Rating: 5 stars
I can’t remember where I found out about Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland. I thought I’d read a review on one of the book blogs I follow, but a search threw nothing up. Maybe I found it when I was searching for more to read about black experience in a white-dominated society. Maybe I saw it on someone’s Instagram. However it crossed my radar, I’m glad it did.
The name Negroland is one that Jefferson has coined for the sub-section of African-American society that has sought and enjoyed a level of privilege and plenty that few other African-Americans get to enjoy. It’s a place where natural exuberance and pride in the actual culture and history of being black is pushed down and replaced by quiet pride in fitting in with the white way of life and thwarting white expectations of black behaviour. It’s a place where civilised behaviour and academic achievement are the means of achieving a settled and well-remunerated life.
Jefferson is a journalist and academic. I don’t know any of her other writing, but I really enjoyed her style in this book. The structure is free flowing. There aren’t any chapters. Jefferson goes where she needs to when she needs to, mixing her personal experience of growing up in Chicago’s Negroland with the history of how the inhabitants of Negroland got there. Her telling of Black American history is engagingly personal. She is very droll in her assessments, expressing a dry amusement at the messed up community she comes from. She’s also angry about her history, about being in between, about being made to behave the way black people in Negroland think will make white people more accepting of them, about knowing that white people still see them as other.
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. White people who, like us, had manners, money, and education … But wait: “Like us” is presumptuous for the 1950s. Liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice … Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege … We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.
I watched the film Get Out while I was reading this book. I don’t want to give plot points away, but the way in which the black characters behave feeds into this narrative. I also read an article about the singer Alexandra Burke and how, just because she’s a woman, she’s criticised as being arrogant when in fact she’s being confident. The article fails to mention that Burke is also the thing that threatens the white psyche the most, a black woman. She doubly doesn’t know her place. Sixty years on from the period Jefferson is writing about, not enough has changed.
Jefferson was a curious child. She asked her mother all manner of questions, prompted by questions that white children of her acquaintance asked her, questions about who and what she was that she hadn’t had cause to think about before. Sometimes her mother brushed her off, other times she was angrily honest about the racism being shown. Jefferson talks about the bitter knowledge of the world that parents carry and worry about revealing to their children, whether they should and when they should.
It’s another insight into how differently black people experience the world I live in, and how I can never understand what it feels like to not be white. I can only keep myself open to the knowledge that my culture is not one size fits all and try not to contribute to the othering of people of colour.
One story that I found particularly grim stemmed from the time Jefferson’s parents moved from the African-American district of Bronzeville to the then white district of Park Manor. Gradually the white residents move out. Jefferson asks her mother a question.
“Mother, were there ever white families on our block?” I ask twenty years later.
“Oh yes, my child, they were there. There was one right next door before the Hulls came. They had two children. About your age. And they encouraged them to have as little as possible to do with you girls.”
Jefferson then recounts a story from her mother’s memory as though it didn’t happen to her family. I guess distancing herself from it makes it less painful. Her mother had put her two daughters down for an afternoon nap. She sat down to drink coffee and look out at the garden. The children next door walked into the garden to play on the swings there. Mrs Jefferson went outside to tell them that her children weren’t available to play, so the girls should go home. They did, but they also came back for the next two weeks as though she had said nothing to them.
No violence takes place. No harsh words are exchanged. And yet the sense of entitlement that radiates from the white children’s behaviour, the fact that they didn’t think they needed to ask to play in someone else’s garden, has a violence around it. It’s a slap. It’s a declaration from the white parents to their black neighbours delivered by their children that black people don’t have rights. It’s a weaponising and conditioning of children to instill belief in the superiority of white flesh over black. It’s all kinds of ugly.
When Jefferson describes her first encounter with a poem called The Congo by a poet called Vachel Lindsay, I had to look him up, never having heard of him. His biography on The Poetry Foundation site makes no comment on the clear racism of The Congo, celebrating its rhythmic structure that was apparently (allegedly?) based on African-American speech rhythms. Then comes this description, also offered up with no comment on its inherent racism.
Throughout his career Lindsay was known for reciting his poetry with great theatricality. Referring to his performances as “the higher vaudeville,” he supplemented his recitations with sound effects such as tambourines and whistles and sometimes appeared in blackface to recite “The Congo.”
Jesus. Jefferson says this about her relationship with that particular poem.
I was eleven. And if pornography lures as it appalls, offers you a debased vision of yourself that some part of you yields to, then “The Congo” was my first pornography.
Imagine growing up, sheltered by your parents from the worst of racism outside your community, and then aged eleven you encounter such a poem, included in an anthology of modern American poetry. How must that scar you?
Resentment of that sheltering underpins the memoir. Resentment that some African-Americans pushed a way of living that seemed to promise equality but that ended up in no-man’s-land. The community in which Jefferson grew up was doubly rejected. Not the right skin colour to be accepted as equals by whites. Traitors to their heritage in the eyes of African-Americans who hadn’t had the same chances or privileges.
The entitlements of Negroland were no longer relevant.
We were not the best that had been known and thought in black life and history. We were a corruption of The Race, a wrongful deviation. We’d let ourselves become tools of oppression in the black community. We’d settled for a desiccated white facsimile and abandoned a vital black culture. Striving to prove we could master the rubric of white civilization that had never for a moment thought us the best of anything in their life or history.
As society changed, and attitudes to African-Americans marginally improved, Jefferson’s generation rejected the niceness of Negroland. The 1960s were the era of Black Civil Rights. The 1970s and 1980s were the era of Feminism. Marginalised groups were learning that the old ways were not the best way to effect change. Jefferson relates how she built herself as a person, accepting that the trinity of race, gender and class are intertwined and matter equally.
Civil rights. The New Left. Black Power. Feminism. Gay rights. To be remade so many times in one generation is surely a blessing.
She ends positively, with an acceptance that we are all flawed, all the products of our upbringings and of our choices in assimilating those upbringings into our adult selves. So what? she asks. All we can do is go on.
I loved this book so much. I want to read it again, but it has to go back to the library. Maybe I’ll buy it as a pair with Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book.