Upon the publication of Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People in 1999, the New York Times asked, “Is There a Black Upper Class?” On the surface, it was a foolhardy question—of course there was, and is, a black upper class—but if you were to peel back its exterior, as Graham did in his book, underneath revealed a world of race leaders: men and women and children who were in a constant “state of self-enhancement.” Here was a place, a land, very few Americans knew about.
Pulitzer-winning writer and cultural critic Margo Jefferson’s new memoir, Negroland, maps this very terrain, one on which money, privilege, and racism intersect in sometimes insidious ways. In Negroland—what Jefferson terms “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty”—lived the best of Afro-America: doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and all-around strivers of the Third Race, the black aristocracy. Here in this community there were national and local clubs like Boule, Jack and Jill, the Guardsmen, Links, and black sororities and fraternities like Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Phi Alpha, founded to ensure that blacks of a certain pedigree would “embody and perpetuate the values of the Negro elite.”
Jefferson grew up in the well-to-do environs of Chicago—Bronzeville and Park Manor—the daughter of a doctor and a socialite (her father was the head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, one of the oldest black hospitals in the country). But the cushion of Jefferson’s world would not always be so. “Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it,” she writes. A good education, expensive clothes, fancy cars, and comfort, she discovers, would not save her, or other residents of Negroland, from the terrors of the outside world.
In Negroland, Jefferson examines her own social navigations among, and in response to, the white world, and is equally critical of the cracks that splinter the foundation on which her own people stand: hierarchies based on skin color, wealth, “passing,” and status within social circles. “I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter, and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor,” she confesses in the book’s opening pages.
Yet despite the security of Negroland and her later successes, Jefferson admits she began to harbor feelings of depression. “Negroland girls couldn’t die outright. We had to plot and circle our way toward death, pretend we were after something else, like being ladylike, being popular, being loved... In the late 1970s, I began to actively cultivate a desire to kill myself.” This admission, and others, is a reminder that the everyday realities for those living within the world of the black bourgeoisie were far from pristine.
I recently spoke with Jefferson via phone.
The black aristocracy is not a subject that is often written about, especially with such a critical eye. It’s a welcome book in such an interesting time in history.
Yes. Very true. It is indeed an interesting time in history. [laughs]
Interesting is not necessarily the right word.
Well, interesting covers a range: from surprising to appalling. We can cover a lot of ground with that.
Right. So in the last decade alone: from, let’s say, the election of President Obama to the current state of black men and women getting killed at such a rapid pace. So by interesting, I guess I mean to say, the book arrives during a time of—
—what appears to be absolute progress mixed with these revelations of continuing, extending brutalities.
Did you always expect to write this book?
Not always. I started to really think about it, consciously let’s say, around 2007 or 2008. I’d worked on a couple of theater pieces through an institute that Anna Deavere Smith ran that used this material. That’s when it settled in my mind as material I could put out in the open. I did not start working on it until later. In 2008 I got a Guggenheim Fellowship; I applied and started writing it. And then life intervenes and you get slowed down, but I knew that I had to finish this.
The book operates in varying ways: it’s part social history, part memoir, part insider’s tale. When you began to seriously write Negroland, was the intention to purposefully construct it in this way?
I didn’t always know. It was only my second book. On Michael Jackson had been a book-length essay, and maybe the one thing they have in common is that they aren’t following a straightforward sequence—they move by theme and association. That structure, even in terms of reading, always appeals to me. When I thought about a memoir, and really got working, I knew I wanted it to be doubled. Meaning: a cultural memoir and a personal memoir; mapping a relationship with this world, with all of its tensions, and links to the larger white and larger black world. But I am also the character—watching, being affected—so in that way, it was a personal memoir. The world itself is so full of changes—of negotiations, changes of position, seeing things one way, then another, gauging responses, status changes that can happen in an instant. I felt the structure needed to reflect all those social shifts, political shifts, cultural shifts, and swings of mood and of status.
Let’s talk about the status within that world. You refer to the black bourgeoisie as “the Third Race.”
That’s how we thought of ourselves. And that really starts before W.E.B. DuBois. It’s modern name was the Talented Tenth, the race leaders. The people who are educated, who are cultivated. This Victorian-into-modern sense of achievement. And of also: cultivation, education, dignity. All of these things were, in today’s parlance, respectability politics. They were to prove, to refute bigotry’s claims, and to prove, as a people, we deserved equal rights and were progressing and moving and could equal the best of white people. That’s the lineage.
Growing up in Chicago, how early on did you recognize the scope of your privilege?
For a child, for the black bourgeois, the scope—and I think this is true for any group that has been discriminated against, oppressed, and whose status is always contested—varies. Within an all-black world, it felt very, very secure. How is this manifested? By material things—your house, clothes, by manners, by the schools you go to, by what your parents say to you about how you’re supposed to carry yourself in the world. It always shifts when you move into various parts of the white world. Then you are contending with much shakier status. You start learning that your privilege can be challenged or disregarded at any minute. You’re learning those things almost simultaneously.
What’s the earliest example of your security being challenged in the white world?
The earliest one I am conscious of, in fact, is when I’m in elementary school. I come home and ask my mother questions; mind you, I’m at a school I feel very comfortable in; it was a progressive school, not a lot of incidents, and I had real friends. So I say to my mother, some other student has asked me if we’re rich and upper class. I was young, and thought, Oh, how nice. I thought this was flattering. My mother’s answers made finally clear to me that what was implied—and, of course, this child didn’t know that; it was coming from the parents—was that this little Negro girl and her mother, who seems to be driving a car as nice as mine and seems to speak standardized English, were asking what kind of status did we have. You know, what kind of status do they have? I suppose in their world they are upper class. She must have overheard a lot of speculation. It was basically saying: what oddities are these people given the inferior race they’re from. That, with my mother making clear to me, we were going to be negotiating between our own world, in which we were considered upper class, the larger American world, in which we’d be considered bourgeoisie, and the world dominated by racism—by white constructs of race—in which we would just be considered a mass of Negroes that they really didn’t have want to bother with and didn’t think well of.
Early on you write that Negroland women wanted to be seen as ladies, not necessarily “black.” It reminded me of that Ralph Ellison passage from Invisible Man where the narrator meets Brother Jack, and Brother Jack asks, “Why do you fellows always talk in terms of race?” and he responds, “What other terms do you know?” There is a similar push and pull in the book; citizens within Negroland do not always want to be identified as black, but the world continues to push color and these constructs onto them, even as they pull away.
It’s a question of free space. There was certainly within Negroland race pride and race consciousness, along with snobbery and over identification with white values. We were always supposed to be aware that we were to help carry the race forward, but what you want is free space to simply live your life and be yourself. Everyone wants that. You don’t want to have no choice. With race consciousness—which is always problematic; yes there is race pride, but when it is being forced on you from the outside white world, you’re not controlling it, when you’re not in control of that consciousness, those questions, those criticisms—you can be turned into a sociological object, an object of scorn, a test case, at any point. You have no control over that. You have control over how you respond to it, but not over its intrusion into your life—your external life and your interior life.
This response then becomes a sort of performance.
Yes. Absolutely. Even the anticipation of it. Maybe it’s not going to happen this time, but you better be ready in case it happened. There’s a constant vigilance and weariness, and then the performance. Which, again, has to be shaded and altered according to white characters; some intrusions are very subtle and some are quite blatant.
Beauty comes up in the book often. This notion of skin color as it relates to degrees of privilege, which is really a larger conversation about ownership and who dictates what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. I imagine navigating that landscape within Negroland—with its strict guidelines of beauty and decorum—must have been more difficult that having to navigate that terrain outside Negroland.
I thought you were going to say in a different period, because it’s all more fluid and flexible and generous now. Starting with, I would say, Black Power, those very constricted standards of Anglo-Saxon beauty got challenged and pushed out. Everything started to change, change, change.
Historically, these divisions—whereby lighter was better, thinner noses; let’s just say Anglo-Saxon looks—go back several centuries. These divisions and hierarchies started as soon as blacks arrived and mingled with each other, began to intermingle with white people, and were divided into house servants, field hands, free Negroes, not. All of these markers—what color you were, what you looked liked—had huge social and political consequences. They got passed on, not surprisingly, and really ruled in a society that was Anglo-Saxon. And I say that very specifically, because other immigrant groups who register as white were also aspiring to Anglo-Saxon models. That was what you were living up to.
We’re talking about physical markers; one of the key distinguishing facts for Negroes, black people, African Americans, was that we could be judged, categorized, dismissed, or abused instantly on the ground of visibly registering as Negro in some way. These markers of skin, features, all of that, became a determinant of one’s fate. Now place that on women, and black women therefore are bringing this body of prejudice and consequence into this maniacal, rigorous world whereby women are judged by excruciating visual standards, along with manners. All of which, again, is very white and very Anglo-Saxon, and which black women had been systematically excluded from so they could in no way live up to notions of being beautiful, being a good mother, being respectable, being virtuous.
That must take a traumatic toll, psychological and physical, on the body for black women.
Well, I wouldn’t say it’s always traumatic. But it’s very demanding. It certainly has its moments. If you look at a novel like The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; there’s an example of trauma. If you look at a novel like Quicksand or Passing by Nella Larsen there’s an element of trauma, but also there are social complications and navigations. These become stories of extremely complicated, demanding, and sometimes killing, manner.
Which sort of leads me to my next question. I want to talk about, as you write, that “sanctioned, forbidden space between white vulnerability and black invincibility.” Despite all the privileges Negroland had provided, it could not guard you from depression and thoughts of suicide.
Everyone is driven in a different way. The burden of being a constant symbol, of having to live up to a symbol of advancement, of progress, of being perfect in some way and always representing the destiny of an entire people—that is supposed to be invincibility. That’s enormous. That translates often in black life, or translated traditionally into admonishes along the lines of, No, you can’t fail; You can’t show that kind of grief or despair, depression, because it was a kind of failure.
It can be a major weakness if you give way to it. And it can defeat you, and it shows that they’ve won. Sometimes we even used to be told, We don’t commit suicide, we’re too strong for that. These are battle weapons, aren’t they? This sense, this charge, to be invincible, and not to give way even in private, as if momentary despair, grief, melancholy, even if giving into them for a moment, could weaken you like a toxin in your system, could render you not fit for the life battle. This was exhausting. For me, and I’m not alone in this, giving into and residing in, for real periods of despair and depression, became a kind of rest space.
What do you mean by “rest space”?
A space retreat—I’m not responsible to anything in the larger world right now. I need respite. And also: I need to acknowledge, whatever despair and depression do, the toll the grief is taking on me. I need to acknowledge the toll certain parts of my life are taking on me. I have to do that, even if it temporarily paralyzes me to suppress it. Otherwise, paradoxically, I can’t go on. When I can reside in that, and recoup, then I can continue. In a strange way it’s a survival method.
Had you not been recognizing that grief before?
As people who grapple with depression, there’s the other side—I’m vivacious, lively; as a child I had really performed. And I enjoyed the performance. Like many people, and this in not unusual, I began to discover the successfully hidden aspects of myself when I got to college. Also, let’s remember, I got to college in 1964; the world was in tumult. You were exposing yourself and revealing yourself, and throwing whatever feelings you had into all of these passionate movements and discussions; you were writ large. The world was upending, helping upend the way you’d lived before and thought before. So, of course, that leads to all kinds of inner tumult. You can’t protect the inner psyche from the changes the world is asking of you.
But even in this inner tumult, you write: “You must set an example for other Negroland girls who suffer the same way. You must give them a death they can live up to.” Amidst both internal and external changes, you still carried this sense of uprightness you’d learned as a child.
It stayed with me. But I am, as they say in literature, being bitterly ironic there. That was a moment. That was one of my temporary resolutions. I say, Ok, If I’m going to kill myself then I want that to be an example and help set a pattern that will be useful for Negro girls or black women who want to do the same. I didn’t want it to be squalid or worthless; I wanted it to be distinctive, noteworthy. Even then, I wanted to excel at it.
What are you hoping readers take away from the book?
That the work and the play, the entanglement of an individual life, with a world, with a society, with these larger forces, this constant push-pull between who are you are, the solitary character, and what the demands of the world, from your family to society, what they are are, and what’s being made between you. I hope people will also look at the power and privilege—they’re such big words, like race and gender and sex—because they manifest themselves in our lives in so many ways. I would want the book to spark readers to make those connections in their lives. We all live several lives—there’s the internal, there’s the external, there’s the life of me as a black woman, there’s the life of me as an American citizen—and we’re all doing this, and how are you faithful to those lives?