I met Margo Jefferson on a February afternoon in 2017, in New York City’s West Village. We sat in a café to discuss her latest book, Negroland, the winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. The memoir blends the author’s personal narrative with the history of America’s historical black elite. Jefferson, a member of this essential and idiosyncratic subset of American society, provides a unique perspective on its place in our social landscape by virtue of her personal history and literary skill. I suggest essential, because I believe the serpentine path of African-American upward-mobility would have been made intricately more difficult without the early and persistent accomplishments of this group of Americans. Idiosyncratic because of the black elite’s richly complex social order, allowing its members to thrive within a society constructed to deny their existence and thwart their progress. This private society, at various times called the Colored Society, the Negro Society, the Black Bourgeoisie, and the African-American upper class, cocooned itself within a system of exclusivity by way of social clubs and civic organizations, with membership based on skin color, education, family connections, and social class. For generations, the black elite socialized and married within its own closely guarded boundaries.
Tracing their beginnings to the Revolutionary War, the founders of the American black elite were, primarily but not exclusively, slaves who won their freedom through service in the Continental Army; slaves fortunate and enterprising enough to buy freedom for themselves and family members; slaves granted freedom, property and resources by virtue of familial ties with a slave master; or African-Americans born to freedom in free states.
The zenith of black society spanned the Abolitionist Movement, through the post-emancipation struggles for civil rights in the 20th century. Calling itself the Talented Tenth (a term popularized in the essay by W.E.B. DuBois, in which DuBois defines an elite class of African-Americans and their responsibility to lead the rest), members of the black elite saw themselves tasked with the responsibility of uplifting the entire race from degradation and servitude. Their influence waned in the 1960s and ’70s with the onset of civil rights and the rise of the Black Power movement.
The memoir blends the author’s personal narrative with the history of America’s historical black elite. Jefferson, a member of this essential and idiosyncratic subset of American society, provides a unique perspective on its place in our social landscape by virtue of her personal history and literary skill.
In 1995, Jefferson received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while working as a staff writer for The New York Times. The winning body of work spans the breadth of American political life, literary art, and pop culture, including “The Thomas-Hill Question, Answered Anew,” her New York Times review of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, in which Jefferson points to the coming-of-age similarities between Thomas and Richard Nixon; as well as essays on the personal letters of poet Elizabeth Bishop, their secrets and passions revealed, and the gay subculture of New York from 1890 to 1940. In her critique of Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, an account of a woman’s struggle with identity in the midst of a disfiguring illness, Jefferson writes: “Suffering is exact. Each kind has its own weight and measure. Fearing you are ugly is not the same as knowing you are. Anticipating pain you have never felt is different from dreading pain you know inside out. Feeling that you have been asked to bear too much is a far cry from learning to bear it anyway.”
Jefferson’s ability to sense, depending on circumstance, from which direction the wind is blowing, or what part of her “self” to expose, honed a keenly perceptive and empathetic eye. And it is that empathy and perception Jefferson engages in On Michael Jackson (2006), in which she explores what happened to the pop star turned accused child molester. Also a staff writer for Newsweek, Jefferson has published in New York Magazine, The Nation, Vogue, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, the Believer, Guernica, Bookforum, and Grand Street. Her essays are anthologized in: The Best American Essays, 2015; What My Mother Gave Me; The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death; The Best African-American Essays, 2014; The Mrs. Dalloway Reader; Black Cool; and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. She created and performed a theater piece entitled Sixty Minutes in Negroland, and teaches in the Columbia University MFA writing program.
With Negroland, Jefferson turns her gaze to her own privileged childhood. She presents its historical context at a time when current generations are acutely feeling the fluidity of American identity. What does it mean to be an American in 2017, as migratory trends to this country shift away from Europe to the southern hemisphere, and as demagoguery dredges tribal fears from the bottom of our psychic well?
No better time than now to explore the genesis and evolution of America’s Talented Tenth: the bourgeois class of Negroes who valued education, achievement, and social status, producing a great many African-American professional firsts among their ranks, while audaciously and snobbishly believing themselves to be the very best America had to offer.
From the beginning, America’s black elite were culturally invisible and merely tolerated. Their earliest members, close-knit and insular, shunned white society until it was safe to mingle. As they emerged to claim their place amid our country’s striving classes, the existence of the black elite remained absent in literature and film, with only the lowliest images of black American life acceptable for mainstream audiences. An acknowledgment by the prevailing social order of an African-American upper class, whose educational accomplishments and social graces rivaled its own while exceeding that of the general public, would have been a contradiction bringing into question that very social order. It was a willful blindness perpetuated by a self-conscious and insecure dominant culture.
We are now in the midst of a new renaissance. The slave narrative is confronting the antebellum era from a larger perspective, as in Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, bringing a fuller understanding to the complicated richness of our experience. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns gives life in vivid detail to the largest movement of Americans over a period of decades: the Great Black Migration, thereby filling a gap in history as vast as the Grand Canyon. As African American artists continue to take ownership of the narrative, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland adds an important piece to the puzzle that is our full humanity.
* * *
Angela Bullock: The title of the book, Negroland, evokes an era as well as a particular state of mind.
Margo Jefferson: Yes.
AB: Would you define the term “Negroland,” and explain why you chose it as the title for your memoir?
MJ: Negro was the preferred term—capitalized—for us, from about the start of the late 19th or early 20th century (it succeeded colored) to really the mid-to late ’60s when Black Power succeeded it. So, I wanted to signify that time period, all the political, cultural ways of talking about us as a people. Negroes and the Struggle—also we get that word capitalized. It was a big thing, to keep it separate from Colored, which had started to become a little reactionary. Black until the ’60s was often seen as an insult. So, I wanted to signify the cultural, and racial, and political atmosphere and assumption.
I added –land because in a way we are a land within and yet not. You know? A land is often the way people who share a culture now, or certain cultural habits, longings, that’s often how they describe themselves. There is a whole way of thought now: We deserve our own homeland. We’ve been taken from our homeland. It’s a powerful impulse and drive in black life. But also, within the cities so many of us grew up in—black neighborhoods framed by white neighborhoods—they are in a way lands. Those boundaries are the boundaries of separate lands.
AB: Matters of race consciousness within the black community have continued to evolve, particularly since the years of the 1970s Black Power movement. Why was it important to write Negroland now?
One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is.
MJ: It’s very important right now that we [remain] aware of all the variations on our own history, all the stories that make up our history. That’s one of the things that was so wonderful about Isabel Wilkerson’s book on our Black Migration [The Warmth of Other Suns]—within this huge movement, so many particular families, individuals, and lives. One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is. I wanted to record as clearly, as vividly, as honestly, as artfully as I could this history—personal and cultural—of this very particular black life and a slice of the life of this very particular group. The so-called Talented Tenth.
AB: I get a sense that there was a tight community, with a network of both local and national social clubs.
AB: During your childhood, was Chicago the apex of Negroland culture or were the branches of the black elite pretty evenly disbursed nationwide?
MJ: Oh no, my goodness. There were branches all over. I think Washington, DC would have long considered itself the apex. Atlanta was very important. Really, so many cities could lay claim to being the apex. Chicago was important. We did have our own renaissance. So many people came to Chicago during the Great Migration. Philadelphia has quite a history too, important, but not the apex.
AB: You used multiple voices in the writing of Negroland. There is an objective historical narrator within a very personal memoir, which includes both second- and third-person narration. Why was it important to you to deviate from the traditional first-person narrative style for this memoir?
MJ: It felt to me as if so much of the story I was telling involved the playing of different roles and the taking on of different personas: the good Negro girl, the strong black woman, [and then] when the ’60s came, the respectable Negro family, then the Negro girl who wanted to make her way in the more hip Negro circles. Performance was very much a part of how we grew up, how we were raised, what we were taught. Different viewpoints, I felt, would capture that. And that sense often that you were living out one role. You were reflecting on it and wondering if it was working and when would you have to shift and adapt to another situation. So those tenses and those cross-cuttings, along with first, second, third person, and even the moves between the historical narrator, a confessing narrator, a self-critical narrator, really helped me do that.
AB: You speak of many founding and pioneering members of Negroland, some individuals I’d never heard of, like Charlotte Forten. You write, “She is from one of Philadelphia’s most distinguished colored families, prominent abolitionists since the eighteenth century.” I feel a great compassion for her.
MJ: Oh my God yes!
AB: You say that “she strove for perfect selflessness and would upbraid herself for being insufficiently stoic,” in her dedication to uplifting the race. Forten wrote: “…it is ignoble to despair.” I draw a direct line from that sentiment to the inability to acknowledge depression within the generations of women that followed. Do you make that connection?
MJ: I absolutely agree. The demands and pressures (this did apply to men too, but men responded very differently), on the daughters, the citizens, if you will, of the black elite, the Colored Elite as they would have called themselves in her day, the Black Bourgeoisie, the Talented Tenth, the pressure to be perfect internally and externally, included many proscriptions. You had to excel, of course. You had to have excellent manners. And you never broke down, or showed utter fury. You had to have emotional control at all times. And to despair was in a way to give a victory to the white oppressor. Because that was in some way to acknowledge that he had defeated you, gotten inside your psyche and crushed it.
AB: I would expect that it would have also shown a lack of social class in the eyes of many?
MJ: Certainly, extreme emotional outbursts, yes. I think that is right.
So, we were lifting them up as the saying went, representing the race at its best, and of course, though some of them may have been very pleased about our “white blood,” we thought of ourselves as better than basically all white people.
AB: I am left with the impression that the class of black elites had a real stick up their butts [MJ laughs], yet I don’t see any other way social mobility could have been achieved without Negroland, given America’s history and racial divide. In the book, you also speak of the “Third Race.” Can you explain a bit more about what you mean by the term?
MJ: I spoke of how it seems ofttimes that we thought of ourselves as that. That’s a little different. As poised between all white people and the majority of less-privileged black people. So, we were lifting them up as the saying went, representing the race at its best, and of course, though some of them may have been very pleased about our “white blood,” we thought of ourselves as better than basically all white people. I certainly never heard that term literally used when I was growing up. But when I was talking about this world with a very old Negroland friend, and we were just thinking back and speculating, she said that, and I said, “Oh my God, you’re right.”
AB: And I assume you thought of yourselves as better than whites because of their discrimination.
MJ: Absolutely. We felt we have had to excel in ways that you really don’t. We are equal to the absolute top echelon of you. We’re as good as, and in some cases, we’re better. And we’re better than virtually all the rest of you. Our only competition is at the top, but we have to prove to you constantly that we are at least as good.
AB: Does the Third Race still exist? If so, what form does that Third Race take now?
MJ: That’s a question I can’t really answer. I know people from younger generations. I think it exists among some members of the black elite, in that all elites function and thrive, in part, on a sense of enormous self-satisfaction and entitlement. So, again, that may not be the words to use, but I think that sense—We are the best of our kind and we are the best of your kind too; we are the best America can produce—I think that does still exist. It’s probably more diversified because integration has changed the absolute tightness [of the community].
AB: And not defined by skin color, solely.
MJ: No. You were never defined if you were a man solely by skin color.
AB: That’s interesting.
MJ: And if you had other advantages—social, educational—that would help you if you were a woman. But the beauty standards for women were much more persnickety and intolerant. You know that. They still are. Whatever the prevailing standard is, it’s harder for women.
AB: When did you finally begin to feel comfortable in your own skin? I ask because it seems that each stage in your young life required a new adjustment in identity. There was your early school experience, where you began to perfect the art of code-switching.
MJ: Yes, absolutely.
AB: Then there was adolescence with its added sexual tension, and finally on to college at Brandeis, where your Midwestern cheerleader culture was put on trial in the midst of a rising counter-culture social order.
MJ: Yes, the Eastern intellectual culture and Black Power.
AB: I can only imagine that you were never quite black enough. You know the term?
MJ: I know the term very well. I did not feel that nearly as much in my youthful days. It was in adolescence, and in college, and after. That’s when those kinds of distinctions were made. They were very much tied to teenage-cool social behavior. And not black enough is a class code but it’s also a manners and behavior code. It’s a way of saying you’re not cool enough, you’re not hip enough, you don’t have the language, the style. You don’t have the street cred.
AB: Was there ever a time when you could relax and not have to negotiate a double consciousness?
MJ: You know, there always were times. I always had some close black friends. I had some white friends I could relax with. No life, unless it’s totally immersed in trauma and heartbreak, is without those moments when you relax. I had my family and their world, and within that, we all felt totally comfortable with each other. Also, my earliest forms of code-switching were, as you can see from the book, they were demanding, but they were not traumatic in a visible, political, social way. For example, the white school that I went to was not one of those 1950s schools where policemen were called in. Where you were challenged everyday: I’m going to beat you up on the playground. That just wasn’t it. It was in that way, progressive. Meaning there was a genuine space for comfort, ease, for security. That made a big difference. And that also existed in the black world of my family and their friends, where I was loved, despite all the demands. Families are demanding.
Oppression can damage. We know that. It damages both the oppressor and the oppressed. And the damages are generally incompatible. Do you know what I mean? The damages clash.
AB: Yes, they are. Your mom was very demanding.
MJ: My mom was charming, very smart, and a real perfectionist, about herself and everything in her world, including my sister and me. [Laughs]
AB: Your mother’s statement, “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro.”
MJ: As a young bride, when she was so happy. Yes.
AB: It’s such a profound acknowledgement to me. Is that when she said it, when she was a bride?
MJ: Yes, in the context of that letter, which is where she said it, writing in 1944, to a dear black friend. Yes. The literal context was that she was writing about a mutual friend who had just gotten engaged. And within the letter, she moves comfortably between talking about having seen Jane Eyre, the discrimination at Fort Huachuca [Arizona] that the young black doctors were facing, and playing cards. The letter just moves so easily through all of these things, and then she says at the end, “Oh I understand our mutual friend is engaged. Tell her I wish her all the happiness that I have, cause that’s as much as anyone could wish.” And then she says: “Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro. That’s something, huh?” Just meaning: I am, in this point, just taking full advantage of the privileges that are my rights, pleasure, happiness, no cage of racial demands or bigotries on me. And this is a right and a privilege that we should all have, and maybe that is why it was so moving.
AB: From your vantage point, have we managed to advance beyond our obsession with our place in the hierarchy?
MJ: By we do you means blacks, or whites as well as blacks?
AB: I was thinking specifically blacks.
MJ: I wouldn’t use the word “advance.” I would say we are still struggling with it. Because it is real, the struggles are external, they are sociological, political, cultural, and we still bear the internal marks. Some of them are real scars. Some are real values that I honor, but the internal life of struggling with oppression, discrimination, the psychic inheritance: that’s an intense, complicated life. We are all in our different ways still grappling with it, making what we can of it, which includes art and brilliant political thought, but yeah, it’s challenging. Oppression can damage. We know that. It damages both the oppressor and the oppressed. And the damages are generally incompatible. Do you know what I mean? The damages clash. There isn’t a way as there might be, let’s say, in some personal relationships: Oh let’s work on this. You’re hurt in this way, I’m hurt in that way. In so much, alas, of the larger social, political sphere, you just feel the damage and the legacy just building up.
AB: A sort of backlash?
MJ: Yes. And to watch the rage that certain white people are feeling as if they’ve been discriminated against for centuries—is staggering.
AB: More and more, I feel freedom will be ours when we can rid ourselves of the need for acceptance from the dominant white culture. How do we achieve that in the midst of continued racial tension without succumbing to the psychic traps inherent to the Third Race?
Acceptance can be justice. Acceptance can also be craving for ingratiation and cleaving on to values that are not worthy.
MJ: Maybe it’s a question of our thinking through and fighting more carefully for exactly what kind of acceptance we want or need. If acceptance means, for example, economic justice and equality, we’ve got to keep fighting for that. If acceptance means a kind of approval of us—Oh, you do have good manners: Oh, you are just lovely, you are intelligent, we welcome you into white civilization—if it means that kind of patronizing, no. We find our own ways to claim what we want of that civilization. We accept praise, but they [the oppressors] aren’t the single standard. White people’s standards and views are not the single standard by which we judge ourselves. I think it’s defining. Acceptance can be justice. Acceptance can also be craving for ingratiation and cleaving on to values that are not worthy.
AB: And finally, you wrote, “Why is it always the Nigger Jims who show up in Mark Twain’s fiction? [MJ laughs] Why couldn’t he base a character on Warner Thornton McGuinn, the first Negro graduate of Yale Law School?” That must have been particularly frustrating to your teenage self, since Twain knew McGuinn.
MJ: I’ll tell you. I didn’t say that myself. I put that in the book as the kind of thing that my world was saying, and that I was feeling and that they were feeling. There was that knowledge, I started to say sense, but it was knowledge, and it was galling that we were visible almost no place in the culture. This world we were living in, this life we were living that was in every way the life that white people glorified themselves in. This is obviously why a show like The Cosby Show or even today, a much more sophisticated show like Blackish is getting the audiences they get. Oh, my God. They’re surprised. There we are. It was infuriating and it was so frustrating. Also, the barrage of ugly and demeaning images was much greater in those days. Yes, that was difficult. In that case, I was sitting in a mostly white, not all, but mostly white classroom, with upper-middle class kids and it was embarrassing to be parsing Jim’s dialect through Mark Twain. I have come to realize that this is a remarkable book in many ways. But we weren’t being taught, and we weren’t reading Frederick Douglass’s narratives, we weren’t reading his prose. We weren’t reading Charles Chestnut and we weren’t reading Charlotte Forten. So, there weren’t any equivalents or alternatives.