By Margo Jefferson

(Knopf Doubleday, $25, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

In 1995, Margo Jefferson won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, after a long career as a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. She has also written for Vogue, New York magazine and The New Republic and is the author of On Michael Jackson, a book-length essay. Jefferson, who grew up in Chicago, is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts and at The New School in New York City. Her bestselling memoir, Negroland, won critical and popular acclaim, including inclusion on best books and notable book lists for 2015 at The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Marie Claire and Vanity Fair.

What is this book about?

Margo Jefferson has enjoyed a privileged life. Her father was a respected pediatrician; her mother a socialite, and Margo had the benefits of a fine education and an upper-crust social life complete with exclusive clubs, sororities and fraternities and men and women pursuing professional careers. Nothing unusual about that, except that it occurred in what Jefferson calls “Negroland” — “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.”  As they say, from those to whom much is given, much is expected, and in this memoir Jefferson takes a deep and personal look back at her elite upbringing and the small aristocratic world in which it took place, as well as how that world was affected by the civil rights movement, feminism and hopeful but naïve ideas about the emergence of a “postracial” society.” She also explores the tensions and pressures of living a privileged life in a segment of the larger society that fails to respect or value it.

Why you’ll like it:

“I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter, and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor,” she writes. The book is frank about how excelling within the black bourgeoisie, which Jefferson calls “The Third Race,” did not guarantee protection from the prejudice and malevolence of many in the outside world, and she does not flinch from describing the often cruel internal Third Race hierarchies of status based on skin tone, ability to “pass,” wealth and social status. Jefferson told an interviewer for Gawker:

“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. . . . 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?”

What others are saying:

“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,” says The Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times says:  “. . . [a] powerful and complicated memoir…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…This book runs on several rails at once. In part it’s a history of the upper strata of black society in America…In part it’s also [Jefferson's] own story, and a primer on being what she calls a “Good Negro Girl” in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s…With luck, there will be a sequel to this book, one that takes us more fully up to the present and continues to reckon with the questions that animate her…”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Tracy K. Smith writes: “Jefferson’s candor, and the courage and rigor of her critic’s mind, recall a number of America’s greatest thinkers on race, many of whom she directly references, refines and grapples with: James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier. Jefferson also invites women to the round table: Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, Ntozake Shange, Jamaica Kincaid—and voices outside that established canon…How can a book so slim take on such mammoth considerations and manage them with such efficacy? Perhaps because we gain entry via one girl and, later, the woman she becomes. Perhaps because no matter how conscious Jefferson makes us of societal circumstances, what drives Negroland is an abiding commitment to the primacy of the individual. There are drawbacks to this approach…But what we gain from such a choice is revelatory: recognition of the nuance, fragmentation and fragility of a single black life begging to be considered on its own terms and in its own voice. Aren’t all of us, no matter who we are, living for the rare moments when we can forget about the collective we belong to and just be?”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Jefferson, a former book and theater critic for the New York Times and Newsweek, writes about growing up in mid-20th-century Chicago as well as in “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty” in this eloquent and enlightening memoir. Jefferson describes how her peers thought of themselves as “the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.” Jefferson’s father was a pediatrician at Provident, the nation’s oldest black hospital, and her mother was a social worker turned socialite. With her family’s privilege came many perks: attendance at the private, progressive, mostly white University of Chicago Laboratory School; summer camps; drama performances; an impeccable wardrobe; and membership in national black civic organizations such as Jack and Jill of America and the Co-Ettes Club. Yet much was expected; for Jefferson’s generation, she says, the motto was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” In the late 1970s, though established in a successful journalism career, Jefferson contemplated suicide to escape the continued weight of these expectations. . . . Perceptive, specific, and powerful, Jefferson’s work balances themes of race, class, entitlement, and privilege with her own social and cultural awakening.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “From a Pulitzer Prize-winning theater and book critic, a memoir about being raised in upper-class black Chicago, where families worked tirelessly to distance themselves as much from lower-class black people as from white people. Born in 1947, Jefferson has lived through an era that has seen radical shifts in the way black people are viewed and treated in the United States. The civil rights movement, shifting viewpoints on affirmative action, and the election of the first black president, with all the promise and peril it held . . . The author describes a segment of the population intent on simultaneously distinguishing itself from both white people and lower-class black people and drawing from both groups to forge its own identity. She writes about being raised in a mindset that demanded the best from her and her family, while she also experienced resentment regarding the relative lack of recognition for the achievements they had earned. . . . Jefferson swings the narrative back and forth through her life, exploring the tides of racism, opportunity, and dignity while also provocatively exploring the inherent contradictions for Jefferson and her family members in working so tirelessly to differentiate themselves.”

When is it available?

This provocative memoir can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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