NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • An extraordinary look at privilege, discrimination, and the fallacy of post-racial America by the renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning cultural critic
Jefferson takes us into an insular and discerning society: “I call it Negroland,” she writes, “because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.”
Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 into upper-crust black Chicago. Her father was head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, while her mother was a socialite. Negroland’s pedigree dates back generations, having originated with antebellum free blacks who made their fortunes among the plantations of the South.
It evolved into a world of exclusive sororities, fraternities, networks, and clubs—a world in which skin color and hair texture were relentlessly evaluated alongside scholarly and professional achievements, where the Talented Tenth positioned themselves as a third race between whites and “the masses of Negros,” and where the motto was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.”
Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions, while reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the falsehood of post-racial America.
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson was for years a book and arts critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, Vogue, New York magazine, and The Nation, and Guernica. Her memoir, Negroland, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. She is also the author of On Michael Jackson and is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Read an Excerpt
I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.
I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts. A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures arise to challenge its primacy.
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.
For nearly two hundred years we in Negroland have called ourselves all manner of things. Like
the colored aristocracy the colored elite the colored 400 the 400 the blue vein society the big families, the old families, the old settlers, the pioneers Negro society, black society the Negro, the black, the African-American upper class or elite.
I was born in 1947, and my generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public. (Even now I shy away from the word “failings.”) Even the least of them would be turned against the race. Most white people made no room for the doctrine of “human, all too human”: our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human.
For my generation the motto was still: Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.
Part of me dreads revealing anything in these pages except our drive to excellence. But I dread the constricted expression that comes from that. And we’re prone to being touchy. Self-righteously smug and snobbish. So let me begin in a quiet, clinical way.
I was born into the Chicago branch of Negroland. My father was a doctor, a pediatrician, and for some years head of pediatrics at Provident, the nation’s oldest black hospital. My mother was a social worker who left her job when she married, and throughout my childhood she was a full-time wife, mother, and socialite. But where did they come from to get there? And which clubs and organizations did they join to seal their membership in this world?
A brief vita of the author. Margo Jefferson: Ancestors: (In chronological order): slaves and slaveholders in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi; farmers, musicians, butlers, construction crew supervisors, teachers, beauticians and maids, seamstresses and dressmakers, engineers, policewomen, real estate businesswomen, lawyers, judges, doctors and social workers Father’s fraternity: Kappa Alpha Psi Mother’s (and sister’s) sorority: Delta Sigma Theta Parents’ national clubs: the Boulé (father); the Northeasterners (mother) Sister’s and my national clubs: Jack and Jill; the Co-Ettes
Local clubs, schools, and camps will be named as we go along. Skin color and hair will be described, evaluated too, along with other racialized physical traits. Questions inevitably will arise. Among them: How does one—how do you, how do I—parse class, race, family, and temperament? How many kinds of deprivation are there? What is the compass of privilege? What has made and maimed me?
Here are some of this group’s founding categories, the oppositions and distinctions they came to live by.
Northerner / Southerner house slave / field hand free black / slave black free black / free mulatto skilled worker / unskilled worker (free or slave) owns property / owns none reads and writes fluently / reads a little but does not write / reads and writes a little / neither reads nor writes descends from African and Indian royalty / descends from African obscurities / descends from upper-class whites / descends from lower-class whites / descends from no whites at all
White Americans have always known how to develop aristocracies from local resources, however scant. British grocers arrive on the Mayflower and become founding fathers. German laborers emigrate to Chicago and become slaughterhouse kings. Women of equally modest origins marry these men or their rivals or their betters and become social arbiters.
We did the same. “Colored society” was originally a mélange of
men and women who were given favorable treatment, money, property, and even freedom by well-born Caucasian owners, employers, and parents; men and women who bought their freedom with hard cash and hard labor; men, women, and children bought and freed by slavery-hating whites or Negro friends and relatives; men and women descended from free Negroes, hence born free.
They learned their letters and their manners; they learned skilled trades (barber, caterer, baker, jeweler, machinist, tailor, dressmaker); they were the best-trained servants in the better white homes and hotels; they bought real estate; published newspapers; established schools and churches; formed clubs and mutual aid societies; took care to marry among themselves. Some arrived from Haiti alongside whites fleeing Toussaint L’Ouverture’s black revolution: their ranks included free mulattoes and slaves who, after some pretense of loyalty, found it easy to desert their former masters and go into the business of upward mobility. From New Orleans to New York, men and women of mixed blood insistently established their primacy.
I’ve fallen into a mocking tone that feels prematurely disloyal.
We have a very, very cool lineup of episodes this month, including our 100th, featuring Jennifer Egan and The Candy House, her incandescent “sibling novel” to A Visit From the Goon Squad, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel) returns with an elegant and surprising new novel, […]
“I didn’t want that more traditional kind of arc of childhood to a certain stance of wisdom or resignation or triumph. I wanted—partly because I felt with Negroland, and very much with this book—that ability to change persona, change my position, to acknowledge that one was performing at times, and that one played many, many […]