An engrossing dissection of the "coloured aristocracy"by Sameer Rahim / December 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Negroland: A Memoir, by Margot Jefferson (Granta, £12.99)
As a child, Margot Jefferson was taught that “you don’t tell your secrets to strangers—certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure.” Fortunately she has overcome her reticence to write a beautifully nuanced account of growing up as a middle-class African-American in Chicago in the 1950s.
Jefferson’s preferred term for her lost world is “Negroland,” a word full of “wonders, glorious and terrible.” It signals white oppression, for sure, but also racial pride. She attends one of the few private schools in Chicago to take black students, where she excels academically and co-captains the Varsity cheerleaders; she reads Ebony magazine, which has affirming articles such as: “Why I Like Dark Women,” written by Louis Armstrong. Emerging with confidence, she went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for her theatre criticism.
Despite the protection of her privilege, though, as a child racial slights were inevitable in a segregated city. Their white laundry-deliveryman is cheerfully deferential at the front door, but snubs Jefferson’s mother when he sees her in Sears. Uncle Lucious, light-skinned enough to pass as Caucasian, works as a travelling salesman before retiring to Negroland and becoming black once more. He reports that white people talk constantly about how much they hate blacks.
Negroland is not only an engrossing dissection of a community rarely written about—what Jefferson calls the “third race” of the “coloured aristocracy”—it also skilfully picks apart traditional notions of colour. “White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.”