Margo Jefferson: Negroland

Margo Jefferson (Michael Lionstar)

“I have stories to tell? I have cuts and bruises that do not map a course. And none of them are justified unless you find a way to make the story worth telling…”

In her very worthwhile story, Pullitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson takes us into her world, creating a Black Sense of Place. She insists that non-Black folks experience a failure of the imagination, explaining: “We are not what they want to see in their books and movies. Our we is too much like Theirs. Which threatens them, bores them or both.”

The book is searing and raw – it’s been called poetic and bracing. In her vulnerable memoir, Jefferson deliberately denotes a geography called Negroland. She sees it a small region of Black America, a place where its residents were protected and supported by one another, a world of comfort, a cocoon of plenty.

Jefferson grew up in wealthy black neighbourhoods on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s and explores what has been called the “talented tenth” by W.E.B. Dubois, the great African-American intellectual elite. Explaining this term’s historical, cultural, almost mythical resonance, Jefferson deftly explains how systemically disadvantaged racialized folk created a sense of place for themselves in a structurally racially divided world.

She offers a rare glimpse into her childhood worlds in 1940s Chicago, where Black Lives Mattered. A world of impeccable manners and outfits, fastidiously managed hairstyles, private schools. Her father was head of Pediatrics at the hospital; her mother an impeccably dressed socialite.

What Jefferson does with ease is distinguish between privilege and entitlement. While we often attribute both to whites, emphasizing a la Peggy McIntosh that white people need to look at their privilege and entitlement, Jefferson explains that there are differences here, nuances. She urges us keep ‘a close watch’ on these terms –  – she tells us that privilege is provisional and can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Its white counterpart, is, according to her, entitlement. In Negroland, privilege is what Blacks earned and fought to maintain; and she explains that privilege is a far cry from entitlement. As she says, “[there is a] luxury of being impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.”

One of the gifts of this book is that it serves to remind all of us that many Black voices document, as Jefferson says, “the truths we share in common, but also the very particular routes we came to them.” The brilliance of the book lies in part to its splintered, jagged disjointed style. Jefferson abruptly changes the tone, feel, and flair just when we least expect it – and it works because of it. Jumping from the public to the private sphere, and back again, she seamlessly offers us searing indictments on race, class, gender and performance but still always manage to speak with a critical perspective. I hope you will listen in.

Full interview: