Negroland is a memoir of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s as an upper-class black girl in Chicago. It’s about race, class, position, white socks, prejudice, hair oil and its stains, integration, politics, fabulous clothes, architecture, representation, style, standards and history. Jefferson mixes poetry and lyrics with historical extracts and retellings of events from daily and national life. It’s not an easy read, though it is extremely absorbing as a subject, because Jefferson’s prose is challenging; the readers are not let off lightly, and have to work to be told what we want to know.
Reading this had a peculiar effect on me, digging back into my past life. I grew up in a white monoculture in north-east Scotland. I hope I grew up free from racial prejudice because there was nothing in place to teach it. I do know that I was utterly ignorant about black lives, until I went to school in Wilmington, North Carolina, at the age of 9 (my scientist father was working at the oceanographical research station for 6 months, so we moved to the US). I noticed over time that all the children in my fourth-grade class who were noticeably, worrying slow at reading were black: that was how I worked out that economic deprivation and not having books at home could also be based on race. My mother volunteered in a day centre for children with learning difficulties, autism, physical and developmental problems, all jumbled in together in a large room in which she was the only white face. My American smallpox vaccination certificate has a ticked box to signify that I wasn’t black. Living in the southern USA in 1973 was an other-worldly experience. I visited North Carolina again seven years ago, and the smell of the pines and the quality of the heat and dampness in the air came back to me instantly, like a thump of recognition. Jefferson’s book had the same effect on me, in the stories she tells about the segregation her forebears endured, and the heroic toil of black women to make things a little better for the next generation of women.
Because Jefferson’s mother was an beautiful, fashionable woman, knowledgeable about style and design, much of this memoir is about clothes. She describes her mother’s elegant, cultured female society, her clubs and sororities, the passionate identification she and her sister had for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, and Audrey Hepburn, and the race politics they learned by watching them in their roles, learning their lyrics, understanding that Dandridge would never get the Hepburn parts, and why she refused to take the servant’s role as well. Jefferson and her sister had to shine under crushing rules for girls’ behaviour, for black behaviour, for ladies’ behaviour, all at the same time
However, as well as the images of smiling black girls wearing white socks standing by their father’s cruiser on the lake, Negroland is fascinating for the details of the practical politics of integration, of learning the power of refusal against those who choose to accept you when it suits them. Jefferson writes about the interstices, the period when integration was being worked out at pavement level, how neighbourhoods changed for the new black neighbours and how the black middle-classes moved in, held their own, established their own culture, but always had prejudice waiting for them, in the unsafe areas and the states and counties still segregated in all but name. All this is largely unknown to foreigners like me, the black history that can’t be taught in schools, the details that need to be explained or acted out in film scripts, the daily details that made Black Power possible as a movement.
Negroland was an enlightening memoir to read in the week when the extraordinary interview of Rachel Dolezal by Ijeoma Oluo was published. It was a rebuke and a magisterial stare across the colour bar that whites had established, with the oppressive, empowering weight of history behind it. Dolezal chooses to self-identify as black, but no black woman or man can choose to self-identify as white, unless (as in Jefferson’s memoir) they have the genes for fair skin and obedient hair to ‘pass’, should they want to. For Jefferson’s aunts and uncles it was only ever ‘passing’, temporary whiteness on sufferance because it was economically and socially convenient, and no white person should forget that, or presume to travel in the opposite direction.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2016, and was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. (Granta Books, 2015), ISBN 078-1-78378-339-7, £8.99