Author: Margo Jefferson
This book was an eye-opener. It was revelatory in not only its analysis of the upper-class world of educated, wealthy and accomplished African-Americans who occupied particular high echelons in society in the sixties, but in its revelations of the extent to which this status was guarded and the status quo maintained almost to the exclusion of other African-Americans who were not as wealthy, as educated or as accomplished.
Margo Jefferson’s book is a rumination on the world she grew up in. A world in which the colour of her light skin; the privilege afforded her by the status of her upper-class family – her father was a medical doctor, and the lineage she came from put her in an enviable position compared to less privileged African-Americans. Despite all of this privilege, her book exposes in great detail her dissatisfaction with her world. She writes that as privileged as she was in her world and amongst her people, there was always a higher, less attainable standard she could never attain: to be seen as an equal by her white peers. Hers seems to have been a constant struggle to fit in. She looks up to, almost idolizes her white friends, and in equal measure rejects her black peers who don’t quite measure up.
Raised in a world where a sense of pride is instilled in her, and where she is told frequently that it is her duty to be better because she is privileged, she takes immense pride in this but also resents the pressure it comes with . “Achievement, Invulnerability and Comportment” are the characteristics lauded in her world. The book dissects the world of the few, in a time when the politics ensured the social and economic oppression of the many, and analyses the race politics that not only gave birth to, but also perpetuated the colorism that ensured that even within the African-American communities this discrimination thrived. Despite being a light-skinned woman, she is still not seen as ‘light enough’ in her world, and this realisation erodes her confidence in the insidious manner that only issues of race can.
Her reference to this world in which she grew up as ‘Negroland’ is ironic when considered against the backdrop that in this world all form of “blackness” was abandoned. The nasal tones of a not-quite-refined accent to behaviour deemed as “too black” or dress “too vulgar” or behaviour that was unbecoming – as defined within the confines of a ‘white world’ were enough to ensure your exclusion in Negroland. In the same way that “whiteness” was coveted, she writes of relatives that were so light-skinned that they passed as white – something that could ensure easier passage into the white world, but who instead would return to black neighbourhoods as often as they could in order to “be black”. The double lives led by many who straddled the two worlds reveals a world that, for Jefferson, was sad in how unreal it seemed.
In her later years the author finds it difficult to find her place in a country that is changing. As the civil rights movement gains momentum, the irrelevance of her world in this activist world loses its place, and is in fact derided by a changing black society. This left the few who had been striving to maintain their statuses in Negroland unsure about how they felt about the advent of the civil rights movement, which was sure to erode their elevated positions in their world and eventually give that power and privilege to the many.
The author makes many references throughout the book to other African-American authors that have written about the black upper-class in the US, all of whom I have yet to read. Although I enjoyed this book enough, I would have liked it more if the author had been more intimate in her writing about her life. Her tone throughout the book is unemotional. She comes across as just a mere observer and witness to a world she wishes to tell the reader about. In some places there are glimpses into how her upbringing moulded her psyche and in part contributed to her overall dissatisfaction with her lot in life, but she never fully lets the reader feel what this must have been like. The book as a result reads more like the documentation of ‘Life in Negroland’ versus ‘My Life in Negroland’. Perhaps I was expecting more out of the memoir.