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Profile / Lawrence Otis Graham

Question of Class

The author's new book is igniting controversy with its subject matter that many are aware of but few ever discuss: the black upper class.

May 10, 1999|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Summit, senate, impromptu steam-letting, call it what you will, but a very loose emergency session assembles--fast--just outside Eso Won Books, overlooking La Brea Avenue at the dividing line between the flats and the point where the road drifts upward toward Baldwin Hills--L.A.'s nouveau turn on a black Sugar Hill.

No better an introspective intersection; a perfect point of metaphoric departure.

Here at this crossroads, this mostly young, well traveled, degree-toting African American assembly begins tugging at an issue too often silenced to even be considered elusive: that volatile cocktail of class, allegiance and racial authenticity.

"I mean, you know, I was interested in what the brother had to say," says one young man, referring to Eso Won's evening speaker, Lawrence Otis Graham, author of "Our Kind of People" (HarperCollins), a look at black America's upper class. "I mean, I went to school with some of those people he named in the book, and they were cool with me. They never made me feel different, inferior, because I'd come from South Central."

"Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C., went to St. Luke's, but I was too dark to spend time in Hampton Beach," says a woman whose skin is the color of blended honey, taking her keys out of her Coach bag. "The upper class didn't share their information outside of those who weren't of their class structure."

"There is so much damage," whispers another woman. "So much damage."

"I know when I see Negroes like him," says Tony Wafford, a community activist, eyebrows arched, ". . . I think they are very angry at white America. I think they are angry with black America, and they have a love-hate relationship with themselves. So I wanted to see if he was serious, or was he just Larry Elder of the literary world."

This, mind you, is the mild stuff.

Since publication, Graham's six-years-in-the-making gilded social history has inspired an anything-but-ambivalent grab bag of emotions. While some say they feel "a sense of pride that I hadn't felt before," as one Amazon.com reader put it, many others see Graham italicizing and thus perpetuating a dubious if not damaging moat of class distinctions--especially those calibrated by skin color, lineage and pedigree.

"He is still living up to someone else's standard," fired off another Amazon.com reader. "Lawrence, be your own measure of a man!"

And so, not only do some members of the "elite" (as Graham deferentially has dubbed them) feel that the uncommissioned portrait is blemished if not distorted, but those "outside" see Graham as "so desperately" wanting "in" that he is neither tough enough nor clear enough on some of the divisive intraracial and class-based bigotry of which his subjects may be guilty.

An uneasy place to be.

Rather than controversial, says Graham, 37, who makes his home in Westchester County, New York, "I thought it was going to be more surprising to people. I didn't think people would take sides on even the issue of talking about . . . the existence of a black upper class. That by virtue of even talking about it suggests that we should be aspiring to this. Well, for me it's an issue of fact and history. It's not an issue of deciding whether you want to aspire to this. Class distinctions exist."

With that as his thesis, his desire was to set down the often-eclipsed history and influence of the country's black upper class--from all-black boarding schools and summer camps to such venerable social organizations as the Links, the Boule, Jack and Jill; august institutions of higher learning--Spelman, Howard, Meharry, Fisk; the creme de la creme of fraternities and sororities--Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi . . . organizations known, especially in the early years, as much for their good works as their exclusivity.

For the expose that put him on the map, "Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World" (HarperCollins, 1995), Graham went undercover as a busboy at an all-white Connecticut country club that had denied him membership. But this time Graham--an attorney as well as an author--is for all practical purposes a member of the exclusive club of which he writes.

"I . . . knew that there was an us and them," he writes as point of introduction, "There were those children who belonged to Jack and Jill and summered in Sag Harbor; Highland Beach; or Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard; and there were those who didn't. . . . There were those families that made what some called 'a handsome picture' of people with 'good hair' (wavy or straight) with 'nice complexions' (light brown to nearly white), with 'sharp features' . . . and there were those that didn't."

It was upon this design that Graham constructed his frame for discussion--who stands on one side of the line, who stands on the other, and why: "And along with recording those flattering aspects of the group," Graham explains, "there were also going to be some unflattering memories and messages that I was going to be sharing."

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