Black folks can be schizophrenic when it comes to movin' on up the economic and social ladder. On the one hand, it's a source of pride that generations of us have accomplished so much. At the same time, many equate lofty black status with white privilege.
You hear it all the time from young kids and old folk: So-and-so's acting white.
Lawrence Otis Graham, 46 (Princeton undergrad, Harvard law, best-selling author), wants to help change that mindset.
Graham is taking nominations for
The Our Kind of People 800 Register
, due out in November, which will list the most prominent 800 African American families in the nation.
"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
," says Graham. "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."
And given Philadelphia's status as the birthplace of the black middle class - which you'd never know from the constant tales of woe about African Americans that bombard us daily - it's not surprising that Graham is considering a slew of nominees from here.
I'm talking uppercrust, the prominence that education, money and status earn.
Among them: James Nevels, former chairman of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and now CEO of the Swarthmore Group Inc. Dorothy Hairston-Brown and William H. Brown; she founded Main Line Academy, he's a partner at Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis. Walter P. Lomax Jr., a physician and founder of Lomax Health Systems. And Carol Clark Lawrence, vice president for community development at PNC Bank.
"I'm flabbergasted," said Lawrence, 55, who provides lending and services to low- to moderate-income people. "It really is an illustrious list. There are a lot of us who are out there who try to service the community, to push people of color forward."
Despite all she does, Lawrence may not make Graham's final cut. She does own a summer residence in Cape May, is a member of the Links, and had a child in Jack & Jill. But she has only a bachelor's degree from Ursinus College. (When I spoke to him recently, Graham dismissed Ursinus - a respectable institution by anybody's measure - as if it were a dirty word.)
As the first free city above the Mason-Dixon line, Philadelphia served as a haven for African Americans fleeing the South during slavery. Their sheer numbers and relative autonomy allowed them to own their own businesses and start their own clubs, to build a vibrant community, long before others did.
Not only were they able to maintain their wealth, but they passed it down to their families for generations.
The first African Methodist Episcopal church began here. So did the holy trinity of social organizations: The Links Inc. (a women's club) ; Jack & Jill Inc. (a children's club), and Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, also known as the Boulé (a men's club). They're still nationally prominent today.
Their members tend to be alums of Morehouse, Spelman or Howard, the upper tier of historically black institutions. They pledged a sorority or fraternity. They summer at traditionally black-friendly enclaves at Martha's Vineyard, Sag Harbor or Highland Beach.
They don't flaunt their wealth with big cars, big bling and big bank like so many of the ghetto-fab nouveau riche - rappers, athletes and other entertainers. But frankly, they should be more visible, if for nothing more than as a source of inspiration for the rest of us.
But not everyone is comfortable being in this exclusive club.
When Graham included former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson in his most controversial book,
Our Kind Of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class
, the response from Jackson was not exactly favorable.
After a "you're not one of us" outcry from some blacks, Jackson felt compelled to issue a press release declaring himself
a member of the black elite even though three generations of his family had attended Spelman.
"Many affluent blacks are afraid of publicly proclaiming their own success," Graham says.
"So a lot of people say, 'Please don't include me in this book,' and I write them back and say, 'Sorry, it's not up to you.' "
"What I'm trying to say to black America," he adds "is that we should not be focusing on
Flavor of Love,
creme de la creme