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Negroland : a memoir

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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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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.

Author Notes

Margo Jefferson was a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. She won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Her writing has appeared in several publications including Vogue, New York magazine, and The New Republic. Her books include On Michael Jackson and Negroland: A Memior. She is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Jefferson (On Michael Jackson), a former book and theater critic for the New York Times and Newsweek, writes about growing up in mid-20th-century Chicago as well as in "a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty" in this eloquent and enlightening memoir. Jefferson describes how her peers thought of themselves as "the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians." Jefferson's father was a pediatrician at Provident, the nation's oldest black hospital, and her mother was a social worker turned socialite. With her family's privilege came many perks: attendance at the private, progressive, mostly white University of Chicago Laboratory School; summer camps; drama performances; an impeccable wardrobe; and membership in national black civic organizations such as Jack and Jill of America and the Co-Ettes Club. Yet much was expected; for Jefferson's generation, she says, the motto was "Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment." In the late 1970s, though established in a successful journalism career, Jefferson contemplated suicide to escape the continued weight of these expectations. Black women, she writes, had been "denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity." Perceptive, specific, and powerful, Jefferson's work balances themes of race, class, entitlement, and privilege with her own social and cultural awakening. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Born into an upper-class black family in Chicago, Jefferson came of age in the 1960s at a time when just beneath the surface of the civil rights movement, blacks were struggling with class frictions that complicated the ideals of racial unity. Her accomplished and aspiring parents and their friends sometimes thought of themselves as the Third Race, neither black nor white. Her father was a doctor, and her mother a proud stay-at-home mom. They were the strivers and achievers who longed to be judged by their merits, resentful of the racial identification they could not avoid. Jefferson recalls family members who passed, glorious social gatherings with elite entertainers whose fame didn't shield them from racial slights, and the comfort so many took in the embrace of people of their own race and class. Her parents fought the good fight to be treated with respect and equality and looked for any signs of backwardness they might need to root out of their daughters, who were alternately fascinated and repelled by the very cultural signifiers their parents feared. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jefferson draws on cultural touchstones, from Ebony to James Baldwin to Ntozake Shange, as she traces her life during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when radical race consciousness and feminism questioned all of the old assumptions. This is a beautifully written memoir of growing up in the black elite with its distinctive challenges of race and class.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2015 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

THE PHRASE "Black Lives Matter," which emerged as a rallying cry during a year of frequent deadly showdowns between police officers and unarmed black citizens, has almost always been pointed at whites. It's a way of saying, Stop discounting us. Stop mowing us down with your hatred, fear and disregard. But "Black Lives Matter" might just as easily have been the mantra of America's black elite who, as far back as before the abolition of slavery, sought to establish themselves in communities characterized by privilege and extreme class consciousness. Of course for them, the phrase would have been transmitted insularly, from one to another, as a reminder of how much was riding upon their success at not merely performing gentility but also believing in the inviolable dignity that gentility has always been thought to confer. Why? Because believing a thing like that will make you less susceptible to everything America has concocted to turn you right back into chattel. In her new memoir, Margo Jefferson, a former critic at The New York Times, chronicles a lifetime as a member of Chicago's black elite, a world she celebrates and problematizes by christening it (and her book) Negroland. "Negroland," she writes, "is my name for 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. 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." That warning - that manner of instilling in children the understanding that with privilege comes responsibility - strikes me as the true impetus for Jefferson's book. For once we become accustomed to delicious glimpses of Negroland's impeccable manners and outfits, the meticulously orchestrated social opportunities and fastidiously maintained hairstyles, what we begin to notice is the cost and weight of this heavy collective burden. Jefferson's memoir pushes against the boundaries of its own genre. Yes, it begins with a scene from the author's childhood. And yes, we learn about Jefferson's older sister, Denise, and their parents: a father who was the longtime head of pediatrics at Provident, once the nation's oldest black hospital; and a mother who was an impeccably dressed socialite. But it quickly swerves into social history; a good 30 pages of the book's opening are dedicated to defining and chronicling the rise of America's black upper class. Such unwillingness to abide by the conventions of genre also informs Jefferson's approach to herself as the vehicle of her story. She remains conscious, possibly even suspicious, of the two roles she has signed on to play: character in and curator of these many poignant memories. At times, this self-consciousness urges Jefferson to announce to the reader when and why a passage's train of thought or tactical approach will abruptly change: "I'm going to change my tone now. I think it's too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself" or "Let's look at this from a third-person perspective. It will impose, or at least suggest, more intellectual and emotional control." But these willful shifts that advertise their own motives are effective because they beg to be read as a corrective to a lifetime of enforced and internalized decorum. "Keep a close watch," Jefferson advises the reader. For what? For all the signs that underscore the difference between privilege - which is provisional and "can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn" - and its white counterpart: entitlement. Privilege is what the blacks in Negroland earned and fought to maintain. Privilege is a far cry from entitlement, which has the luxury of being "impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege." Entitlement is what sent two little white neighbor girls over to the Jeffersons' swing set every afternoon while Margo and Denise were napping (the white girls would never have set foot in the yard while the sisters were awake). Privilege is what informed Mrs. Jefferson's gentle request for the visits to cease: "'Girls,' she said calmly but firmly, 'Margo and Denise are taking their naps. They won't be down to play, so you can go home.'" Eventually the little white girls stopped trespassing, but Jefferson's mother still harbors shame, more than 60 years later, at having been too intimidated to confront their mother. I'll put that another way: The visible narrative apparatus of "Negroland" highlights its author's extreme vulnerability in the face of her material. It also makes apparent the all-too-often invisible fallout of our nation's ongoing obsession with race and class: Namely, that living a life as an exemplar of black excellence - and living with the survivor's guilt that often accompanies such excellence - can have a psychic effect nearly as deadening and dehumanizing as that of racial injustice itself. By the time we arrive at the memoir's most deeply honest and troubling passages, where suicide becomes a preoccupation of the author's early adulthood and an alarming fixture of the community she has been tracking, we have also come to understand how so much psychic trauma can run through a life where so little seems to be out of place. That's a brave claim to make in 2015, where every week it seems someone without the comforts and cushions of an upbringing like Jefferson's is being shot dead. And yet, doesn't such frankness expand our sense of what black life is, of what we've made it into? Jefferson's candor, and the courage and rigor of her critic's mind, recall a number of America's greatest thinkers on race, many of whom she directly references, refines and grapples with: James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier. Jefferson also invites women to the round table: Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, Ntozake Shange, Jamaica Kincaid - and voices outside that established canon, like the contemporary poet and essayist Wendy S. Walters; and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, whose 1941 etiquette handbook, "The Correct Thing to Do - to Say - to Wear," offered blacks a counternarrative to the one that said "perfect mastery of comportment's rituals ... like higher education, or high art, it is beyond your capacities." How can a book so slim take on such mammoth considerations and manage them with such efficacy? Perhaps because we gain entry via one girl and, later, the woman she becomes. Perhaps because no matter how conscious Jefferson makes us of societal circumstances, what drives "Negroland" is an abiding commitment to the primacy of the individual. There are drawbacks to this approach. The only character we ever truly get to know is Jefferson herself (and even then only in glimpses and asides and confessions) ; everyone else is thin, airy, illustrative, anecdotal. By such an emphasis on the self and its self-consciousness, Jefferson is not so much inviting a reader into her world as into its consequences. But what we gain from such a choice is revelatory: recognition of the nuance, fragmentation and fragility of a single black life begging to be considered on its own terms and in its own voice. Aren't all of us, no matter who we are, living for the rare moments when we can forget about the collective we belong to and just be? And what does it mean that, for everyone who can't lay claim to uncontested entitlement, the opportunities for just being are discouragingly few? Close to the end of the book, Jefferson asks, "How do you adapt your singular, willful self to so much history and myth? So much glory, banality, honor and betrayal?" It's the kind of question that can reanimate a phrase like "Black Lives Matter," which may be well on its way to having run its course. It's a question not just for blacks or whites, but for the ages. TRACY K. SMITH'S books include the memoir "Ordinary Light" and the poetry collection "Life on Mars," winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

Guardian Review

A captivating memoir on the distinction between white and black privilege and how the black power movement brought on a crisis for the author Have you been to or, for that matter, even heard of "Negroland"? Here's a clue. It's not Harlem or Chicago's South Side or any conurbation of black Americans. As Margo Jefferson illuminates in her captivating memoir, Negroland is not so much a geographic location as a state of mind; an exclusive club without discernible borders, to which few have ever belonged. Over the years, its members have been characterised by descriptions ranging from "the coloured 400" (families) to "the blue vein society". If you have to ask how you gain entry to Negroland, you've already betrayed your lack of credentials. It's a society composed of a "better class" of Negro, though such people's judgment is not always sound. In one of Jefferson's many startling passages she reveals that, at the height of the Atlantic slave trade, the nation's slave owners included free black members of the elite, such as Nicolas Augustin Metoyer of Louisiana and his family, who collectively owned 215 slaves. Back then, polished and fragrant members of Negroland breathed in the rarefied air of privilege and held their noses at the passing by of any johnny-come-lately, just as Britain's "old money" class did at the advent of the codfish aristocracy. "Negroland" is a very familiar world to Jefferson, a theatre critic for the New York Times, who grew up in the 1950s as the daughter of a not very rich but comfortable Chicago paediatrician and his fashionable socialite wife, who had "plucked, deep-toned eyebrows". They are a family her mother describes as "upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans". Riffing on that distinction, Jefferson neatly points to the gulf between black and white elites: the latter have an unassailable sense of entitlement; the former have to make do with a sense of privilege that is provisional -- one that can be withheld or withdrawn. This realisation came crashing down on the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates when he was arrested for breaking into his own home in 2009. All of this might sound like a "first world problem". But one of the challenges of Jefferson's memoir is to remind us -- if such a reminder is needed in the era of Black Lives Matter -- just how far we are from the utopia of a post-racial America, or a post-racial UK for that matter. In so doing, it echoes William Faulkner's assertion: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Early on in the book, Jefferson sets out to deal with the word "Negro", a term that today causes many to shudder (witness its recent deletion from the title of the 17th-century painting The Negro Page by nervous royal aides at Kensington Palace ahead of Barack Obama 's visit). Jefferson is refreshingly sanguine about the word, and uses it liberally throughout her book. She confides that she is attached to it "because 'Negro' dominated our culture for so long; because I lived with its meaning and intimation for so long". As its title suggests, this is a bold and defiant work that enumerates the credits and deficits of black life; Jefferson's reflections are leavened by a sharp wit and a literary rolling of the eyes when dissecting the nuances of prejudice. She has a particularly wry take on the sober obligations of being black, hating it when she wants to have fun but "race singles me out for special chores and duties"; and a fine eye for the limits of black privilege. In the world of classical ballet, for instance, black dancers are often considered not quite right, their bodies more suited to folklore dance which is "driven more by biology than by art". The black body threatens always to bring shame and dread to its owner. The young Jefferson was desperate for signs that didn't fully mark her down as a Negro, and is grateful that though her nostrils flare, "they do not flare in a way an unsympathetic observer could fixate on". Jefferson conjures a rich, sepia-coloured past where people are fixated on colour; where a film star such as Dorothy Dandridge is pitied for her obsession with converting a white lover into a husband; and where Eartha Kitt, admired as a touchstone of "cheeky glamour" with an "impossibly suave accent", by spurning the "soigne segregation of upper-crust parties", earns the headline in the pre-eminent magazine for the black middle class, Ebony: "Why Negroes don't like Eartha Kitt". It's a sign of Jefferson's age (she focuses on her 1950s generation) and a mark of her light touch that, throughout, the word "Negro" is used graciously as if it were a butterfly emerging from the cultured mouth of Ralph Ellison or Martin Luther King. Her bitterness about the opportunities from which black people have been, and still are, disbarred by colour never spills over into the kind of dark thoughts of revenge articulated by her contemporary John Edgar Wideman. In his memoir, Fatheralong, Wideman describes seeing a benign elderly white professor precariously balanced at the top of a book ladder; he has a flash of hatred at the thought that his own intelligent father (the professor's age) has been denied such a privileged life, and wishes the blameless professor would fall from the ladder and break his neck. Jefferson largely eschews fury but charts other shades of resentment -- showing, for example, that working-class black Americans can better deal with white privilege than with black. She revisits the toxic "pigmentocracy" conflict in the 1920s between the black classes as epitomised by Marcus Garvey, the head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his enemy, WEB Du Bois. Unashamedly elitist, Du Bois's rival National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proposed that a "talented 10th" of African Americans (fair-skinned and tertiary-educated) would be the avant garde and would integrate into mainstream America, eventually pulling the rest of their forsaken brethren along with them. Du Bois called the working-class, self-educated Garvey a pretentious, overbearing buffoon; Garvey in turn lashed out at Du Bois as a self-loathing Negro, who wanted nothing more than to cosy up to white people. Their rancorous dispute seems to have been a rehearsal for the class struggles ushered in by the 1960s black power movement -- a time when an unhappy Jefferson recalls her wealthy peers sought to align themselves with darker, coarser-haired revolutionaries. Some wavy-haired elites even took to wearing Afro wigs. The moment marked a crisis of identity for Jefferson -- in terms of race, class and gender. By the 1970s the clash between black power (perceived as a black male issue) and feminism (deemed to be the concern of white women) exposed what Jefferson saw as her privileged shortcomings. She was in despair, and confesses: "I began actively to cultivate a desire to kill myself." Such thoughts were a libel on her upbringing. As Beyonce has shown in Lemonade, black women's default position was always one of strength and uncomplaining endurance; of converting lemons into lemonade. Self-pity forms no part of Jefferson's writing palette. Her memoir doesn't linger on grief: it's mostly breezy and conversational, and every so often she breaks off to address the reader conspiratorially, like the protagonist in a film speaking directly to the camera. It serves the book well, for much of Negroland has the experimental and experiential quality of jazz -- albeit the formal variety found in the concert hall rather than the freestyle, down and dirty jamming of the backstreet club. Charm is this book's watchword. And by the end, it ably demonstrates that many black people have grown tired of the constant requirement to frame their lives through race, yearning for those unexpected, luxurious moments of relief that Jefferson's mother expressed succinctly: "Sometimes I almost forget I'm a Negro." * Colin Grant's memoir Bageye at the Wheel is published by Vintage. To order Negroland for [pound]10.39 (RRP [pound]12.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over [pound]10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of [pound]1.99. - Colin Grant.

Kirkus Review

From a Pulitzer Prize-winning theater and book critic, a memoir about being raised in upper-class black Chicago, where families worked tirelessly to distance themselves as much from lower-class black people as from white people. Born in 1947, Jefferson (On Michael Jackson, 2006) has lived through an era that has seen radical shifts in the way black people are viewed and treated in the United States. The civil rights movement, shifting viewpoints on affirmative action, and the election of the first black president, with all the promise and peril it held: the author has borne witness to changes that her parents could only have dreamed about. Jefferson was born in a small part of Chicago where a "black elite" lived, to a father who was the head of pediatrics at Provident, the country's oldest black hospital, and a socialite mother. The author describes a segment of the population intent on simultaneously distinguishing itself from both white people and lower-class black people and drawing from both groups to forge its own identity. She writes about being raised in a mindset that demanded the best from her and her family, while she also experienced resentment regarding the relative lack of recognition for the achievements they had earned. Jefferson tells a story of her parents seeing Sammy Davis Jr. on stage, early in his career, when he hadn't yet established himself enough to completely let his own unique style shine through. Her parents could see the change coming, thoughthe self-assuredness in his performanceand they saw that as emblematic of their own rise. Jefferson swings the narrative back and forth through her life, exploring the tides of racism, opportunity, and dignity while also provocatively exploring the inherent contradictions for Jefferson and her family members in working so tirelessly to differentiate themselves. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jefferson relates her upbringing among America's black elite. (LJ 9/15/15) © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



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. Excerpted from Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.