Graham chronicles The Black Elite again

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/04/08

Lawrence Otis Graham gets the question all the time.  “Are you bougie?”

Photo: Lawrence Otis Graham Web site
Lawrence Otis Graham is touring the country for a series of interviews for his upcoming book, ‘The Our Kind of People 800 Register.’
June Dobbs Butts (left) talks with her niece, Carol Ann Jackson Miller, about their family history and Lawrence Otis Graham’s upcoming book, ‘The Our Kind of People 800 Register.’ On the wall is a picture of Butts’ mother, Irene T. Dobbs.
June Dobbs Butts (left) and niece Carol Ann Jackson Miller> are not fans of Graham’s attempt to create a black social registry. ‘My father wouldn’t waste the money to buy this book,’ Butts said. ‘There will be some people who will be impressed by this. But so what? It is all empty.’

For the uninitiated, the word is derived from “bourgeois,” and it’s gained currency in the black culture, both as a compliment or as an insult for those aspiring to a higher class.

As a black man with degrees from Princeton and Harvard who uses “summer” as a verb to explain what he does on Martha’s Vineyard, and who has written extensively about society and class, Graham is used to the question.

“Do I think that there are people who call me that? Yes,” Graham said. “But bougie is middle-class, and I have risen beyond that. I would be lying if I described myself as bougie.”

No matter what you call him, Graham knows how to spark a debate.

Graham is touring the country for a series of interviews for his upcoming book, “The Our Kind of People 800 Register.”

It will be the first national directory of the richest and most socially elite black families and people in America.

Graham said the book is a natural sequel to his “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” which looked at the history and traditions of the black elite. He said the new book, due this fall, is an attempt to do what whites have done, which is identify and catalog their social elite.

“The first book talked about the lifestyle,” he said. “But many people said, ‘You neglected to mention the so-and-so family in Charleston.’ So, let me tell you who they are and how they got their money. I am going city by city, family by family, credential by credential.”

Oprah Winfrey, Black Enterprise Publisher Earl Graves and Johnson Publishing’s Linda Johnson Rice likely will make the list.

Russell Simmons, Michael Jordan and Tyler Perry, three of the richest black men in America, probably won’t.

Atlanta’s Usher or Jermaine Dupri? Don’t even think about it. A headline in a recent press release announcing the book read: “Who’s In: Black Doctors, Lawyers, Bankers & Rich Socialites; Who’s Out: Baby Mamas, Basketballers & Ghetto Rap Stars.”

“I know it is going to upset people, but I have an important goal in mind, ” Graham said in a recent interview. “This is about more than finding the 800. I am also trying to address the negative images that seem to pervade the media and mind-set. The only black success stories we seem to want to embrace are athletes, comedians and entertainers.”

Which creates this paradox: While Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson might make it, Jay-Z, whose music helped build the BET empire, will not.

“People like Oprah and Bill Cosby shouldn’t be compared to Jay-Z and Beyonce,” Graham said. “While all the people on the list will be millionaires and billionaires, it is also about where did you go to school? Who are you married to? What med school did your granddaddy go to?”

Social structure

Not everyone welcomes the idea of a social registry.

“He is such a social climber it is pathetic,” said June Dobbs Butts, a daughter of civic leader John Wesley Dobbs. “He is looking for validation from the wrong places.”

Graham sees himself as the epitome of the black elite, unabashedly touting his Ivy League degrees and upper-class pedigree.

The child of a real estate developer and a psychologist, he was a member of Jack and Jill of America, an organization of upper-class blacks who want their children to have cultural opportunities, develop leadership skills, and form social networks. It was there that he met his wife, Pamela Thomas-Graham, the president of Liz Claiborne and the former president of CNBC.

He said they share an “estate in Chappaqua seven blocks from the Clintons, and an apartment on Park Avenue.”

His first national exposure came in 1992 with his New York magazine cover story about how he went undercover as a busboy at the prestigious Greenwich Country Club after his membership application was rejected. He has written 14 books.

“Our Kind of People,” although a best-seller in 1999, was criticized for exposing archaic class distinctions.

Graham said whites were stunned to read of a world with separate churches, neighborhoods and social clubs, while blacks made him “persona non-gratis,” for exposing their social structure and class system.

“I do think the black elite is an interesting phenomenon, and looking at race, class and color should be done,” said author and journalist A’Lelia Bundles. “But my problem with ‘Our Kind of People’ is that the analysis is a little weak.”

‘Very silly’

Bundles, a retired network news executive, is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker, the former laundrywoman whose hair care products made her the richest woman — black or white — of the early 20th century.

Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, were featured heavily in the first book.

But Bundles, who wrote “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker,” says that in a parallel to some blacks today who have recently become rich, Walker was shunned by some wealthy blacks who saw her as nothing more than a washwoman.

“Who is Lawrence Otis Graham to make these delineations? Who made him the arbiter?” Bundles asked. “There are a lot of really wealthy black people who aren’t going around saying they hope to get in this book. None of them care. It is very silly.”

Graham said everyone who qualifies for the book will make it whether they want to be in it or not.

Which can be problematic. When “Our Kind of People” came out, Graham incurred the wrath of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

“He made a public announcement that he did not consider himself to be a part of the elite,” Graham said. “He needed to denounce his own background to curry favor with a segment of the black community who said he was bougie. There is no segment that apologizes more than that segment of black people for what they have. ”

Butts, who was one of Jackson’s aunts, said he was upset about the family’s inclusion in the book because it had no redeeming value and didn’t properly reflect the family. as

“He didn’t endorse anything that was exclusive,” said Butts, a retired college professor.

Superior members

Graham said he is looking for the “creme de la creme,” or what W.E.B. Du Bois was looking for in 1903: the “Talented Tenth,” where one in 10 blacks would become influential.

“It is elitist,” Graham admits. “If you are trying to find the wealthiest, best-educated and most accomplished black people in the country, you are going to have to separate the wheat from the chaff. And I do it unapologetically.”

Social registers started in 1886 with the New York Social Register, which listed the city’s merchant class.

Others followed in several cities to follow the lives of the Vanderbilts, Astors and Morgans. In 1976, the Social Register was created as one national list.

More than 25,000 members are listed by club and college affiliations, births, engagements, marriages, deaths and even yacht size.

Cecilia Marshall, the widow of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, is one of a handful of minorities in the 2008 edition. Soprano Leontyne Price, who had been in previous editions, was not listed.

“This is who you want to be,” said Graham, who is not listed. “The Kennedys and Rockefellers, who are the superior members of their groups.”

Graham would not say who he is considering for the book. But based on the first book, it could include the Scotts, who still publish the Atlanta Daily World; the Kings; and the Dobbses.

Started in Atlanta

In many ways, Atlanta is the birthplace of the black middle and upper class.

From the early presence of Du Bois at Atlanta University and the emergence of millionaire Alonzo Herndon, the city has long been a destination for well-to-do and up- and-coming blacks.

For years, the Dobbses were the standard-bearers.

Known as the “Mayor of Sweet Auburn,” John Wesley Dobbs was a founder of Mutual Federal Savings, a grandmaster of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge and a political organizer. Each of his six daughters attended Spelman. It seemed fitting his first male heir, grandson Maynard Jackson, would be the city’s first black mayor.

“I come from two highly respected branches, the Dobbses and the Jacksons,” said Carol Ann Jackson Miller, one of Jackson’s sisters. “But we gained respect by our commitment to people. It had nothing to do with a lot of social mess.”

Sitting in her Aunt June’s living room beneath a painting of her grandmother, Irene T. Dobbs, Miller was emphatic when asked if she ever joined a sorority or participated in a cotillion.

“Hell no. Hell no,” Miller said. “My upbringing never brought itself to joining cliques. Spelman was cliquish enough. It was not in our value system. If it didn’t have substance, we were taught not to fool with it.”

Although the chances are good that their family will be in it, neither Miller nor Butts plans to read the book.

“My father wouldn’t waste the money to buy this book,” Butts said. “We waste a lot of time worrying about the impact of things. There will be some people who will be impressed by this. But so what? It is all empty. “


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6 Responses to Graham chronicles The Black Elite again

  1. Kristie

    The only elitist I know is God. All of us is under one umbrella, equal in all ways. I admire those who further their education and obtain immeasurable wealth, but some of those obtainers may not deserve anyone’s respect.

  2. yvonnjanae

    While I don’t see anything wrong with chronicling the black elite, I think Graham probably casts a more negative light on the project with his presence. He makes it appear that there is a “better than” quality to the people he will select. Wasn’t that the whole idea behind the Talented Tenth? His method of gauging what’s elite is so 19th century. He’s going to reach back to the very essence of slavery and pick from freed families as the first generation of upper class blacks, I’ll bet. How insulting to the rest of us. Today, elite is measured more by what you do WITH YOUR MONEY than how long you’ve had it.

  3. Jamaal Shelton

    I’m sorry but you people in atlanta need to get over your selves, the black elite did not start anywhere near the south specifically Atlanta. Jack & Jill, boule, Links, were all started in Philly in the early 1900’s and the “Guardsmen was started in New York .DC had something called the “400” which at the time were the top black families in the country atlanta was an afterthought. Atlanta was not the first of anything. But I do applaud the book, if we were gonna list the richest athletes or entertainers no one would have a problem, but god for bid we make a list of accomplished black families. Those black who are mad, are mad because they life in a 800k house, have 2 cars and thought they were the best of the best. and now they have found out that there is a group higher up then them, and that there not as important as they thought they were, so their jealous.

  4. K.C.

    I am so tired of all the bashing of Mr. Graham’s “elitism”. He may not go about chronicling the Black upper-class in a way that everybody likes, but if it were not for his books, I would not have known about, nor been inspired by, self-made Wall Street mover-shaker, the late Reg Lewis. The tacky, high-flying illiterate “playa” image most often and tiresomely touted by the media as the “authentic” African-American depresses me no end. And I also note that none of Mr. Graham’s critics have answered the very legitimate question that he posed in the Intro to his book, Our Kind of People: Why is it that the only time people’s feathers do not get ruffled about African-American “success” is when it is paired with gangsta rappers, promiscuous or ballplayers? God forbid African-American success should be talked about within the context of the stethoscope, the slide rule, the microscope or the mortar board. To aspire to those things, apparently, is to be “elitist”.

  5. T.I.E.

    It’s usually the outsiders who break the silence once given a taste of the “inside”… Mr. Graham should be ashamed of himself… exploiting those who can not help the families and legacies they were born into. *sighs*

  6. nan

    Loved his book, Our Kind of People. Folks just jealous that’s all. Plain and simple.

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