Negroland: A Memoir

Paperback | August 23, 2016

byMargo Jefferson

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

A New York Times Notable Book
 
One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kansas City Star, Men’s Journal, Oprah.com 


Pulitzer Prize–winning cultural critic Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 into upper-crust black Chicago. Her father was head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, while her mother was a socialite. In these pages, Jefferson takes us into this insular and discerning society: “I call it Negroland,” she writes, “because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.”

Negroland’s pedigree dates back generations, having originated with antebellum free blacks who made their fortunes among the plantations of the South. It evolved into a world of exclusive sororities, fraternities, networks, and clubs—a world in which skin color and hair texture were relentlessly evaluated alongside scholarly and professional achievements, where the Talented Tenth positioned themselves as a third race between whites and “the masses of Negros,” and where the motto was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” At once incendiary and icy, mischievous and provocative, celebratory and elegiac, Negroland is a landmark work on privilege, discrimination, and the fallacy of post-racial America.

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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle AwardA New York Times Notable Book   One of the Best Books of the Year: The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kansas City Star, Men’s Journal, Oprah.com Pulitzer Prize–winning cultural critic Margo Jefferson was bo...

The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson was for years a book and arts critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, Vogue, New York magazine, and The Nation, and Guernica. Her memoir, Negroland, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.6 inPublished:August 23, 2016Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307473430

ISBN - 13:9780307473431

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I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.   I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts. A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures arise to challenge its primacy.   I call it Negroland because “Negro” dominated our history for so long; because I lived with its meanings and intimations for so long; because they were essential to my first discoveries of what race meant, or, as we now say, how race was constructed.For nearly two hundred years we in Negroland have called ourselves all manner of things. Like     the colored aristocracy     the colored elite     the colored 400     the 400     the blue vein society     the big families, the old families, the old settlers, the pioneers     Negro society, black society     the Negro, the black, the African-American upper class or elite.I was born in 1947, and my generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public. (Even now I shy away from the word “failings.”) Even the least of them would be turned against the race. Most white people made no room for the doctrine of “human, all too human”: our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human.   For my generation the motto was still: Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.   Part of me dreads revealing anything in these pages except our drive to excellence. But I dread the constricted expression that comes from that. And we’re prone to being touchy. Self-righteously smug and snobbish. So let me begin in a quiet, clinical way.   I was born into the Chicago branch of Negroland. My father was a doctor, a pediatrician, and for some years head of pediatrics at Provident, the nation’s oldest black hospital. My mother was a social worker who left her job when she married, and throughout my childhood she was a full-time wife, mother, and socialite. But where did they come from to get there? And which clubs and organizations did they join to seal their membership in this world?   A brief vita of the author.      Margo Jefferson:      Ancestors: (In chronological order): slaves and slaveholders in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi; farmers, musi­cians, butlers, construction crew supervisors, teachers, beauticians and maids, seamstresses and dressmakers, engineers, policewomen, real estate businesswomen, lawyers, judges, doctors and social workers      Father’s fraternity: Kappa Alpha Psi      Mother’s (and sister’s) sorority: Delta Sigma Theta      Parents’ national clubs: the Boulé (father); the Northeast­erners (mother)     Sister’s and my national clubs: Jack and Jill; the Co-Ettes   Local clubs, schools, and camps will be named as we go along. Skin color and hair will be described, evaluated too, along with other racialized physical traits. Questions inevita­bly will arise. Among them: How does one—how do you, how do I—parse class, race, family, and temperament? How many kinds of deprivation are there? What is the compass of privilege? What has made and maimed me? Here are some of this group’s founding categories, the opposi­tions and distinctions they came to live by.     Northerner / Southerner     house slave / field hand     free black / slave black     free black / free mulatto     skilled worker / unskilled worker (free or slave)     owns property / owns none     reads and writes fluently / reads a little but does not write / reads and writes a little / neither reads nor writes     descends from African and Indian royalty / descends from African obscurities / descends from upper-class whites / descends from lower-class whites / descends from no whites at all   White Americans have always known how to develop aris­tocracies from local resources, however scant. British grocers arrive on the Mayflower and become founding fathers. German laborers emigrate to Chicago and become slaughterhouse kings. Women of equally modest origins marry these men or their rivals or their betters and become social arbiters.   We did the same. “Colored society” was originally a mélange of     men and women who were given favorable treatment, money, property, and even freedom by well-born Cauca­sian owners, employers, and parents;     men and women who bought their freedom with hard cash and hard labor;     men, women, and children bought and freed by slavery-hating whites or Negro friends and relatives;     men and women descended from free Negroes, hence born free.   They learned their letters and their manners; they learned skilled trades (barber, caterer, baker, jeweler, machinist, tailor, dressmaker); they were the best-trained servants in the bet­ter white homes and hotels; they bought real estate; published newspapers; established schools and churches; formed clubs and mutual aid societies; took care to marry among themselves. Some arrived from Haiti alongside whites fleeing Toussaint L’Ouverture’s black revolution: their ranks included free mulat­toes and slaves who, after some pretense of loyalty, found it easy to desert their former masters and go into the business of upward mobility. From New Orleans to New York, men and women of mixed blood insistently established their primacy.   I’ve fallen into a mocking tone that feels prematurely disloyal.

Editorial Reviews

“Brave. . . . Revelatory. . . . Recall[s] a number of America’s greatest thinkers on race . . . James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois.” —The New York Times Book Review“Powerful. . . . Margo Jefferson identifies and deftly explores the tensions that come with being party of America’s black elite.” —Roxane Gay, O, The Oprah Magazine“Jefferson is a national treasure and her memoir should be required reading across the country.” —Vanity Fair   “Intricate and moving. . . . Powerful.” —The New York Times“Enlightening. . . . Poetic and bracing.” —The Washington Post “[A] masterpiece. . . . A phenomenal study-cum-memoir about the black bourgeoisie.” —Hilton Als, author of White Girls “A veritable library of African-American letters and a sumptious compendium of elegant style. . . . [Jefferson] paints her rich inner and outer landscape with deft, impressionistic strokes.” —The Boston Globe “Provocative and insightful. . . . Melancholic and hopeful, raw and disarming. . . . A moving memoir that is an act of courage in its vulnerability.” —Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns “Poignant. . . . Harrowing. . . . In Negroland, Jefferson is simultaneously looking in and looking out at her blackness, elusive in her terse, evocative reconnaissance, leaving us yearning to know more.” —Los Angeles Times “Jefferson combines memoir with cultural critique in a series of unsparing vignettes.” —The New Yorker “Provocative and extraordinary. . . . Haunting.” —Time  “Lyrical. . . . Vibrant and damning. . . . Dares to throw a wrench—class—into our tortured debates about race.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune “Razor sharp, self-lacerating and singular.” —More  “A candid observer, Jefferson articulates the complicated and calculated performance of upper-class black life.” —New York “Brilliantly written. . . . Not reading this remarkable, indeed unique book, would be an immense mistake. . . . One of the great books published this year.” —Buffalo News “Truly indispensable.” —Flavorwire “A nuanced meditation from a life lived in the upper echelons of Chicago’s black bourgeoisie, beginning before the civil-rights era and trailing off in our still-conflicted present.” —Vulture “Beautiful. . . . Artfully self-aware. . . . Jefferson succeeds at something remarkable: she tells her story while at the same time not only evocatively capturing her era but situating her experiences into a centuries-long cultural tradition.” —Bookslut   “Shines a spotlight on a fascinating slice of the American experience of which many people are barely aware.” —Tampa Bay Times “Filled with incisive commentary and unexpected observations, all of it delivered with a sly wit and in crystalline prose.” —PopMatters “Marvelous, complex, stimulating and thought-provoking.” —Geoff Dyer, author of White Sands “A beautiful scorcher of a book, essential reading.” —Patricia Hampl, author of The Florist’s Daughter “Elegantly pithy and violent. In the fissures between and among items, she revolts. Her words are ascetic. She doesn’t want me to envy her life, the fullness of which is only hinted at. She wants me to leave her alone to live within this sentence of her mother’s: ‘Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro.’” —David Shields, author of Salinger “A great book, destined to be read for a century.” —Edmund White, author of A Boy’s Own Life “Reads with the blast force of a prose poem.” —BookPage