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.”