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Privilege And Pressure: A Memoir Of Growing Up Black And Elite In 'Negroland'

Margo Jefferson is a writing professor at Columbia University. In 1994, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for her work at <em>The New York Times.</em>
Michael Lionstar
Margo Jefferson is a writing professor at Columbia University. In 1994, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for her work at The New York Times.

Growing up in the 1950s, Margo Jefferson was part of Chicago's black upper class. The daughter of a prominent doctor and his socialite wife, Jefferson inhabited a world of ambition, education and sophistication — a place she calls "Negroland."

That afforded her many opportunities, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic says. But life was also undercut by the fear that her errors and failures would reflect poorly on her family and, subsequently, her race.

"It was very important that you show yourself a bright, lively, well-spoken person," Jefferson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "If you go back and read editorials in black magazines — even in white magazines — watch television, this attitude is everywhere: 'Jackie Robinson, he's advancing the race!' 'Marion Anderson, she's advancing the race!' This was the way America ... [viewed] blacks: The individual was a collective symbol."

In her memoir, Negroland, Jefferson describes the social pressures of her upbringing, as well as the sense of separation that it engendered. She writes that she and other members of the black elite thought of themselves as a "Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians."

Ultimately, it was the Black Power movement that led Jefferson to question some of the tenets that she had grown up with: "Black Power was really a major challenge to the social privileges and structures of the kind of privilege that I had grown up with," she says. "That whole belief ... that you will only be able to advance if you are perfectly behaved, if you present yourself as what white people would consider an ideal of whiteness ... all of that just began to burst open."

Interview Highlights

On using the word "Negro"

I use the word in the spirit of history, in the spirit of historical exactness and irony and respect for the movement of history and the ironies it creates, and also the fact that part of our history is this series of changing names, which says so much about our fluctuating status. ... "Colored" was the term of choice some decades back, then "Negro." ... "Afra American" had a brief fling, "Afro American" in the '60s, then "Africaan," then "black," then "African-American." So I wanted also that sense of these strange historical shifts back and forth.

On the beauty standards Jefferson held herself to as a child

I'm measuring my shade of brown. I'm measuring the width of my nose. I'm measuring the size of my lips. I'm doing the usual things that girl do — what shape are my eyes, are they big, are my features well-proportioned ... and I have an exact series of grades for hair as well as shades of skin. And [these standards] extended beyond my world — they really hovered over and imposed themselves on all Negros, black people, African-Americans. It was ruthless, it was mean-spirited, it was bigoted. We were brain-washed into one standard, not just beauty, but acceptability. There is a terrible kind of anthropological "othering" and disdain in those kinds of judgments.

On re-evaluating her upbringing as a result of the Black Power movement

Self-examination — when the whole world around you is pressuring that and challenging you — is very, very hard. Looking at a whole structure — in my case, let us say of snobbery, basking in certain privileges, marks of what appear to be superiority — that's ugly to look at. And it's very hard, as we all know, to go at these internalized beliefs, feelings, psychological needs. I don't regret any of it and I think many people, blacks, but also whites who were part of the '60s ... they'd say the same thing. It was worth it. There was waste, there was destruction along with all the glory, but I wouldn't trade it. I'm so grateful to have been born when I could live through all of this.

On the generational divide between how Jefferson and her parents responded to the Black Power movement

My parents were at one with the civil rights movement, but Black Power, it flung its disdainful hand at much that they believed in and much of who they were. And that was very, very painful. Just beginning with the disdain, the contempt with which the word "Negro" was used, which had been their generation['s] and the generation before theirs word of honor. And suddenly "Negro" became the sign and symbol of — for the Black Power movement — of deference ... of corruption, of corrupt bourgeoisie values, of rejection of black identity and black pride. This was horrible for them. In its way, it was traumatic.

On experiencing depression in the late 1970s

One of the things that had been demanded of black people in general by our history was a kind of indomitability. There is a narrative of that, over escaping slavery, overcoming brutal treatment, unjust laws, progressing, not letting yourself be crushed by racism, by setbacks, by small everyday petty injustices as well as the megasystemic ones — that requires huge amounts of emotional and mental self-control. For example, growing up, one of the many things that many black people hear is the kind of crack, sometimes it's said pridefully, sometimes it's said cynically, "We don't have nervous breakdowns. We're too strong for that." Of course, every black person knows perfectly well and knows some people who've had nervous breakdowns, but it's part of the ethos and the myth of black survival and, in fact, triumph. In terms of the history of black women, so much of it involved — necessitated — struggling against stereotypes, [and] proving yourself a healthy, high-functioning, disciplined woman.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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