Alumni Spotlight: Lawrence Otis Graham ’83
This interview and subsequent article was conducted and written by Haley White '12.
Lawrence Otis Graham ’83 graduated from Princeton with a degree in English, having already published three books over the course of his undergraduate career. Since his college days, he has published eleven more books, including two New York Times bestsellers. He now works as an attorney at the firm, Cuddy & Feder, LLP, and he is writing a book about Coretta Scott King. When he is not at his desk, he volunteers his time as Chairman of the Westchester County Police Board, member of SUNY Purchase College Foundation board, and trustee at the Horace Mann School, where he serves on the executive committee and co-chairs the school’s Annual Fund.
What were the three books you published in college about?
I was writing about educational topics that were of interest to students. My first book was a college admissions advice book for which I interviewed admissions officers around the country, as well as guidance counselors and students. The next book was on how students can find their first jobs—everything from writing a resume, to practicing for an interview, to looking for jobs, to networking. The third one was a book called Conquering College Life. It was basically about getting through college. I wrote it senior year.
While writing a thesis?!
While writing a thesis. My writing and my coursework were not at odds with each other because my writing brought me to exciting places—when I was a sophomore, I went on The Today Show and Phil Donahue, and Good Housekeeping published an excerpt from my first book.
Since your college days, you have published 11 more books, and you have transitioned from writing how-to guides to studies of race. What compelled you to make that shift?
In college, I did not have the confidence to write about race because there were not many opportunities to study it. I went to Princeton at a time when there were not many visible African Americans on faculty and staff, and there was only one course on African American literature, taught by Cecilia Drewry, and one course on African American history, taught by her husband, Henry Drewry. I took both of those courses, and finally, at the end of senior year, I said, “Okay, I want to write about race.”
I am probably most famous for my cover story in New York magazine about going undercover as a busboy in a country club that discriminated against Blacks, Jews, women, and Hispanics in the workplace. That piece was heavily influenced by a course that I took with John McPhee called “The Literature of Fact.” We learned about using nonfiction writing to compel people to think about issues.
Did you know that Professor McPhee still teaches that course?
Yes, and so is my Princeton creative writing teacher, Joyce Carol Oates. That longevity just shows how amazing Princeton students are and how committed Princeton faculty are. Teachers like them are the reason I have a writing career. And I am grateful to the University.
In addition to becoming a journalist, you became a lawyer after college. Do you ever find that your writing career and your legal career are at odds?
Harvard Law School further enhanced my writing skills. The training enabled me to take on more complex subjects. Particularly when I write about race and culture, I need to be able to make arguments in a way that persuades people in spite of their biases.
That is not to say that people always accept my arguments. My piece about working as a busboy in a country club was very controversial. After I published it, a lot of people came after me and after my law firm. However, I am proud because that piece caused many law firms and bar associations around the country to change their policies about holding events at country clubs that practice discrimination.
I hear that you have remained very active in the Princeton community since you graduated, that you write for Princeton Alumni Weekly and that you chair the Alumni Schools Committee in northern Westchester County. What inspires you to stay involved?
I believe in what the leadership, faculty, and students of the University have embraced: intellectual honesty and courage around the issue of race and class. In the early 1980’s, people were afraid of talking about race because they did not want to offend anyone.
My wife and I have endowed a faculty research grant as well as a student research grant at the Center for African American Studies because we believe that it is important for students and faculty to explore new ideas about race and ethnicity. It contributes to Princeton’s record of scholarship, and it sends new ideas out into the national discourse on diversity.
Do you have a favorite Princeton memory that you would like to share?
My junior year, I was on the organizing committee for a student group called the Organization of Black Unity. We decided to hold an event for Black Solidarity Day and invited Corretta Scott King to come. She gave a speech on the steps of Whig Hall about why the country might one day establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Day as a national holiday. What was so wonderful was, when you looked out at the audience, even though it was Black Solidarity Day, it was clear that a large percentage o the white Asian and Hispanic students had joined the Black student organizers, making it a truly diverse audience, and then one-year later, President Reagan signed a document announcing the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.