"At once incendiary and icy, mischievous, and provocative, celebratory and elegiac, a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture through the prism of the author's rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned to distance itself from whites and the black generality, while tirelessly measuring itself against both. Born in 1947 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 post-racial America-- Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heart-wrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance. (With 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)"--
The last couple of chapters - Jefferson's life post-college, and transition to adulthood - I found less persuasive. It may be that I lacked some emotional prerequisite to understand this part, but I suspect it's more than Jefferson herself became less certain, less willing publicly to dissect her failings and triumphs, as she reached a time in her life that remains more fully a part of her current self. It's also likely the case that whatever those triumphs and failures are, they reflect her own moral choices more and her inherited social identity less, and in that sense are less relevant to the focus of the book. All in all, though, as a social and personal history of her childhood, the book is a revelation.
Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, Good Negro Girls mastered the rigorous vocabulary of femininity. Gloves, handkerchiefs, pocketbooks for each occasion. Good diction for all occasions; skin care (no ashy knees or elbows); hair cultivation (a ceaseless round of treatments to eradicate the bushy and the nappy). Manners to please grandparents and quell the doubts of any white strangers loitering to observe your behavior in schools, stores, and restaurants."
Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 to upper middle class African American parents. Living near (and later in) the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, Margo and her sister Denise had access to education, lessons, and social promotion. Her memoir examines the cost associated with living in this segment of society, knowing that her deportment reflected on far more than her family (though certainly that) and that the intersection of race and class provided for a dizzyingly complex social terrain in which to come of age.
Despite a bit of choppiness in the early going, this memoir is poignant and insightful. Jefferson's shifting sense of self in context as the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements of the late 1960s and 1970s is particularly evocative. She authentically shares her struggles with belonging, boys, thoughts of suicide, and finding her place as a writer and cultural critic. Definitely recommended.
Negroland discusses the black experience and the effects of racism from a world where it was more subtle. The mothers who are overly formal with her mother, the homes where she isn't invited for playdates, the attention paid to skin tones and hair textures and the constant need to prove themselves worthy of living in a white world by being better by orders of magnitude than her peers. Jefferson has the same experiences every other girl has; self-consciousness about wearing glasses, crushes on cute boys, having a best friend. She writes with great honesty about her failings and the dreams she had.
Jefferson writes with an admirable clarity and complexity about the world she grew up in and about her adult life. That this book was so easy to read in no way dilutes the story she tells.
The first thing this book does is to look at how people lived in a narrow subset of American society at a particular time: the black upper middle class in the 1950's and 1960's. Perhaps a particular place should be added - Chicago - but what's most clearly drawn are class and race differences. These people were top layer of an ethnic group that was at the low end of the American social scale, and held on to that positions with an extraordinary amount of discipline. It was far more "comfortable" to grow up as Margo Jefferson than as most other African American children in the period, but it was not necessarily any easier. She shows this in a multitude of ways, some very funny, some heart-breaking.
The next thing that happens, of course, is that time moves on, throwing Ms. Jefferson into the racial and gender turmoil of the 1960's and 1970's. All of a sudden, her careful, successful "Negroland" background was judged by many of her peers to be inauthentic, adopted, "not black enough". It was difficult enough to be a young white woman in the period, when lots of things you'd be brought up to believe turned out not to be so at all. Being a young black woman, Ms. Jefferson makes clear, was a whole lot harder. Even feminism, which was important to her, would be judged by others on the basis of race.
And through the whole social/political progression runs the memoir of an individual. Race is an inescapable part of that, since race necessarily affects so much that she experiences. But race affects different people in different ways. For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ms. Jefferson both suffered from racism, but they are wildly different people, and write about race in wildly different ways. Ms. Jefferson's book is less dramatic, and less incendiary. For me, however, it was just as compelling an experience of seeing the world through someone else's eyes.
I had read Between the World and Me late last year and was interested in reading another take on growing up black (or African-American, but generally Margo uses the word black) in America. Margo grew up in Chicago, and had a strange sort of in-between feeling - not white, but trying in a way to be "better" than other blacks, to not fall into racial stereotypes and to prove herself. Added to that, she was a woman growing up in a time when getting married and having children was expected. I have found myself drawn to memoirs and stories lately that talk about the world I live in from a different perspective. Margo Jefferson does an excellent job of just that, painting a picture of a time, place and experience with a candid and analytical eye
Margo Jefferson writes about the experiences she encountered throughout her life as a woman of mixed race. Born in 1947, into an educated and successful family living in what she calls Negroland***, she writes about her struggles as a woman of color in a world where race, gender and sexual identification were unsettled struggles. This is not to imply that those issues are settled today, but to merely state that they have come a long way from the time when she was born. I believe that progress has been made.
She writes with a tongue in cheek irony and occasional sarcasm that is captured well by the narrator of the audio. However, there were times when the mocking tone confused me a bit, and I wasn’t sure whether an issue was being defended or denigrated, praised or reviled. She discussed black and white behavior in the same way…, mocking attitudes, calling out the falseness and lack of sincerity on the part of certain people.
When Jefferson wrote about her own background, I was impressed with the opportunities she was able to take advantage of, opportunities that were never afforded to me, and I am of a similar generation. She received the benefits of most children in upwardly mobile, generally white, Anglo-Saxon families. She went to camp, achieved well in school and went to highly acclaimed universities for her advanced education. She was indistinguishable in terms of accomplishments from her white brethren, but in terms of her lifestsyle and fears she was entirely different. She was taught she must behave better, dress better and to do better in all of her endeavors to prove to the white establishment that she was not their equal, but, perhaps, she was even their better. She was taught to conform to predetermined rules of behavior. She was not to dress loudly, look slovenly or have loose morals. She was to do as her family before her had done, rise above the masses and succeed.
However, she had some other ideas. She did not necessarily wish to marry or have children but she did wish to become a successful journalist. Her climb up the ladder was fraught with confusion and conflict in her life. She cites successful authors and entertainers and others in all walks of life that have achieved success although they are people of color and of mixed race and places great emphasis on those of color who have ended their own lives prematurely, in one way or another. She writes of the ways in which they were defiantly successful in thwarting the prejudice they faced citing one instance which stuck with me in particular, and that was of Marian Anderson performing outdoors when she was forbidden access to the stage, for her performance. Still, people of color were often depressed and downtrodden, conflicted even when upwardly mobile and from highly successful families. They were unable to be accepted into society fully. She, too, contemplated death and she extensively analyzes her feelings. Throughout the book she cites a variety of well-known personages and quotes passages from several books to explain her viewpoint.
She describes the black experience in terms of civil rights, women’s rights and class distinction. She reveals the decline of decorum in the black community and seems to blame it on the Viet Nam War with regard to drugs and on a developing ghetto mentality which took hold and surpassed the previously highly held practice of achieving and being upwardly mobile, of dressing properly and behaving morally and ehtically, of behaving with a certain deportment which was respected by all and brought honor rather than shame to the family and the race, albeit sometimes under a cloud of race baiting. Whites might wonder if people of color were as good as they were but people of color were beginning to more and more spout the wisdom of the idea that they were actually better and could simply be themselves! She describes the social change, intellectual change, and general lifestyle changes which ultimately altered their own world view and influenced their behavior and ethical and moral conduct, both positively and negatively.
Her memoir mocks the attitudes of whites toward blacks and blacks toward whites. She exposes all of the behaviors that each find annoying and condescending. She speaks of those, including her own relatives, who passed for white in order to achieve success. She highlights the lives of famous people of color who have achieved success, and she uses them to show how they have influenced her life and thinking.
The memoir is supremely honest. She describes herself, including how she believes she looks, mocks her poor eyesight and difficult to manage hair. She explains her family’s attitude to those of color who were not of their class, those she was told to avoid because of the negative influence they would have upon her. She also describes how she was told not to trust white people because they always harbored racial prejudices. She describes the negligence of the police when neighborhoods were stalked by anti-black acitivists who wreaked havoc and destruction willfully and without any intervention. Crosses were burned on lawns where her parents lived, where those in the community did not want blacks to move. She openly describes all of the insults and humiliation they were forced to endure because of their racial background. Blacks mocked them as well. Those of mixed race did not fit in, those of different degrees of color did not fit in. Being too dark was a problem as well as being too light. The size and shape of ones lips and nose was a concern as well. Certain body shapes were preferred over others. Having hair that was too frizzy, too curly, or too unmanageable was a problem, as well, and they each had to learn to handle their own particular perceived deficiency.
Jefferson does not seem to glorify or denigrate the black experience, but instead, she writes about it with sincerity, mocking her own experiences and the experiences of the whites she encountered, remarking that whites wanted just as much to be white as blacks, and they also often failed in that effort. I think Jefferson believes that the effort to be white is not the right lifestyle for those of color. They should want to be proud of who they are and not try to be something or someone else, but she also said, to overcome that need, they decided to prove they were better than those who were not black, actually better, and not equal. She sites examples of those who left the system in order to carry on the lifestyle they chose, like Josephine Baker. However, some who have made an effort to be themselves have had a negative impact on their race.
Her prose is simply flawless, without an inappropriate or wasted word. The vocabulary is a cut above what is found in so many books today. After reading her book, I wondered why it did not receive as much or more acclaim as Te ha-Nisi Coate’s book which is not written nearly as well, but is easier to understand, I must admit, because the language and vocabulary cannot compare to that of hers.
Robinson seems to me to be an erudite woman who simply wants to be allowed to live as she wishes in society, to be accepted as she is, not to have to act or become someone she is not, regardless of her racial background. I believe that in the end, Margo comes to the conclusion that in spite of all she has witnessed in her 70 years, we must all change and grow, continue on and not give up.
I must admit that while I really enjoyed listening to the narrator read this book, often, I didn’t understand the entire message because the author is extremely knowledgeable, and I am afraid, I was not quite up to the task of deciphering all that she wrote. Her articulation was a bit more cerebral than I am, and some of it went over my head. That being said, what I got from it was enlightening. I did download a print copy of the book as well as the audio because although the narrator enunciated beautifully, with exceptional expression, her sarcastic edge sometimes seemed over the top to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was her interpretation of the author’s words, or the actual intent of the author.
***Jefferson writes of her title, “I call it Negroland,” “because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.” “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty,” She writes that “Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.”
At home, Margo has shelves chock full of all the classics (Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island). In the progressive Lab School of the University of Chicago, she encounters Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin and is changed, charged, exhilarated, and disappointed by his scorn of Uncle Tom's Cabin and Little Women.
There's much about her summers at the Interlochen Arts camp and her college years at Brandeis, but disappointingly little about her career at the New York Times and Newsweek. Jefferson seems to be still pondering how to reconcile her childhood privilege, with all its arcane rules, while her family and friends still suffered the slings and arrows of Jim Crow.
"What I would have to do later, starting in college and in the years following, to become a person of inner consequence: break that fawning inner self into pieces."
"I won't trap myself into quantifying which matters more, race, gender, or class. Race, gender, and class are basic elements of one's living. Basic as utensils and clothing; always in use; always needing repairs and updates. So the question isn't "Which matters most", it's "How does each matter?".
"Being an Other, in America, teaches you to imagine what can't imagine you."
The second half lost me a little bit -- it began to feel a little more repetitive and a little more strident. That may have been more because I was tired than anything else.
This book does have some really striking images -- the author's childhood Coke-bottle glasses, for example, and later a scene with two women in a bathroom adjusting their wigs.
Very much worth your time.
Jefferson calls this world "Negroland" and details how she was taught to constantly strive for her mother's and grandmother's view of perection and how she storve to literally rub out traces of too overt blackness with skin lightning creams and elaborate rituals to tame her hair. Yet despite all these efforts, Jefferson began to see that no matter how hard she and her family tried, they were still regarded as black and inferior by the vast majority of white society,
This group of black people would never be participating in "Black Lives Matter" marches, but their experiences explain why that movement is necessary,
Jefferson demonstrates how complex race in America can be. I read this alongside Ta Na-Hesi Coates's Between The World and Me, and the two of them taken together provide a complete (and saddening) picture of different experiences of being black in the US.