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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Negroland’ offers the opportunity to appreciate matters of class, race, gender that affect us all

As we once again find our nation splitting apart on the issues of immigration, and of racial bias, we must acknowledge our original sins: the theft of the land from Native Americans; the forced enslavement of Africans brought to enrich the privileged white Colonists, our Founding Fathers.

Margo Jefferson
Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York
Copyright © 2015 by Margo Jefferson

Recent developments have propelled changes in the way we travel — eco-tourism, volun-tourism — melding travel with purpose.

When it comes to purpose, sometimes you’re better off with a great writer than a travel agent, especially to lands you’ve only heard of, perhaps passed by as you’ve driven past, and never really visited.

Margo Jefferson takes us to Negroland, the “small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty,” where children “were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience … 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.”

As I read Jefferson, I often thought of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL football players who risked their livelihoods, and fan support, to kneel during the national anthem to bring attention to the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police, spurring President Trump to tweet that an NFL owner ought to “Get that son of a (expletive) off the field right now. Out. He’s fired!”

“Too many Negroes it was said” Jefferson continues, “showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty … You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant … [because] your mistakes – bad manners, poor taste, an excess of high spirits – could put you, your parents, and your people at risk.”

Those who live in Negroland live a never-ending balancing act. Let me start with an acknowledgment that life is hard for all us, of all colors, ethnicities, sexual preferences, rich, poor and in between. But to fully understand each other, we must acknowledge the specific, the individual, the unique differences distinguishing one from the other. And, as we once again find our nation splitting apart on the issues of immigration, and of racial bias, we must acknowledge our original sins: the theft of the land from Native Americans; the forced enslavement of Africans brought to enrich the privileged white Colonists, our Founding Fathers. So, while Margo Jefferson’s struggles to grow and prosper is an American story, it is even more a Negroland story.

It is a complex and nuanced story, and Jefferson offers us a rare opportunity to travel with her as she attempts to more fully understand the contours of her rich and long life through complicated times and convoluted social and political spaces: “Civil rights. The New Left. Black Power. Feminism. Gay rights. To be remade so many times in one generation is surely a blessing.” 

And what is so challenging yet rewarding is that Jefferson, time and time again, refuses to take the easy way out, to simplify at the expense of complexity, however confusing and contradictory: 

“So I won’t trap myself into quantifying which matters more, race, or gender, or class. Race, gender, and class are basic elements of one’s living. Basic as utensils and clothing; always in use; always needing repairs and updates. Basic as body and breath, justice and reason, passion and imagination. So the question isn’t ‘Which matters most?’ it’s ‘How does each matter?’ Gender, race, class; class, race, gender—your three in one and one in three. (Emphasis added.)

Specifically, this is “The midwestern, midcentury story of a little girl, one of two born to an attractive couple pleased with their lives and achievements, wanting the best for their children and wanting their children to be among the best. To be successful, professionally and personally. And to be happy.”

But there’s a twist many of us understand all too well. Disappointment abounds, because for every one who is the best, there are so many of us who aren’t: “She would achieve success, but she would treat it like a concession she’d been forced to make. For unto whomsoever much is given, of her shall be much required. She came to feel that too much had been required of her … that her life has gone wrong. Some of this is the usual thwarted ambition—she’s good, quite good, at her profession. She should have been outstanding. She is, by some measures, but she’s not phenomenal. She knows she’s privileged to be a writer. She should love what she does. But she doesn’t. Much of the time she convinces herself that she hates writing and therefore feels hate toward it. About love and sex she should have been adventurous, not wary.”

Thus, her present dilemma, one shared by many a conscientious memoirist: “How does someone like this, so often ashamed of what she is, always ashamed of what she lacks, write about herself? … Nothing is just personal. 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 one resists …”

Jefferson explains her title: “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 … whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates … 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 …

I spoke of opportunities; well, here’s a chance to better understand the particular pressures put upon a bright and intelligent black American woman trying to honestly figure out her world: Jefferson was born in 1947 in Chicago, “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 … Most white people made no room for the doctrine of ‘human, all too human’: our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human …

“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 …”

Her 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 …”

Here are some of the questions she imagines inquisitive readers asking a black woman: “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?”

Aren’t these the questions white Americans should be asking and answering? Isn’t the evidence clear: the disproportionate numbers of people of color incarcerated; the perpetual color gap in family income; and the frightening difference in how we regard the police. And yet we manage not to talk about the “maiming” that’s happened and continues to happen under our watch.

Meanwhile, those of Negroland learned to navigate and mitigate some of the deprivation: “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 …”

Jefferson explains the status of those privileged free Negroes who weren’t slaves before Abolition: “It meant you were free to earn money; free to marry legally and (sometimes) showily; free to educate your legally free children and pass property on to them; free to travel … to form reading societies, debating societies, mutual aid societies; free, if you were a female, to cultivate ‘the lighter accomplishments,’ to show much taste and skill in painting, instrumental music, singing and the various departments of ornamental needlework &c.’…

“Free in the North to agitate against slavery and for voting rights while excluding Negroes with fewer accomplishments from your social circles. Free in the South to lobby for your fluctuating rights while deeming it wise to ignore the claims of poorer, darker free Negroes. Free to labor for privilege in the hopes that your children would be entitled to it.” (Emphasis added.)

Ever vigilant, she offers a look at both those who “triumphed through resolve and principled intelligence” and those who capitulated: “James Forten of Philadelphia, abolitionist and entrepreneur. Born to free Negro parents, he started work in a sail-making firm at age eight, became the foreman at twenty and the owner at twenty-three, running the firm so well that it made him one of the richest men, black or white, in the city … organized against slavery and colonization, fought attempts to curtail the rights of free blacks, and supplied much-needed funds to help William Lloyd Garrison start The Liberator …

“Frances Jackson Coppin … remained a slave until age twelve. Her Negro grandfather bought the freedom of all his children except her mother, who was left enslaved because she’d had Frances by a white man. When an aunt bought her freedom, she worked as a servant in Massachusetts, then Rhode Island; using her salary to employ a tutor, she made her way through high school and then Oberlin College. There she started a school for escaped slaves while successfully completing the men’s course of study in Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics … who burned, as she told Frederick Douglass, ‘to see my race lifted out of the mire of ignorance, weakness and degradation; no longer to sit in obscure corners and devour the scraps of knowledge which his superiors flung at him.’”

But then “Negro exceptionalism had its ugly side: pioneers who advanced through resolve, intelligence, and exploiting their own. Anthony Johnson was born in Angola and brought to Virginia in 1621; he began plantation life as an indentured servant before slavery was firmly established. Mary, another Negro servant, became his wife. They produced four children and completed their term of service; Johnson bought 250 acres of land in 1640 … Anthony and Mary increased their 250 acres to 550, and acquired cattle and indentured servants. In 1654, one of those servants, the Negro John Casor, accused Johnson of wanting to enslave him and left, going to work for a white landowner willing to treat him as an indentured servant. Johnson took the white landowner to court, won his case on appeal, and took Casor back into servitude for life, thus becoming one of the first legal slaveholders in the colonies …”

Let me add a bit of historical context: Between 1526 and 1866, approximately 10 to 15% of those captured Africans died on the many-miles trip to the slave ships. A total of about 12.5 million Africans were wrenched from their homes and put aboard slave ships. Then about 10.7 million survived the journey.

The slave ship Brooks (c. 1790) with more than 420 adults and children crammed onboard.

In 1857, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision reinforced the horror of slavery. Justice Tanner declared that freed slaves could never be citizens, even when they moved into a free state. Why? Because if they did, they’d be entitled to “the privileges and immunities of citizens.” Giving them, God forbid, “the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation … and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went …”

More insight into the American experience with slavery and racism: “It was the Civil War that elevated the wealthy, the poor, the free, and the enslaved colored men, women, and children … 1861–1865: In the South male slaves build Confederate forts, make Confederate artillery, maintain Confederate railroads, serve their masters in Confederate army camps. Women slaves work the fields that produce food for the Confederate army, cook and clean for Confederate mistresses who now run farms and plantations in the absence of their men, care for the children of those Confederate mistresses, care for their own children, cook and clean, and nurse soldiers in Confederate hospitals. As the war goes on, slaves begin to desert their owners, flee Confederate fields and towns for Union army camps, where – as contraband rather than slave property – the men build forts, repair railroads, haul supplies and equipment, and serve as scouts and spies for Union troops, while the women cook and clean in the camps, nurse soldiers, serve as scouts and spies for Union troops, and take care of the children they have brought along.”

I say the American, not merely the Southern experience, because as quickly became clear, race hatred penetrates the whole. “Free Negroes who emigrated north shortly before the war have learned the inconvenient truths that Northern Negroes have long known: many public accommodations are closed to them; most churches are closed to them; most schools are closed to their children. Law and custom restrict their right to use the job skills they have or to acquire new ones: white workers do not want them as competition.

“Two years into a war the Union fears losing, the Emancipation Proclamation frees the slaves. Negro men are at last permitted to enlist in the Union army. Approximately 180,000, North and South, do so … War gives Negro women new jobs too, or at least new settings for old jobs. Most of them still cook, clean, launder, sew, and nurse: now they cook, clean, launder, sew, and nurse for their country, in Union hospitals and camps. They are paid less, for the war’s duration, than their white counterparts …

“Still, there are life-changing opportunities for a small group of free Negroes who claim membership in the higher ranks of the abolitionist movement … A few even travel south to teach eager, provisionally freed slaves (Union army contrabands) to read and write. A life-changing opportunity and a profound culture shock.

There’s Charlotte Forten, who in October 1862 “arrives in South Carolina. She is from one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished colored families … the first of her race to graduate from the Salem Normal School of Salem, Massachusetts, and she has come to Port Royal to teach reading and writing to the contraband slaves freed by the Union army. ‘On the wharf was a motley assemblage—soldiers, officers and ‘contrabands’ of every hue and size … Later that night, waiting in the commissary’s office, she encounters the ‘the little Commissary himself, a perfect little popinjay, and he and a Colonel somebody who didn’t look any too sensible, talked in a very smart manner, evidently for our especial benefit. The word “nigger” was plentifully used, whereupon I set them down at once as not gentlemen.’

“She is twenty-five years old and has spent her life studying French and Latin, astronomy and history; reading Spenser, Milton, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Dickens, the Brontës, Emerson, and Stowe … She has socialized with renowned abolitionists, colored and white; she faithfully attends literary lectures and antislavery meetings; she always disparages the occasional poem or essay she contributes to antislavery journals.

“She rages against bigotries, big and small; falls into a depression (‘I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely we have everything to make us hate mankind’), then upbraids herself for being insufficiently stoic … ‘Conscience answers it is wrong, it is ignoble to despair. Let us take courage, never ceasing to work, – hoping and believing that if not for us, for another generation there is a better, brighter day in store.’ …

“Dutifully, doggedly, she teaches at a white elementary school in Massachusetts and a black elementary school in Philadelphia before ill health threatens her ability to earn her living … How pleased and surprised she is that some of her students are so very bright; how laughable she finds their ebullience and physical intensity … ‘These people have really a great deal of musical talent,’ she writes in a letter to The Liberator, adding, as so many white listeners have and will, that their songs are nearly impossible to describe: ‘They are so wild, so strange, and yet so invariably harmonious and sweet.’ …

Progressive white easterners have been part of her world since childhood; contraband slaves and working-class Negroes have not. And free Negroes have had to depend on the decency of progressives. We know that slaves made distinctions between good and bad white people and behaved accordingly. Free Negroes did the same. In both cases there can be a display of gratitude (excited, fawning, a touch abject) that makes us wince. (Emphasis added.)

I wonder: are we good or bad white people? Do we understand the consequences of the power differential between white and black Americans, between the well-to-do and poor, male and female? Well, Jefferson offers an incredible opportunity to more fully appreciate the matters of class and race and gender that affect us all. Then, for example, offering another opportunity to learn how differently Southern blacks and whites, men and women, experienced that critical people of our history, Reconstruction:

“1865 and ’66: Pass a civil rights act; found the Ku Klux Klan.

“1868: The Fourteenth Amendment grants Negro men the vote. The Fourteenth Amendment denies all women – Negro, white, and other – the vote. Five years later, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits state governments from finding ways to deprive citizens of the right to vote based on race. The Fifteenth Amendment does not protect the rights of blacks to hold office. Nor does it prevent Southern states from launching their assault and battery on these constitutional rights with a flurry of laws called the Black Codes and a series of terrorist attacks by the KKK.”

And “Those who once lived in slavery or on the lower rungs of the free Negro class are now in a position to seize opportunities and provide good schools, stores, and restaurants to an eager people along with churches, life insurance, good hair products, and cultural advantages. They too become teachers, lawyers, undertakers, doctors, journalists; some dare to become artists … send their children to the growing number of Negro colleges; occasionally they send them to white colleges; periodically they send them abroad for cultural enrichment.”

Replete with consequences for Negroland’s “old families”: “The end of slavery has not just freed a people; it has freed achievers, strivers, arrivistes from the lower ranks. Call them what you will. That many have darker skin is often noted by the old elites; likewise their rough manners and rowdy ways … They will achieve and advance; they will buy or barter their way into the old elite; they will establish their own vigorous competing elite.”

Harper’s Magazine. 1868, ‘This Is A White Man’s Government.’ Image courtesy Library of Congress

Meanwhile, the white response to black advancement: “Whites instigate riots, South and North, and lynchings, usually South; whites pass federal and state laws that ensure exclusion of or inferior accommodation for blacks in every kind of public activity and space: train and bus travel, hospitals, restaurants, libraries, theaters, parks, beaches, and schools, from the nursery to the university.

Jefferson continues: “How do our chroniclers address this? Our female chroniclers cannot address any of it without addressing rape and miscegenation. First they must defend their long-debased reputation as Negro women, deemed inherently lascivious since slave times, incapable of being virtuous wives and mothers. Second, they must protest the growing number of lynchings, most of them based on postslavery claims that Negro men were compulsive rapists of white women.

Jefferson reminds us of Ida B. Wells: “a young schoolteacher turned journalist, the daughter of emancipated slaves determined to advance by educating themselves and their children” who, in 1895 publishes ‘The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States.’ The ‘record’ includes the lynching of Negroes ‘for almost any offense from murder to a misdemeanor’; the lynching of men, women, and children charged with rioting or insurrection; the lynching of Negroes whose political or economic success threatens whites; the lynching of Negro men who have been having consensual affairs with white women.”

I had never heard of Anna Julia Cooper, author of “A Voice from the South”: “daughter of a slave master and a slave woman; educated at Oberlin (with no help from her father); a teacher of math, science, and Latin at Washington, D.C.’s respected Preparatory High School for Colored Youth who writes that … women cannot reform society without working to educate themselves. And white women can reform nothing until and unless they are willing to relinquish their caste privilege, those codes of racial and social superiority they extol in their men and instill in their children.

Jefferson notes that few of these privileged Negro women were “willing to call themselves black, as Cooper did; few are as militantly forthright as Wells. Many insist overmuch that they be recognized as ladies. Proud of their education and cultivation, they are angered and ashamed to be classed with ‘the lowly, the illiterate and even the vicious, to whom they are bound by the ties of race and sex.’ But they go to work. They set about to reclaim and redeem these women, and in doing so to uplift the race …”

Onto Great Barrington’s better late than never favorite son, about whom she is less uncritically adoring, “the high-minded, high-handed New Englander W. E. B. Du Bois … a Victorian, but he is a modernist too. Stern and stringent. And he is proud: ‘Does any race produce more than a small percentage of exceptional men and women—ten percent at most?’ he demands … ‘

Du Bois, she writes “shares Cooper’s radical romanticism; he shares Wells’s outrage at lynchings and other Southern barbarities. He knows their work. But he is intent on cutting a much wider swath, sometimes at their expense. The soul of a grandly confident Negro intellectual—a Negro male intellectual—is on display. Du Bois is blazingly entitled. And Du Bois sets the agenda for generations to come: The educated and privileged must guide the Mass of Negroes forward, fight oppression, and champion achievement. Unlike its predecessors, The Souls of Black Folk excites intellectual debate and stirs serious readers on both sides of the increasingly rigid color line.”

Jefferson emphasizes that “Men and women of [Du Bois’] Talented Tenth may cherish Shakespeare, Dumas, and Balzac (or Henry James) all they want, but they know that in the hearts and minds of most Americans they are unwelcome pretenders trying to escape their rightful place in the lower social and biological order …”

Of her generation and their predecessors, Jefferson reminds us: “Most whites knew little about us; only a few cared to know. We were taught that we embodied the best that was known and thought in—and of—Negro life. We were taught to resent the relative lack of attention our achievements garnered. We were taught that we were better than the whites who looked down on us—that we were better than most whites, period. But that this would rarely if ever be acknowledged by white people, with all their entitlement … Our people have had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren’t looking. (Emphasis added)

Then: “we of Negroland played our part in the civil rights movement … We were in the courts, in the press, on the streets and freedom buses; we were leaders, followers, and financial supporters. By the late sixties, leftist politics and cultural nationalism had given the once-shunned nomenclature ‘black’ a deep and lustrous sheen. Black Power, Black Beauty, Black Studies, the Black Man and (as bulwark and adornment) the Black Woman. We adapted, with some internal dissent. And we profited …

“In the 1970s white society scurries to include us in its ranks. We become mayors and members of Congress; journalists at white periodicals and TV stations; partners or at least entry-level lawyers at white firms; we trade bonds on Wall Street; we work at corporations (usually as directors of human resources).”

We are so unused to talking about race, about how our worlds are different, and Jefferson brings a scrupulous care to her critically important task, moving past embarrassment and unproductive politeness to offer some long overdue truths: “In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians … [possessing] a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.”

And yet there was always white power: “Most of the Chicago neighborhoods I remember as pristinely Negro were pristinely white when Negroes like my parents moved in … A very few Negro families lived nearly alone in a very few tenuously integrated suburbs. They drove into the city for the social events considered basic for their children’s social health. My South Side felt benign and orderly in my childhood. But there was an undercurrent of drama, excitement … the pleasant greetings, the dirty looks, feeling you’re indulged, feeling you’re resented – are separated by blocks, half blocks, turned corners.

So, what exactly did it take to threaten white Chicagoans? War? Famine? Pestilence? Or black neighbors?

“We were Bronzeville girls until I was three and Denise six; then we moved to Park Manor. Bronzeville was the second biggest Negro city in America, and our grandmother owned two buildings there. We were living comfortably in one of them on a day in 1949 when history records that “the attempt by two black families to move into two houses in the South Side neighborhood of Park Manor produced a mob of 2000 whites chanting ‘We Want Fire, We Want Blood,’ while white policemen watched in silence.”* What else would White Policemen do? They were upholding twenty-five years of law and more than one hundred years of custom. They were protecting the property of their fellow officers who owned homes in Park Manor.

[*The words that follow read ‘Crosses were burned and the two houses were stoned.” I couldn’t bear to place them on the same page with all the rest. I’m so sick of that burning cross: I hate that it’s a cliché of bigotry, drama that never loses its real-life power. But how many times can you read about it? The stones are more shocking. More primal and foreign …’]

And this: “One evening several years later, when we have safely settled in Park Manor, a patrol car stops Daddy on his way home. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I live here.’ ‘What’s in that black bag? Drugs?’ ‘I’m a doctor. Which the bag’s contents reveal he is. A pediatrician, luckily, not an anesthesiologist. But that was not a story told to children. It was not told because:

“The question of the child’s future is a serious dilemma for Negro parents. Awaiting each colored child are cramping limitations and buttressed obstacles in addition to those that must be met by youth in general; and this dilemma approaches suffering in proportion to the parents’ knowledge of and the child’s ignorance of these conditions. Some parents up to the last moment strive to spare the child the bitter knowledge; the child of less sensitive parents is likely to have this knowledge driven in upon him from infancy. And no parent may definitely say which is the wiser course, for either of them may lead to spiritual disaster for the child …”

Yet another example of the dangers that lurk, the bias ever-present everywhere: “I enter fourth grade that fall. Mrs. Pollak has a pleasant, calm manner and she’s our music teacher as well as our homeroom teacher. Once again we sing Stephen Foster songs and once again we sing ‘Swanee River.’ I love that song, with its octave upswing on ‘Swa-NEE—Riv-EEEER.’

“One afternoon I march around the living room singing it as loudly as I had in class that day: ‘All the world is sad and dreary, everywhere I roam / Oh darkies! How my heart grows weary! / Far…’ ‘Margo,’ comes Mother’s voice from the kitchen, followed swiftly by Mother herself. ‘What did you just sing?’ I repeat myself: ‘All the world is sad and dreary, everywhere I roam, / Oh dar’ – She stops me flat as the k approaches.

“‘Margo, do you know what ‘darkies’ means?” I do not. ‘It’s an ugly word about us. People don’t use it anymore, but when they did, it meant the same thing as ‘nigger.’ As I take that in, Mother fumes. ‘Mrs. Pollak should know better. When you sang that song last year, Miss Schoff was sensitive. She changed the word to ‘lordy.’”

“Is it a need for thematic symmetry that makes me think this was the same year Grandma sees me playing a game in her front yard that the little white girl next door had proposed? We bend down, slump our shoulders, lower our heads to the ground, and sling rounded arms back and forth, chanting ‘I’se from the jungle.’ Suddenly my grandmother is at the screen door telling me to come inside. She informs me sternly and solemnly, ‘That was an ugly game. That little girl was playing it to insult you. To insult Negroes and say we are like monkeys.’

These memories are as much about being humiliated by adult knowledge as about race prejudice. My mother and grandmother exposed errors I’d made. I felt humiliated in front of them. My teacher seemed to like me, but not enough to spare me a humiliating racial slur. I’d been having a fine time with the little white girl next door until we started playing “I’se from the Jungle.” It’s so easy for a child to feel all wrong in the eyes of adults. And when you have no idea that what you were doing is wrong. I hated being caught unawares. It was so dangerous, so shameful not to know what I needed to know.” (Emphasis added,)

And so Jefferson offers us the critical opportunity to imagine what we would tell our child of color: how to respond to the racist impulses, words, actions of someone believed to be a friend. What to do when stopped while walking in the neighborhood, or driving, by a white policeman. Would you urge politeness verging on submission? When, if ever, do you ask your child to demand fair and equal treatment?

And, of course, shouldn’t we take to heart the larger lesson: Is there really any street for a black doctor that is “his” street in the eyes of the white world?

Jefferson reveals the manifest tolls these take on the parents: “who must relive their bitter knowledge; who might have buried it till the child’s need moment bears down on them to force it up and out, or back down once more? Either may lead to spiritual disaster for the parent.”

Can you imagine the shame, the sense of inadequacy in the face of the insolence of power? Because the mere fact that you’re walking these streets, driving these highways, living in these neighborhoods is regarded by others as an act of impudence. That you can’t protect yourself. You can’t protect the children from the realities of racism.

It’s the summer of 1956, when a hotel in Atlantic City sees that the Dr. and Mrs. Jefferson are black not white, and steers them from the decent room they had reserved to a small room overlooking their parking lot:

“Our father has not smiled since the four of us walked into the lobby and stood at the desk as the clerk turned us into Mr. and Mrs. Negro Nobody with their Negro children from somewhere in Niggerland.

“Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers … Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largesse in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.” (Emphasis added.)

And here Jefferson lets us in on the reality of how even severely circumscribed privilege affords the ability to look down on those less fortunate: “our privilege … was hard-won and politically righteous, a boon to the race, a source of compensatory pride, an example of what might be achieved. In the privacy of an all-Negro world, Negro privilege could lounge and saunter too, show off its accoutrements and lay down the law. Regularly denounce Caucasians, whose behavior toward us, and all dark-skinned people, proved they did not morally deserve their privilege. We had the moral advantage; they had the assault weapons of ‘great civilization’ and ‘triumphant history.’ Ceaselessly, we chronicled our people’s achievements. Ceaselessly, we denounced our people’s failures.”

As for irony, there’s this tale: “It was just around this time that my great-uncle Lucious resumed his life as a Negro. Our Negroland friends looked as if they belonged to every group then classified as Negro, Caucasian, Asian, Latin, or Middle Eastern … When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner. He had worked for decades as a traveling salesman, making periodic contact with his sisters and with cousins who looked white enough to meet him in segregated places when he came to town. Then he retired, and his retirement community was Negroland …

“Do white people think about how white is white and how black is black? What if there were dire consequences associated with a summertime deep tan? If one’s life was transformed the moment light brown turned darker? …

“So many in my parents’ world had relatives who’d spent their adult lives as white people of some kind … Shopping at whites-only stores, getting deferential service at whites-only restaurants. You came home snickering: What fools these Nordics be! … P. lived as a Negro woman severed from her twin brother, who lived as a white man; N. was the only child in a family of eight to remain a Negro; H.’s brother had spent decades as a white man in a small English town … Stories that gave the lie again and again to public declarations that if Negroes would just prove themselves worthy they would be welcome as equals …”

I’ve highlighted Jefferson’s early years perhaps because young people seem our canaries in too many of our coalmines: brown-skinned children fleeing oppression wrenched from mothers and fathers at our southern border, completely unaware that we regard them as dangerous invaders; schoolchildren forced to endure active shooter drills because we adults are unable to keep weapons of war from the hands of angry and disturbed white men; young black men and women more likely to end up in prison than graduate school.

But please know there is so much of importance Jefferson shares about the years that follow, about Vietnam and black power and the feminist movement. Jefferson alerts us to the critical inability of the women of Negroland to acknowledge the need for help in navigating the difficulties of life; the impossibility of admitting to their obvious inadequacies in the face of impossible challenges. Ironic because as a woman in a man’s world, as a black American in a white American’s world, they were doubly challenged.

“But one white female privilege had always been withheld from the girls of Negroland. Aside from the privilege of actually being white, they had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance. A privilege Good Negro Girls had been denied by our history of duty, obligation, and discipline. Because our people had endured horrors and prevailed, even triumphed, their descendants should be too strong and too proud for such behavior. We were to be ladies, responsible Negro women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that.

“Negroland” is a great gift. As many of us learn along the way, much of our behavior is constrained: by what we’ve been taught and learned; our own limitations; social mores; the intricate power balances of our personal relationships, and the necessities of earning a living. Few of us have done the deep work of self-examination that Margo Jefferson has done. And we are all fortunate to share and learn from that work.

I’ll leave you with this: “We were the third race. We cared for our people – we loved our people – but we refused to be held back by the lower element. We did not love white people, we did not care for most of them, but we envied them and sometimes we feared and hated them. Our daily practice was suspicion, caution at the very least. Preemptive disdain.

“When I was in sixth grade my mother, facing the perils of puberty on my behalf, sat me down for a talk about my white friends. Your father and I want you to be able to compete everywhere, and we want you to be comfortable wherever you go. That’s why we send you to the schools they are sent to. It’s fine to enjoy the company of your white friends. But do you really think you can trust them?

“Yes, I felt that I could—I was idealistic if not altogether coherent. Yes, I felt that I could and should trust them. ‘Margo, wherever the white man goes, there is race prejudice. They haven’t invented a test to measure that. I’m sure they won’t. Maybe it’s just genetic …’ (Emphasis added.)

These days, Jefferson carries on: “And what I have is what I take to my psychotherapist each week. What I have is what we make together, each supplying the material she knows best. There are days when I still want to dismantle this constructed self of mine. You did it so badly, I think. You lost so much time. And then I tell myself, so what? So what? Go on.”


The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.