Of Margo Jefferson’s “Negroland”

November 10, 2015

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Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir

I first encountered Margo Jefferson in 1980 - probably late August - at the orientation session for incoming graduate students of the Journalism Master's Degree program at New York University. I'm sure there were cheery hellos all around. I recall that Professor Jefferson was the only black faculty member, and of the 45 MA students there, four were black - all women.

The faculty took turns introducing themselves, explaining their professional backgrounds and describing the classes they taught. They came from impressive places and had done things that were the stuff of my dreams : editor at the Wall Street Journal, environmental reporter at the Bergen Record, arts and culture writer for the New York Times magazine. Surely, I had made the right decision in leaving my job and post-Princeton life in Philadelphia to test myself in the center of the media universe.

It was the way Margo Jefferson introduced her work that first resonated with me. She taught magazine writing and cultural reporting, she explained, having acquired her bonafides as a back-of-the-book writer and editor at Newsweek. The cultural reporter, she explained, must dive deep into arts and letters. "You must be confident that you know more than the straphanger on the subway! " At the word "straphanger," her left arm shot into the air, her hand grabbing the imaginary loop. Her weight shifted onto her right leg to balance against the jostling car. It wasn’t affectation; it was her persona.

I had never seen a black woman with such élan.

She was also fun. I was a TA for another journalism professor, so I was often in the department office when she arrived. She and one of the department secretaries were especially fond of the musical “Evita,” which was on Broadway at the time. They would be talking about something worthy of exclamation, strike a pose and shout, “Stand back, Buenos Aires!” They were amused by the way the actress playing Evita (probably Patti Lupone) fainted on stage - an “ecclesiastical faint,” Jefferson called it - and they promptly began imitating it: dropping straight to their knees, then falling over to one side and collapsing in giggles. And after these brief interludes, she would go back to being all business like any other professor. I so looked forward to her entrances.

I did not understand then what she has since revealed in her acclaimed book, Negroland: A Memoir: the woman I believed was so dazzling and self-possessed had spent years battling suicidal depression. The courage of that revelation and the precision of her writing make this book provocative, challenging and important. This essay is not a review; it’s an evocation.

[W]hat makes the book so compelling is how it moves beyond the author's life, seamlessly interweaving critical examinations that make you stop, sometimes mid-page, and wonder how we got here—into an examination of Little Women, or a list of African-American hair types, or a short biography of Charlotte Forten, the free black woman who taught at white and black elementary schools in 1860—and how that examination informs the larger points Jefferson is making about race, gender, and class in America.

Leigh Newman, National Book Critics Circle

As a young black woman with working-class roots - what Jefferson might call an arriviste - she immediately became one of my models for how to carry myself in a world that, to borrow another of her gems,"could not imagine you." In the ensuing years, I have read her consistently and cheered her career milestones, including the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for criticism and the 2008 Guggenheim fellowship that funded her latest work. I have taught her work in my feature writing classes, alongside that of her erstwhile NYU colleague and office-mate, arts journalist Helen Epstein. Both women write about the struggle to define yourself in the face of the obligations that your people’s anguished history would impose upon you. In Epstein’s work, the personal toll of that history is evident. It has been less so in Jefferson’s work, until now.

In "Negroland, " Jefferson writes, “I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.” For Jefferson, language is performance, and performance, when necessary, is combat. Negroland is, in part, a critic's review of her performance of her assigned role as a member of black elite in the drama that is race in America. Negroland is also Jefferson’s name for the fragile middle realm between the segregated white world and the teeming black masses.

Jefferson is the second of two daughters born to Chicago doctor Ronald Jefferson and his wife Irma, a socialite. The parents were graduates of historically black colleges. He was Kappa Alpha Psi; she was Delta Sigma Theta. They were part of a black elite tradition stretching back into the 17th century - a tradition Jefferson sketches for context. Margo and her sister participated in Jack and Jill, took ballet lessons and went to integrated, selective schools and summer arts camp at Interlochen.

Jefferson writes, “Children in Negroland were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice."

Born in 1947, Jefferson would come of age with Civil Rights, Black Power and Feminism - movements that preached the renunciation of privilege and solidarity with the oppressed. She connected with these movements, but reconciling their contradictory and competing expectations fractured her spirit. There were fractured spirits all around:

“My people’s enemies have done this to me. But so have my own loved ones. 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.”

I am 10 years younger than Jefferson. I grew up on the East Coast, in neighborhoods full of the kind of black people that Jefferson was taught to fear - people who worked in construction and domestic service, who drank and danced on Saturday night and gave shouting, dancing praise to the Lord all day Sunday. My parents, though, did neither. Beginning at age 30, my father worked full-time at the Post Office and went through high school, college and graduate school full-time with the help of the GI Bill. His way of spending time with me was to do homework with me, starting with Plato and the Norton Anthology of English Literature when I was about eight or nine. My stepmother worked as a maid but was descended from a Southern circuit preacher and had aunts and uncles who were Fayetteville State grads. She taught me to read from her ornately-illustrated King James Bible.

De facto segregation meant that the Race Men and Women doing the work of Negro uplift lived among us. The crossing guard was a classically-trained pianist who would have given me lessons, had my parents been able to afford a piano. I did take ballet and tap until the instructor told my parents that she didn’t think I was having a good time. A second-grade teacher at Kearney Elementary School was a classically-trained singer who created a school orchestra. I was second violin. Our first two pieces were an aria from Verdi’s “Aida,” and “Go Down, Moses.” The Quaker-run Friends Neighborhood Guild across the street from our apartment complex offered Carter G. Woodson’s Encyclopedia of Negro History and sponsored my Girl Scouts troop.

Like the Jeffersons, my parents pushed me toward the best opportunities available. My teachers at Kearney told me to strive to ennoble my race, and they were anxious to push achieving black children forward to take advantage of the opportunities becoming available during the Civil Rights Movement. Identified as one of those children early on, I was pushed toward Philadelphia’s selective public schools - Masterman for middle school (it’s a middle and high school now), and the Philadelphia High School for Girls. From there, I became part of the fifth co-ed class at Princeton University, matriculating alongside eventual Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor and many other high-achievers.

Growing up, I didn’t know that black children like Margo Jefferson and her sister existed. I knew that there were black doctors and the like, but I had no idea that their children’s lives were so different from mine, or that they had an entire cultural infrastructure behind them. I learned about the Divine Nine fraternities and sororities in high school, and first heard of Jack and Jill and the Links in college. I discovered Interlochen in the last decade as I searched for enrichment programs for my son. I was a loaned exec to the United Negro College Fund in the mid-80s, and I was told that some of the Deltas who volunteered for us found me “very black.” One of them had asked me where I went to college, and when I said. “Princeton,” she responded, “That’s a good school, too.” A friend who was raised in an old black Philadelphia family patiently explained to me that I would never really be accepted because my black Philly accent was too thick, my laugh was too loud, and having spent most of my formative years with my nose in a book, I was no good at cultured small talk. Jefferson’s book helps me understand what they meant in ways I had not previously understood.

Despite my lack of élan, I understand the pain and ambivalence Margo Jefferson describes. Like her, I understand the stigma of failing at double-dutch and the raw catharsis of seeing For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide (When the Rainbow is Enuf) on the Broadway stage. I have had relatives passing for white and have listened to my fellow black professionals voicing what Ellis Cose called, “the rage of a privilege class.” My own struggle with life and purpose came with disability, but I found my solace in faith and holistic health care.

All these years after my first encounter with Prof. Jefferson, she is still teaching me by example, by giving voice to the struggles behind the glittering resumé. And being 25 years into my own academic career, I have had a few students look to me the way I once looked to her. Teaching in a predominantly white selective institution and having raised children in integrated suburbs, I see educated young black people still struggling to figure out who they are and what they should be trying to accomplish in an era that perpetually gives them reason to question whether their black lives matter.

Margo Jefferson knows that she is telling tales that you aren’t supposed to tell, especially not in front of the white folks. Some reviewers have said they wanted more from her - more details about her love life, for example. I felt no such need. She has given us a gift to build upon by popularizing a little-known history, and letting us see how it feels to be at the center of the impossible mandate of being the bridge, battering ram and bulwark between worlds. Perhaps she has opened the door to a conversation about how we contemporary denizens of Negroland can help each other see and forge a path beyond despair.

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