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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Lawrence Otis Graham

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-07

Lawrence Otis Graham has a history with history.

"My goal is to share the black experience by examining our collective history," the lawyer and best-selling author said. "I'm aiming to broaden the definition of what is to be black in contemporary America - but to understand that, we need to look at where we've been. I'm pulling back the curtain on the black upper class of today and years gone by."

His efforts received wide national attention when Mr. Graham published "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class" (HarperCollins) seven years ago. The book went through 19 printings before being re-launched as a paperback, which has also done well. Now he's about to come out with a new book that has already generated formidable buzz in publishing circles; it's being serialized by Reader's Digest and US News & World Report.

The book is titled "The Senator and The Socialite: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty" (HarperCollins). It's about a Virginia-born slave, Blanche Bruce, who, in 1874, became America's first black senator. Bruce, a Republican, was later selected by President Garfield for a high Treasury Department position - and became the first black to have his name on U.S. currency.

"I wanted to take a fresh look at race, class and power across three generations of America," Mr. Graham said. "Senator Bruce's story seemed to capture it all - the life of a slave in Virginia and Mississippi, the astonishing election to the U.S. Senate, and the subsequent membership in a political elite in Washington and New York.

"This is not just a story for White America which may not fully understand Black America. This is a story for everyone. I've always been struck by the level of discomfort between the black upper class and inner-city blacks - we don't agitate, we are quiet. Learning about history allows people to recognize more than they realize that they have more things in common with people who look different," he said.

That is why, Mr. Graham said, he isn't especially fond of the term "diversity."

"'Diversity' may be politically correct, but I like to use the term 'proversity,'" he said. "I'm not one to constantly focus on what's different between us Americans. I prefer to focus on what we have in common. So I invented the term 'proversity.'"

Mr. Graham invented a career as a writer while he was a freshman at Princeton University.

"Some kids worked in the dining halls or the library - my job was writing books," he said.

The first of his 14 books was about a 10-point plan that Mr. Graham devised for high school students to gain acceptance at a college of their choice. It was an instant success, not the least on account of serialization in Good Housekeeping magazine. Mr. Graham was invited to appear on several national radio and television programs.

"I wrote a book a year while in college," he said. "By the time I entered Harvard Law School, I was making a tremendous amount of money."

Mr. Graham also became an entrepreneur while at Harvard. Teaming up with a friend, he launched a newsletter about marketing to young people, especially in affluent black communities. The newsletter, which sold for a subscription price of $500 annually, made its publishers a tidy fortune.

It was also at Harvard that Mr. Graham met a woman named Pamela Thomas. Like him, she hailed from a prosperous African-American family. Like him, she was ambitious - obtaining an MBA from Harvard in addition to a law degree.

They married not long afterward. The Grahams have three children, Gordon, 7, and twins Lindsey and Harrison, 4.

Pamela Thomas, who now goes by the name Pamela Thomas-Graham, is now group president of Liz Claiborne Incorporated. Earlier, she was president and chief executive officer at CNBC. And before that, she was the first black woman to become a partner at the fabled consulting firm, McKinsey & Company. She was 32 at the time.

And Ms. Thomas-Graham writes mysteries whose locales are Ivy League schools. (In addition to her business and law degrees from Harvard, she obtained her bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College.)

"There might be a hint of the over-achiever in both of us," her husband said. "But we were brought up to succeed - and to make our contribution to contemporary American society."

Mr. Graham's father, Richard, was a real estate developer, and his mother Betty was a psychologist. Their parents were also achievers - Richard Graham's father Herman ran a trucking company in Memphis, and Betty Graham's family was in the insurance business.

"In the old American South, segregation forced blacks into creating their own businesses," Lawrence Otis Graham said. "That's why you found that blacks owned so many banks, insurance companies and funeral homes."

Mr. Graham said that when his parents moved to Westchester in search of more economic opportunity, they initially found that few realtors would sell them a home in white neighborhoods.

"It was the rabbi of a local synagogue in Scarsdale who vouched for my parents - which is how they were able to buy a house," Mr. Graham said. "That's how they came to be very close to the Jewish community, and worked to improve relations between blacks and Jews. That's also why I've been able to gain insight into race relations."

As Mr. Graham and his brother Richard were growing up, their parents harbored the same expectations that an upper middle class white family might of its progeny: that their children become lawyers or physicians or dentists or accountants.

Indeed, Richard Graham opted for becoming an orthodontist. But his brother rebelled in an unexpected manner.

"It had to do with the choice of a college," Lawrence Otis Graham said. "It was O.K. to go to the traditional colleges where upper class blacks went - Howard University, and Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. If blacks like me wanted to go to a predominantly white institution, then Brown, Harvard, Tufts and Wellesley were acceptable."

But he chose to go to Princeton.

"My parents said, 'We don't go there,'" Mr. Graham said. "Mind you, this was 1980."

His new campaign is to get the U.S. Post Office to issue a stamp honoring Senator Bruce.

"No black elected official has ever been placed on a U.S. postage stamp," Mr. Graham said. "The post office issues around 50 stamps each year - it has issued 30,000 stamps so far. But the fact that not one black elected official has appeared on a stamp - that either a blatant oversight or a blatant error. It needs to be corrected."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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