“We’re considered upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans,” Mother says. But most people would like to consider us Just More Negroes.”
Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family.
Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there 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.
She explores her personal experience as a member of Negroland beginning with a letter her mother wrote to a friend during her parents’ time stationed at an army base during WW2. The letter ends ‘Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?’ Jefferson follows it with the times she’s almost been allowed to forget too and the times when she definitely hasn’t. She takes us with her to summer camp where she’s directed to befriend a black boy; to the private, mostly white, school she and her sister attended; to the neighbourhoods the family lived in – mostly white when they arrived, mostly black within a few years; to the hotel in Atlantic City where they’re put in inferior rooms; to university.
Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities.
There are some awful instances of racism and a heart-wrenching moment, reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, when Jefferson confesses ‘she was silly enough to believe her hair would turn blonde when her mother washed it. Fortunately, she aired this belief, and it dies a clean, brisk death’ but there’s also humour. One of my favourite moments comes during a discussion about passing:
Suddenly the fact of racial slippage overwhelmed me. I was excited for days after. I knew something none of my white school friends knew. It wasn’t just that some of us were as good as them, even when they didn’t know it. Some of us were them.
There’s been some discussion this week on Twitter around the idea of ‘identity politics’ and whether they reduce people to characteristics. (If you haven’t come across the debate, Musa Okwonga wrote a point-by-point response to the criticisms on his blog.) As the conversation went on there were some fairly crude comments about levels of privilege in relation to race. I’m going to quote Jefferson at length because I think what she has to say on this, from a self-identified position of privilege, is important:
In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians. Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.
– If, as was said, too many of us ached, longed, strove to be be be be White White White White WHITE…
– If (as was said) many us boasted over much of the blood des blancs that for centuries had found blatant or surreptitious ways to flow, course, and trickle tepidly through our veins and arteries (cephalic, aortal, renal, femoral, jugular, subclavian, and superior mesenteric)…
– If we placed too high a value on the looks, manners, and morals called the birthright of the Anglo-Saxon…
White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.
Negroland is a superb book. Non-fiction books that meld genres seem to be having a bit of a moment but what this one does differently is consider the intersections of race, class and gender in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society. Highly recommended.
Thanks to Granta for the review copy.