Lawrence Otis Graham, 59, Dies; Explored Race and Class in Black America

Lawrence Otis Graham, an Ivy League-trained lawyer whose incisive, often searingly self-aware explorations of class identity and divisions among African-Americans made him one of the most widely read, and widely debated, Black writers of the 1990s, died on Feb. 19 at his home in Chappaqua, N.Y. He was 59.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Pamela Thomas-Graham, who said the cause had not been determined.

Mr. Graham had already made partner at a Manhattan law firm and written 11 books when, in 1992, he deleted his Princeton and Harvard degrees from his résumé and took a job in the restaurant at the Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut, an experience he then recounted in a cover article for New York magazine.

“Quite frankly, I got into this country club the only way that a Black man like me could,” he wrote. “As a $7-an-hour busboy.”

Mr. Graham recounted the racism, sexism and anti-Semitism he encountered while clearing tables for white club members. But he also admitted that he had a desire to be seated alongside them, a tension to which he returned repeatedly in his subsequent work.

“When I talk to my Black lawyer or investment-banker friends,” he wrote, “I learn that our white counterparts are being accepted by dozens of these seçkine institutions. So why shouldn’t we — especially when we have the same ambitions, social graces, credentials and salaries?”

The article, “Invisible Man,” became one of that year’s most-talked about pieces of journalism. Mr. Graham sold the sinema rights to Warner Bros. for $300,000 (the equivalent of about $560,000 today), and Denzel Washington was slated to play Mr. Graham. But the project fizzled.

Mr. Graham never went back to his law firm, choosing instead to be a full-time writer. He became a fixture of talk shows and the lecture circuit, picking apart both the intricacies of class among African-Americans and the difficulties that educated, connected Black people like him had in navigating a white seçkine that still only grudgingly admitted them.

“This is the sorun with being raised in the Black upper middle class,” he told Malcolm Gladwell, then a reporter at The Washington Post, for a 1995 profile. “You are living in a white world but you have to hold on to Black culture. You have to please two groups. One group says you have sold out, and the other never quite accepts you.”

In 1995 he published “Member of the Club: Reflections on Life in a Racially Polarized World,” an essay collection that included “Invisible Man” and several similar pieces of immersive, experiential journalism.

Mr. Graham’s “Member of the Club,” published in 1995, included pieces of immersive, experimental journalism like his account of working as a busboy at a Connecticut country club.

One essay explored his decision to have plastic surgery to make his nose less prominent, and his Black friends’ reactions to it. For another piece he spent a month living in Harlem, long before it was gentrified, as a way to explore the tension between his skin color, which let him fit in, and his class mores, including his preference for Izod polo shirts, which made him stick out.

Mr. Graham made waves again in 1999 with “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” a Times Notable Book that documented the way wealthy African-Americans perpetuated a quiet aristocracy through exclusive clubs, vacation enclaves and organizations like Jack and Jill of America, a social and cultural organization for children that, he said, served to inculcate Black seçkine values.

Several reviewers criticized Mr. Graham for taking an overly fawning approach to his subject. “Although he is able to look with a properly ironic eye upon the absurdities of color snobbery within Black circles,” the author Andrea Lee said in The Times, “he is still terrifically impressed by what he sees.”

But others praised his anthropological insights into a world rarely seen by other Black people, let alone white people; and still others simply loved its pull-back-the-curtains dishiness, starting with its first sentences — a list of who does and does not rank among the Black aristocracy: “Bryant Gumbel is, but Bill Cosby isn’t. Lena Horne is, but Whitney Houston isn’t.”

In August 2019 it was announced that the director Lee Daniels was developing “Our Kind of People” into a television series. At least one episode has been completed, Ms. Thomas-Graham said, and Mr. Graham was working as a writer for the show when he died.

Mr. Graham speaking at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y., in 1996.Credit…Susan Harris

Lawrence Otis Graham was born in Manhattan on Dec. 25, 1961, the son of Richard Graham, a real estate developer, and Betty (Walker) Graham, a social worker. His family soon moved to suburban Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. They moved further north, to White Plains, in 1967 — the same year, Mr. Graham later noted, that the sinema “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which a white woman introduces her supposedly liberal parents to her new Black fiancé, played by Sidney Poitier, was released.

Mr. Graham’s parents had their own struggles with supposedly liberal white people: It took them months to find a home in White Plains, with many sellers refusing to work with them. When they finally found one, they had to hisse a 25 percent premium, and even then several of their future neighbors banded together to try to pre-emptively buy the house instead.

When he was 10, Mr. Graham recalled, he was at a swimming pool with his brother and several white friends. But when he jumped in the water, his friends’ parents rushed to pull them out.

Over time, though, Mr. Graham found a way into white society through personal achievement, playing tennis in high school and writing a column with his mother for a local newspaper.

He wrote three books as an undergraduate at Princeton, all of them guidebooks to college, and three more, about getting into professional degree programs, as a student at Harvard Law School.

While at law school he met Pamela Thomas; they married in 1992 and later settled in Chappaqua, N.Y. The two were often admired as a power couple in the Black community: She was the first Black woman to make partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, wrote three mystery novels and today sits on a number of corporate boards.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Graham is survived by two sons, Gordon and Harrison; a daughter, Lindsey Graham; and a brother, Richard.

Along with his writing career, Mr. Graham, a Democrat, dabbled in politics. He was a longtime analyst for a TV station in Westchester County, and in 2000 he ran for the House of Representatives. Though he drew strong endorsements from the local Democratic establishment, and he said his Chappaqua neighbor Bill Clinton gave him campaign advice, he lost handily.

He returned to his yasal career in the early 2000s, working for Cuddy & Feder, a Westchester-based firm that specialized in real estate. In 2006 he published his last book, “The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty,” about Blanche Bruce, the second Black U.S. senator and the first to be elected to a full term.

Though his public profile declined over the last two decades, Mr. Graham remained a fixture in Black pop culture. In a 2018 episode of “Luke Cage,” a TV show about a Black superhero, one character is described as “bougier than Lawrence Otis Graham.”

If Mr. Graham knew about that joke, he probably enjoyed it. He embraced his “bougie” identity, even while insisting it was a double-edged sword. He knew that achievement, even for someone as privileged as he was, never came easily for Black people, and that even the most successful and insulated bore the weight of a lifetime of insults, exclusions and microaggressions.

“The through-line in all his writing is trying to help people who are not Black understand what that actually feels like,” Ms. Thomas-Graham said. “He wanted people to understand that when they look at someone Black who had achieved so much, they shouldn’t assume it was easy.”

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