Margo Jefferson Essayscorer

Margo Jefferson (Michael Lionstar)

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Margo Jefferson won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for her work at The New York Times. Her new book is Negroland: A Memoir. —Jon Wiener

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Jon Wiener: You grew up in the fifties in Chicago in a world you call “Negroland.” What was “Negroland”?

Margo Jefferson: Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience.

JW: The word “Negro” was full of meaning in that world.

MJ: “Negro” was first officially capitalized in 1947—that was a huge accomplishment. We Negroes had burdens to carry, and a destiny to fulfill: moving towards justice and equality.

JW: Your parents defined Negroland for you—tell us about them.

MJ: My father was a pediatrician, the head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, the oldest all-black hospital in the country. My mother had worked as a social worker in adoptions, but when she got married she became a full time mother, wife, and socialite. Luncheons, clubs, clubs for her children, going to the theater—all that was part of the life of being a lady.

JW: What was the attitude of your parents to working class black people in Chicago like Michelle Obama’s family? She was Michelle Robinson—her father worked for the city, her mother was a housewife; they rented an apartment. Would your family ever have crossed paths with people like the Robinsons?

MJ: Michelle and her brother might in theory have been patients of my father’s. But would the Robinsons have belonged to the same clubs as my parents? No. They wouldn’t have socialized together.

JW: When you were in high school your family moved to Kenwood in Chicago’s Hyde Park, around the University of Chicago—that’s where the Obamas’ house is now. What was it like for you to move to Kenwood in the sixties?

MJ: Kenwood was the only somewhat integrated neighborhood in the entire city. Chicago was fiercely and ruthlessly segregated. They had been cautious and calculating in Kenwood about how to integrate. The white people there had been trained to behave well. They tended to be more liberal. So we did not feel threatened or ostracized.

JW: In high school you were a cheerleader! That’s not the typical route to becoming a literary critic. Was this cheerleader thing a miscalculation?

MJ: It’s so embarrassing. Now I love the idea that I would have hung out with the kids who were beats. But I was too much of a good girl, a vivacious all-American girl. I can only be ironic and rueful about it.

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JW: You went to Brandeis from 1964 to 1968, the high point of the sixties, and left Negroland for the world of Black Power. How far did you go toward the Black Panther look—the leather jacket, the Afro, the dark glasses?

MJ: I didn’t have a leather jacket, but I did have a huge Angela Davis-like Afro.

JW: Did Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner play a part in your imagination?

MJ: Well, sure! In the early sixties my sister and I used to do Ike and Tina, but she was older, so she got to be Tina and I had to be Ike and the Ikettes. I loved Jimi Hendrix too.

JW: You say Florynce Kennedy was the first black feminist you saw in action. Why was she important to you?

MJ: Feminism completely took over my consciousness by 1969-70. Florynce Kennedy was a brilliant and dynamic and utterly flamboyant lawyer, the first black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School. She had begun as a lawyer for Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday. Then she moved into political activism, into every movement. She delivered a devastating one-liner to black women: “so many of you say feminism is a white woman’s thing. You have imitated every bad idea of theirs — about their hair, their helplessness, their femininity. Now for once they come up with a really good idea—feminism—and you’re fussing with them about it?”

JW: One of the foundational principles of Negroland was “you don’t tell your secrets to strangers — certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure.” I guess this book means you have left Negroland forever.

MJ: You never lose your homeland, but the world has changed enough for one to write with texture and with more freedom. The stakes are still just as high—for equality and justice—but the constrictions are by no means as extreme.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland couldn’t have arrived at a more relevant time. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to impact the 2016 presidential campaign, the Pulitzer prize-winning cultural critic’s often painful personal critique, Negroland – the title refers to the “snobbish”, middle-class, light-skinned African American world she grew up in during her childhood in Chicago – is a powerful historical lens through which to read the current state of “respectability politics”.

We meet in a cafe near Jefferson’s home in New York’s Greenwich Village, the neighborhood which was once home to James Baldwin. She has spry, bright eyes which match her curly blonde locks, and there’s a playful elegance in the vivid turquoise scarf and pink necklace she wears against her black outfit.

Jefferson describes Negroland as historically embodying responsibility politics “as a tactic, a worldview, an ideology”, which existed in her parent’s generation in the 50s and 60s, but has deep roots in African American history.

“[It] goes back to slavery: the house negroes versus the field, and among the free,” she says. “All the markers by which you seem to have a little more, a little land, a little literacy.” Despite the greater opportunities afforded to light-skinned blacks in her community she is uneasy both with how that status doesn’t protect her class from racism, and with how it distances its members from other black people.

That disconnect is depicted most sharply by one of the most striking characters in Negroland: Jefferson’s Uncle Lucius, a black man who passes for white and becomes a traveling salesman. “There was disappointment” among her Negroland relatives, whom Jefferson describes as “endlessly tolerant of the act” of passing for white, that Lucius “had only become a salesperson”. He was – in their eyes – betraying the “assumption that if you did [pass] you were doing it to be able to achieve and acquire more than you could as a Negro”.

Jefferson, too, was a transitional figure; straddling different worlds on her way to becoming one of the first black journalists at a mainstream American publication when she joined Newsweek in 1973. She arrived as a young college graduate in New York from Chicago in the late 60s, during an era when boundaries were being challenged. Before she went to journalism school at Columbia, she spent her first year as “a secretary at Planned Parenthood”, becoming friends with a circle of female artists and writers who were “interested in being glamorously sexy and interested in sexual liberation”.

Jefferson later worked at Newsweek during “an absolute turning point” for black journalists who wanted to work outside of the black press. “You can really go back and track those hirings [to a moment] after the riots of the late 1960s, when newspapers and TV stations needed black reporters to go into neighborhoods where there was unrest.”

Jefferson adds that “everything can’t be ascribed to race”, adding that a lot of the challenges she had working at Newsweek were it due to being her first job. She also arrived around the time when the women of Newsweek had threatened to go on strike (“Women of my generation had not been prepared for these workplaces – we were learning on the fly.” ) “I was fortunate,” she says, before laughing: “I was also very good.”

The moment coincided with Jefferson’s interest in the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers, which she describes as a generational break for her peers with their parents, who had hewed to more accommodationist tactics of the civil rights movement of the 1950s. It was akin to how many Black Lives Matter activists have turned their backs on the ways preferred by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton for more radical tactics in Ferguson and Baltimore.

Jefferson thinks Black Lives Matter is a descendant of the politics of her youth, but she credits it with being “cognizant of more complexity” and “being more sophisticated” than previous civil rights fights – particularly in how “black gays are at the forefront” and “women are taking a central role”.

In the 1990s, Jefferson became a book and theatre critic for the New York Times where she won a Pulitzer for her work in 1995. Though writing about theatre was very much in line with her Negroland upbringing, which trained young black women in music and ballet, she didn’t confine her writings to the polite inner working of Broadways; her pieces, much like her recent Vogue cover story about Beyonce, were deeply engaged with the politics of her day. She took on everything from Elvis, Nelson Mandela, and the Clarence-Thomas and Anita Hill hearings, to an essay about being “seducified by a minstrel show” on TV (Amos ‘n’ Andy).

Jefferson made statements in her own life and took “great pride” in having “no interest in getting married” and not wanting children. (Her bio at the New York Times ended: “Ms Jefferson is single and lives in New York.”)

“When people start reconfiguring marriage, there’s no going back,” she says of the recent shift in American public opinion toward same-sex marriage, before trying to put her finger on why that change happened so quickly compared to racial civil rights fights. (“Conservatives woke up and said, ‘My God, I have a gay child,” she suggests.)

Jefferson is no stranger to reexamining the modern American family. Her first book, On Michael Jackson, was published a few years before his death, during a period of his life in which “you would have thought he had never contributed anything” to music. Jefferson was interested in examining him as a musician at a time when the star’s personal drama had overshadowed the importance of his work.

“[It took] his death for him to be resurrected and brought back into the performer’s canon, and it really made me so angry that as soon as he died … they all reclaimed King Michael.”

She has not written publicly about perhaps the most talked about complicated black family of the past year. We talk about Ebony’s controversial cover featuring the Huxtables, with the glass shattered over Bill Cosby’s face. Jefferson was “never a big fan” of Cobsy, and was turned off by his self-righteous stances. (“Pull up your pants? The pomposity!”)

Jefferson’s choice of memoir connects her with a long tradition within African American literature. For James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Maya Angelou, the memoir was an important tool in talking about and understanding the black experience in the US. But her work is not just about the negative aspects of her childhood. (“I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about race,” she writes.)

“Privilege is provisional,” Jefferson writes in Negroland. “It can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn.”

Writing the memoir was, she says, a process of writing “with my feelings about that, but also with the realities of growing up in that world and knowing there was honor in it, but also snobbery”. She is clearly conflicted with what that meant. “I am not going to pretend that I didn’t profit from it and enjoy a number of its privileges. It’s a memoir, and I have to deal with its complexities and ambiguities.”

“Not every part of [Negroland] is horrendous,” she maintains. “The push to excel, to exceed. But the snobbery, the rigid class distinctions – that’s what’s unacceptable.”

  • Negroland by Margo Jefferson is published by Pantheon and is out now

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