As a Pulitzer Prize winning book and theatre critic, Margo Jefferson is well used to writing on the arts, but has also become known for her political writings. In this, a memoir of growing up in a successful black family in Chicago, she has turned her critical eye on her own family, examining the community she refers to as Negroland: ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.’
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.
Born in 1947, Jefferson grew up at time when segregation was still enforced. It seems ridiculous now, but in 1944 when her father was in the army, they had to build duplicate facilities – even having two hospitals, one for whites and another for blacks. In 1956, the last stop on their summer trip is brought to a premature conclusion when the family found themselves moved to a shabby room in an Atlantic City hotel, the clerk claiming that their reservation has been lost. Stories like these are not new but are always worth revisiting, and we sometimes seem to not have moved so far forward as we would like to think (see race issues in the UK since the recent Brexit vote, the continued need for #blacklivesmatter, the shock of realising that racism is still alive and well, not eradicated but only hidden away until it receives licence to rear its head once more).
I am always fascinated by the idea of ‘passing’, a concept that seems very American to me, light-skinned blacks making their way through life as whites in order to take advantage of the easier life and greater privileges that brings. Families are split as siblings disagree on whether to spend their lives as white or black, visiting each other under cover of darkness in order to maintain their chosen identity in front of the neighbours. Children are shocked by death bed confessions; discovering that their white identity is not quite the simple truth they had thought. When Margo’s Uncle Lucious retires, he gives up his working white man persona and returns to the black community, only for Margo’s parents to look down on him. Not because he’d passed, but because he’d risen no higher than traveling salesman. If you were going to take the trouble to be white, you were supposed to do better than you could have done as a Negro.
When her parents decide to send their two daughters to a first-rate private school, they only have two options open to them. Integration meant a small number of bourgeois blacks amid bourgeois whites who’d decided their presence was acceptable. Margo’s experiences as one of only a few black children amongst many white children are eerily similar to my own, even with a gap of thirty or so years, and the expanse of an ocean. Casually racist comments (without the intention, can one get angry at these?) such as a song lyric in ‘Swanee River’ that refers to ‘darkies’, where another teacher had changed the word to ‘lordy’.Not being cast in certain roles for the school play (revenge is earned years later when that drama teacher rings Margo, now a published writer and critic, leaving a message on her answering machine which she ignores).
And then onto adulthood in Negroland, above average death rates, the double struggle of the black woman who faces not only racial but gender prejudice. The memoir takes a dark turn, revealing the extent of Jefferson’s own suicidal thoughts. A folder filled with drafts of suicide notes; realising that the literary and romantic notion of the oven (a la Sylvia Plath) is actually too awkward due to the height of the door; wanting to set an example for other Negroland girls who suffered the same way.
I am of the opinion that a memoir should be bold in order to be worth reading. This is a book that, although specific to the life of the upper class black community, has important lessons for us all. It is an honest and critical examination of that section of black society which, by striving to be accepted, has in its turn been forced to look down on those blacks who are less fortunate. Race is a complex issue but Jefferson has managed to relate a personal story which rings true and provokes thought.