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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.
With that as prologue, I found this book extremely well written, profound and disturbing, and all the more disturbing because of knowing her so many years ago. Margo (as I knew her) was (and, I'm sure, still is) a bright and vivacious woman and was always a pleasure to be with and talk to. The Margo Jefferson who wrote this book may be all those things and more, but there is an "otherness" quality about her that confirms how alien the Black experience is to me and how she may have viewed me and my background. And I suspect I was even more clueless about it then, as a sheltered white kid from the burbs, than I am now (even though I'm still a sheltered white man from the burbs). There's a part of me that wants to apologize for being clueless or possibly even for being white, but it's too little and way too late; besides, I'm not sure there's anything really to apologize for except being what I was, which I couldn't have helped in any case.
I gave this book four stars for two reasons: first, because there's a stretch about Margo's thoughts on suicide, which I just have difficulty accepting even though I have no doubt that she felt what she says she felt. And second because there's a stretch about where Margo fits herself into the characters in "Little Women", which I've never read and for which I have no affinity. However, it's a five-star (or more) book in spite of these "deficiencies".
Margo, if you ever see this, I'm proud to know you, even if my naiveté and innocence may have been unforgivable.
The book is tedious. Much of the beginning is general history which Margo must feel we need to understand to believe and understand her experience. That could have been condensed A LOT. Most of us already knew Negros had always been successful albeit without much support from the government and white community.
Much of the rest of the book is depressing. Margo sees everything in terms of the nuances of her race: from various shades of skin color and hair consistency to EVERY one's attitude. Margo seems to be depressed most of her life - not just the 1970's as she professed. As such I feel I'm listening in to her talks with her therapist rather than getting a comprehensive memoir or insight on the privileged Negro community.
She lightly touches the relationship with her older sister. She almost ignores the relationship with her Pediatrician father.
Not until the last chapter are there some happy moments. Margo's reflections on her mother's love of fashion are precious.
If you're interested in how Negroes / Blacks / African-Americans in the upper economic classes lived in the 1950's, 1960's, 1970's, you'll get a little, but mostly you'll get Margo's sad outlook on everything colored by race. If you're looking for how things changed in the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's and currently - forget it! She hardly touches these decades AT ALL.
Altogether, I finished the book because I paid for it, because it was on so many lists, and because I tend to finish what I start. But my recommendation: don't start. Better insight lies in better books.