In Review: March 10, 1999
Jack and Jill, the Boulé, and the Links
Graham examines the social institutions of the black elite
Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper
Lawrence Otis Graham '83
Lawrence Otis Graham '83's Our Kind of People takes readers inside the rarefied world of the black upper crust, a constellation of elite social clubs, old-money dynasties, "right" schools, and exclusive vacation communities nearly invisible to most Americans. Roving from discussions of the children's organization Jack and Jill, to the role of black Greek organizations like AKA and Alpha Phi Alpha, to the history of social clubs like the Boulé for men and the Links for women, Graham paints a mixed portrait. Many of the anecdotes in Our Kind of People reveal privileged blacks who are as status-obsessed, snotty, and fixated on skin color as any stereotypical white blueblood. But for many elite blacks, organizations such as Jack and Jill instill a degree of pride and an ethos of achievement that is otherwise hard to come by, while clubs like the Boulé provide sanctuary -- a place where successful and accomplished black men are not regarded as exceptions.
Such material might have made for a provocative and profound work. Instead, Our Kind of People is essentially a book of lists -- lists of all the wealthy and prominent blacks belonging to this or that women's club; lists of those individuals' many accomplishments, connections, and possessions; and lists of prominent ancestors. Graham's writing tends toward gossipy, breathless prose with heavy use of words like "well-to- do," "prominent," and "dazzling." Those readers without a sincere interest in black-tie balls, summer resorts, and other trappings of wealth will have to mine deep for the few nuggets of serious contemplation contained in Our Kind of People. What remains is a cross between Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Roots, with a disappointing emphasis on the former.
It's not that Graham, an attorney, is oblivious to the contradictions. The sheer anecdotal breadth of Our Kind of People captures a community greatly mixed in its attitudes toward the less-privileged; its emphasis on lineage, wealth, and skin color; its sense of place; and most importantly, its aspirations. But there's an irony that Graham never quite confronts: that institutions, associations, and social networks established to give blacks opportunities denied them by white racism should themselves engender so much snobbery and thinly disguised bigotry. Instead, he repeatedly enlists the tepid defense that these groups -- the same ones that for the most part don't care to admit or involve the less wealthy, "refined," or light-skinned -- provide valuable role models and safe havens for upwardly mobile blacks.
Our Kind of People becomes somewhat more thoughtful toward the end, especially the short chapter discussing the practice of blacks "passing" for white. But while the stories of light-skinned blacks cutting themselves off from darker-skinned relatives and friends disturb, they do not elucidate -- just as Graham never grapples with the acute questions of identity and class he himself raises thoughout the book.
-- Nicholas Confessore '98
Gray's abstract career
Abstract painter Cleve Gray '40 has been painting and drawing since he was four years old. He's 80 now, and the only interruption to his creative work came when he served in the Army during World War II. His work has been widely shown, and his paintings are in the permanent collections of several museums. New recognition has just come: a book about him and his work, Cleve Gray, by Nicholas Fox Weber (Abrams, 1998). And Gray is well pleased.
"It's a beautiful book," Gray says. "It's not the gobbledygook you get in art criticism. It's almost like a biography. He shows how and when and why I painted what I did and how my life shaped my work."
When he graduated from Andover in 1936, Gray wanted to go to Paris to study painting, but his father urged him to try Princeton for one year. "If I didn't like it, he said he would send me to Paris then," Gray says.
Surprisingly, Gray liked it. At that time there were no studio art courses, so he took the closest thing to it, an architectural drawing class taught by James C. Davis. "I hated it," he says. He couldn't do the technical drawings, he smudged his paper with fingerprints, and he made zeroes on tests. "The only thing I got out of it was the knowledge I could never be an architect."
Nevertheless, he stuck it out and took the course for a second year and a third, when Davis let him use watercolors and also let him come up to the studio any time and paint and draw what he wanted. By this time, Gray was immersed in courses in art history, philosophy, and music. "All of this was related to what I wanted to do," he said. Especially memorable was a course in Oriental art under George Rowley, who became a close friend.
All in all, he now concedes, Princeton, where he graduated summa cum laude, was a wonderful experience. "My senior year they gave me a room at the top of a building and told me I could do whatever I wanted. I didn't even have to take courses, but I did because there were so many courses I wanted to take."
He even had a couple of small shows while he was an undergraduate. After graduation he painted full time in Arizona until he went into the Army. After the war he studied in Paris; he came back to this country to win a great deal of attention and acclaim, with his abstract paintings included in shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since 1949 he has lived in Warren, Connecticut.
As Fox Weber's book demonstrates, Gray's work has gone through stages -- at one point vertical forms, later paintings inspired by the Eumenides, and then a group of "imaginary still lifes." Perhaps his most famous work is Threnody, a set of abstract murals that one critic called "heroic in conception, in execution and in feeling" and compared to Tintoretto's Scuola di San Rocco murals and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. His latest work, a series of paintings entitled Ascension that he finished last year, has just been shown at Berry-Hill Galleries in New York. The paintings were inspired by Gray's ongoing interest in cosmology.
A retrospective exhibition of Gray's work, which opened in January at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, will travel to Colby College in Waterville, Maine, in April. It will then go to the Neuberger Museum at the State University of New York in Purchase in September, and run until January 2000.
-- Ann Waldron
A new exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., highlights the accomplishments of Wilson, including his influence on higher education, the presidency, foreign policy, and international trade and commerce. The show runs through April 12. (Woodrow Wilson House, 202-387-4062)
Hawaii and time
Perhaps it's the blue colors, the smiling dolphin photograph, or the Hawaii time and temperature report, but the Reverend "Dard" Aller '71 has assembled a remarkably soothing Website for the Kailua Bay Community (www.k-b-c.com).
Aller's Kailua Bay Church is the thematic jumping-off point for a site that's as pleasant to rummage through as an old bookstore. Aller's a man of wide interests, indicated by the home- page slogan, "Kailua Bay Community -- Family, fitness & faith." Besides a load of religious Web links, the site has sports links (which could use some updating) and photos of Aller's extended family, including his wedding to Dr. Lora Lee, a family physician. A feature not to miss on her pages: "Application for Permission to Date My Daughter," with this sample question, "Do you have an earring, nose ring, belly button ring, or other pierced body part? (If the answer to any part of question #11 is yes, discontinue this application and leave the premises now.)" It gets even better, if horrifying to viewers afflicted with multiple political sensitivities.
Marketing maven and self-described "business visionary" Jay Cross '66 has a set of Websites reachable from the main one at Internet Time Group, a corporate learning consultancy. Looking at the sites helps answer an intriguing question: "How do Internet-focused companies use the Internet themselves?" ITG, which "helps clients save time and buy time," has a clean, almost clinical site, although it's too light on details about what ITG actually does. A big focus is its Internet Time Machine project of corporate and learning trends through 2008. The what-might-happens are arranged in categories from "certainties" to "wild guesses." The project is intriguing and a great place to catch up on corporate buzzwords. Cross's personal home page is informative, although superimposing one's picture on an Apple "think different" ad has become a communications cliché. His most interesting project is www.portal-select.com. It describes dozens of openings onto the Web, from Yahoo and Excite to far more obscure ones like the delightfully wacky www.obscurestore.com (which in January linked to The Daily Princetonian's site with the headline "Princeton president blasts naked students").
-- Van Wallach '80
Of Auburn-Etching Lazarus
Ivy-trellised rhythms of saffron-furrowing light
Converge the divine-softening eye in cypress-fluent
Haloes of luminous-lavender topiary-lullabies
Brushing across amoebae-tinted capillaries of olive-
Sated time where a blue-marrowed wave of Aegean-lost
Sunlight marvels at a yellow-spectral sage of manna-
Chastening light; sun-channeling covenant-tremblings
Of auburn-etching Lazarus console emerald-sulphurous
Fritillaries of white-thatched time in autumnal-silver
Helixes of half-timbered, marionette-sketching dreams
And Salisbury-arching rainbow-metamorphoses.
From The Light of the Dance Is the Music of Eternity, a collection of poems by Hugo Walter '81, an assistant professor of humanities, literature, and art history at GMI Engineering and Management Institute. (Fithian Press, $8.95)
Am I rich yet?
A writer's tale of fortune
Now that I've published my first book, (Just Us: Adventures and Travels of a Mother and Daughter, Faber & Faber, 1998) people figure I'm filthy rich. "Why don't you open a bagel store?" asked a friend who knows my fondness for bagels. The truth is, I could barely afford to sharecrop in a field supplying wheat to a mill that makes flour for a bagel store. My advance was $5,000 -- or 120 times less than what a publisher supposedly gave Monica Lewinsky.
I should feel lucky. Many authors get as little as $1,000, or nothing at all. Ours is a good business for someone with a rich spouse. I knew a woman at Princeton who said right up front that she planned to marry an investment banker, then write novels. Which she did. I married a professional philosopher. Every few days, I say to him, "I hope my book sells, I really hope it sells, I might not get to write another one if it doesn't sell." He says, "No matter what you do, the universe is going to end in heat death."
This cheers me up -- until I consider that, for now, the universe is still here and I would really like a book jacket with blurbs on it. You know the kind I mean: "A brilliant, thoroughly original debut" -- Wendy Wasserstein. But Wendy Wasserstein never said that about my book. Neither did the nine other famous writers I sent letters to, begging them to read an advance copy. Most didn't even write back.
At least this helped prepare me for other disappointments of the author biz. Book signings, say. I had pictured long lines of people, lavish spreads of food, pens running out of ink. But that scenario has happened exactly once, at a Brooklyn book party full of friends making mercy buys. The rest of the time, I've faced situations like these:
-- I'm at a Barnes & Noble in North Haven, Connecticut, after signing a whole five copies. A woman strides purposefully toward my table. My heart leaps. "Can you tell me," she asks, "where to find Cokie Roberts's book?"
-- I'm at the Princeton UStore, during a public cocktail party for several authors. A woman wanders in and seems genuinely interested in my book, which is about adventures I've had with my mother. She asks all about our dogsledding trip, our kayaking trip, our hike up a mountain with llamas. Then she grabs five brownies from the snack table and leaves without buying a single copy -- and I realize she was just using me to get dessert for her entire family.
-- I'm at a Brentano's in Costa Mesa, California, signing the occasional book before Mother's Day, when I notice that a display labeled Great For Mother's Day is getting lots of attention. I ask the manager whether he could put some of my books in that display. Sorry, he says. He'd get in trouble with his boss. Those spots are reserved and paid for by other people's publishers.
Reserved. Paid for. I'm starting to feel like an ice cream company fighting for freezer space at the supermarket. Writers with big wealthy publishers are the Haagen Dazs and Breyer's of print. Writers like me, with smaller, poorer publishers, are Suzie Schmidt's Boysenberry Crunch.
I'm fighting for publicity, too. Time was, I naively assumed that every book was reviewed by all the major newspapers and magazines. But in fact, with 75,000 titles coming out every year, your average book is as likely to be reviewed as your average car wash.
So I've tried to get my book noticed in other ways. With help from my parents, I hired a publicist to supplement what my publisher's lone, frazzled publicist had been doing; and I took out a series of ads in a newsletter that goes out to TV and radio producers. Total cost: $10,300. (I also spent $2,100 on an author liability policy. My publishing contract, like many, basically says that if any reader of my book should sue for any reason whatsoever -- paper cuts, say -- I will have to pay for my lawyers and my publisher's lawyers.)
My publicist sent nicely worded press kits to hundreds of radio stations around the country. My ad reached thousands more. So far, about 30 have bitten -- mostly very small stations in such places as Ottawa, Illinois; Adrian, Michigan; and Poughkeepsie, New York. They call me early in the morning and ask questions like, "How did you feel about your mother writing this book?"
"My mother didn't write it," I say. "I did."
"Oh. Well, it looks like my kind of book, it really does. You know why? Large print."
A few local TV shows have come through, too. I've been interviewed in my living room by a New Haven anchorwoman with perfect hair. I've been on a cable show in Norwalk, Connecticut, just after a woman who made a tofu pie, and just before a bunch of swimsuit models. It was fun. The notfun part was watching tapes of myself afterward. My hair never looked perfect, and I was as pale as if I'd eaten that entire tofu pie. Things could be worse. A friend who has written two books says the first time he went on TV, a guest sitting next to him had a stroke and died.
On balance, I've now had more publicity than most firsttime authors, especially if you consider the way relatives of mine have been proselytizing. My father, for instance, never goes anywhere without a copy of my Kirkus review in his pocket. "I just sold three books to a fellow on the subway," he'll say.
Despite everyone's best efforts, though, my book has yet to become a runaway best seller. My parents and I are $7,400 poorer than before I wrote it. And I'm thinking that, all in all, maybe I should take that job sharecropping in a wheat field. At least then I could make some real bread.
-- Melissa Weiner Balmain '87
Swimming in Trees, by Maria Stokes Katzenbach '75 (Divina, $17) -- In her first book since her impressive 1977 debut, The Grab, Katzenbach reconstructs her spiritual journey from fragmentation and loss to wholeness and a sense of community with female soulmates by interlacing the hallucinatory with the concrete in a tale set in Rhinebeck, New York.
Words from the Soul: Time, East/West Spirituality, and Psychotherapeutic Narrative, by Stuart Sovatsky '71 (SUNY Press, $19.95) -- This book challenges the tacit assumptions of "basic" therapeutics and presents a new understanding of transpersonally oriented psychology. Sovatsky is an assistant professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Coal: A Memoir and Critique, by Duane Lockard (University Press of Virginia, $29.95) -- Four generations of the author's family worked in the mines, including Lockard himself, and the book interweaves personal letters and diaries with firsthand interviews and literature on the industry. Lockard is a professor of politics, emeritus.
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