Privilege And Pressure: A Memoir Of Growing Up Black And Elite In 'Negroland' : Code Switch In her memoir, Negroland, Margo Jefferson describes growing up black and affluent in 1950s Chicago. Jefferson tells Fresh Air it was a world of sophistication — and snobbery.
NPR logo

Privilege And Pressure: A Memoir Of Growing Up Black And Elite In 'Negroland'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/438536006/438596046" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Privilege And Pressure: A Memoir Of Growing Up Black And Elite In 'Negroland'

Privilege And Pressure: A Memoir Of Growing Up Black And Elite In 'Negroland'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/438536006/438596046" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the colored 400, Negro society, black society, the black upper class, the black elite, those are some of the expressions that have been used over the past 200 years to describe the realm of accomplished and prosperous African-American families, families like the one my guest, Margo Jefferson, grew up in in the 1950s. Jefferson refers to those terms for the black elite, but she's coined a new name, Negroland, to describe the privileged place her family fit in when she was a child in Chicago in the 1950s. Her new memoir, "Negroland," describes what it was like to grow up in a family that was in the upper class of black culture, conferring a kind of racial status that seemed to fit somewhere in between black and white. She writes about the privileges that came along with that status and the sense of responsibility and the pressure to constantly achieve and never expose weakness or failure that might reflect badly on the family or the race. And she describes the elitist and condescending attitudes that can accompany that status. Jefferson is a cultural critic who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1994 New York Times book reviews. She's a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. Margo Jefferson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Please read for us from the beginning of your book, which is the setup to the whole concept of "Negroland."

MARGO JEFFERSON: All right. (Reading) Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland 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. Children there were taught 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. Too many Negroes, it was said, 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 kinds of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to be flamboyant. Showing off was permitted, even encouraged, only if the result reflected well on your family, their friends and your collective ancestors.

GROSS: That's Margo Jefferson reading from her new memoir, "Negroland." So you call this way of living, these values, Negroland. And I think, for some people, the word Negro makes that - them nervous 'cause it's a word we don't use anymore. It's a word that now has negative connotations.

JEFFERSON: Yes.

GROSS: In what spirit do you use that word?

JEFFERSON: I use the word in the spirit of history, in the spirit of historical exactness and irony and respect for the movement of history and the ironies it creates and also the fact that part of our history is this series of changing names, which says so much about our fluctuating status. We're colored - colored was the term of choice some decades back, then Negro, meaning - you know, meaning the approved of and appropriate term - Afromerica, American had a brief fling, Afro-Americans in the 60s, then African, then black, then African-American. So, you know, I wanted also that sense of, you know, these strange historical shifts back and forth.

GROSS: And you describe yourself as both a dissenter and an admirer of Negroland. So you were a part of it, but you also were a dissenter - or are a dissenter now?

JEFFERSON: Yes, exactly, in that I'm examining and criticizing as I am also dramatizing and paying homage to.

GROSS: Your father was a doctor. What did it mean when you were growing up to have a doctor in the family?

JEFFERSON: (Laughter) It was important, and it was impressive. You know, doctors, lawyers, scholars, black accomplishments, achievements, you know, the mark of a very successful world, proof that you had worked incredibly hard, aspired, then inspired to achieve. And it was considered, also, if you were a doctor then, yes, you know, presumably you were concerned with helping people. It had a certain virtue attached to it too, is what I mean.

GROSS: So did he have a lot of prestige within the community?

JEFFERSON: Well, he did. He was one of the doctors, and for a time he was head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, which was the big, black, private hospital in Chicago and actually was the oldest black hospital in the United States. So yeah, and he had a large private practice. And he was an honorable man, in fact. He was. (Laughter) I would not say that if it weren't true.

GROSS: What was your mother's place in the community?

JEFFERSON: Oh, right, well, my mother had been, before she married, a social worker. She, once we were born, became a full-time mother and, as many women in that period - '40s, '50s, early '60s - were, you know, a kind of - a social being, a socialite, you know, member of clubs, etc., etc. Many of her - well, a number of her friends also worked. There were teachers among them. There were lawyers. There were a few doctors. There also was a certain prestige attached to being the wife and mother who did not have to work outside the home. And my mother took that role.

GROSS: So you grew up with this fear instilled in you that errors, weaknesses, failures would reflect poorly on your family, your ancestors, the history of African-American people. Were...

JEFFERSON: And I was...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

JEFFERSON: I was not alone in that. You know, this was something most of us were taught. And it was - you know, if you go back and read, you know, editorials in black magazines and even in white magazines and watch television, this attitude is everywhere, you know? That Jackie Robinson, he's advancing the race. Marian Anderson, she's advancing the race. You know, this was the way America, black, white and other, tended to - not tended to, did view blacks. The individual was a collective symbol.

GROSS: Were there particular kinds of mistakes you were especially worried about or warned about making when you were in your formative years?

JEFFERSON: Well, there were two kinds. One had to do with your intellect. The other had to do with your manners. So it was very important that you show yourself a bright, lively, well-spoken person. Being a girl (laughter), the whole fleet and attachment of manners, behaviors, rituals, your tone of voice, how you dressed, being polite, that had to do with showing you were a good, well-behaved girl who was going to become a lady - you know, that you weren't slatternly or coarse or, as you got older, fast.

GROSS: Right.

JEFFERSON: You know, all of these had to do with countering a body of stereotypes.

GROSS: How did you feel about that at the time?

JEFFERSON: You know, you're a child, and it - these things come to you in different ways. Sometimes they came as prohibitions. Sometimes they just came as conventions. There were many things about girlhood that I enjoyed. I loved clothes. You know, I even enjoyed - which I'm not completely proud of, but I do write about it - you know, I got certain perks out of being good. I liked being rewarded for being very bright. These things come at you differently.

GROSS: When you were growing up, you say beauty standards for African-American girls who were, as you put it, living in Negroland, who were privileged - your father was a doctor - the beauty standards were very stringent. So when you studied yourself in the mirror, how did you think you measured up, and what were the standards you were measuring yourself against?

JEFFERSON: All right, so here is little Margo looking in the mirror. I'm measuring my shade of brown. I'm measuring the width of my nose. I'm measuring the size of my lips. I'm doing the usual things that girls do, you know, my - OK, what shape are my eyes? Are they big? Oh, are my features well proportioned? But I am particularly well proportioned - in Negroland, and in black life in general - has very much to do with questions of noses being too wide and lips being too big. So I am very focused on that. And I have, you know, an exact series of grades for hair as well as shades of skin.

GROSS: So as an adult now, looking back on that era, how do you feel about the standards that you were expecting to measure up to physically?

JEFFERSON: You know, and they extended beyond my world. They really hovered over and imposed themselves on all Negroes, black people, African-Americans. You know, it was ruthless. It was mean-spirited (laughter). It was bigoted. You know, we were brainwashed into one standard of not just beauty but acceptability. You know, there's a terrible kind of anthropological othering and disdain in those kinds of judgments isn't there?

GROSS: Well, it seems to me, like, the closer you can get to being white, the more beautiful you'd be (laughter).

JEFFERSON: Absolutely. Not a question, not a question. And, of course, that means that's the physical equivalent of if you were culturally intellectually white, you would be worthy. You would be first rate. You are not - not physically, not culturally, not intellectually, not historically - and so you are inferior.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Margo Jefferson. She's written a new memoir called "Negroland." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Margo Jefferson. She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, a professor of writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts and author of the new memoir, "Negroland."

So you were brought up in what you describe as Negroland, the land of African-American families who are relatively privileged, who are professionals, like your father, a doctor, who are trying to raise you to be exemplary…

JEFFERSON: Yes.

GROSS: …And to reflect well on African-Americans, to reflect well on your family, your ancestors. And then the Black Power Movement comes along, and I'm wondering, like, how that affected your consciousness of what it meant to be black in America.

JEFFERSON: Well, first came, you know, the really active Civil Rights Movement. And so it really starts with that. And in many ways in my consciousness, you know - not only the demonstrations and the violence, but mostly in the South initially. But it really starts also with meeting someone like James Baldwin, you know? And that upturns everything. You know, wait, he said - my overwhelming feeling at the time, when I first read Baldwin again in this civil rights uproar tumult context was oh, my God, so many things can be said, you know, about what roils away inside of you as well as what goes on around you. All kinds of censorship starts lifting about how angry you can actively be. But then you know, Black Power which was very much combined with, you know, a whole leftist analysis of class and race. It would take a while longer for gender to enter the picture.

Black Power really was a major challenge to the social privileges and structures of the kind of privilege that I had grown up with. And that went everywhere from manners - your sense of manners and good behavior changed. That whole belief that we talked about earlier - that belief structure that, you know - you will only be able to advance if you are perfectly behaved, if you present yourself as what white people would consider an ideal of whiteness - good behavior, achievement, etc., intelligence, enacted by a black person - all of that just began to burst open. This also was…

GROSS: I think there's also an element of implicitly being deferential.

JEFFERSON: Absolutely. However much you carried yourself with pride - and dignity and pride were very much emphasized - of course, structurally difference, then, is absolutely included. You must adhere to these standards, and you must not step out of line because we - you will be punished.

GROSS: This is exactly the opposite of the Black Power Movement.

JEFFERSON: Of the Militant Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

JEFFERSON: The opposite. They are also both accompanied, you know, by this opening up of black scholarship, black studies…

GROSS: Right, yeah.

JEFFERSON: Yeah, and this is huge.

GROSS: And a whole new kind of, like, black arts.

JEFFERSON: Yes, which, again - well, a revival - new black arts that actually is extending, you know, tradition. It's not that there hadn't been black scholarship - you know, yes, it was called Negro or colored or, you know, before - there was a legacy of it - black art, too - but new stages again, newly insistent and a new flowering - a Renaissance, another Renaissance. So this was extraordinary.

GROSS: So what was the balance for you personally of, like, this being, like, opportunity, and it being frightening because it contradicted so much of how you were brought up?

JEFFERSON: You know, as you ask the question, it's almost - a part of me wants to, you know, sort of go into the overwhelming almost trauma answer. But I honestly feel it was sometimes very painful. Self-examination when, you know, the whole world around you is pressuring that and challenging you is very, very hard. Looking at, you know, a whole structure in my case let us say of snobbery, (laughter) basking in, you know, certain privileges, marks of what appeared to be superiority. That's ugly to look at, and it's very hard, as we all know, you know, to go at these internalized beliefs, feelings, psychological needs. Yeah, I don't regret any of it. I feel, and I think many people – blacks, but also whites who were part of, you know, the '60s and the tumult and the uproar and the multiple others we now have around us - they'd say the same thing. It was worth it. I wouldn't - good God - it was - you know, there was waste. There was destruction along with all the glory. But I wouldn't trade it. I'm so grateful to have been born when I could live through all of this, and please - feminism then, you know, entered the picture, and that was huge.

GROSS: What was that for you?

JEFFERSON: Life-changing also. You know, it's - with each of these movements, it's so extraordinary because parts of the world as well as the external world, as well as your internal self, you know - it's as if they've all been buried underground and literally not existed. There is a line from a review of - I think it's Kate Chopin's book, "The Awakening." I could have that wrong, but the line has always stayed with me as emblematic of these kinds of changes. The reviewer said, disdaining her book, a fact which we have all agreed upon not to acknowledge is as good as no fact at all. You know, so all of these facts of bigotry, of oppression, of racial oppression, of class oppression, of gender oppression, suddenly they were being acknowledged. They were being insisted upon, and good God.

GROSS: Was there a generational divide in your family between how you responded to the Black Power Movement and how your parents did?

JEFFERSON: Oh gosh, of course there was. My parents were at one with the Civil Rights Movement. But Black Power - it flung its disdainful hand at much that they believed in and much of who they were, and that was very, very painful. You know, just, you know, beginning with the disdain, the contempt of - with which the word Negro was used - which had been their generation and the previous generation before theirs weren't of honor. You know, and suddenly Negro became the sign and symbol of - for the Black Power Movement - of deference, as you say, of corruption, you know of corrupt bourgeois values, of rejection, of black identity, and black pride. This was horrible for them. In its way, it was traumatic. Now, in certain ways, you know, they began to respond more positively, but it was a huge generation gap, not a question.

GROSS: My guest is Margo Jefferson, author of the new memoir "Negroland." After a short break, we'll talk about dealing with depression while feeling pressured to uphold the image of the indomitable, black woman. And we'll hear from Lonnie Wheeler, the author of "Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games," the things statistics don't measure. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Margo Jefferson. Her new memoir is about growing up in the 1950s in a part of black America that was sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. She calls that region Negroland, which is also the title of her memoir. Jefferson is a cultural critic who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1994 book reviews published in The New York Times. She's now a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. Part of her memoir is about dealing with depression in a culture where she felt discouraged from showing vulnerability. So, in your memoir, "Negroland," you write that in the late '70s, you started to actively cultivate a desire to kill yourself. That - the kind of depression you were experiencing just didn't seem to be acceptable in black life, that there wasn't a place for that kind of despair. You were supposed to be an indomitable black woman. Could you expand on that thought?

JEFFERSON: Yes, one of the things that had been demanded of black people in general, you know, by our history, was a kind of indomitability. You know, there is a narrative of that, escaping slavery, you know, overcoming brutal treatment, unjust laws, you know, progressing, you know, not letting yourself be crushed by racism, by setbacks, by, you know, small as everyday petty injustices as well as, you know, the mega-systemic ones. That requires huge amounts of emotional and mental self-control. For example, growing up, one of the things that many black people hear, you know, is the kind of crack. Sometimes it's said privately, sometimes it's said, you know, kind of cynically, oh, you know, we're - we don't have nervous breakdowns. You know, we're too strong for that. Of course, every black person knows perfectly well and knows some people who've had nervous breakdowns. But, you know, it's part of the ethos and the myth of black survival and, in fact, triumph. In terms of the history of black women, so much of it involved, necessitated, struggling against stereotypes, proving, you know, yourself a healthy, high-functioning, disciplined woman.

GROSS: OK, so there's a poem that you reprint by Mari Evans, and then you say that you tore it out of your book and set it on fire in the bathroom sink. I want you to read the poem and tell us why it made you so angry that you had to set it on fire.

JEFFERSON: (Laughter) Yes, well, I feel a little badly, seeming - feeling like I'm attacking, at this moment, this iconic '60s poem. But we're talking about an intimate personal reaction to it, are we not? This is also a poem, let me add, that when I first read it in the late '60s - I believe it was in the late '60s - certainly when I was still not fully aware of my own female psyche, I had convinced myself that I loved it. That's important.

(Reading) I am a black woman, strong beyond all definition still, defying place and time and circumstance, assailed, impervious, indestructible. Look on me, and be renewed.

GROSS: So why did you have to tear the poem out and burn it?

JEFFERSON: I had, at that moment, to tear it out and burn it 'cause I thought, now this is a vision of this superhuman that I am not, that I should not have to be asked to be, and that it's wrong, in a way, to insist on that mythology because too many of us must fail. We are human. We have these individual psyches, and we cannot be any kind - I cannot be any kind of strong, black woman if I am not fully aware of all the vulnerabilities inside. I was furious at my other self for believing, for a time, that I loved it, that I was furious at the demands it made that I felt were mythologically bogus.

GROSS: What was going on in your life, outside and inside, that made you think seriously about taking your life in the late '70s?

JEFFERSON: Yes, let me say I do think that a kind of depression which can lead to certain kinds of suicide, a kind of melancholy that can be passed on from one generation to the next, particularly, perhaps, in - among groups that are constantly battling discrimination, racism, bigotry, oppression... And it often goes somewhat unacknowledged and it can become symbolic of a respite that you can take from the constant pressure of proving yourself within your community, to your people, as worth of them and, of course, with your people, proving yourself to this larger hostile world. It can feel like the only way to get a rest from those constant demands, the only way to really be - one of the only ways to really be with yourself and acknowledge truthfully that aspect of yourself that has been forbidden.

GROSS: So you're talking about retreating into depression?

JEFFERSON: Yes, exactly, which can then, of course - you know, suicide as an extension of depression, which - both of which have very strong components of anger, (laughter) somewhat futile anger. Both of those, depression and thoughts of suicide, can feel like a kind of resting place. No one can get at me here. Nothing is expected of me, you know, if I am in this state.

GROSS: Have you had friends or family who actually went through with what you considered and took their life?

JEFFERSON: Yes, I have acquaintances and friends - not family, though my father had a melancholy turn. And I talked about this more with my mother after he had died, but I have lost friends to suicide, yes, white and black.

GROSS: Do you feel like you understood why they did it, or did it totally throw you since you considered that at one point yourself?

JEFFERSON: You know, it's so interesting. With - I'm thinking of two in particular. And with the first friend, I really did feel I understood it. I was crushed. I was angry, partly because I thought, oh, well if she just waited a little longer, the medication might have - but I got it. I really couldn't - I couldn't oppose her need or her reasons. With the more recent suicide, which was actually just this year - and I guess this is a measure of certain internal shifts in me - I got it, but I suddenly fully felt the anger and the despair of the survivor. Oh, my God, I thought, this is such an angry, excluding act. I felt it was taking a toll on me, that when I was more in the grip of my own death wish, I never really considered what it leaves the other people with.

GROSS: My guest is Margo Jefferson. Her new memoir is called "Negroland." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Margo Jefferson. Her new memoir, "Negroland," is about growing up in a part of black America that was sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. As you write in your memoir, you never had children. You never intended to have children. You never married. You've always felt you required solitude. Do you think that deciding not to have children relates at all to your own childhood?

JEFFERSON: I don't, in fact. I think there is much more variety among girls and women, you know, in negotiating and just instinctively following our - our wishes and will about children. What...

GROSS: And knowing you have a choice, that you...

JEFFERSON: Yeah.

GROSS: You really actually had a choice.

JEFFERSON: Exactly. There was - you know, there was a moment when my niece was born. She was a few years old. I was visiting my sister, who was with my parents in Chicago. And we were having a fine old time. She was a charming little baby. And I was sitting in the breakfast room having coffee and it just suddenly entered my head. I thought, oh, so here's the grandchild. You know, families like that. I don't have to have a child now. She's here. And, boom (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) Off the hook?

JEFFERSON: That was it, off the hook. You know, I hadn't ever thought a lot about it before, I then realized. You know, occasionally in high school you have these perfunctory chats with friends. Oh, we'll live next door, and we'll have our children. It rarely came up in college at all. I mean, it just - I realized it had never been a significant part of my thoughts or dreams. And then suddenly, oh, OK, no external pressure, boom, it's gone.

GROSS: And you still feel good about that choice.

JEFFERSON: Oh, absolutely. It was entirely right for me.

GROSS: So this is kind of personal. And I don't mean to get gloomy. But since we're talking about being - you know, being single and not having children, you're in your late 60s. You probably...

JEFFERSON: Yeah, I'm 67.

GROSS: OK, so you probably have friends who are also single and don't have children and who have been very sick or have been sick and died and didn't have the support of a spouse or children to help them. If you could reflect on that, I'd be really interested in hearing it.

JEFFERSON: Oh, Terry, Terry, Terry.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFERSON: Well, my friends and I are talking and thinking a lot about this now because yes, we've seen that. I've also seen - and I know this is going to sound a little defensive, but I do have to say it. I've also seen people who essentially died alone whose families were not caring for them. So, you know, it's something that's maybe more acute if you are single. But it's something we all really need to take in, with thinking about, you know, maybe at some point those of us who are living alone start sharing, you know, spaces, live in the same building or buy apartments together. We're all thinking about, you know, relatives we have to whom we are close, like nieces and nephews. But we're looking at - starting, I would say - to look at what structures our society offers. I don't have really a good answer. It's scary.

GROSS: In 1995, you won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism for book reviews that you wrote in '94. And you were writing for The New York Times. You were a critic for The Times.

JEFFERSON: I was, yeah.

GROSS: And so I'm wondering what that award meant to you, considering the emphasis in your life that was placed on achievement and advancing the race.

JEFFERSON: Oh, interesting. Well, of course I was aware that I was - now I hope I have it right - that I was the second black - certainly the second black woman to get a Pulitzer at The Times. Isabel Wilkerson had been the first. You know, and I was aware of, you know, every black writer who had gotten a Pulitzer or a, you know, MBA, something like that. So it - it mattered. I knew it was entering race history in a certain way. I was also aware that it was entering gender history in a certain way. I was also, of course, aware that somewhere there was - maybe behind my back - blowback. You know, I knew some people were saying, well, you know - you know, she's a good enough writer, but, you know, she got the Pulitzer because she's black and a woman. All right, so you cope.

GROSS: Did you hear that?

JEFFERSON: Yeah. Not - you know, not a steady punitive rush. But, you know, I saw it a few places. I had it repeated to me, usually - occasionally - usually in the form of, well, you know, I don't think this or, it's not fair, but, you know, so-and-so said this. Look, it took a racial gendered form. You and I both know that there's always a lot of grousing when prizes and all of that are handed out. Of course it was going to take - when there was grousing, you know, of course the convenient outlets were race and gender. And I'm very aware that historically, social, political, legal changes that all have worked to equalize opportunities for blacks and women very much benefited me. I give the beneficiary of that. And it doesn't really do me any good to pretend otherwise. I think my work shows irony. I am a beneficiary of that. And it doesn't really do me any good to pretend otherwise. I think my work shows I earned it. I think these systems are in place to counter the unjust systems that preceded them. But, you know, I don't want to - I get it. And I never would deny that lawsuits and (laughter) and even quotas have helped me. And, you know, I think my work shows, good for them.

GROSS: Right, right, right. (Laughter) It paid off. I mean...

JEFFERSON: (Laughter). It turned out to be good for them, too.

GROSS: Right, right. Margo Jefferson, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

JEFFERSON: Oh, thank you. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Margo Jefferson's new memoir is called, "Negroland." Coming up, you've heard about "Moneyball," measuring a baseball player's worth by his statistics. We'll talk about "Intangiball," the strengths those statistics do not measure. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.