Negroland by Margo Jefferson

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Reviewed by Victoria

‘I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about race,’ writes Margot Jefferson, as a refrain repeated several times across the course of her memoir. ‘You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.’

Of course, Jefferson doesn’t really do any such thing, although this distanced way of writing is present throughout Negroland. She talks about herself as if she were a prime example of a scientific subset, which in a way, she is, for Negroland is almost a place on the map where very few people ever got to go. The thing is, Margo Jefferson comes from an unusual strata of the population. She grew up as part of the Negro elite in America (I use the word Negro because she does, readily, willingly as the familiar choice), the ‘top ten percent’, the few who had managed through hard work and perseverence to carve out a decent middle-class life for themselves in America in the 50s and 60s. They were the first of their race to escape slavery and subjugation in favour of education, nice houses, dignity. But the first generation of any great social change – not to mention one that has never truly settled down into invisibility – have their own particular burdens to bear.

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. […] Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confidant yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.

The younger daughter of a doctor and a socialite, Margo grew up alongside her clever older sister, Denise, with a full list of prescriptions. They had to be extremely attentive to personal grooming at all times; their manners were micromanaged; and yet despite all these rules, there was so much social territory that was utterly confusing to negotiate. So many questions they couldn’t ask, so much that was inexplicable about the way they were treated and the way their parents reacted to that treatment. On the surface, they had a good life, welcomed into progressive schools with excellent records and to summer camps that had previously segregated their children. But the unthought known was that they had to be whiter than white in behaviour in order to be merely tolerated. They had to, ‘Banish the specter of being handicapped by race. Twice over: among whites, and among Negroes who found me – let me put it very precisely – socially inept due to an excess of white-derived manners and interests.’

And this Margo Jefferson duly did. Jefferson is now a Pulitzer-prize winning theatre critic, an accomplished woman who surely has nothing to prove to anyone. But the path to achievement is a tortuous one. Margo grew up into a civil rights movement that made all she had learned, all she had disciplined herself to do, look like a downright betrayal of her race. ‘We were a corruption of The Race, a wrongful deviation,’ she writes. ‘We’d settled for a desiccated white facsimile, and abandoned a vital black culture.’

And this goes a long way towards explaining the very distanced tone of this memoir, the active, assertive distancing that is such an unusual voice in a narrative designed to break open into intimacy. But Margo Jefferson has suffered two long stretches of alienation from herself. The first that made her over into a quasi-middle class American free of race, the second that made her feel like she had lost an authenticity that she was told she never wanted. The most heated and personal part of the memoir records her desire for suicide in her early twenties. And even this is something she cannot rightfully own, for the girls of Negroland ‘had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity.’ The black woman must always be strong.

This is a powerful memoir in a paradoxical way, for it distances and engages simultaneously, and it is also a cool and analytical account of a generation that was destined for greatness, truly deserving its pride, but which felt itself to be squeezed between incompatible pressures. It isn’t an easy read – it’s discontinuous and jagged, reflective rather than personal, and then it will leap out at you from an unexpected angle with a bitterness or a rawness that is fierce. And sometimes Jefferson surprises us with humour. But it isn’t a linear recounting of a life – perhaps another way of showing how that life was not lived as an organic progression for Margo, but as a series of complex stepping stones, each one surrounded by peril.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Margo Jefferson, Negroland; a Memoir (Granta, 2016). 978-1783783021, 256pp., paperback original.

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