We are not what They want to see in their books and movies. Our We is too much like theirs.
Negroland is a book that speaks to the publishing zeitgeist in a lot of ways. Publishing it now—the year after Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, two years (can it really be? But it is) after Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—all but guarantees it an audience of fascinated, worthy, middle-class, progressive white folks. The past few years have been years of a growing awareness that race and racism aren’t done with us yet, or rather that we’re not done with them, and we have consequently come to expect certain things from the memoirs that black writers give us: anger, disappointment, examples of breathtaking prejudice and ignorance, perhaps even physical danger. That Negroland is subtitled “a memoir” primes a reader accustomed to the genre.
But from the start, Margo Jefferson is not writing that sort of book, not really. You can tell, a little bit, if you look at the front cover: those pristine gloves, that bright young smile, that perfectly coiffed hair. This isn’t a book about microaggressions and repressed rage and potential, or rather, it is but only insofar as it is also a book about negotiating an extremely fractured identity. Blackness is a part of that identity, but blackness itself is a fraught spectrum of things: dark/light, good hair/bad hair, nose, lips. “Negroland” is the word Jefferson uses to describe elite black society, the Talented Tenth championed by Frederick Douglass: self-conscious, self-aware, often arrogant, the Third Race, often either passing for white or existing in semi-isolation as token black families in progressive white neighborhoods. “Negroland” is the epitome of respectability politics. Respectability politics, of course, is heavily dependent upon each individual maintaining respectability—which places an almost unbearable amount of strain upon those individuals, each of whom is tasked with the representation of their entire race. It’s that strain, the effects of that constant internalized self-policing, that Jefferson is interested in. Her interest in that strain makes Negroland a cunningly unexpected addition to the many recent books about race relations.
She knows perfectly well what sort of book her reader might be expecting, and she’s going to try her best not to write it:
I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.
She repeats this paragraph at least twice more throughout the book, dotted through the manuscript like raisins in a cake. She wants us to know how much energy she is putting into maintaining some sense of objectivity. Or, if not objectivity, fairness, or perhaps just analysis. Much of this is to do with her generation, I think: she gives the impression that there’s something vaguely unseemly about confessional. But, at least the first time this paragraph crops up, she also says something which makes clear that reticence is at the very heart of what Negroland is:
I was taught you don’t tell your secrets to strangers—certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure. Nothing is just personal. And all readers are strangers.
Nothing is just personal was the other quotation I was considering for this review’s header. It strikes at the very root of Jefferson’s point in this book: black people in America who had an element of physiological, genealogical, economic and social privilege—black people who spoke softly, had light skin, whose ancestors had owned property before the Civil War or purchased it just after, who had straight (or straightenable) hair, were doctors, lawyers or teachers—were never allowed to just be humans. They were test cases for their race. They knew it all too well. The way that Jefferson builds a potted history of middle-class black America belies the “memoir” slapped on the front cover, too; this book is partly about her childhood and youth, yes, but much of it is also about the history with which she was laden. Whole chapters read more like the elliptical essay-style of (to pick two of my recent reads) Rebecca Solnit or Katie Roiphe than like an impassioned memoir about race in twentieth-century America. That is precisly the brilliance of Negroland in a stylistic sense: the book is constructed so as to force a reader to see it as something contrary to their expectations, at least in parts, at least for a while. Jefferson profiles historic black achievers: Charlotte Hawkins Brown, a groundbreaking black educator; Joseph Willson, the child of a former slavemaster by his housemaid, who became a dentist and a chronicler of the emerging black middle classes in the 1840s. She writes with mingled pain and sympathy and frustration of their snobbish devotion to the markers of white culture: Shakespeare, Milton, Schubert, Beethoven.
Jefferson became politically aware in the 1960s and ’70s, when the pendulum seemed to be swinging the other way. She writes of Black Power meetings where she was mocked for her light skin and arched nose; she writes of middle-class, well-educated, café au lait girls that she knew who married “ghetto” men in order to prove that they were not race traitors. At least one of these women, whose husband was involved in drug selling, was shot in the head and killed, less than a year after her marriage. She writes of two black women, one whose hair was relatively straight and one whose hair was a cropped mass of kinky fuzz. Both wore Afro wigs to political meetings; they met in the women’s bathroom, fixing their wig caps. There is an extraordinary sense, in this section, of not being able to win for losing. Especially for black women, beauty has traditionally been set at a standard of impossible, ridiculous whiteness; the rise of black power, its politicization of absolutely every act and choice in daily life, was like an electric shock to a black middle class that was so invested in doing whiteness (etiquette, courtesy, education, achievement) better than white people. Jefferson never says it in so many words, but I wouldn’t have blamed her at all for asking—rhetorically, of course—”So what the fuck, then, are we meant to do?” She does tell us that she became clinically depressed as a young woman, that she was disgusted by her own depression, and that to be thus depressed—to have any kind of mental ill health—was not discussed in her family’s circles. That was weakness, the sort of thing that you would not say to strangers, would not confess to unless absolutely necessary. You didn’t hand people that kind of ammunition.
People do, of course, manage to self-actualize even under the weight of such immense cultural expectation; Jefferson is particularly hamstrung by her own personality, which wants to please and satisfy as many people and requirements as possible. She’s frank about this, outlining her childish tendency to show off and her adolescent agonies about not being able to fit into any one group. She tells us that she never marries, though she obviously has a romantic life, and that she never has children, and the brief glimpses that we get of the contemporary Margo suggest that she has gotten there: she knows who she is, now, not who someone else wants her to be.
Still, the most poignant line in the book belongs to her mother, Irma. As a young bride stationed with her husband in a mostly-black air force base at the beginning of World War II, she writes a letter to a friend. It is merry and upbeat, and it ends with the exclamation, “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?” She doesn’t mean Living as a black woman is terrible but sometimes I can forget about it; she means Sometimes I nearly get to just be the person that I am: not a whole race and many millennia of history condensed into one body, not a test case, not a Good Negro. Sometimes I can almost believe that I am just Irma Jefferson, and that the choices I make affect no one but myself. That’s something, huh? It is.
Many thanks to Nat Shaw at Granta Books for the review copy. Negroland was published in the UK on 2 June.