Margo Jefferson at Columbia University, New York City, September 2015

Alexander Pines

Margo Jefferson at Columbia University, New York City, September 2015

The house Negro, according to Malcolm X, looked out for his master’s interest and put the field Negro back in his place on the plantation when he got out of line. The house Negro lived better than the field Negro, Malcolm X explained. He ate the same food as the master, dressed and spoke just as well. The house Negro loved the master more than the master loved himself, while the field Negro prayed for a strong wind to come along should the master’s house catch fire. Malcolm X said that he was a field Negro and for him the black establishment, the black upper class, became synonymous with the house Negro. “You’re nothing but an ex-slave. You don’t like to be told that. But what else are you? You are ex-slaves. You didn’t come here on the ‘Mayflower.’ You came here on a slave ship.”

The black elite provoked some scorn in the civil rights era of revolution in mass black consciousness. In The Negro Family in the United States (1939), E. Franklin Frazier had described how migration and the urbanization of black America changed the criteria by which a black upper class defined itself. Bloodline gave way to position. In his grand remonstrance, Black Bourgeoisie (1957), Frazier castigated the black upper class for having deteriorated into a sad imitation of conspicuously consuming white America. Others criticized black institutions for being conformist. For figures like Malcolm X, the history of black resistance exposed the futility of conventional avenues of struggle, as if illustrating Foucault’s point about the moral training of populations and the reform of manners as a means of reducing threat to property. Whether it was seen as politically impotent or socially up its own ass, the black elite was an irrelevance at a time when the forces of liberation were out to reshape the world; and when the vernacular was being elevated as the true source of black culture.

The idea of an Old Settler’s temperament in a black person seemed absurd. In his 1965 autobiography, Long Old Road, the distinguished sociologist Horace R. Cayton wrote about leaving Seattle in response to increased racism and running away to sea, where he befriended a veteran black sailor named Longreen who was unfamiliar with his past:

Of course I didn’t mention to Longreen anything about my grandfather being a senator or that we had once had a horse and carriage and a Japanese servant. He wouldn’t have believed me if I had, and I’d learned by then that with the general run of Negroes it was better not to refer to such an elegant background.

Just as white people in New York descended from Dutch colonists thought of themselves as Old Settlers, so, too, did black people already living in northern cities before the mass migration of mostly black agricultural workers from the South during World War I, especially upper-class blacks who were somewhat tolerated because they were few. Cayton’s father’s newspaper only became a black publication after the war, when so many blacks moved to Seattle that he lost his white advertisers. He had to remind his son that although one of Cayton’s grandfathers had been the first black US senator, the other had been a slave, as had he, his father.

In Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945), the landmark work on Chicago that Cayton wrote with St. Clair Drake, the black upper class was, significantly, not a leisure class but a largely professional one that supplied goods and services to the Negro community. In the cold war days immediately after World War II, race leadership still came from the upper class. Its members fought segregation in every aspect and resented being told that they were trying to be white or to mix socially with whites. Because of segregation, blacks of all classes lived in close proximity. It was not poverty that upper-class blacks minded, Drake and Cayton said, so much as lack of decorum. Most black people in Chicago at the time of their study were employed as laborers.

Cayton was also clear that writing his autobiography was an attempt at self-reclamation. In the late 1930s and into the 1940s he had been a part of a vigorous scene of black intellectuals in Chicago, described in Lawrence P. Jackson’s important The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (2011). Yet after World War II, its promises of freedom unanswered, he became increasingly bitter in his lectures, and as a community-center director he worried that he was little more than a stooge for the white man. One day he woke up in his office with a pistol in his hand. His autobiography ends not long after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, with him fighting depression and alcoholism, trying to start over, heading back out West. Horace Cayton would die in 1970 in Paris, where he was doing research for a biography of his friend Richard Wright. The black autobiographical tradition does not have many losers.


Margo Jefferson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995, has nothing to prove and everything to say in Negroland, her brave, elegantly written memoir of growing up black and different. Born into the self-contained world of upper-class black Chicago that Drake and Cayton studied, Jefferson and her older sister spent their formative years, the 1950s and 1960s, in the bourgeois enclave of Hyde Park, daughters of the head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, the oldest black hospital in the country, and a glamorous mother whose photograph could appear in the black press. Jefferson attended the famously progressive University of Chicago Laboratory School and High School. “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty,” she says.

Class in black America has “a fraught history with many roots,” its distinctions going back to whether blacks were free or slave; northerner or southerner; property owner or unskilled worker; literate or not; light-skinned or not. Jefferson herself is descended in part from the Negro elite that was defined early on by how much it had to do with white people, its relation to white people, its nearness to them, by occupation, such as caterer or barber, or blood, even a former slave master’s. But after characterizing them this way, she writes, “I’ve fallen into a mocking tone that feels prematurely disloyal. There were antebellum founders of Negroland who triumphed through resolve and principled intelligence.” The severity of the black condition explains why blacks who could do so accepted the protection that identification with powerful whites offered. But she also recognizes that “Negro exceptionalism had its ugly side: pioneers who advanced through resolve, intelligence, and exploiting their own.” For example, we know now that one of the first legal slaveholders in seventeenth-century Virginia was an African man.

Jefferson unearths works such as Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society, published in 1841 in Philadelphia by Joseph Willson, a dentist and printer, the son of a Georgia slaveholder and an enslaved woman whom he freed before she bore his five children. In 1858, Cyprian Clamorgan, a barber descended from a prominent white St. Louis family, published The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis. Jefferson notes the difference in style between Willson’s pride in his family’s quiet success and Clamorgan’s bragging about his white ancestors and large income. She takes her early examples of the black elite seriously and gives them their due, understanding their flaws and limitations, like family.

Jefferson has a deep sympathy for intellectual black women in the nineteenth century—poet and diarist Charlotte Forten; teacher and essayist Anna Julia Cooper, who received her doctorate from the Sorbonne when she was sixty-five years old; Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching crusading journalist; and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of a finishing school in North Carolina for black girls. Jefferson writes that W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born in 1868 and published his first book, The Philadelphia Negro, in 1899, “shares Cooper’s radical romanticism” as well as “Wells’s outrage,” but that “he is intent on cutting a much wider swath, sometimes at their expense.” On recordings, his voice resembles FDR’s.

Perhaps because of the influence of northern abolitionists or the New England schoolteachers who went south to teach the freedmen during Reconstruction, the image of the stern, stringent Bostonian replaced the doomed, noble southern aristocrat as the class ideal for black people largely trained at anxious black-church colleges. But for black America social status came to depend mostly on what an individual had achieved, precisely because individual achievement was not separate from the advancement of the black race as a whole. What Du Bois described in his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth” was not an abstraction. In his vision, the few would lead the many. It was not where you were from that mattered but rather where you were headed.

What was forgotten in the protests of the 1960s—a period when black people began to enter the middle classes in meaningful numbers—was that for more than a century the sheer existence of a black upper class had represented a challenge to the racial status quo. The people in Jefferson’s world benefited from the civil rights movement as much as any black people did. But the social mobility of black people was not, for her, a testament to the openness of American society. Jefferson learned early that her family was where it was in spite of American society. On one road trip in 1956, her family traveled happily to Quebec and then New York, but a hotel in Atlantic City wouldn’t put them in the suite they’d reserved. They left the next day:


Such treatment encouraged privileged Negroes to see our privilege as more than justified: It was hard-won and politically righteous, a boon to the race, a source of compensatory pride, an example of what might be achieved.

They were not a normal family, not like the ones Jefferson saw on television or at the movies. Her parents had to do careful research before holidays in order to make sure things would be okay for them when they got to where they were going, and even then something could still happen. In the 1950s,

liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money, and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice. They had ready a bevy of slights: from skeptics the surprised glance and spare greeting; from waverers the pleasantry, eyes averted; from disdainers the direct cut. Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege.

Her mother told her a lot of white people did not like to address a Negro as “Doctor.” It would seem little compared to, say, the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 for the crime of supposedly having whistled at a white woman, but mob violence and casual disrespect had roots in the same license to attack black people. Trouble knows your name, James Baldwin said.

Yet Jefferson is describing a world of black confidence, not one of uncomprehending imitation or secret self-loathing. It matters that she grew up in Chicago when she did. In her youth, Chicago was the undisputed second city, a manufacturing powerhouse divided into ethnic zones. Violence often attended the spread of the black population. Black Chicago was large and had capital, substantial enterprises, and strong churches. Black institutions still had prestige in the black community. Negroland was real:

In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians. Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.

Home life took place in and around Fortress Negro. “In the privacy of an all-Negro world, Negro privilege could lounge and saunter too, show off its accoutrements and lay down the law.” Jefferson writes about the group activities of childhood and the extracurricular schedule of her adolescence as rituals of cohesion, tribal defense against the social disorganization of black life in general. However, though she may have been born into Negroland, education was a mixed-race experience. She had access to white high schools and exclusive music camps. In her memoir, Jefferson takes up distinctions between classes and races, but also between genders, and it is as a girl’s coming-of-age story, a black girl’s story, in a time of social change, that Negroland explores yet more unexpected territory.

Women were conveyors of racial inheritance. Jefferson’s mother was present to correct her always. In one scene, she recounts how amused she and her sister were by what they considered the ignorant country language of the speaker, an old black woman, in the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son”: “Well, son, I’ll tell you:/Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Their mother listened, then explained who Hughes was, and then read the poem for them, calling on “all the resources of Negro life and history,…turning dialect to vernacular.” Her mother, who grew up on Negro History Week, let them know that Hughes had even taught briefly at the Lab School.

Dorothy Dandridge, 1953; photograph by Philippe Halsman

Magnum Photos

Dorothy Dandridge, 1953; photograph by Philippe Halsman

The owners of The Chicago Defender, a leading black newspaper, were their friends, and they were aware that Ida B. Wells had worked in Chicago. Jefferson’s mother told them about the anthropologist Katherine Dunham and that major work of sociology, Black Metropolis by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton. Her family read The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. They were not white people; they knew that Rosa Parks was not a Negro woman suddenly too tired to change seats, but rather the secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama, chapter of the NAACP that had been meticulously preparing its challenge to segregation on municipal buses.

Jefferson grew up knowing that the women responsible for her believed in “feminine command.” “It’s never too hot for fur,” her grandmother said on a visit back to the South. As young black women, she and her sister were learning how to comport themselves as ladies. It was a kind of vindication. That nice-girl problem of how to attract boys without getting a reputation was further complicated by the history of black women forever being depicted in American culture as oversexed and animalistic, which justified the exploitation of their bodies. Respectability was therefore a grave matter. Nice black girls learned that women of achievement renounced vanity and lightheartedness, exhibited unceasing fortitude, and put the needs of others first. “I enjoy being irreproachable,” Jefferson writes.

The cost of self-control was easily underestimated. “Oh, the vehement inner lives of girls snatching at heroines and role models!” Meanwhile, as a nice black girl Jefferson was judged by standards of beauty that were of social history’s making: grade of hair, skin color, flat or straight nose, size of ass, shape of foot. Whiteness. “The fashion and beauty complex has so many ways to enchant and maim.” She takes pride in and has sympathy for Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, but conceives a teenager’s passion for Audrey Hepburn. “No! You cannot ever be white like these idols of feminine perfection. Let that final impossibility reproach and taunt you.”

Jefferson’s story becomes more and more about gender difference and where it intersects with race after she graduates from Brandeis College in 1968. Eventually, she is conspicuous as the only black woman columnist at Newsweek magazine. “The white world had made the rules that excluded us; now, when it saw fit, it altered those rules to include a few of us.” Her childhood is about Negroland at its segregated zenith, but childhood is a woman’s story waiting to happen, one influenced by—if not directly about—the feminist movement of the 1970s.

Jefferson is touchingly honest about her inhibited response to the black feminist sensation of that era, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuff (1976). Shange, born Paulette Williams, was a nice black girl and Barnard College graduate who’d gone off the rails. However, Jefferson summons to the rescue the figure of Florynce Kennedy, the great activist lawyer in a cowboy hat, a beloved presence in radical circles in 1970s New York. Many black women back then argued that feminism was a white woman’s thing and that if you scratched a white feminist you would find simply a white person. It was more important to address social needs along racial lines. Kennedy answered that black women had been copying bad ideas from white women for so long it was crazy when they came along with a good one not to want to copy that:

[The black woman’s] history of struggle, degradation, triumph; her exclusion from the rewards of bourgeois femininity; her duty to strengthen the Negro family. Not a history one wanted to haul through one’s social life. Not a history one wanted to lumber into the sexual revolution with. Not a history one wanted to have sternly codified by white sociologists and Black Power revolutionaries who found the faults of The Black Woman much the same as those of The Negro Woman. She was bellicose, she was self-centered; she was sexually prudish when not castrating.

When Jefferson was growing up, race mattered, but gender didn’t. The fight for women’s rights was greeted with “mockery, contempt, or repressive tolerance.” Girls of her class were encouraged to take certain privileges for granted, but these privileges were designed to make them eligible for good marriages, i.e., yet more social status, and they were taught to “cherish that generic female future.” Black women historically had entered the white-collar workforce faster than black men, because of the relatively low status of clerical and secretarial work, and most of the black professional women Jefferson knew of as a girl were also wives and mothers. Sometimes she was warned to have something to fall back on, an acknowledgment that the black man’s economic life could be insecure. At the same time, a woman alone was an object of pity or whispers.

The question Jefferson asks of her experience was: How could she adapt her willful self to so much history and myth? The answer is that she didn’t. There is, in her account, no accommodation or acceptance of middle-class standards and life. This isn’t a memoir that tells us how a black person with opportunities got over her guilt and relaxed into the life of getting ahead that her family had sacrificed for her to have. She made instead a life as a journalist and critic and then another life in the high bohemia of New York intellectuals and artists, away from the conventions of her male-dominated professional world. “All that circumnavigating of race, class, and gender made for comedy too.”

Jefferson’s answer is also in her sophisticated tone and style, in the free and open manner in which Negroland is structured. Her book includes many brief anecdotes, digressions, and “dialogues” between unnamed characters. Paragraph headings announce “The Jefferson Girls,” “The Jefferson Girls and Ballet,” “The Jefferson Girls and Beauty,” “Another Negro History Week Lesson,” or “Boys.” What marks Negroland off from other works on such a potentially cringe-inducing subject is Jefferson’s literary sensibility: “I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.” Some of her most intense passages have to do with her instinctive escape into Lewis Carroll or her immersion in the personalities of the sisters in Little Women and what their destinies portended for her.

Identity is fluid. “There’s a space in our consciousness where all this racialized material collects, never static, mutating or at least recombining.” Jefferson struggles with her own reticence. “I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about race,” she observes. “You revere your grief.” Though she knows she has had more choices, and therefore more freedom, than most, there remained lines she dared not cross. Black girls in Negroland “had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity.”

Charlotte Forten, granddaughter of a rich, free-born black Philadelphia sail maker, kept a diary and went south in 1862 to teach freed slaves in South Carolina. Her diary stops when she falls in love with moonlit rides on horseback alongside a married white doctor from Boston. When her diary resumes many years later, she is the prim wife of a black minister from a prominent family much like her own. Angela Davis, who comes from a middle-class household in Birmingham, Alabama, and graduated from Brandeis four years earlier than Jefferson, refuses in her Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974) to write about herself as exceptional in any way—a principle dictated by her politics, her allegiance to her constituencies, rejecting the romanticism of her own image, a keeping faith with the four girls killed in the church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. “Internalize The Race. Internalize both races,” Jefferson says at one point. “Then internalize the contradictions. Teach your psyche to adapt its solo life to a group obbligato. Or let it abandon any impulse toward independence and hurtle toward a feverishly perfect representation of your people.”

The constant for black men has been the threat of violence; the constant for black women has been that they were still women. Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen got kicked out of Fisk University for wearing bright colors. A’Lelia Bundles’s On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (2001), a biography of her great-grandmother, the founder of a black cosmetics industry; Jill Nelson’s Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island (2005); Gail Lumet Buckley’s The Hornes: An American Family (1986) and her recent The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family—these works are personal as well as acts of retrieval and conservation. The authors can see themselves in the continuum of the histories they are recording. But Jefferson is coming at the subject of the black elite from an odd angle, examining it as a legacy of proscription and privilege, grief and achievement, love for, and shame because of, other black people; love for and terror of so-called white culture. “My enemies took too much. My loved ones asked too much.”

The closest thing to her homage to ambiguity—from another nice black girl—is avant-garde playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s experimental autobiography, People Who Led to My Plays (1987). The new Americans must be able to think in contradictions, Henry Adams said in his Education. “Being an Other, in America, teaches you to imagine what can’t imagine you,” Jefferson says. “That’s your first education.”