I recently finished reading the book Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (review here), which documents the author’s unfortunate and tragic imprisonment as a slave in Louisiana from 1841 – 1853. Wanting to hear more about the role of race in America, I decided to read Negroland by Margo Jefferson, which tells about her life growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in the mid-West in an upper-middle class African American family.
The title of the book refers both to the specific neighborhood that the author grew up in but also more generally to similar black communities. According to Jefferson, “Negroland” is comprised of well-to-do African Americans who through hard work, strategic decisions, and chance were able to make a good life for themselves—as Jefferson’s mother put it, “they were comfortable.” For example, Jefferson’s father was a doctor and her mother was a social worker turned socialite. Jefferson’s mother wore nice hats and clothing and did her best to instill good manners in her children and give them a good education. When Jefferson was growing up, segregation was still the law of the land, which meant that securing a good job and education meant having to work twice as hard and facing hurdles and many tightly closed doors along the way. For this reason, Jefferson and many others in her shoes were taught to be modest and presentable at all times, lest they face undue racial prejudice.
The background of this story is frustratingly sad. Jefferson elaborates on a few instances when her family was treated poorly because of their race. Jefferson also mentioned that some of her light-skinned relatives passed for white on occasion to get better jobs and escape the perpetual torment of discrimination. According to Jefferson, during this time, while there were many white Americans that seemed to tolerate black people, they were still uncomfortable with actual equality.
Jefferson went through most of her schooling being one of the few black children in her classes. While Jefferson makes no mention of strict quotas, she intuits that “integration” was gradual and that black students still faced barriers in their schooling and in society in general. Additionally, Jefferson recounts that many integrated schools still took measures to bar (if only unofficially) black students from social events outside of school hours.
In detailing her experiences, Jefferson has adopted an ambivalent tone to explain events. On the one hand, she speaks with pride as she describes the hard-working, educated residents of Negroland as the “third race” that is neither purely African American nor white American (Jefferson does not take into account Americans from other backgrounds). On the other hand, Jefferson expresses frustration, envy, and even shame. For example, Jefferson makes it known that although she has taken great pains to assimilate into white culture, she is not trying to be white; yet Jefferson does not want to be seen as wholly black either. Her self-designation as a resident of “Negroland” captures the tricky relationship that she has with herself and the black and white communities around her.
Jefferson’s narrative continues into her adult life with a few notes about race relations in the 1970s and 1980s. While we all understand the basics of racism in America, segregation, and the civil rights movement, experiences like that of Jefferson are those that are not expounded upon in our history books. While Jefferson’s memoir is a personal one, I feel that her story is one that many have experienced, but far fewer are aware of.
If you are interested in learning more about race relations in America from a new angle, do indeed check out Negroland.