Monday, December 21, 2015

"Negroland: A Memoir," by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson’s “Negroland: A Memoir” (Pantheon, 2015) is a fascinating study of middle-to-upper-middle class African-American society, especially during the middle of the twentieth century, the time during which Jefferson herself grew up. This group of American Blacks has called themselves “the colored aristocracy,” “the colored elite,” “the colored 400,” and other such names (p. 7). They descend from the group that W.E.B. Du Bois famously titled “The Talented Tenth.” These Black leaders and families took pride in their status, and also felt an enormous responsibility to represent their race well, and -- by their example -- to contradict and counteract negative stereotypes that many White Americans had about Black Americans. “In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians….The Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity” (p. 51). Jefferson, who grew up in such an upper-class family, writes of her childhood in Chicago, her parents, and her own inner conflicts and concerns. She strove to be the perfect girl, working hard at school and at extracurricular activities, dressing correctly, displaying perfect manners in all situations, and being a high achiever. Later, as a young adult, she took up more radical ideas about race. She went on to be a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, a writer on many topics, and a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. She does not write much about her life beyond college years, focusing instead on her formative years. She puts her own life in the context of African-American history, writing about several prominent Black leaders and public figures throughout the years, and analyzing the phenomenon of the elite group to which her family belonged. Being part of that group brought privilege, yes, but also the tension and emotional drain of having to be constantly on guard, constantly worried about upholding the reputation of her group and her race. Jefferson’s blend of memoir, history, sociology, and fearless and candid analysis of herself and of her cohort is an effective one. The details about her own life and those of others illuminate the more general points she makes. At times the book is wrenching to read, but at other times it shows us everyday life for her and those in her social stratum. The book is enhanced by photographs of her and her family and of others Jefferson writes about.
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