Margo Jefferson Negroland: A Memoir

ISBN 13: 9781504681551

Negroland: A Memoir

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9781504681551: Negroland: A Memoir

A deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture seen through the prism of the author's rarefied upbringing and education among Chicago's black elite.

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 Margo Jefferson'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 -- Margo Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heartwrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance.

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About the Author:

Margo Jefferson was for years a theater and book critic for Newsweek and the New York Times, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1995. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, New York, and the New Republic, among other publications. She is the author of On Michael Jackson and is professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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 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. (Even now I shy away from the word “failings.”) Even the least of them would be turned against the race. Most white people made no room for the doctrine of “human, all too human”: our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human.
 
For my generation the motto was still: Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.
 
Part of me dreads revealing anything in these pages except our drive to excellence. But I dread the constricted expression that comes from that. And we’re prone to being touchy. Self-righteously smug and snobbish. So let me begin in a quiet, clinical way.
 
I was born into the Chicago branch of Negroland. My father was a doctor, a pediatrician, and for some years head of pediatrics at Provident, the nation’s oldest black hospital. My mother was a social worker who left her job when she married, and throughout my childhood she was a full-time wife, mother, and socialite. But where did they come from to get there? And which clubs and organizations did they join to seal their membership in this world?
 
A brief vita of the author.
     Margo Jefferson:
     Ancestors: (In chronological order): slaves and slaveholders in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi; farmers, musi­cians, butlers, construction crew supervisors, teachers, beauticians and maids, seamstresses and dressmakers, engineers, policewomen, real estate businesswomen, lawyers, judges, doctors and social workers
     Father’s fraternity: Kappa Alpha Psi
     Mother’s (and sister’s) sorority: Delta Sigma Theta
     Parents’ national clubs: the Boulé (father); the Northeast­erners (mother)
    Sister’s and my national clubs: Jack and Jill; the Co-Ettes
 
Local clubs, schools, and camps will be named as we go along. Skin color and hair will be described, evaluated too, along with other racialized physical traits. Questions inevita­bly will arise. Among them: How does one—how do you, how do I—parse class, race, family, and temperament? How many kinds of deprivation are there? What is the compass of privilege? What has made and maimed me?

Here are some of this group’s founding categories, the opposi­tions and distinctions they came to live by.

     Northerner / Southerner
     house slave / field hand
     free black / slave black
     free black / free mulatto
     skilled worker / unskilled worker (free or slave)
     owns property / owns none
     reads and writes fluently / reads a little but does not write / reads and writes a little / neither reads nor writes
     descends from African and Indian royalty / descends from African obscurities / descends from upper-class whites / descends from lower-class whites / descends from no whites at all
 
White Americans have always known how to develop aris­tocracies from local resources, however scant. British grocers arrive on the Mayflower and become founding fathers. German laborers emigrate to Chicago and become slaughterhouse kings. Women of equally modest origins marry these men or their rivals or their betters and become social arbiters.
 
We did the same. “Colored society” was originally a mélange of

     men and women who were given favorable treatment, money, property, and even freedom by well-born Cauca­sian owners, employers, and parents;
     men and women who bought their freedom with hard cash and hard labor;
     men, women, and children bought and freed by slavery-hating whites or Negro friends and relatives;
     men and women descended from free Negroes, hence born free.
 
They learned their letters and their manners; they learned skilled trades (barber, caterer, baker, jeweler, machinist, tailor, dressmaker); they were the best-trained servants in the bet­ter white homes and hotels; they bought real estate; published newspapers; established schools and churches; formed clubs and mutual aid societies; took care to marry among themselves. Some arrived from Haiti alongside whites fleeing Toussaint L’Ouverture’s black revolution: their ranks included free mulat­toes and slaves who, after some pretense of loyalty, found it easy to desert their former masters and go into the business of upward mobility. From New Orleans to New York, men and women of mixed blood insistently established their primacy.
 
I’ve fallen into a mocking tone that feels prematurely disloyal.

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Margo Jefferson
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Jefferson, Margo
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Margo Jefferson
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