Negroland: A Memoir ~ by Margo Jefferson

Negroland, by Jefferson’s definition, is that demographic which is comprised of upper middle to upper class Blacks from the days of slavery through today. The author was raised in this community and it has been written about in various ways by several authors down through the generations from prior to the Civil War.  

Negroland: A Memoir  
by Margo Jefferson 
2015 / 
Read by Robin Miles 7h 59m Rating:  B+/ memoir

This may be the most honest memoir I’ve ever read. What’s it like and how does it feel along with what all happened growing up as a privileged “Negro” in a white world.  Negro is the word Jefferson uses rather lovingly. I think she understands the heritage of that word because it replaced the term “Black” back in the slave days. Respectable people would use the word “Negro” because it was much more respectable at the time.  

I say most honest memoir because it seems to me that, by what she reveals, Jefferson makes herself vulnerable in all sorts of ways.  Some of this would really hit home if I were to tell anyone similar things. There’s a lot of wisdom and insight being passed along here.

But that’s one thing which makes the book really great and no wonder the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. Jefferson also won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism/Criticism for her work with the New York Times.  Another thing which contributes to the success of the book is the Jefferson’s easy mastery of language.  It’s clear and yet literary in a wonderfully accessible way. 

Back in the days, (and probably today too), wealthy and aspiring Blacks were “privileged” while Whites were “entitled.” That’s a big difference – a huge difference – and it’s based on color. 

So Jefferson talks about shades of brown and hits the racism associated with colors light enough to pass easily for white to the never-pass of ebony. She discusses members of her own family who either reject white culture altogether or go the other way and pass for white (until they retire?).  Her father was the head of pediatrics at the oldest black hospital in Chicago and tremendously proud of his success. Her mother was a socialite and their children (2 girls) were sent to the best schools, often white private ones.  Margot’s sister Denise became a noted dance educator. 

The book covers the 1950s when Jefferson was a child in upscale schools and then living down the road from the University of Chicago. It goes on to include the 1960s and ’70s when the  US was in turmoil with both race riots and draft protests as well as the war in Vietnam itself.  And then the 1980s when change was in the air but not in the enforcement of the law.  The kids helped change the morés and the fashion, but the ideas only mutated from the old social attitudes which came from the Victorian era.  And women’s rights and status were barely touched until the 1980s.

The last couple chapters get a bit draggy with Jefferson analyzing Little Women in terms of the roles and temperaments of young women,  not necessarily black women.  And then some nostalgia creeps in when she talks about Marshall Fields and other cultural traditions of Chicago. (interview) (interview) 

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