Daily Archives: 2 September 2007

The Guilty Pride of Our Betters

From Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), pp. 8-9, 18:

One of my first encounters with an early pioneering family in the black upper class was meeting members of the aristocratic Syphax family from Virginia. I had grown up hearing my father tell me about their family history, as one of his father’s business associates had known several family members. Talking to Evelyn Reid Syphax at a Links meeting that my mother had brought me to, I learned one way in which some black families—including her own—gained wealth and a place among the upper class. “My family had owned fifteen acres of the land where the Arlington National Cemetery now sits,” Syphax explained as she recounted the history of her family, which can be traced back to Maria Custis, the mulatto child of First Lady Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who owned the mansion that sits on the cemetery today. “Custis fathered Maria with Ariana Carter, one of his female house slaves,” explained Syphax, a well-to-do, retired real estate broker who lives in Virginia, “and when Maria asked her father, who was also still her owner, for permission to marry Charles Syphax, a black slave who worked for her father, he released both from slavery, gave her a wedding in the mansion, and offered her and her new husband fifteen acres of the Arlington estate. That mansion and the surrounding property—minus Maria Syphax’s fifteen acres—was later given by Custis to his white daughter, Mary Custis, who eventually married Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee—thus making the house a famous building in the southern state.”…

One can find both pride and guilt among the black elite. A pride in black accomplishment that is inexorably tied to a lingering resentment about our past as poor, enslaved blacks and our past and current treatment by whites. On one level, there are those of us who understand our obligation to work toward equality for all and to use our success in order to assist those blacks who are less advantaged. But on another level, there are those of us who buy into the theories of superiority, and who feel embarrassed by our less accomplished black brethren. These self-conscious individuals are resentful of any quality or characteristic that associates them with that which seems ordinary. We’ve got some of the best-educated, most accomplished, and most talented people in the black community—but at the same time, we have some of the most hidebound and smug. And adding even further to the mix are those of us who feel we need to apologize to the rest of the black world for our success and for being who we are. For me, the black upper class has always been a study of contrasts.

I think the same is true of every type of elite in these normatively egalitarian times. Among fellow members of your elite, you perform rituals of solidarity that distinguish you from your inferiors–gratuitous political swipes being among the most common solidarity rituals on college campuses (or in news rooms, apparently) where everyone who matters can be assumed to be of like mind. Those who are more sensitive take care to repress those same ritual behaviors when face to face with their inferiors–most especially when seeking votes or funding from those less like-minded.

My wife and I were witness to many impressive rituals of elite solidarity over last Memorial Day weekend when we attended graduation events at Yale–where the ritual of playing Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance at graduations began at Woolsey Hall in 1905. We had both graduated from little no-name colleges in North Dakota and Hawai‘i, respectively, before completing graduate degrees at a cheap, run-of-the-mill state university (Hawai‘i).

Our first event that Saturday was a Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony in Battell Chapel. Before it began, the mistress of ceremonies came down the aisle chatting up the audience of parents and friends of the inductees. When she found my wife and me with our noses in books, she exclaimed how you could be sure that Phi Beta Kappa parents were avid readers. She asked me what I was reading, and I showed her the cover of Lawrence Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. That stopped her cold, and she quickly moved on to my wife, who was evaluating Graham Salisbury’s juvenile novel Blue Skin of the Sea for possible use in an ESL class. That allowed our emcee to retreat into the comfort zone of noblesse oblige, expressing concern that Yale was not doing enough for some of its rising numbers of foreign students whose mastery of English was not up to earlier standards. Later in the ceremony, while explaining the not-so-secret Phi Beta Kappa handshake, she managed to adopt just the right tone of irony that allows one to perform required social rituals while purporting not to take them seriously. It was a tone we heard again and again from public speakers throughout that ritual-soaked weekend.

I had planned to begin reading Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class as we traveled through the South during our road trip in May—for which my Minnesota in-laws had prepared by reading up on plantations, slavery, and riverboat gamblers. But Yale was the better venue for it. In fact, it provided belated but valuable context for the tome I bought and read when our daughter matriculated there four years ago: The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Yale law professor Stephen Carter.

I acquired a measure of elitist pretentions during my four years at an international high school in Japan. That was where I eliminated the last southernisms I was aware of in my American accent. (Few Americans can guess my family heritage from my accent.) My ambitions at that time were more literary than academic, but my journalism professor at the University of Richmond—where I started college with little enthusiasm and later dropped out—told me that I wrote more like a scientist than a journalist. He had been a practicing journalist, not an academic, so I’m not sure it was intended to be a compliment.

Although Our Kind of People is a case study of the cultivation and preservation of America’s black upper class, much of it would also seem to apply to the care and maintenance of exclusivity among other types of elites. His final chapter on light-skinned blacks who “pass” as whites is particularly poignant, especially his tales of those who chose to abandon their relatives and engineer their own equivalent of a witness-protection program—and pray like hell their kids don’t turn out too dark.

As a “no-accent” white of expatriate southern heritage who has spent a lot of time among academics, I think I have some sense of how blacks who “pass” episodically or by accident feel when they happen to encounter demeaning or disgusting attitudes from interlocutors who aren’t aware of their hidden heritage.

When we took our daughter to visit Carleton College in Minnesota after her junior year of high school, I overheard another family doing college visits tell about how frightened they were at the prospect of driving through Virginia to Norfolk on highways (I-95 and I-64!) that they imagined to be filled with crazed pickup-driving rednecks taking potshots at cars with northern license plates. I dearly wanted to speak up and assure them, in my best Hollywood southern accent: “Why we wouldn’t shoot y’all! The most we’d do is mebbe take out a headlight or taillight, mebbe aim for one of yo’ rear tires or yo’ Yankee license plate. But we wouldn’t shoot at people, even if they was Yankees!” But, of course, I kept my trap shut, not wanting to ruin my daughter’s chances at the college that was then at the top of our list of prospects.

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