black society are not exactly nil, but according to Lawrence Otis Graham in Our Kind of People, it may take some forward planning, smart positioning, and no small doing. If you’re Colin Powell, Andrew Young, Lena Horne, or Bryant Gumbel, you’ve already got it. Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Clarence Thomas, Diana Ross, don’t even try.

Graham, the son of a successful but not-too-rich father, didn’t necessarily have it either, and he should know. As a Harvard Law graduate, attorney, teacher, and journalist, active member of the Urban League, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, the NAACP, and Rotary International, even he was beginning to doubt his ever making it into the Boule. The major misstep in his impeccably groomed past as a former Jack-and-Jiller, former escort to black debutantes, and known vacationer on Martha’s Vineyard? Graham’s suspect decision not to attend Howard, Morehouse, or Fisk, and to settle instead (to the point of apology) for Princeton.

This, then, is social history with a fair dose of memoir mixed in, and a rarely looked-into and valuable social history, from slavery down to the present day, warts and all. For the “warts,” you can turn to most any page of Our Kind and encounter a superabundance of snobbery, a distancing from the “cruder” element who fought for civil rights, and an openly self-congratulatory attitude that would be inadmissable in the case of the bluest blue-blood WASP. And for the “all,” you get a surfeit of credentials-mongering and resume-padding to numb even the most avid pedigree-hound. Graham, meanwhile, tries to keep his cool throughout by championing the laudable overcoming of obstacles, deriding the sense of superiority he witnesses around him, while continually rereminding us of his own stake as a claimant in the prestige game.

It’s when Graham samples the black elite in certain American cities and Memphis in particular that he goes from relaying history to taking uncalled-for potshots. The author, whose parents were both born in Memphis, has been visiting the city all his life and gives us first-hand knowledge of the civic and social roles played by the Roulhacs, the Fords, the Churches, the Hayeses, the Walkers, the Hunts, the Hookses, the Byases, and many others. And in Ronald Walker, executive vice president of WREG-TV, Graham has indeed got himself “one of the best sources on the history of the black Memphis elite.”

Does Memphis, however, really need (or deserve) widespread publicity as a “provincial,” “parochial,” “small town,” that last phrase so often resorted to by Graham as to cause me to lose count? (What, no “backwater”?) That there is in Memphis “little city life and little city development to reverse [its] decline”? That The Peabody, “as plush as it is, by Memphis standards – seems a bit corny and anachronistic”? That Beale Street today “has a faux New Orleans-meets-Disneyland look to it”? That “one gets the sense that no major company or industry calls Memphis its home”?

These remarks are from the same author who locates White Haven (sic) “out east,” comments on the sizeable lots in Central Gardens, recommends that Memphis model itself on a town as boring as Charlotte, North Carolina, and goes on, despite the hatchet job, to declare himself still “a devoted fan” of the city.

Lawrence Otis Graham has a story here that’s overdue to be told. Where was an editor to cut the verbiage down by a quarter and nix the misinformation entirely?

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