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

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tags: African American history, sociology

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 in one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. 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 elite 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 film 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 elite that still only grudgingly admitted them.

“This is the problem with being raised in the Black upper middle class,” he told Malcolm Gladwell, then a reporter for 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.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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