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Our Kind of People (Graham)



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Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class
Lawrence Otis Graham, 1999
HarperCollins
448 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060984380

In Brief 
In 1995, Lawrence Otis Graham wrote a first-person account of his observations of institutional racism perpetuated at an elite country club—Member of the Club.

In Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class, Graham focuses his sights on the black upper class, looking at the people, places, and objects it comprises. His examination of the history of this elite — who refer to themselves as "our crowd" — serves as a first-person look at a small, tightly knit group that has wielded an increasingly large amount of power and prestige.

Debutante cotillions. Million-dollar homes. Summers in Martha's Vineyard and Sag Harbor. 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 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. (From the publisher.)

More
The controversial bestseller was selected by the Book of the Month Club and landed on the bestseller lists of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Essence magazine. The book traces the history of black America’s well-to-do, going back to the first black millionaires of the 1890s. The detailed book explains why one needs to have more than money and celebrity to be accepted by this exclusive old-guard black elite crowd. One needs to have the right parents, school credentials, fraternity, club memberships, summer house, profession—and in some cases, the right physical features.

Graham’s book not only profiles some of the most prominent black names and institutions in twelve different U.S. cities, but it also gives the inside scoop on such by-invitation-only black society groups like Jack & Jill, the Links, the Boulé, the Girl Friends and the Guardsmen. Graham shares information on which prominent black families continue to give back to the black community and which now exploit their light complexions to “pass” as white.

A second-generation alumnus of the Jack & Jill children’s group, a member of the 90 year old Boulé and the son of a Link, Graham offers a perspective that only an insider would have. (From the author) 

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 About the Author 

Birth—1962
Where—New York City, New York, USA
Raised—Westchester County, NY
Education—B.A., Princeton Univesity; J.D.,
   Harvard University
• Currently—lives in Westchester County, New York


Lawrence Otis Graham is an attorney and commentator on race, politics, and class in America. He is one of the nation’s leading authors and experts on race, politics and class in America. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, he is the author of 14 books and numerous articles in such publications as the New York Times, Essence, Reader’s Digest, Glamour and U.S. News & World Report.  His book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class was a New York Times, L.A. Times and Blackboard bestseller.

Graham’s newest book, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty is an important biography of U.S. Senator Blanche Bruce, the first black to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. Graham is also the author of such books as The Best Companies for Minorities, Proversity—two Important guides on diversity in the workplace—as well as the very popular Member of the Club, which focused on his now-famous experience of leaving his New York law firm and going undercover as a busboy to expose racism, sexism and anti-Semitism at an all-white country club in Greenwich, Connecticut.  That was originally a cover story on New York magazine.

Graham has appeared on more than one hundred TV shows including Oprah, Today Show, The View, Good Morning America, and has been profiled in USA Today, Time, Ebony, People Magazine and many other publications.  He is a popular speaker at colleges, corporations and other institutions where he has addressed the issues of diversity and culture.  His audiences have included Duke, UCLA, Howard, Yale, Kraft Foods, Corning, Xerox, Disney, American Library Association and many other organizations around the U.S. and Japan.  His research and advice have appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

He is leading a campaign to get the U.S. Post Office to honor Senator Blanche Bruce on a stamp since the nation has never placed a black elected official on a stamp. Graham is married to the corporate executive, Pamela Thomas-Graham, who is the author of novels including Blue Blood and Orange Crushed. They live in Manhattan and Westchester County, New York. (From Wikipedia.)

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 Critics Say . . . 
A fascinating if unwieldy amalgam of popular history, sociological treatise and memoir....Gaham clearly loves and admires the people he is writing about, and this is both the charm of the book and its great failing....Still...[Graham] has made a major contribution both to African-American studies and to the larger American picture.
Andrea Lee - The New York Times Book Review


Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class is the literary equivalent of the nose job Graham obtained so that he could "further buy into the aesthetic biases that many among the black élite hold so dear." Instead of reporting on the foibles of the black upper crust, Graham sucks up to it, providing little more than a breathless list of neighborhoods, vacation spots and social clubs dominated by folks who can pass the 'brown paper bag' test.
Jack White - Time


In this work, Graham, who exposed bias against African Americans in his sharp-tongued account of working at an elite country club (Member of the Club), here focuses on "America's black upper class": a conservative, well-to-do group that dates back to the first black millionaires in the 1870s and whose members are associated with institutions like the Links and the Oak Bluffs area of Martha's Vineyard.
Library Journal


A record of the pleasures and the follies of an elevated black society. According to Graham, all racial, ethnic, and religious groups lay claim to their own privileged class-that group which, either because of family name, wealth, title, education, or other circumstance fashions itself a cut above the rest. The class sets itself apart with their clubs, their fraternities, and their sororities, while looking askance at any outsiders who can never make the grade. The reasons for forming such exclusive groups are often perfectly honorable, most commonly because members have been denied access to other organizations in the larger population. But matters can get out of hand, as Graham (Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World, 1995) perhaps unwittingly demonstrates in his examination of what he calls the black elite. His is less of a critical examination and more of a glossary of people, places, and things constituting the black upper class. And as one might expect, this realm of the right colleges and degrees and pedigrees is downright incestuous, a world where cotillions and coming-out parties still matter.

Graham, an insider and attorney, knows it well. Yet his contemporary savvy matters less, in the end, than does his appetite for historical detail. His insights into the story of blacks in vacation spots like Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts and Sag Harbor on Long Island, N.Y., for instance, are fascinating. Nevertheless, the ongoing claustrophobia of privilege (with many of the same people and their coteries cycling and recycling) can weary a reader. One walks away with the impression that Graham's effort could have been cut in half-and all one would have missed is an extra afternoon of interminable croquet, followed by cucumber sandwiches down by the gazebo.
Kirkus Reviews

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 Book Club Discussion Questions 

Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Our Kind of People:

1. Does Graham's book offer a critique or a glorification of the tightly-knit world of upper-class African-Americans?

2. What does it take to become part of this elite group? Can the self-made man or woman join?

3. Trace the historical background, the development, of this elite group of African-Americans and its separate-but-just-as-equal (or more-than-equal) world.

4. What do you think of the insolated resorts for the wealthy (black or white) on Martha's Vineyard, Sag Harbor? Do you find them alluring, claustrophobic, unfairly exclusive, enviable?

5. To what degree does Graham's place in his social milieu enable him to view it objectively. Do you think his familiarity helps him or hinders him in his assessment?

(Questions issued by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks)

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