Written by Margo Jefferson
Audiobook read by Robin Miles
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Pantheon on September 8th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Cultural Heritage, African American Studies
Source: public library via Overdrive
At once incendiary and icy, mischievous and provocative, celebratory and elegiac—here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned with distancing itself from whites and the black generality while tirelessly measuring itself against both. Born in upper-crust black Chicago—her father was for years head of pediatrics at Provident, at the time the nation’s oldest black hospital; her mother was a socialite—Margo Jefferson has spent most of her life among (call them what you will) the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heart-wrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance.
You may have noticed if you’ve been around here awhile that I read a lot of memoir. It’s been my nonfiction genre of preference for quite a long time, and a couple of years ago I committed myself to being a better reader of memoir. (I’m still noncommittal about ever writing it myself, but if I ever do attempt writing anything longer than blog-post length, it will probably be memoir in one way or another.) Some of the most interesting memoirs I’ve read have been those written by people I was previously unfamiliar with. Journalist and critic Margo Jefferson falls into that category, and so does much of the ground covered in her memoir Negroland.
Jefferson is a second-generation member of the “Black Elite”–the educated professional class of African-Americans–the second daughter of a Chicago pediatrician and his socialite wife. She’s also a product of the Baby Boom, and her place in a minority within a minority within the largest demographic cohort of the twentieth century allows for unique perspective.
In some respects, Negroland takes an unconventional and loose approach to the memoir form. It opens with some background about the upper echelon of the American Black community and the standards it cultivated to set itself above and apart. It’s a history lesson that will likely be new to many outside those reaches, and while it offers useful context, it’s not particularly personal. In fact, one of the most striking things about Negroland is that in spots, for a memoir, it comes across as surprisingly impersonal. Tracy K. Smith noted in her review of Negroland for the New York Times:
“Jefferson’s memoir pushes against the boundaries of its own genre…(I)t quickly swerves into social history; a good 30 pages of the book’s opening are dedicated to defining and chronicling the rise of America’s black upper class.
“Such unwillingness to abide by the conventions of genre also informs Jefferson’s approach to herself as the vehicle of her story. She remains conscious, possibly even suspicious, of the two roles she has signed on to play: character in and curator of these many poignant memories. At times, this self-consciousness urges Jefferson to announce to the reader when and why a passage’s train of thought or tactical approach will abruptly change…(T)hese willful shifts that advertise their own motives are effective because they beg to be read as a corrective to a lifetime of enforced and internalized decorum.”
Jefferson recounts being brought up with a set of community standards–for achievement, behavior, appearance–that demanded even more than those of the conservative white-majority culture of the 1950s. Acceptance by that culture mattered to the Black Elite because it afforded certain (if limited) privileges, but setting itself above and apart from less-privileged Blacks mattered at least as much, if not more. The Elites wanted to be a motivational example for Blacks lower down the socioeconomic ladder; they also cared deeply about holding onto their hard-won status and not being dragged down.
Perhaps “personal journalism” would be a good way to categorize Negroland–I can’t honestly say it fully engaged me as memoir. In part, that could be because its stylistic quirks would come across more effectively in print than in the audiobook format I read, although Robin Miles’ narration felt like a good fit with the material. That said, I really connected with Negroland as social history, and I’d suggest approaching it from that angle, Jefferson’s discussions of class and caste within the Black community and intraracial hierarchies linked to skin tone and hair type gave me some new insights into respectability politics, and she’s been part of a Black lived experience that doesn’t get as much media exposure as some others do.
I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.
I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts. A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures arise to challenge its primacy.
I call it Negroland because “Negro” dominated our history for so long; because I lived with its meanings and intimations for so long; because they were essential to my first discoveries of what race meant, or, as we now say, how race was constructed.
For nearly two hundred years we in Negroland have called ourselves all manner of things. Like
the colored aristocracy
the colored elite
the colored 400
the blue vein society
the big families, the old families, the old settlers, the pioneers
Negro society, black society
the Negro, the black, the African-American upper class or elite.
I was born in 1947, and my generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public.