I listened to several podcasts surrounding Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir before I actually read it. I had heard it was blowing up reading lists and was societally important.
I was surprised when I began reading, though not disappointed. I expected Negroland to unfurl in standard narrative format, but it does not. This masterly work is rather a vast survey of black history in America through our heroine’s lens. It doesn’t read like a novel. It reads like a textbook, lovingly researched and interlaced with personal vignettes by the author. And it made me think.
Let me take you back to my life two years ago.
I lived in Chicago. It was the winter of the so-called ‘snowpocalypse’, the year when the automated doors of the elevated transit froze open and had to be serviced. When Lake Michigan became an icy tundra and the shopping district drowsed, sending the majority of its employees back home to their walk-ups. A friend of a friend trudged drunkenly home from a bar one night and lost two fingers to frostbite.
One Tuesday at half-past three in the morning, I boarded the train for work. An unfortunate black man in the same car had run dry of cocaine and needed more but couldn’t afford it. I remember the way he paced the train car like a wild animal, punching at the air. He was so angry. When I stepped onto the train, he immediately muttered, “Here come anotha white bitch. Fuck ‘em all.” Then, to me, he screamed, “Fuck you!” and began to cry. Another time on the Wilson platform late at night, a group of all-black coeds stood together to keep warm. When they saw me approaching, they made to block my path. One of the girls said, “Look at this bitch. Cal, you ever fucked a cracker?” Laughter at this. “That one look too skinny, though,” said another.
Time and again, I would find myself in situations like this, always surrounding the Chicago Area Transit, always when I was alone. I remember mastering my face to appear pleasant but not friendly, tentative but not inviting. Once, I said to a friend, “I don’t understand! I didn’t own slaves. I didn’t bar anyone from using the water fountain. Why are they so angry at me?”
Negroland: A Memoir helped. Jefferson’s voice is honest, and her view of the world as an upper-class black adolescent growing up in the ‘40s is unusual. By her own admission, she was – is – privileged. But as she explains, even a privileged black person is not a white person.
In an interview with NPR, Jefferson says, “I’m measuring my shade of brown. I’m measuring the width of my nose. I’m measuring the size of my lips… what shape are my eyes, are they big, are my features well-proportioned … and I have an exact series of grades for hair as well as shades of skin.” This level of self-examination is exhausting for anyone, but Jefferson and her sister were encouraged to go above and beyond. In high school, they needed to excel. Grades were expected to be high, appearance and manners flawless. “Showing off,” she says in Negroland, “was permitted, even encouraged, only if the result reflected well on your family, their friends, and your collective ancestors.”
She writes of a family member – an “Uncle Lucius,” who passed as white. “If,” she writes, “too many of us ached, longed, strove to be be be be White White White White WHITE … White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often… But they could pass, so no one objected.”
There was a period in the ‘70s when Margot became very depressed and contemplated suicide. She had been born black, and the world she lived in strove to repress her culture. She, at one time, strove to repress her own culture.
I’m going to let this sink in.
‘White privilege’ is a phrase often thrown around today in universities and workplaces. It causes some people to roll their eyes and often mystifies others. After reading Negroland: A Memoir, I am starting to believe that privilege has less to do with who I am and what I have, and more to do with how people treat me. And in that regard, I am privileged. Well, except on the train in Chicago, apparently.
Jefferson suggests that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be passed down through generations, and histories of abuse in the old can manifest as anger in the young. I recall a young man on the bus loudly and quite rudely free-styling about Black Power in my face one hot summer afternoon. I don’t believe his behavior was warranted or correct. But I am beginning to understand. No, I didn’t own his great-great grandparents. I didn’t tell his grandmother she couldn’t swim in the community pool. But someone did. And that someone was white.
Our collective charge is to do unto others, no matter what. Armed with an intense desire to unpack and understand her experiences, Ms. Jefferson sets an amazing example.