Robin Givhan is The Washington Post’s fashion critic and the author of “The Battle of Versailles.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Margo Jefferson grew up with invaluable social currency and a sense of limitless possibility. She was an African American girl from a good family that had money, connections and expectations of excellence. She attended Chicago’s private, progressive Lab School, graduated from Brandeis and Columbia universities, and eventually worked at the New York Times. She is an accomplished and connected cultural critic. “For my generation,” she writes, “the motto was still: Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.”
But along the way — and perhaps still — she has nursed her discomfort with being a child of privilege. She grew up in the rarified environment of black exceptionalism. Hers was a family of black folks who had wealth and social position. She was (mostly) protected from the sting of racism and its pernicious hacking away at self-esteem, opportunity and hope. Her father was a pediatrician, and she describes her mother as a socialite. They lived in a world of private black clubs, black entrepreneurs, black accomplishment, black elegance and black beauty.
“Negroland” is her story — and that of many black men and women who came of age at a time when keeping up appearances was a common cause and bearing witness to the first black “this” or the first black “that” (good Lord, we’re still counting?) inspired eye-dabbing jubilation rather than a complicated sense of pride, impatience and exasperation. The tale treads briskly and fearlessly across the treacherous terrain of race, class, gender and entitlement in this tightly edited memoir that recalls her youth in 1950s and ’60s Chicago. In her storytelling, Jefferson can be at turns honest and awful, beguiling and insufferable. She is a poetic and bracing memoirist.
“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered,” she writes. “Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”
The men and women who populated her world moved with confidence and no small amount of swagger. They were proud of their accomplishments and, frankly, believed themselves to be a cut above their white counterparts. Money allowed these black doctors, businessmen and lawyers advantages and provided them with armor against cultural slights and worse. But it was thin armor, with myriad weak spots.
In Negroland — a kind of snow globe of bliss — residents were mindful that being perceived as too successful by whites risked provoking their wrath. So they walked through life proudly but with care, treading cautiously so as never to offend. They were also aware that they served as emblems for the ways in which other blacks would be judged. They had to be good race people. Part of the Talented Tenth. They had to represent. Jefferson was a one-percenter of a different sort.
Being part of her community came with its own rivalries and judgments, including color-consciousness. The subject of skin color and hair texture as measures of cultural value and desirability — in matters both intimate and public — has been discussed, analyzed and lamented. Jefferson offers a brief history of its origins going back to slavery. But instead of spending too much time decrying its existence, she gets to the crux of what it was like to live on the more favorable end of those rules and traditions.
In addition to the author’s photograph, “Negroland” includes eight pages of photos of her family and friends. It is not superficial to want to see a picture of Jefferson. Appearance, after all, is at the heart of Negroland. The residents of this exclusive neighborhood are supremely conscious of how they come across to others, whether black or white. Indeed, their appearance has been a bloodstained form of currency that has helped pay for the privileges they enjoy.
Historically, lighter-skinned blacks had more ready access to education, for example. There are those black men and women who passed as white during their professional lives, allowing them to have more lucrative careers. When they retired, they often sought to do so in Negroland. Those pretenders were not denigrated for their decision to deny their racial identity. They were not upbraided for questioning the assumption that blackness is merely skin color. But their success was closely examined. What did passing get them? How much better did they do professionally? Was it all worth it? Jefferson gives her looks a dispassionate assessment: light skin; fine — but not Roman — nose; curly-not-kinky-but-not-straight hair. Her particular beauty was a modest advantage.
Writing a memoir is, by its very nature, an indulgent affair. And Jefferson acknowledges a certain amount of self-conscious navel-gazing. Some might see her lamentations of privilege as the whining of a lucky woman. And there are moments when the slights — the anger and humiliation expressed by her father after being given a bad room at a fine hotel, for example — feel meager in the scheme of life in the 1960s and even in 2015. “Mother pauses,” Jefferson writes, “then addresses herself and us. ‘This is a prejudiced place. What kind of service would we get in that restaurant? Look at these shabby rooms. Pretending they couldn’t find the reservation. We’re leaving tomorrow. And your father will tell them why.’ ”
But “Negroland” is not about raw racism or caricatured villains. It is about subtleties and nuances, presumptions and slights that chip away at one’s humanity and take a mental toll. It is the story of Jefferson’s evolution, too. All those years of perfect posture and elocution and doing right by the race, what did they get her? Was she duped?
As Jefferson moves through her elementary school years, on to high school and college, she steps out into the world as a smart, artistic, politically astute young woman. She is intrigued by black politics and culture, the New York creative milieu, and feminism. She has also been considering suicide. “In the late 1970s, I began to actively cultivate a desire to kill myself,” she writes. “I was, at that time, a successful professional in my chosen field of journalism.” As abrupt as this acknowledgment seems, one’s first reaction isn’t a rush of emotion. Jefferson’s memoir has been too analytical for that. She has been too controlled. Too aware of the repercussions of her actions for herself, her family, black people.
The truth is that Jefferson isn’t so much ready to step off a bridge as she is ready to set her neuroses free. She challenges the stereotype of black women as strong and capable. Can she not be fragile, too? Vulnerable? “One white female privilege had always been withheld from the girls of Negroland,” she explains. “Aside from the privilege of actually being white, they had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance. A privilege Good Negro Girls had been denied by our history of duty, obligation, and discipline.”
Allowing for that weakness — discussing it, grappling with it — means off-loading history, pride, prejudices and personal demons. It means stepping ever closer to freedom.
Jefferson explores a kind of privilege that has long existed — quietly and proudly. Its more recent iterations have been discussed in books such as Lawrence Otis Graham’s “Our Kind of People” and, in the era of the Obamas, the occasional journalistic effort. But Jefferson is older than Graham by a generation. Her experiences are different; she views the self-conscious dignity of her parents with less irony and dry wit.
“Negroland” is not sweeping or encyclopedic. It is lean, specific and personal. But it is also enlightening.
By Margo Jefferson
248 pp. $25