Worlds Apart : He grew up in affluence and did the Ivy League bit. So, yes, Larry Graham knows about the pressures of being beholden to two very different groups.
Lawrence Otis Graham was 24 when he got his nose done. He had wanted to do it years before; nose jobs were “the spring break activity of choice,” he says, at his affluent New York suburban high school. But his parents considered a nose job an act of racial self-hatred.
So he waited and he agonized. Standing before mirrors, he would pinch his nose to make it thinner or take his fingers and flatten his lips against his teeth. For three years he cut out pictures of black models from catalogues and magazines--light-skinned men with sharp noses and square jaws--and tried to imagine their faces on his.
Finally, after he had graduated from Princeton and had begun at Harvard Law, he went to a plastic surgeon on Park Avenue and got what he had always wanted.
It is still unmistakably a black nose. Larry Graham, unlike Michael Jackson, did not run his face through a pencil sharpener. But it is straighter than it was. It no longer has the distinctive hump that the other men in the Graham family have, he explains, and as he does he turns to the side and shows off his smooth, newly crafted African American profile.
Graham, a 32-year-old corporate lawyer and law school professor, has just written a book of essays--"Member of the Club” (Harcourt Brace)--about growing up upper-middle class and black, about the pressures and contradictions of being beholden to two very different groups.
He is a charming and disarmingly candid man, earnest and perceptive, so that it seems inevitable, once he brings up the subject of his plastic surgery, that he is about to begin a personal discussion of his nose as a metaphor for his life’s balancing act, the point at which Graham was forced to compromise his “blackness” for a white ideal of beauty.
Except that he does nothing of the sort.
Self-hatred? “Listen, no nose in the world is going to make me look white,” he says.
In an instant, he switches from self-confession to defiance. Why should his nose job be a political statement? Why can’t he be allowed a random act of vanity?
“When white people perm their hair, tan their skin or thicken their lips, nobody accuses them of trying to look black,” Graham says. “People told me you’re outing yourself here. But I wanted to out myself. I’m tired of black people having to live with this double standard.”
There is a traditional story line in African American literature, a theme that runs from “Native Son” through “Autobiography of Malcolm X” through last year’s bestseller by Nathan McCall, “Makes Me Wanna Holler.” These are stories in which the street experience is the authentic black experience, in which the authentic black man is what scholar Henry Louis Gates has called the “scary Negro.”
“Member of the Club” is not one of these books. Larry Graham does not come from the streets. He looks and sounds like what he is: a child of the exclusive precincts of Westchester County, educated in the Ivy League. He got married in a Catholic church on Fifth Avenue in mid-town Manhattan to a woman with a law degree and an MBA from Harvard.
But Graham would like to argue that he is authentic nonetheless, that the “scary” Negro is not the only real Negro, that a black man can get a nose job and live in Westchester County and still speak for his community. At a time when Mike Tyson is welcomed home as a hero and rappers pose as cultural representatives, this seems audacious. But that is exactly Graham’s point, the complaint that drives “Member of the Club.” What does it say about the way whites view blacks--and the way blacks view themselves--that someone as conventionally successful, someone as mainstream as he is, could ever be seen as audacious?
“Once the bandages were finally taken off,” Graham writes, “friends discovered that I am no less black than I was before the operation. I still had the same black friendships, still supported the same black causes, and still maintained the same black consciousness. . . . To view this as anything more than a cosmetic procedure would be to suggest that the culture, feelings, and history of black people are awfully superficial.”
Larry Graham was raised in Manhattan and then in White Plains, just outside the city. His father is in the real estate business and his mother is a psychologist. They were members of an exclusive world, the tightknit community of successful blacks--doctors, lawyers and business professionals--who lived in and around New York City and who belonged to the same fraternities and social clubs. But his neighborhood and his school and his friends were overwhelmingly white, which left him, he says, “with a foot in both worlds.”
But this did not mean he was embraced by whites. As a child, he and his brother were taken by a friend to a white country club, and when they jumped in the pool all the other children jumped out. Even in the past few years, as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, he has never been allowed to forget his race. In one chapter in “Member of the Club,” for example, Graham relates the results of an experiment he recently conducted, in which he set off with a black companion to eat at 10 of Manhattan’s best restaurants.
At one restaurant after another, his reservation was “lost,” he was mistaken for the coat check attendant or he was seated in a distant corner, far from all the other diners.
There is an echo here of the paradox identified by Ellis Cose in his essay on race, “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” (HarperCollins) published last year. Cose argues that discrimination and frustration are felt most keenly by those blacks who have apparently gone farthest--successful professionals. In the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, for example, polls showed that it was African Americans making more than $50,000 a year whose alienation from American society had increased the most. By the same token, college-educated blacks are far gloomier about their prospects than blacks who haven’t gone to college.
The explanation for this, Cose argues, is a matter of expectations. An African American with a job at McDonald’s who gets seated by the kitchen takes the slight as a slap, another reminder of his lowly status. For an African American executive who is treated the same way, the slight is a body blow, a reminder that no matter how much he has achieved and how hard he works, it does not, in the end, make any difference. In the first case, prejudice creates resignation; in the second case, anger.
These are the experiences, Graham says, that authenticate him, that bind him--even with his Harvard law degree and reconfigured features--to the broad mass of middle- and lower-middle-class blacks with whom he would otherwise seem to have so little in common. Much of his book is an explanation of why his wealth and status do not insulate him from the concerns of the black community.
In one chapter, he is scathing on blacks high in the corporate world who are indifferent to their responsibilities to open doors for those behind them. In another, he writes about his principled opposition to racial intermarriage.
“Could I marry a white woman? Couldn’t happen,” he says. “There is no way I could fall in love with a white woman"--and then, in the only moment when real disdain edges into his voice, he lists the prominent black men who have married white women: Quincy Jones, Charles Barkley, Berry Gordy Jr., Sidney Poitier, Gregory Hines, Barry Bonds and on and on.
These men, he says, are the real self-haters, men oblivious to the message they are sending about the desirability of black women and the damage they are doing to the black community.
Two years ago, Graham took a leave from his job at a mid-town law firm and moved into an apartment in Harlem. There he stayed for a month, amid rats and roaches, to learn what he never learned growing up in White Plains.
The essay he wrote about his Harlem experiences, which serves as the last chapter of “Member of the Club,” is largely a matter-of-fact description of his fruitless search for a job, his attempts to buy a gun, and the man in his building who shook him down for money again and again. His tone is anthropological, detached and occasionally uncomprehending, his manner betraying his alienation from the world around him.
When Graham arrives at his rooming house, dressed in khakis, a Ralph Lauren jacket and white Stan Smith tennis shoes, his landlady takes one look at him and gives him some advice: “You new around here. ‘Cause you look it. I can see it, and so can they. You gonna last about 10 seconds in this place.”
Here is the irony of Larry Graham’s world. In mid-town Manhattan, 75 blocks to the south, it doesn’t matter that he perfectly dresses the part of the corporate lawyer. His skin, the world never fails to remind him, makes him indistinguishable from any other black man on the street. But here in Harlem his differences are all too apparent. The clothes that are invisible downtown now make him a target. It is exactly the opposite of the way he wants the world to be.
So Graham, in his month in Harlem, played two parts. By day, on the street, he put on dark unlaced work boots, black pants, a $199 heavy gold chain with an Uzi pendant, a beeper, a Malcolm X cap, Sony Walkman headphones, black knapsack, dark sunglasses and a black Dr. Dre T-shirt that said “I Got to Get [Expletive] Up.”
When it came time to eat at a good restaurant, or visit the Studio Museum or interview a black professional, he made a change. Listen to him on the day he went to Sylvia’s, Harlem’s best restaurant:
“Walking out of my building in full ghetto gear and heading to a 7:45 dinner appointment at Sylvia’s, I removed my dark sunglasses and Malcolm X cap. My oversized black Dr. Dre T-shirt came off to reveal a light blue button-down oxford shirt. My gold chain with Uzi machine gun pendant goes underneath the oxford. Beeper and Sony earphones go into the knapsack and out comes my horn-rimmed reading glasses and a fresh copy of the yuppie business magazine Black Enterprise to hold underneath my arm. A few blocks later, my shoes are tied, college signet ring is back on my finger, and I am led by Melba, Sylvia’s niece, over to a table near a photo of talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford. I sit down at my place in the green dining room, just underneath one of the small crystal chandeliers.
“I am ready to be served.”