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Review: Jefferson's 'Negroland' a memoir that reveals American culture

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Published Dec. 16, 2015

When an author tells her readers that she grew up in a culture in which she was taught "you don't tell your secrets to strangers — certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure," those readers might not expect her memoir to be very revealing.

In some ways, it isn't. But in many others, Margo Jefferson's Negroland shines a spotlight on a fascinating slice of the American experience of which many people are barely aware.

The book's title, Jefferson writes, "is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege. ... 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."

Jefferson was born in 1947 into what was variously called the colored elite, the "blue-vein society" or, as black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois dubbed it, the Talented Tenth. Her father, Ronald Jefferson, was a doctor, for years director of pediatrics at Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first in the country founded and run by blacks. Her mother, Irma, was a social worker before she became a wife, mother and socialite.

Jefferson and her older sister, Denise, were bought up to meet exacting standards of behavior, academic performance and appearance, always conscious of representing their race. They attended integrated schools and camps and lived in neighborhoods where, she writes, "Integration meant a small number of bourgeois blacks amid bourgeois whites who'd decided their presence was acceptable."

Jefferson has certainly fulfilled her family's emphasis on professional achievement: An accomplished journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her book reviews and cultural criticism for the New York Times and is now a professor at Columbia University.

But this memoir barely touches on her career, or indeed on much of her adult life. Its focus is her youth in the 1950s and '60s, shaped and enriched and restricted by her social milieu, and how that very traditional milieu came to be challenged in a changing society.

The Negro elite to which she belonged existed, she writes, long before integration was even an idea. Before the Civil War, many cities had significant populations of well-off, often well-educated people considered black — although virtually all of them were mixed race, the descendants of "slaveowners and slaves" whose white fathers were generous with their fortunes, whether they claimed those heirs publicly or not. Emancipation changed the demographic: "The end of slavery has not just freed a people; it has freed achievers, strivers, arrivistes from the lower ranks. Call them what you will. That many have darker skin is often noted by the old elites. ..."

Nearly a century later, in Jefferson's girlhood, those differences in skin color still mattered. One chapter of the book outlines the standards of feminine beauty she and her sister were acutely conscious of practically from infancy: light skin color, "keen" features, straight hair (achieved by whatever mechanical and/or chemical means). She describes her family tuning in eagerly to watch black entertainers on television — Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne — and parsing their performances in terms of how they reflected on the race. (Don't-give-a-damn Eartha Kitt was a scandal, but irresistible.)

Those standards of physical appearance are just one small piece of the doubleness demanded by membership in the colored elite, as Jefferson makes clear. She and her peers are raised to believe they are as good as any white person and better than most — even though all their efforts are aimed at being as "white" as possible.

Yet how to define those categories? As a child, she's shocked to meet her Uncle Lucious, who has long passed as a white man and had little contact with his darker-skinned family members. "Then he retired, and his retirement community was Negroland."

"Suddenly the fact of racial slippage overwhelmed me," she tells us. "I knew something none of my white school friends knew. It wasn't just that some of us were as good as them, even when they didn't know it. Some of us were them."

The civil rights movement, the rise of black power, a shifting political and cultural landscape all, in Jefferson's young adulthood in the 1970s, upended her perspective: "The entitlements of Negroland were no longer relevant," she writes.

"We were not the best that had been known and thought in black life and history. We were a corruption of The Race, a wrongful deviation. We'd let ourselves become tools of oppression in the black community. We'd settled for a desiccated white facsimile and abandoned a vital black culture."

Yet now, that angry, sweeping judgment seems as outdated as the world view it rejects; the subject of race in America is far too complex to be contained by either one. Jefferson writes from the perspective of a woman who sees her past as both burden and shield. Despite her sharp, 21st century feminist awareness of the damage done by all that emphasis on women's beauty, she writes that when she wears her mother's gold brocade cocktail ensemble, "It makes me feel I've put on made-to-order armor.

"My mother's armor.

"Armor that helped shield me from exclusion.

"Armor that helped shield me from inferiority."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.