Pulitzer Prize-winning School of the Arts Professor Margo Jefferson has been a staff writer for The New York Times and Newsweek; her reviews and essays have appeared in New York Magazine, Grand Street, Vogue, Harper's and elsewhere. Her book, On Michael Jackson, was published in 2006. Her new book, Negroland, which she calls a “cultural autobiography,” was recently published to much acclaim. It chronicles her experiences growing up among Chicago’s black elite.
Q. What prompted you to write a memoir at this point in your life?
A. I wanted to experiment as a writer, do things I hadn’t done before with content and form. I’d written varieties of criticism for so long. I wanted to use those skills in a new way—to explore a culture. And I wanted to make myself a character, to work with dramatic narrative, confession, dialogue and all the materials—characters, individual and group histories, social details, psychological tensions. I also wanted to work with a structure that was more collage-like than linear. It’s no accident that many of the people in my parents’ generation were dying. I wanted to capture their voices, manners, the texture of their experience.
Q. Can you comment on the title, Negroland, and your use of the word “Negro”?
A. “Negro” has a specific historical meaning: it was the preferred word for us (following “colored,” succeeded by “black“ and “African American”) during most of the years I write of. So it conveys an aura as well as a social reality. “Land” is a literal and mythic word, isn’t it? It suggests a literal homeland with a geography and history, and shared beliefs, practices, experiences of a people.
Q. Do you think that members of the current generation of black elites, those growing up now, have it easier than you did in 1950s Chicago or do they face the same sort of pressures you did?
A. Every generation is freed of certain pressures and faces new ones. That’s the reality of historical, political, social and economic change. But do they still face varieties of racism? And the internal complexities that this particular triad—race, class, gender—creates? Yes.
Q. What are you teaching at Columbia this fall; have you ever taught memoir writing?
A. This fall I’m teaching a graduate MFA thesis workshop and an undergraduate seminar called “Hybrid Nonfiction Forms.” I’m teaching several memoirs there, all using very different approaches to the form. (My chosen writers include Allison Bechdel, Richard Rodriguez, Adrienne Kennedy and Osip Mandelstam). I’ve taught personal essays, but this is the first time I’ve really immersed myself in memoir.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. The aftermath of a book is very strange. You’re detaching from it, testing new ideas; feeling out what questions, challenges are still haunting you, and what form you might use to pursue them. That’s the state I’m in now.
— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg
In this, the 21st century, seeing a book with an incendiary title like Negroland might evoke the side-eye from some: this author may have some explaining to do!
But another look reveals that, in this case, the author behind the title is Margo Jefferson—and suddenly, that’s explanation enough. Jefferson, an esteemed journalist known for her book reviews and cultural criticism, won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1995 while she was the Sunday theater critic at the New York Times. Her work has appeared in a torrent of publications, including Newsweek, New York magazine, Vogue, and Harper’s, and her essays have been anthologized in the Best African American Essays 2009, edited by Gerald Early and Randall Kennedy (One World/Ballantine). And “Scenes from a Life in Negroland,” an excerpt from her book that was first published in Guernica, will be included in The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct.).
It’s easy to be a critic, as the snarky saying goes. But behind—and within—Jefferson’s work is an exuberant curiosity about why people act as they do. She is an intellectual, but she’s a bubbly one, genuinely interested in others as individuals, not just subjects to be dryly analyzed. As an instructor, she’s inspired students in the writing classes she’s taught at Princeton, the New School, New York University, and, currently, Columbia. Oh, and there’s that Guggenheim Fellowship she won in 2008 for a forthcoming book—the one pubbing this September, the full title of which is Negroland: A Memoir (Pantheon).
“Negroland is my word for this somewhat rarified, specialized world previously known as the colored elite, the Negro elite, the talented 10th—in my day, terms referring to privileged, carefully self-defined Negroes,” Jefferson explains.
As someone who is passionately interested—both professionally and personally—in cultural behavior, Jefferson found it was no stretch to explore the realities, myths, and contradictions of black people living in a bubble they knew to be extraordinary and unusual within their own culture. That’s because she was one of them.
In the book’s opening pages, Jefferson admits to being reluctant to write about herself: “I was taught you don’t tell your secrets to strangers—certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure. My generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public.”
Jefferson says she’d lived with the memoir idea for a long time but hadn’t acted on it until just after the 2007 publication of the paperback edition of her first book, On Michael Jackson, from Vintage. (“Her slim, smart volume of cultural analysis may remind readers of Susan Sontag’s early, brilliant essays on pop culture,” wrote PW its review.) “I was in the space of, what’s my next book? I really wanted to look at class and race and how they get all entangled.” When her only sister was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 (she passed away in 2010), it “made me more aware of wanting to record our history.” Jefferson adds: “Also, my mother was getting older. I found I’d been taking notes on what she’d been saying, for years.”
While working on the book, Jefferson took a hiatus from writing reviews, but continued teaching writing personal essay and criticism at the New School. The book, she says, took about six years to write. “The goal is to just get enough done so you can say, ‘I can’t turn back!’ ” Her classroom became her laboratory. “I began moving toward memoir with my students. I wanted to try personal writing—turning criticism into manners, conventions. Even criticism is more interesting when the writer’s authority does not only come through this omniscient narrator, but through questions, ambivalence, vulnerability. A mind questioning and on the move, not just settling down and declaring—that’s one of the most interesting possibilities.”
Although the subtitle is A Memoir, Negroland is not a straight-up chronological all-about-me memoir; in large doses Jefferson juxtaposes and weaves long passages of relevant African-American sociological and historical lessons into the family experiences she describes. In fact, she says she toyed with using A Cultural Memoir as the subtitle. “But while my editor and I both felt that was precise, neither of us liked the rhythm of it.”
The historical lessons Jefferson incorporates are especially relevant to her family because she was born in 1947 into the black elite, a self-identified group that could trace itself and its connections to history. “I was born into the Chicago branch of Negroland,” she writes, “my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.”
Jefferson’s father, Ronald Jefferson, a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, was for years head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, the first black-controlled hospital in America (founded in 1891 by prominent black surgeon Daniel Hale Williams, in response to the racially exclusionary policies of Chicago nursing schools of the time). Her mother, Irma Jefferson, was a socialite and a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Educated in private schools, Jefferson received a B.A., cum laude, in English and American literature from Brandeis University in 1968, and, in 1971, an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
“My Negroland was also integrated at the time—I lived both a segregated and integrated life,” Jefferson says, noting that it “was pleasurable sometimes in many ways.” But her childhood was also fraught with contradictions. In the book, she describes an environment in which “children 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.” Many members of her community were concerned with distancing themselves from whites, and from the general black population, while measuring themselves against both. “Children were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us, when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”
Jefferson reveals in the book that, for her, these realities, combined with being a girl, resulted in a personal struggle with melancholy and depression. “In broader terms, it’s this confluence of acute pressures even as it’s designed to connect you. It has all the pressures and pretensions of any upper-middle-class group—these problems exist in ‘White Land’ too! The irony is, the pretensions are so shot through with perils. If it had been a novel, Margo would have been a central character upon which this carefully rendered world was acting.”
And yes, Jefferson says, Negroland does still exist in the 21st century. “It’s a much more intense integration: professional, cultural. But there’s no longer the same absolute, almost secretive intensity. It’s more diluted, more varied; people have spread, diversified, and have more choices now. History imposes burdens, but also offers options.”
Now that she has recorded her personal past, Jefferson believes that “it’s made me more compassionate toward how the various individual psyches make their way through the world. It’s like the solar system: here we all are! In Negroland, some conditions make you very angry, and others make you very happy. You are not always at their mercy; you can find your way through them.”
“My individual way of taking on the burdens of history has changed,” Jefferson says. “I don’t think of them only as burdens; I think they are honorable. I say at one point that ‘it’s worthwhile to imagine what can’t imagine you.’ That is, what room for creativity does that give you? That means it’s not only a burden.”
Jefferson says she hopes that readers of Negroland takeaway a “visceral sense of the complexity of these lives in America—very particularly, these questions of how class, race, gender, and sex are always tangling each other.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jefferson’s essays have been anthologized in the Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens and Robert Atwan (HMH/Mariner). In fact, the anthology is Best African American Essays 2009, edited by Gerald Early and Randall Kennedy (One World/Ballantine).
A version of this article appeared in the 09/07/2015 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Writing a Cultural Memoir