Daily Archives: 5 August 2007

Political “Upstarts” and the D.C. Black Elite

From Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), pp. 226-227:

In talking to black Washingtonians, one gets the distinct impression that there have been so many prominent names over the past few decades that people don’t even attempt to rank them in their minds. “Instead we just group them into the doctor crowd—people like the Leffalls, the Rayfords, the Spellmans, the Clarks, or the Freemans,” says an elderly man who has belonged to the Bachelor Benedicts club for more than twenty-five years. “And there was always the lawyer-government-policy crowd—the Brantons, the Brimmers, the Duncans, the Webbers, the Lynks—and of course, Vernon Jordan.”

The man paused for a moment. “But actually, Jordan isn’t one of us. He’s new.” The man laughed. “My wife would know it better because I never really paid much attention to lawyers—especially the new ones like Jordan or Brown.”…

The fact that he dismisses a power broker who is as important and relevant as Vernon Jordan—former head of the National Urban League; partner at the law firm of Akin, Gump; and close confidant to President Clinton—as being “new” reveals what it requires to be taken seriously by some members of the old guard in this city. Equally outrageous was his lack of enthusiasm over one of my mentors, Ron Brown, who was living in Washington and serving as the U.S. secretary of commerce when he died in 1996.

“Upstarts,” the man explains. “Sure they’re in the Boulé and they know where to buy a house, but every four years—with every administration—they come and go. No roots, no history, no plans to stay. Why should I invest the time in knowing them all?”

Because Washington is a city of politicians and government officials, there are many blacks who have received national prominence from blacks and whites outside of the District yet little acclaim from the black elite who have lived in the city for multiple generations. The most clannish residents will admit that Jordan and Brown were clearly accepted into the group, but will note that the old guard is usually less likely to be enamored with new government appointees who come in from Little Rock, Atlanta, or New York after being appointed by the newest president who is sworn into office. Instead, this group prefers to adopt the permanent professionals—the doctors, the lawyers, the economists, the intellectuals and, to some extent, the entrepreneurs who come to the city to live and stay.

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Black Resorts in the U.S., White Resorts in Japan

From Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), pp. 152-153

Even though we’d been going there since I was two years old, such was the arrogance of black privilege on that island that it never even occurred to me that white people had summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard until I was ten or eleven years old. Of course I saw white people at the Flying Horses, at Our Market, and at the tennis courts off South Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. But I assumed they were just passing through as guests of black people who had homes there, or as unrooted tourists. Just people passing through a place that was ours.

But of course Martha’s Vineyard had white families. The black neighborhoods of Oak Bluffs were dwarfed by the white sections in the town and by the white population that dominated the rest of Martha’s Vineyard. But I was a summer kid who defined the resort by the boundaries of the black neighborhoods and by whole days and evenings spent with our extended black family in our all-black tennis tournaments, all-black yachting trips, all-black art shows, and all-black cookouts, and the white vacationers had no relevance for me.

As I grew older, I saw what my younger and more naive, self-satisfied eyes had missed. As an adolescent, I finally paid notice to the racial lines that long ago had been drawn between blacks and whites on Martha’s Vineyard. I eventually even saw the many hierarchies that existed within the groups of blacks who summered there. But in spite of these changed perceptions and my newfound confrontation with reality, the one unalterable impression that remains today is that when vacationing among our own kind, in places that have been embraced by us for so long, there is a comfort—and a sanctity—that makes it almost possible to forget that there is a white power structure touching our lives at all.

Today, America’s black elite is closely associated with three historic resort areas that became popular as a result of laws that had kept other vacation spots exclusively white. They are Sag Harbor, Long Island; Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard; and Highland Beach, Maryland. In the past, and to some extent still today, blacks also choose Hillside Inn, a black-owned resort in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains; and Idlewild, Michigan, a small town two hundred miles north of Detroit that was a popular escape for the midwestern black elite. In recent years, the elite have built ancillary vacations around the annual Black Summit ski vacation event that brings hundreds of black skiers and their families to resorts in Aspen and Vail, Colorado.

Until I read this book, I had never given much thought to the favorite resorts of America’s black elites, but a lot of what Graham says about Oak Bluffs and Martha’s Vineyard conjures up memories of my own childhood experiences at a couple of the favorite resorts of foreigners long resident in Japan: Karuizawa and Lake Nojiri.

Starting in the 1920s, many missionaries of all denominations from Europe and North America would spend summers in rustic cabins at Lake Nojiri’s Gaijin-mura (“Foreigner-ville”), where they could boat, golf, hike, play tennis, swim, read, relax, and catch up with other missionaries from all over Japan. An earlier generation of missionaries during the late 1800s had helped turn Karuizawa into what’s now a thriving upscale resort where only the very wealthy can afford to buy vacation homes. The Nojiri Lake Association seeks to prevent the same thing from happening to Gaijin-mura by enforcing rustic standards: for instance, by keeping roads and paths unpaved, and by allowing electricity but not indoor plumbing. The last time I was there, in 1975, we had to haul water in buckets from community faucets. It was considered bad form to run a hose all the way into your cabin’s kitchen or toilet.

Our family spent a week or so at Karuizawa in 1957, the same year Japan’s current Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko first met on a tennis court there. We stayed at the rustic cabin of one of my father’s Quaker cronies, Herbert Nicholson, a prewar missionary in Mito who was affectionately known to the postwar generation of Japanese schoolkids as Uncle Goat (Yagi no ojisan) for his relief work after the war.

We couldn’t afford a vacation cabin of our own. We depended instead on the kindness of cronies with different furlough schedules. The next year we spent a week or so at an isolated beach bungalow in Chiba that belonged to a wealthier Japanese American missionary family from Waimea, Kaua‘i. My mother enjoyed the absence of other missionary wives, and we two eldest boys enjoyed playing on a big derelict fishing boat lying on the beach, then watching the fishermen and their often bare-chested wives haul their boats up on shore every day at dusk.

The next summer we two oldest boys took a long overnight train trip by ourselves, up the Japan Sea side from Kyoto to Aomori, to visit another missionary family there with boys of the same age. That family brought us back down to the annual Southern Baptist summer mission meeting at Amagi Sanso, up in the mountains of the Izu Peninsula.

The physical environment at mission meetings was very Japanese: each family had its own tatami room, older boys and girls slept in separate group rooms, males and females of all ages bathed in separate public baths, and everyone removed shoes inside the buildings. But the cultural environment was very American: from Southern fried chicken, Kool-Aid, and 12-oz. cans of Coke, to loud talk, boisterous laughter, and emotion-laden church services. I found the unrestrained gregariousness and emotionality rather alien and intimidating. But I can imagine that it was a great relief for the American-raised missionaries to finally let loose after working in a foreign culture for most of the year.

Those missionaries who had dachas at Lake Nojiri would then spend a few more weeks of Euro-American summer vacation before returning to the stress of work and school in the majority culture. My first summer at Nojiri was after 10th grade, when our family borrowed the cabin of another family on furlough. I took a junior life-saving class, went sailing a time or two with friends who had boats, and played the only round of golf I’ve ever played.

At mission meeting that year (1965), I had hung around with an agemate who had arrived in Japan on the same ship I did in 1950. I was painfully shy; she was not. That relationship intensified in the back of the overnight bus full of missionary families en route to Nojiri, but our summer romance ended when my family returned to Hiroshima, hers returned to Mito, and we each returned to our respective high schools in Kobe and Tokyo that fall. (Our next and final date was at her senior prom in Tokyo.)

My next mission meeting’s budding romance was nipped in the bud when neither of us went to Nojiri that year. She was a schoolmate and we had already been to the junior prom together, but my family didn’t get a cabin that year, and her parents didn’t approve of such long vacations. So we spent the rest of that summer at our respective homes in Hiroshima and Osaka, and then found other distractions when school resumed in the fall. Such were the disadvantages of not frequenting the right resorts.


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