From the shocking deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner to endless invective against President Obama, the past year has seen a surge in racial animus that rivals the explosive tensions of the civil rights era. Not surprisingly, African-American authors have responded with a bumper crop of offerings, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” among them. Now comes “Negroland,” a vibrant and damning memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson, who dares to throw a wrench — class — into our tortured debates about race.
Jefferson writes in a softer register than Rankine or Coates, opening with a confession: “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. … I call it Negroland because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.”
She grew up mostly in Chicago’s Hyde Park, a multicultural enclave of professionals, her father a pediatrician, her mother a socialite. Raised as proper ladies, Margo and her older sister, Denise, attended the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School in the late ’50s and early ’60s, concentrating on academics and cultural pursuits alongside white classmates even as they bumped up against the color line elsewhere, as in one memorable scene set in an Atlantic City hotel. Both sisters padded out youthful résumés with memberships in Jack and Jill and the Co-Ettes.
Jefferson hilariously deadpans her teenage regimen of skin oils and hair treatments and an obsession with profiles: “Mrs. Jefferson has a prominent Roman nose. Denise has a small, trim nose; more decorous than pert. Though Margo’s nostrils flare, they do not flare in a way an unsympathetic observer could fixate on.”
Jefferson’s social conscience flickered on in sync with the upheavals of the 1960s: “I was trying to enter a world tied to my history but not my autobiography.” Through books and films she discovered artists and activists whose work resonated; her riffs on W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin alone are worth the price of the hardcover. And she brings to life a rich lineage of African-American women, from the underappreciated — Charlotte Forten, Charlotte Hawkins Brown — to the celebrated, such as Sojourner Truth and Lena Horne. The contralto Marian Anderson inspires a gorgeous moment in “Negroland,” as Jefferson reflects on a recording of Anderson’s famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial: “She wasn’t allowed a singular identity except when she sang: there you could hear her stroking, savoring tones and syllables, in a private ecstasy.”
Jefferson’s method is impressionistic, discursive and often lyrical, revealing the deep divisions of black elites, who have fought silently but stoically against institutionalized white racism even as they’ve remained aloof from lower-income people of color. “Negroland” lifts the veil from the “Talented Tenth,” striking at the hypocrisies still curdled beneath our conversations about race and class.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.