In his bestselling 1999 book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, Lawrence Otis Graham broadcast a taboo subject to the world. Black America, Graham wrote, is full of rich people — old-money folks who prefer the company of other Black old-money folks.
There should have been nothing revelatory about this. Every culture has its elites, and these elites put ungodly amounts of work into preserving their eliteness. But the book unleashed an intensity of emotion that surprised the author. “You’d better not show your face in Martha’s Vineyard this summer,” a light-skinned woman with an Ivy League degree told Graham. “You opened a real can of worms,” said another, adding that “folks don’t want to hear about rich Blacks unless we’re playing basketball, singing rap music, or doing comedy on TV.”
Well, starting this week that dubious proposition is being put to the test, because Graham’s book has been turned into a quality prime-time soap opera on FOX. Set in Oak Bluffs, the Martha’s Vineyard playpen for generations of Black bourgeois, Our Kind of People follows two headstrong women whose personal ambitions put them on a collision course and reveal the invisible fault lines that divide Blacks who “have it” from those who don’t.
And by “it” we mean old money and the social status that comes with having it. “Whether it was mainly the skin color, the hair texture, the family background, the education, the money, or the sharpness of our features that set some of us apart and made some of us think we were superior to other blacks … we were certain that we would always be able to recognize our kind of people,” Graham wrote.
Leah Franklin Dupont is, by this definition, an “our kind of people” person. Played by Nadine Ellis, one of several actors positioned for breakout roles on this series, Leah is the daughter of the powerful Black entrepreneur Teddy Franklin (Joe Morton) and heir apparent to the vast Franklin business empire. She’s married to Raymond Dupont, who’s probably a formidable old-money guy in his own right, but I was too distracted by the rich, velvety baritone of Morris Chestnut, who plays Raymond, to pay much attention to anything he actually said.
Angela Vaughn, on the other hand, is most certainly not “our kind of people.” Played by Yaya Dacosta (Chicago Med), she is a single mom with a drive to succeed. She’s brought her late mother’s secret hair-conditioner formula to Oak Bluffs and intends to build a business empire with it, not unlike what Madam C.J. Walker did a century earlier. Angela arrives on the island unaware of the distinction between old and new money, but she’s going to learn quickly.
This being network television, the differences between Leah and Angela — the one who “has it” and the other who doesn’t — are repeatedly and unsubtly reinforced. Leah is cool and calculating; Angela is eager and ignorant of elite social cues. Leah sits quietly in the front pew at church while Angela is in the back, giving God the glory. But they both have teenage daughters and there are other ways their fates are linked that add to the intrigue on the show.
Some may argue that America has moved on in the two decades since Graham, who died earlier this year, shone a light on the Black upper class in his book. “There is no group that apologizes more for its success than black people,” Graham wrote in 1999, but in the age of Jay-Z, Rihanna and Shondaland that assertion is less persuasive. However, there’s no denying that the lifestyles depicted in Our Kind of People — the book and the TV show — are not seen that much in the media, at least not compared with their white counterparts or even those crazy rich Asians.
Karin Gist, who created Our Kind of People, was showrunner during the first season of Mixed-ish, a show I enjoyed immensely. Based on what Gist showed in the first two episodes, I doubt this series will devolve into the kind of soapy debauch seen on other Black-headlined dramas. She seems more interested in building a world, one where Black people run successful companies, hobnob in elite clubs of their own making and act as though the rest of us don't even exist. (If the police have to be called, Black cops show up.)
Our Kind of People is co-produced by Lee Daniels, who likes to keep ideas at the center of his entertainments. For these reasons I’m optimistic that the show's writers will keep finding ways to entertain us while giving us unusual access to a world in which Black people unapologetically enjoy their hard-won wealth and tell everyone else to stay off their lawn.
Our Kind of People premieres on FOX Tuesday September 21 at 9:00 PM.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Our Kind of People, FOX, Joe Morton, Karin Gist, Lawrence Otis Graham, Lee Daniels, Morris Chestnut, Nadine Ellis , Yaya DaCosta