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They wrote the book on how to be a BAP (Black American Princess)

Monday, August 13, 2001

By Lisa Allen-Agostini, The Washington Post

Kalyn Johnson went to public school and she isn't ashamed to admit it, even though the three other authors of "The BAP Handbook" attended private schools. Of course, Johnson's public school experience in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., included swimming pools, tennis courts and rolling acres of grass.

Not exactly your standard public school.

BAP stands for Black American Princess, and Johnson, like her co-authors and friends Tracey Lewis, Karla Lightfoot and Ginger Wilson, is a self-described BAP. The four spent a recent Saturday in Washington promoting their book, which bills itself as "The Official Guide to the Black American Princess."

So just what is a BAP?

"A BAP is a black American female born to a middle-class or upper-middle-class background who is used to the best and nothing less," intones Johnson, dressed in fitted jeans and a tight white T-shirt, and sitting on the back of a chair upstairs at Georgetown M-A-C Cosmetics, the store where the publicity event took place. Johnson, a thirtysomething corporate lawyer from New York, admits that polished phrase was lifted directly from the book.

The handbook splits BAPs into four categories, based on birth and predilection: There's the Betty BAP, a conformist born to wealth and privilege and determined to color strictly within the lines (think the Clair Huxtable character on "The Cosby Show"); BoHo BAP, Betty's bohemian sister (actress and dancer Debbie Allen); Butterfly BAP, who was born in more difficult circumstances but by her own perseverance and sense of entitlement works her way to the top (Oprah); and the Bogus BAP, who was born with neither cash nor class and may achieve at least the former (Lil' Kim).

Isn't that a patronizing gesture, to include those hardworking Butterfly BAPs? (The name refers to her emergence from the cocoon of poverty.) Some insist that a BAP is born, never made.

Johnson and Co. disagree.

"It's all about your attitude," says the silk-sweatered Lightfoot, an advertising sales rep in her 30s who was born in Chicago's Hyde Park but now lives in New York.

"In other words," adds Lewis, a 34-year-old writer born in Gary, Ind., and now living in Chicago, "you don't have to be filthy rich -- just look like it." Her hyper-casual long-sleeve baseball shirt, gray tailored shorts and black loafers, accessorized with a multicolored beaded choker, proclaim her BoHo BAP status loud and clear.

Wilson, 34, a former tax attorney now working for a legal recruiting company, looks very Betty in a sleeveless knit dress in blues and greens. Wilson is content to let Johnson, Lewis and Lightfoot do most of the talking. She and Lightfoot have known each other all their lives. They went to the same schools, played in the same Jack and Jill group.

"My sister was the only black child at her birthday party," Wilson says in her soft voice, so their mother enrolled them in Jack and Jill.

The book lists Jack and Jill of America as "a play group" for the children of the "affluent African American" mothers who founded it in 1938. (It now includes more than 220 chapters and 8,000 members.) It's one of many BAP-connected organizations listed in the book, among them the National Brotherhood of Skiers, the American Tennis Association and the Minority Golf Association.

Downstairs, on the floor of the industrial gray and black M-A-C shop, the authors' promotional party is in full swing. Women of various races and descriptions, some of them decidedly un-BAP with their clumsy hair weaves and too-tight pants, mill around sipping champagne and looking at cosmetics. Some have come for free makeovers and signed copies of the book, a promotional activity organized by M-A-C. Flattered by the book's reverent devotion to M-A-C lipstick, the company is now one of the book tour's sponsors.

Is this event, with its offer of makeovers and other freebies, really a BAP thing to do?

"Oh, yeah!" affirms Lightfoot, beaming a smile that's almost as bright as the round-cut cubic zirconium solitaires at her throat and earlobes.

"It's something that you do with your girlfriends," declares Johnson, just before Lewis launches into an account of how Johnson once "shanghaied" her into going into Elizabeth Arden to mix their own makeup.

Not everybody thinks being a BAP is something to be proud of, and the authors have had their share of criticism from those who see flaunting wealth and privilege as an insult to the have-nots of the world. To them, the authors say: Lighten up.

"It's a humor book," Johnson says. "It's written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, and we're poking fun at it."

"We want that in 72-point type," Lewis adds before asking why some African Americans will laugh at "ghetto" stereotypes but are offended by humor relating to black wealth and privilege.

The handbook calls itself satire but doesn't always take a breezy tone. It includes lists for everything a BAP or a BAP-wannabe needs for success.

Read it to find where to get your hair done, what lipstick to wear, where to live, what to study and where. It even tells you whom to marry:

Anthony is a 6-foot-2, 180-pound love machine with a fat bank account and a taste for Banana Republic clothes. He was a Kappa Alpha Psi pledge at Williams College and is currently a New Yorker and a corporate VP. Spencer is 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, lives in Indiana and works as regional sales director for a pharmaceutical company. He buys his clothes at Brooks Brothers and the Gap. Whom should the BAP marry?

Anthony gets the nod, based partly on his location and his knowledge of Tiffany's as an unquestionably fine jeweler. The suggestion that both he and Spencer sound boring as hell -- men with no "edge" -- makes the BAP ladies laugh out loud.

Lewis breaks it down: They're not supposed to have it. "Edge" doesn't make good husband material; dull and committed does.

The four will go on spreading this and other acquired wisdom on a tour that ends at the Vineyard. And if you didn't know that meant Martha's Vineyard, then honey, you'd better get a copy of "The BAP Handbook" real quick.

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