Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
Negroland by Margo Jefferson expands the America and its history I know with insight into a realm I know nothing about - Negroland, a modern history of the black bourgeois. It introduces this demographic of successful, upper-middle-class black people in America - for Jefferson, in Chicago - who embodied the 'separate but equal' black elite. "Here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex and American culture told through the prism of the author's rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned with distancing itself from whites and the black majority while tirelessly measuring itself against both."
Situating herself in her past and its history, she sheds light on her upbringing through brief history lessons of extraordinary men and women who rose to power, exploring how some chose to 'become white' and others worked hard to carve out a 'polished' blackness. Jefferson, in many ways, finds herself caught between a girl's adoration of Audrey Hepburn and Thurgood Marshall, Vogue and Ebony. As a child, Jefferson loves Little Women, and takes pride in being the singled out black girl in her class, her summer camp and her cheerleading squad. She is well-liked and popular, but somehow also distanced and detached, without a best friend or boyfriend. She considers herself black, with African, Irish, English and Indian descent.
It is the story of how one comes into a cultural, social, economic, sexual and racial identity, and how complicated a process this is, when your friends in and outside of school are different, when your neighborhoods goes from predominantly white to predominantly black, and when you are taught a different history at school and at home. As Jefferson grows independent of her family, issues around black rights, gay rights and women's rights come to the fore, and Jefferson once again finds herself torn between identities and contradictions - "black rights (dominated by men) and women's rights (dominated by whites)."
In life and in drama, Jefferson performs through all of these competing norms and identities, becoming someone who no longer feels the need to fulfill these social expectations as an adult. Without a husband and without children, Jefferson finds her love in theater, writing and friendships.
This book allows you to surf on her thoughts as they jump across people and history. There were so many pointed, ah-ha moments amidst, for me, many moments of confusion. Names and histories I did not know. Race and class dynamics I never faced. This is the beauty of memoir, and I am grateful to Jefferson for introducing me to Negroland, a time and place I would never know if not for her.