Negroland: A Memoir
Margo Jefferson (Pantheon Books, 2015)
Negroland is a memoir, and a meditation, on growing up privileged but black, or black but privileged. Margo Jefferson was born in Chicago, in 1947, to prosperous parents: her father was head of pediatrics at the nation's oldest black hospital, and her mother stayed home to raise two daughters. Margo and her sister went to private school, mainly with white children. They met their black peers at Jack and Jill, an organization dedicated to social and cultural enrichment for the future doctors, lawyers, and teachers they were presumed to be.
In calling that culture 'Negroland', Jefferson is looking back into a time when the term 'Negro' framed a hard-won and fiercely defended respectability. In spite of, or because of, the fact that they could expect so little respect in white quarters, the matriarchs of Negroland brought up their children to exacting standards of grooming, dress, and manners. For fear of disgracing their people, the Jefferson girls could not appear in public with ashy skin or unkempt hair; they could not wear denim (except at camp) or too-bright colors; they could not laugh too loud.
There's something isolating about all this, of course. It places this self-conscious elite at a remove from the mass of black people without quite admitting them to the upper classes as viewed by white America. Jefferson's memoir doesn't tell a major dramatic story, but it locates the drama in some small ones: her father, pulled over in Hyde Park because he doesn't look like he lives there; and her uncle Lucious, who passed for white in his working life, then failed to fit in when he retired and returned to black life. "And my parents looked down on him a little. Not because he'd passed, but because he'd risen no higher than traveling salesman. If you were going to take the trouble to be white, you were supposed to do better than you could have done as a Negro."
Margo is, most of the time, an avid participant in the uplift on offer. She plays the piano, acts in plays, and goes out for cheerleading. She spends three summers at Interlochen, winning prizes for her enthusiasm and talent. She loves Audrey Hepburn and Diahann Carroll, Robert Browning and Langston Hughes, Ebony and Vogue. It's a very bright childhood, though marked at intervals by cautionary tales from her mother, because the costs of going off the rails are so very high.
And, always, of those to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that can be wearing. "We were to be ladies, responsible Negro Women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that." By way of rebellion, Jefferson cultivates an aesthetic of suicide for a time, though by then she's a successful journalist and literary critic. (Sylvia Plath never had to worry about ashy elbows.) And she declines the imperative to become a wife and mother, though she's delighted with her sister's daughter.
Negroland tells old truths that shouldn't be too scary to tell; it tells old secrets that deserve to be freed from the power of secrecy. If Jefferson's grandmothers were proud to the point of snobbishness, well, they had much to be proud of. Her own reward for the awkwardness of being the only black child in her class was an education befitting her intelligence. The candor, integrity, and tenderness of this memoir show that while Jefferson was being taught manners, she also acquired character, which is always a beautiful thing.