Negroland: A Memoir - Margo Jefferson
Negroland (Pantheon, $25) is more of an overlooked boundary line than a place; Margo Jefferson introduces it as “my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” It’s where she grew up, as the daughter of the head of pediatrics at Chicago’s Provident Hospital, and its landmarks were lessons and warnings—don’t show off. Don’t act undignified. Don’t be too white—don’t be too black, but “be the kind of Negroes who can achieve more than most white people.” Even as a four-year-old, Jefferson understood that mistakes “could put you, your parents, and your people at risk.” Later, as a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, Jefferson still walked a fine line: her profession demanded that she uphold high standards, while her race made her vulnerable to judgments as “envious and petty.” Admitting to the despair caused by this constant, self-conscious, balancing act, Jefferson nonetheless banishes grief from her memoir. And in her powerful, passionate narrative, she makes her personal experience part of a larger, ongoing chronicle that starts with the antebellum denizens of—and outcasts from—Negroland, and includes civil rights and several waves of feminism. But more important than this historical sweep, is Jefferson’s account of how she lived it. Here is her meeting with a relative returned from his “ex-Negro” life, and her first befuddlement at racial slippage; her ambivalence about possible models like Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, and Lena Horne. Here are the unexpected—and revealing—questions from white classmates in the progressive school she attended. Jefferson’s chronicle is deeply compelling—as well as profound, troubling, and timely.