A Visible Elite? Lawrence O. Graham Proposes a Black Social Register
Lawrence O. Graham’s exploration of the history and culture of the African American upper class, in books like Our Kind of People and The Senator and the Socialite, has cemented his reputation as today’s premier chronicler of the Black elite. Graham, profiled in this Black on Campus blog entry, has announced his intention to compile the Our Kind of People 800, a registry of what he describes as, “‘the talented tenth’—the kind of blacks that sociologist W.E.B. DuBois discussed 100 years ago—blacks with superior backgrounds: doctors, bankers, lawyers, educators and generous socialites.”
Due out in November of 2008, Graham’s registry will give added prominence and visibility to a Black constituency infrequently depicted and rarely acknowledged by those outside of that group. Indeed, in the public imagination, African Americanness dwells somewhere at the opposite end of the spectrum from achievement, prosperity, and power.
Of course, an emphasis on the wealthiest, most-privileged members of any group raises concerns about whether or not a focus on the fortunate few obscures the plight of economically marginalized communities. Graham’s project, however, is rooted in a desire to make positive social change that will benefit all Black people. He explains that, “So much of what we hear about black America is really the very worst of black America, and a lot of that comes from pop images from shows like Hot Ghetto Mess. It’s almost a re-emergence of the anti-black comedies in the 1950s. but instead of Amos and Andy, you’ve got Flavor Flav up there.”
Whether or not Graham’s compilation of this 21st century “talented tenth” will reinforce or disrupt existing race- and class-based hierarchies stands to be seen; but when compared to other, similiar listings, he is off to a more promising — and much more progressive – start. The United States’ most prominent social register – founded in 1887, by New Yorker Louis Keller — is weighted heavily toward genetics or “blood,” in that a determining factor for inclusion is membership in one of America’s oldest families, most often British or Dutch in origin. The Our Kind of People 800 will, if true to DuBois’s formula for identifying Black America’s most prominent individuals, privilege achievement over blood. The slippery slope will come when and if the 800 begins to privilege one’s ancestry over one’s own accomplishments.
Another factor determining the direction of Graham’s Black social registry will be its use. A productive use of this registry, for example, would be the development of a radio show, television show, or even a website that focused weekly or monthly on a detailed profile of one of the families or individuals listed in the 800, preferably with a teacher’s guide to developing a curriculum emphasizing what the achievements of those Black people who were listed could teach young people about reaching their own goals. A less desirable use of the registry would be the establishment of — say — scholarships based on membership in a registry family. I would also hate to see the deployment of the 800 registry as a gatekeeping tool limiting access to valuable educational opportunities and employment networks.
The true impact of Graham’s Black social registry will not be felt until it has been in circulation for a least a year or two. In the interim, I look forward to its release and to the visibility that it will provide for those African Americans whose life experiences, families of origin, and educational and occupational achievements are at odds with the popular stereotype of Black people as anti-intellectual underachievers, with little regard for family bonds.
Posted Ajuan Mance