How to be a Credit to Your Race A gendered tale of the black bourgeoisie.

Negroland: A Memoir

Margo Jefferson (Pantheon, 2015) 256 pages

Is race a matter of pedagogy? In Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir, the colorline is something that must be learned. Jefferson narrates growing up as part of an upper middle-class black family in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Her story is both personal and historical. Between snippets that detail moments in black history—genealogies of Negro elites and the educational imperatives to serve black students—she talks of elementary school songs, living room family gatherings, and conversations between friends. The portrait of Negroland, “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty,” that emerges is one of restraint, calculation, and submission. The book documents the process by which black children learn that they are valued less than white children, how they learn to strive (but not too much), and how they learn what success in America is, and how to achieve it.

Eschewing traditional narrative structure, Jefferson’s book is an affective portrait of racialization. It offers a rare and incisive look at what Negro life looked like at a time when the Civil Rights struggle was nascent, when success depended on differentiating oneself from those other types of black people, but not being able to assimilate completely into whiteness. Historically, Jefferson frames this as a moment before black pride (though that is not an entirely true statement), but what it is most notable for is its portrayal of racialization as a schism between the mind and the body and its understanding that violence hides in the micro. While Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) has become the go-to book for an analysis of racial micro-aggressions and the affective violence of race in contemporary society, Jefferson’s Negroland offers a welcome genealogy to our present moment. In moving to the recent past, Jefferson offers iciness where Rankine offers fire; she offers a calculus of icy complicity; rather than frustration or rebellion; and importantly, she offers an alternate understanding of how to do things with words. This is not Rankine’s lyrical anger, but a portrait of a fragile self that depends on words to hold a world, now-changed, together. Jefferson documents this by focusing on her experience at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (UCLS), the august institution that Jefferson and her sister attend, with anecdotes about becoming a cheerleader, accidentally singing racist songs (before being corrected by her parents), and being unsure if she would be allowed in to see various school friends. We see the embarrassment of racialization through the small wounds that Jefferson endures as she slowly realizes that she is different from the assumed universal.

This struggle between book-learning and embodiment is at the heart of the memoir. All of the stories that Jefferson narrates of passing, of complex racial histories, of being asked to define herself in a beauty supply store, speak to the textures of embodied ambiguity, of people who have to be told who they are and how they are different. There is a strain of pride in blackness, but it is deeply embedded in a language of elitism and genealogy—using language to hide the body is one of the symbols of her success.

“I was taught to avoid showing off. I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.” And so begins our voyage through Jefferson’s difficulty reconciling mind and body. While she finds joy in performing, the space of the body represents peril for Jefferson—it is the space of the untamed and the private. Importantly, it is also the space of blackness. In outlining this schism, Jefferson writes, “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 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 kind 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 act flamboyant.” The body, then, is off-limits in the racial limbo that Jefferson occupies.

[A] struggle between book-learning and embodiment is at the heart of the memoir. All of the stories that Jefferson narrates, of passing, of complex racial histories, of being asked to define herself in a beauty supply store, speak to the textures of embodied ambiguity, of people who have to be told who they are and how they are different.

As the book proceeds, we begin to see that this closed-offness of the body is partially a response to the Negro elite’s historical formation through various acts of corporeal porosity. The lineages of elitism that Jefferson provides are festooned with interracial dalliances between white landowners and free blacks or between blacks and Indians—a particular intimacy of proximity that continues to the present day as Jefferson describes the unofficial high school codes for interracial dating, relatives who pass as white, and close ties with nearby Jewish communities. The community that comprises Negroland is adjacent to whiteness in a way that speaks to the difficulty of stabilizing what race is while simultaneously understanding itself in a secondary position. In this posture of defensiveness, its denizens refuse the injuries hurled upon them by white Americans, while also refusing to give in to what it imagines to be blackness’ link to baseness. This is its own form of segregation, which holds even when in the presence of progressive communities such as the UCLS. This is a form of identity in which success is blending in and standing out is failure.

While this form of existing without making a fuss is what Jefferson learns about race, we can say that these lessons are also deeply gendered. The Negro girl is an ornament subject to stringent beauty standards, expected, as Jefferson writes, to “be ruthless. Catalogue and compensate.” Her worth is registered according to the degrees that it approximates whiteness: how light is her skin? How curly is her hair? How small is her nose? And how flat is her behind? Victory in this arena is admiration from colleagues at school, but desire threatens to obliterate progress at every turn. Sexuality is a problem because it might lead to improper attachments, leading one to erase generations of hard-won respectability or lightness.

It is no wonder that this claustrophobia leads her to obsess over suicide. Anticipating this interlude, she writes, “What I would do later, starting in college and in the years following, to become a person of inner consequence: break that fawning inner self into pieces.” In part this desire to kill herself is born from the changing times—the swirl of activism in the 1970s—that led her to believe “that the entitlement of Negroland were no longer relevant.” This is to say that her understanding of herself was outdated in an era of black power and a rhetoric of black authenticity. The other force driving this desire for death is her understanding of black women’s central role in maintaining the legacy of the black elite. Taught not to crack, Jefferson seeks the “privilege of neurosis.” Stepping toward herself and away from Negroland’s obsessive hold over her behaviors involves coming to grips with wanting the vice of appropriate behavior to dissipate. She embraces fragmentation as she becomes more herself. At this point, the narrative becomes more scattered. Time passes and there are small anecdotes that show us how Jefferson navigates her way through changing racial times. She shows us “cuts and bruises that do not map a course.” We can take this to mean that she recognizes the various forms of privilege that she embodies as a well-educated, light-skinned black woman. We also understand that this is a form of blackness that is often left out of narratives of racial identity in the current moment. Further, we understand that her training in complicity, her yearning for whiteness, for recognition (but not too much) is part and parcel of a recognition that she is out of step with today and, importantly, out of step with her body.

This is not a narrative that resolves itself in an embrace of pleasure and sensuality. These things remain off the table for discussion. Jefferson invites us to settle into melancholy. There is nothing of bodies and pleasures here. In learning to quiet her body, we see nothing of passion or sex, which are deemed not respectable. This is a memoir that outlines the perils and potentials of focusing on race as pedagogy. Jefferson has learned how to become black and how to be from Negroland. As Negroland itself becomes a foreign territory in our current landscape of black affective excess—either of pain or pleasure—she learns how to shatter herself quietly and purposefully. Rather than see this as a time capsule, however, I think Jefferson’s memoir allows us to examine the processes and dynamics of racialization as developmental and pervasive. She shows us that children cannot help but be molded by what surrounds them, and that sterility and coldness can be strategies of survival.