Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negroland, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography following its publication in 2015. In this, her second book, Pulitzer Prize-winning Jefferson has set out to explore the idea of “Negroland”, which she defines as ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. The book’s blurb calls Negroland ‘at once incendiary and icy, celebratory and elegiac – here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, class and American culture old through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education.’
Jefferson sees herself as a ‘chronicler’ of “Negroland”, ‘a participant – observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.’ Of her choice to invent the term “Negroland”, she writes: ‘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.’ She later comments: ‘”Negro” is the magic word, the spell. The small grow large, the mundane turns exceptional, and the individual becomes cosmic.’
In his review, Hilton Als writes: ‘Jefferson has lived and worked like the great reporter she is, traversing a little-known or -understood landscape peopled by blacks and whites, dreamers and naysayers, the privileged and the strivers who make up the mosaic known as America.’ Aminatta Forna comments: ‘It would be too easy to call Negroland a groundbreaking work and yet this is exactly what it is. In her descriptions of a life lived on the nexus of race and class Margo Jefferson tells a tale of how people create, defy and survive systems of exclusion and inclusion, of the human toll that must be exacted.’ Eula Biss believes that Negroland provides ‘… the record of a powerful mind grappling with all the trouble of being awake.’
Jefferson herself grew up in a wealthy family in Chicago, to a doctor father and well-educated, ‘fashionable socialite’ mother, who opted to stay at home and look after her two daughters. She is concerned throughout about the way in which others perceived her upbringing and her family’s societal position. She comments: ‘Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers.’
Negroland was a real step away for me from the usual non-fiction which I consume. I have read rather a few memoirs of late which have been set in the United States, but these have dealt almost exclusively with the stark realities of poverty and racism, and the disadvantages which the lower classes often have. I found it fascinating, therefore, to be given a completely different view of American society, of the upper-class black community who lived in wealthy parts of Chicago.
Jefferson begins her memoir by discussing the perils and contradictions which one must face when writing about oneself: ‘I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles… So let me turn back, subdue my individual self, and enter history.’ She goes on to address elements of black history specific to the United States, and moves on to write about racial stereotyping, general ignorance, media portrayals, and beauty regimens, amongst other themes.
Negroland is a memoir both personal and universal to those of the author’s class and race. Jefferson sets her own memories, largely of childhood and her years as a young adult, against the wider political and social landscape of America at its ‘crucial historical moments – the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of post-racial America’. When she writes about historical occurrences, she does so using the present-tense. This is something which I had not seen in a memoir before; there is usually such a distinction between past and present.
When Jefferson grew up, during a highly tumultuous period for black people in the United States, she reflects that children in “Negroland” ‘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.’ She justifies the choices which she makes in this memoir not to reflect too much upon the present day, and instead focus upon the past, by writing: ‘… I belong to an earlier generation, that of the fifties and sixties: it’s us and our predecessors I want to write of. Most whites knew little about us; only a few cared to know… We were taught that we were better than the whites who looked down on us – that we were better than most whites, period. But that this would rarely if ever be acknowledged by white people, with all their entitlement. Not the entitlement a government provides, but the kind history bestows. This is your birthright, says history.’
What I found fascinating, and incredibly sad, was the discussion about other black people Jefferson’s family knew, who felt more comfortable hiding themselves within society by posing as white people: ‘So many in my parents’ world had relatives who’d spent their adult lives as white people of some kind. Avocational passing was lighthearted. Shopping at whites-only stores, getting deferential service at whites-only restaurants. You came home snickering…’. Also chilling is the space which Jefferson gives to discussing the prevalence of suicide attempts amongst black youths of her generation, and her revelation of her own contemplations of suicide.
Jefferson’s writing is elegant, and certainly has a journalistic flair to it. She puts across such interesting perspectives, some of which I had never considered before. Jefferson’s authorial voice is strong, and after I got used to the fragmented style which some of her sentences hold, I found myself pulled in. At first, Negroland does not take the form of a linear narrative – rather, it is more playful – but the later sections which deal with elements of the author’s schooling have been presented chronologically. The oft-broken structure has connecting themes within it, and the whole does come together relatively well. Regardless that there is so much of importance within the book, I did not quite connect with it in the way that I’d hoped. I felt as though there was a level of detachment within the book, due largely to the creativity which Jefferson employs.
So much has been considered in Negroland, and there is a lot for the reader to mull over long after the final page has been read. I shall end this review with a most poignant question in Jefferson’s book: ‘What manner of man and woman are we? Wherever we go we disrupt order.’