Monthly Archives: April 2016

Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson

Negroland

Margo Jefferson’s book Negroland is mostly a memoir in terms of content, but with a fair bit of cultural history as well. This is true especially at the beginning as she gives a brief history of the African-American elite. “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty” Jefferson writes. “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.”

Structurally, Negroland is more like a collection of essays. There’s sometimes not much connection between one chapter and the next. I feel like my expectations would have been managed better if it had been labeled as a book of essays, but I’m guessing memoirs are more marketable than essays?

Jefferson, now in her late sixties, pinpoints truths about her childhood and environment with great clarity. At one point in the book, she recounts two memories. In the first, her mother overhears Margo singing a song learned at school with the word “darkies” in it. In the second, her grandmother sees Margo learning a game from a white neighbor girl where they make monkey-like gestures while saying “I’se from the jungle.” In both cases the mother and grandmother stop Margo and explain to her what is wrong with the song/game. Jefferson writes:

These memories are as much about being humiliated by adult knowledge as about race prejudice. My mother and grandmother exposed errors I’d made. I felt humiliated in front of them . . . It’s so easy for a child to feel all wrong in the eyes of adults. And when you have no idea that what you were doing is wrong . . . I hated being caught unawares. It was so dangerous, so shameful not to know what I needed to know . . . There are so many ways to be ambushed by insult and humiliation.

In Negroland, Jefferson describes the pressures and rules of living among the African-American elite, where one is expected to be twice-as-good as whites to succeed. “My enemies took too much. My loved ones asked too much. Let me say with care that the blame is not symmetrical: my enemies forced my loved ones to ask too much of me.”

Another reason I enjoyed Margo Jefferson’s book was her reflection on being a woman who never married. It’s not a big part of Negroland and I’d love to read more of her thoughts on that topic. Ever since reading Briallen Hopper’s brilliant critique/counterpoint of Kate Bolick’s Spinster, I’ve been keeping a look out for inspiring women who never married. I thought this observation by Jefferson was well put:

Because really, whatever your race or ethnicity, you knew that if your girl skills weren’t up to par, your intelligence/education/talent would become a liability – proof that your proportions were off, that you were excessive or insufficient.

Another aspect of Negroland that I enjoyed was Jefferson’s descriptions of her family watching and commenting on black performers like Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr, and Dorothy Dandridge as they appeared on mainstream television like the Ed Sullivan Show. This got me looking up Dorothy Dandridge on Youtube, and I’ve shared one of the videos below. (Also check out Dandridge’s Cow Cow Boogie video. She is super cute in it.)

Jefferson also got me to look up Eartha Kitt’s “Monotonous” – a “fancifully, outrageously jaded” song Jefferson adored as a child, which I’ve also included below.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Negroland and hope to read more / hear more from Margo Jefferson in the future.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Courtney H. on Goodreads: “The book is intensely personal at times, but she also is a dispassionate chronicler, holding her readers at an arm’s length. I read this book in my book club, and someone mentioned that Jefferson essentially was carrying out an anthropological study of a specific culture–an upper class Black community in Chicago (accompanied by a review of powerful and/or wealthy Black Americans) using herself almost as a case study. And that struck me as an accurate assessment of her approach.”

Pedro Cabiya on Goodreads: “Margo hits the mark plenty of times, but it gets buried under the dizzying whirlwind of her memories, and not all of them make for an engaging read. Wisdom and insights come unannounced in little snippets and capsules.”

Reading in Color – “I understand complaints that the narrative is disjointed but Jefferson always manages to bring her tangents back to the main point. It is not simply random ramblings the author indulges in, each seemingly random thought serves a purpose that connects to the central theme of the chapter/passage.”

 

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Spoonhandle by Ruth Moore (Reading New England: Maine)

Spoonhandle Moore

1946. Reprinted by Blackberry Books. Paperback. 377 pages.

Review:

For a short time in my childhood, my family lived practically down the road from Ruth Moore in Bass Harbor, Maine, though I don’t think I ever met her. Later, living in a different Maine town, the public library had many of Ruth Moore’s books, and I have a faint memory of reading a couple of her books as a teenager.

I picked up Spoonhandle at Sherman’s bookstore in Bar Harbor, Maine last summer, determined to get reacquainted. I decided to read it now as part of the Reading New England challenge hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review.

I assume other readers nourish the secret hope of coming across a neglected classic and becoming its champion to all who will listen. Well, I finished Spoonhandle this morning, and that seems to be what has happened here.

Spoonhandle is set in a small Maine island community during the mid-1930’s. The Stilwells are one of the central families on Big Spoon Island. Pete Stilwell owns the main grocery store but hopes to transform the island into a haven for “summer people”. A wealthy business owner has set his mind on purchasing Little Spoon Island, owned by Pete’s brother, Willie Stilwell. Flying in the face of Pete’s ambitions, Willie refuses to sell his land at any price. Throughout the novel, members of the community consider the price of transformation. Do they live independently, but in a hand-to-mouth existence? Or do they sell their land and take up better-paying jobs serving wealthy summer people?

In addition to this overarching story of the community, there is also a plotline about a boy in foster care looking to belong, and there is also a very nicely done romantic storyline between another Stilwell brother, Hod, and Ann Freeman, a young writer who has returned to the island after living in New York City.

In some ways, Moore’s writing reminds me of Anthony Trollope. Not exactly in style, but in her insights of human nature, and her handling of the complexities of human interaction. And like Trollope, she tucks her social critique into some good storytelling. (Unlike Trollope, however, she does not break the fourth wall or insert authorial asides.)

In Moore’s descriptions of Maine, however, I would link her more closely to Sarah Orne Jewett, another Maine-based author who wrote The Country of Pointed Firs in 1896. There is a fantastic set-piece at the end of Part I, where Willie and Hod Stilwell are out in their boat with the foster kid, Donny Mitchell, and they catch a large halibut.

Moore does not sentimentalize Maine coastal life. I was pleasantly surprised by her direct address of sexism and racism. Here is an excerpt taken from after Ann Freeman has had a brief interaction with Pete Stilwell:

Fog made a blurry outline of Pete’s store, as she passed it, and of the white, clapboarded house and barn belonging to Sam Grant, her father’s next-door neighbor. Under her feet, the road was sloppy with half-frozen mud and puddles.

I sure picked an attractive day to arrive home, she thought.

The fat man, with his cool, expert meddling in Hod’s affairs, the neat way in which, with three words, he had turned her into a silly interfering female, had made her angry – but something else, too. It had been a long time since she had encountered indifferent disregard of herself as a thinking human being, so long that she had almost forgotten how it felt.

I’d better begin to remember it, though, she said to herself wryly. I don’t expect pa’s changed much.

I found out online that Ruth Moore had worked for the NAACP for four years in the late 1920’s, a biographical detail that correlates with the socially aware undercurrent in her novel.

Ruth Moore apparently bristled at being called a “regional writer”; during the time of her career that was a term which had the effect of diminishing accomplishment and downplaying the universal themes present in her work. Indeed, Spoonhandle is dedicated “To Any American Town”. At the same time, she does do such a good job in capturing Maine and its people. So if you love Maine, that is an extra charm of the novel, but by no means do you need to be familiar with Maine to enjoy Spoonhandle.

After finishing the book, I came across a wonderful online essay by Jennifer Craig Pixley about Ruth Moore and her work, written in 1997. In it she writes:

What sets Moore apart from her contemporaries is her particular blend of humor, fury, and sorrow. Moore’s fiction and ballads reveal her comedic talents, but most readers understand that the other side of comedy is tragedy. Moore allows her readers to laugh, if only to keep our hearts from breaking at the spectacle of the human condition.

I hope that I’ve managed to intrigue some readers in Ruth Moore and in Spoonhandle in particular. It was a very satisfying read, and I hope to explore more of Moore’s work in the future.

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