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Negroland: A Memoir Hardcover – September 8, 2015
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“Ever provocative and insightful, the cultural critic Margo Jefferson bravely directs the focus inward to her own life and times as a child of the rigid and nearly invisible world of black elites in pre-Civil Rights, mid-century America. By turns, melancholic and hopeful, raw and disarming, she weighs the psychic toll of constructed divisions at the intersection of race, gender, caste and privilege. A moving memoir that is an act of courage in its vulnerability.” —Isabel Wilkerson
“The generic sub-title—a memoir—doesn’t do justice to everything that’s going on in Margo Jefferson’s marvelous, complex, stimulating and thought-provoking personal history.” —Geoff Dyer
“Margo Jefferson's memoir leaps from the mica-sharp evocations of her Chicago girlhood into a strikingly original consideration of American cultural history. If you think you were confident using the words "race" and "class," think again after reading this fierce interrogation of American life. A beautiful scorcher of a book, essential reading.” —Patricia Hampl
“At the heart of Margo Jefferson’s masterpiece—a phenomenal study-cum-memoir about the black bourgeoisie—is a sensibility that belongs to no group or community other than the author’s sorority of one. Jefferson has lived and worked like the great reporter she is, traversing a little-known or -understood landscape peopled by blacks and whites, dreamers and naysayers, the privileged and the strivers who make up the mosaic known as America.” —Hilton Als
“Margo Jefferson’s Negroland—autopsy snapshots of mostly upper-class black ways of being and performing—is a tight-lipped performance of willed, earned, and harshly edited silence. Refusing to construct an erotic black body for white consumption, she desires nothing and challenges everything. Asking if it’s possible or meaningful to be human, she posits etiquette as the interrogator of America’s psyche. She can read a graveyard in a theater, personality in a hairstyle; she lists instead of declaims. Her asperity is 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.” The last two words, Go on, aren’t just a writer walking off stage and getting on with life; they convey the pleasure of taunting future pain the truth of vision will surely yield.” —David Shields
“Margo Jefferson sees everything and expresses it with surgical clarity. She is the Toqueville of race in America. This is a great book, destined to be read for a century.” —Edmund White
“I revere Margo Jefferson’s critical voice for its directness and wit and sanity, its tonal precision, its unabashed aestheticism, and its secret pockets of ambivalence. For years she has been a brilliant interpreter of performance; it makes perfect sense that her analysis of race and class—and the painful performances those categories entail—should offer a similarly wondrous intensity of detail, emotion, and wisdom. Negroland, a compactly crafted treasure, showcases a new way to write memoir—a new mode of honest and complicated reckoning, without masks.” —Wayne Koestenbaum
"Powerful and complicated . . . power dwells in the restraint of 'Negroland.' Ms. Jefferson gets a lot said about her life, the insults she has weathered, her insecurities, even her suicidal impulses. There’s sinew and grace in the way she plays with memory, dodging here and burning there, like a photographer in a darkroom. . . . Ms. Jefferson will not be denied. . . . With luck, there will be a sequel to this book."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Jefferson is a national treasure and her memoir should be required reading across the country.” —Nicole Jones, Vanity Fair
“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
“Razor sharp, self-lacerating and singular.” —Pam Houston, More Magazine
“A candid observer, Jefferson articulates the complicated and calculated performance of upper-class black life.” —New York Magazine
“Treads briskly and fearlessly across the treacherous terrain of race, class, gender and entitlement in this tightly edited memoir that recalls her youth in 1950s and 60s Chicago. . . . [Jefferson] is a poetic and bracing memoirist. . . . Lean, specific and personal . . . enlightening.” —Robin Givhan, The Washington Post
“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
“Jefferson’s descriptions of how she 'craved' the right to despair are some of the most haunting parts of the book.” —Vanessa De Luca, Time
“Poignant. . . . 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.” —Rebecca Carroll, Los Angeles Times
“A veritable library of African-American letters and a sumptuous compendium of elegant style. . . . [Jefferson] paints her rich inner and outer landscape with deft, impressionistic strokes. It’s a technique that disrupts convention—which is her privilege after all.” —Donna Bailey Nurse, The Boston Globe
“Pulitzer winner Jefferson’s personal history is—as she says about vigorous analysis of race, gender, and class prerogatives—as fundamental as 'utensils and clothing.' This is to say that it’s one of the truly indispensable books of 2015.” —Flavorwire
“Reads with the blast force of a prose poem.” —Heather Seggel, BookPage
“[NEGROLAND] shines a spotlight on a fascinating slice of the American experience of which many people are barely aware.” —Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
“Vibrant... lyrical” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"A stunning, stunning meditation on the limitations of race, class, gender in America and Jeffries own life. More than a memoir, poetic, critical, profound." Clara Nibbelink, A Cappella Books
About the Author
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, MARGO JEFFERSON was for years a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, Vogue, New York magazine, and The New Republic. She is the author of On Michael Jackson and is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.
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Ms. Jefferson’s writing brilliance gives a strong voice to these memoirs, tackling a host of topics, all couched within her personal family history, as she moves from child to adult. She gives her distinctive, biting perspective on the relentless and myriad demonstrations of racism from next-door neighbors to desk clerks in Atlantic City hotels. She learns by observing her parents’ frustrated and angry reactions to things she is too young and naïve to understand, like the discomfort or refusal by whites to address her pediatrician father as “Doctor,” or her fourth grade music teacher engaging the class in singing Stephen Foster songs with their racial epithets in the lyrics. Ms. Jefferson juggles the implicit racism from the white community, with the mixed messages and issues of authenticity she received as an educated, upper-middle-class black person in America. It was a delicate balancing act: “Negro privilege had to be circumspect; impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.”
It’s important to distinguish that this is no angry, vindictive rant against an America that continues to struggle with and even acknowledge racial problems, but rather a thoughtful retelling of one woman’s distinctive experience as a well-to-do black woman in a nation not yet ready to accept successful blacks as equal. This book is not overflowing with seething rage or snarky ridicule of racists, but offers instead the powerful and compelling memoirs of an intelligent and reflective woman with a gift for taut prose. In the wrong hands this could’ve been yet another wedge hammered into the chasm of our national racial split. In Ms. Jefferson’s talented hands, it is an evocative photograph, one that shows all Americans just how matter-of-fact these issues are. In short, this is who we are as Americans. These are the divisions that separate us by race, education, gender, and income, fueled by socially accepted stereotypes, evidenced in ways subtle and overt, benign and malignant.
Negroland is a book that will start debates, introspection, and shed light on racial relations in America. It’s a book that should be read because it gives such a unique and fresh perspective on being black in America. Given the news of the day, this book is enormously timely as well as being a great read.
The writing is personal yet, interestingly, written with a degree of detachment. She describes her childhood as through it happened to someone else. She becomes an almost objective observer but does retain enough emotion towards the events in the book so as to describe them passionately. In places there's a poetic, almost lyrical quality to the writing. It stands out a bit but offers a nice break from the documentary style of the bulk of the book.
Unsurprisingly, there is a large focus on physical appearances. Everything from skin color to hair texture to body shape is discussed at length. I found this fascinating. It made me stop and reexamine how I view others. Many parts of the book gave me this same feeling. Things I never would have thought of as differences are often pointed out and discussed.
Although the book walks you right up to the present day the vast majority is focused on the mid to late 50's and into the 60's. This certainly makes sense but also serves to make the book more interesting writing. The events of the late 50's were particularly interesting to me as they delved deep into her family's interactions with many different people.
Ms. Jefferson puts a human face on the textbook writings on discrimination and civil rights from my high school and college years. The writing is tidy and concise making this a great book to pick up for a few minutes just to read one of the small section. I'm still digesting this book. It was out of my comfort zone for reading but I feel privileged to have read it.