Winner of the Heartland Prize
A New York Times Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kansas City Star, Men’s Journal, Oprah.com
Pulitzer Prize–winning cultural critic 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. In these pages, Jefferson takes us into this insular and discerning society: “I call it Negroland,” she writes, “because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.”
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.” At once incendiary and icy, mischievous and provocative, celebratory and elegiac, Negroland is a landmark work on privilege, discrimination, and the fallacy of post-racial America.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
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 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.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hard to follow, author uses jargon more than she should. Excess use of detail when there is hardly even a story line.
Unsparing, poetic, and thought provoking. Race relations in the United States possess deep historical scars, but this story of the elite Chicago African-American society in the 1950-60s adds yet another dimension the understanding the minorities in past and modern day America. With experimental, candid prose, Margo Jefferson sears into her past with unsettling insight. Her contemplations about upper class life challenge simplistic notions about the African-American experience. Though her family had education and financial stability, Jefferson’s experience details the harsh realities of minority life: “Being an Other, in America, teaches you to imagine what can't imagine you.” Don’t read this book looking for a soft, feel-good memoir full of positive anecdotes about the journey of life. Jefferson spares no thoughts in this novel, and takes the reader directly through the cutthroat expectations placed upon upper-class African American women. Her exposé on hair, for example, breaks up the prose into experimental chunks and reveals the impossible beauty standards placed upon Margo and her sister, Denise: "GRADES OF HAIR 1 Dead straight hair can be grown into thick, lustrous braids that stretch to the middle of the back, even to the waist. 2 Glossy hair with waves and curls: this evokes allusions to Moorish Spain and Mexico. 3 Tighter waves with a less shiny texture: this hair can be brushed almost straight but must be maintained with light hair cream. Humidity can make it rough in the back (the kitchen) and frizzy around the face. Apply quick light strokes with a hot comb. 4 Nappy hair, stage 1. Requires heavy hair cream daily and regular hot comb use. Usually does not grow past the shoulders. 5 Nappy hair, stage 2. Requires heavier and heavier applications of hair cream and constant hot comb use. Usually does not grow beyond the middle of the neck. . . . Neither Jefferson girl has one of the top three grades of hair." The chapter describes an array of beauty products designed to straighten, lighten, and refine. Such nuances of this cosmetic market prove eye opening; though feminism laments the modern pressures on women’s bodies, Jefferson reveals brutal push to make African-American women alter their beauty standards to a more Caucasian model. She continues to describe the expectation for African-American hair, skin, nose, and physique. Margo’s light skin both liberates and binds her; she bears both its benefits and its betrayals. Further, the difficulties of growing up exist within this book, and take the reader right back to the angst of middle and high school. Margo describes the female obsession with “likeability,” and gives deft detail to the young female social experience: “I crave the gift of recreational shallowness. The trick of knowing when to be cleverly trivial, lightweight; when to avoid emotional excess. What else did this craven, anxious high school “I” want? I wanted to make cheerleading again and again.” As Jefferson grows older, the pressures of family life and dating increase. Her meditation upon the pressures of women to marry and have children prove poignant. Jefferson’s intense scrutiny of her life doesn’t read like a chipper memoir. The convoluted narrative forces the reader to pay close attention, and to leave fanciful illusion behind with its scorching truths. Yet by the end of the book, thoughtful insights and constant meta-analysis make "Negroland: A Memoir" timely and relevant.
too much depressed introspection that eventually bored me. Not enough material about what her life is like right now and too much about her childhood anxd adolescence.
The book was well written and provide some insight into what the world of the upper black class is like. However, I would have liked if the stories were more in depth and gave more examples of her depression and her life in college.
Don’t let the title scare you. This is for everyone, every race and ethnicity. It is American history at its finest. Jump in, the water is fine, fine, fine. I was unfamiliar with Ms. Jefferson’s writing before this memoir; however, reading about it in an issue of Essence prompted me to buy it. (That and the well done cover). When I began reading it, I thought perhaps there was a glitch in the printing because it read as if I was starting in the middle of the book. But Ms. Jefferson gets to the heart of the matter and explains why the phrase “Negroland.” “I call it Negroland because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.” And that’s just the beginning! As a reader I am hooked. Even more so because I am of the generation where we get asked, “What do you prefer? Black or African-American?” (Sidenote: depends on the context—Black is my race, African-American is my ethnicity. Don’t even think of calling me Negro). Reading a perspective that welcomes the use of “Negro” in a way that makes me rethink my hatred of the word is paradigm shifting. From there all I can do is hold on and keep up. Ms. Jefferson is sharp—scalpel sharp—in her dissection of the upper crust of African-American society. She is unforgiving, objective and soul revealing in her descriptions. She spares no one, not even herself. She most definitely does not spare the feelings of African-Americans in general. When you pick this book up, be prepared to get your feelings hurt. But this is not a critique. It just lays everything bare in its refusal to make history hazy. Here is another thing—if you are a middle class African-American (better rethink that classification by the way), you have no idea what is going on. I am well read and take pride in knowing my culture, but I felt ignorant reading this. It truly is a history lesson. And the history was delivered as if it was a clinical assessment. Ms. Jefferson acknowledges this in her very brief first chapter. If she gave thought to how our history will be viewed by “us” and the “not us-es” she would not be true to what happened. “Nothing is just personal,” she wrote. “And all readers are strangers. Right now I’m overwhelmed by trying to calculate, imagine, what these readers might expect of me; reject, demand, deny; how this one will insist, as that on resists . . .” it seems she resolves the dilemma by telling the history, then telling her story which unfolds in context. The reader is taken from cold facts to deeply personal recounting of the author’s life. It’s pretty awesome. Nothing, however, made me understand what it meant to be a part of “Negroland” until I got to the section about Martin Luther King, Jr. I was not ready. And I so wish I could discuss it more, but you MUST read it! Ahhh! Blew my mind and it caused me to really “get” what it meant (means?) to be of the upper class. (Hint: I kept flipping the pages thinking I missed something). I gave this memoir five stars, but in truth, I wanted to give it four and a half stars. Ms. Jefferson takes us on this intricate journey through her life and previously unknown (or at least hardly ever discussed) history, but she does not follow through to the end. The last portion of the book is easy and tied up with a bow. It let me down. I fervently hope that she is saving the best for last. I hope Ms. Jefferson is letting “Negroland” continue in its new regime (not that I know if regimes have changed at all) and will bless us with another memoir.