The book ‘Negroland’ explores the life of the Black aristocracy.
Pulitzer Prize winning critic Margo Jefferson’s memoir “Negroland” opens the door into the exclusive world of the Black elite – a world that many people knew existed but few experienced.
Born in 1947 to a father who was the leader of pediatrics at Provident Hospital and a socialite mother, Jefferson was raised in some of Chicago’s most prestigious Black neighborhoods including Park Manor.
Negroland was the name that she gave to a “small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Members of Negroland referred to themselves as “the colored aristocracy,” “the colored 400,” “the blue vein society” and other colorful names.
Jefferson was raised knowing that the luxury her family delighted in was unusual for Black families of that era. The Jefferson family gained memberships to elite clubs – she and her sister, Denise, were in Jack and Jill of America and the Co-Ettes Club while her father was a member of the Sigma Pi Phi and Jefferson’s mother belonged to the Northeasterners.
Throughout “Negroland” Jefferson’s tone changes back and forth. At moments she seems proud and even boastful when describing her experience of coming from an elite Chicago family. Other times her tone gives off the feeling that she is bothered with knowing that no matter how many accomplishments she achieved as a child, she would still be looked down upon by the Whites.
“Why should Black people behave well to get their rights,” she writes. “White people don’t behave and they get all the rights they want. That’s been our mistake as privileged Negroes. Believing all that ‘We have to be twice as good to be acknowledged just as good. Everything we do must reflect well on the race.”’
The instant that the reader gets the feeling that Jefferson’s family was able to enjoy all the privileges that Whites took for granted, we are reminded that that was not the case. No matter how educated, financially-stable and poised members of the colored aristocracy were, they were never equal to their White counterparts. If they even thought that they were, they were quickly put in their place.
Jefferson writes about an adult conversation that she once overheard regarding race relations. “He keeps you out of his hospitals, his law firms, his universities. Even his damn cemeteries. He never lets you forget you’re a second-class citizen.”
Much of the Black elites’ time was spent trying to show Whites that they were not the average Black citizen. They wanted to prove that Whites were not the only race that could be successful. In order to do this, adults urged their children “not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public…Even the least of them would be turned against the race.”
In the midst of this, members of the Black elite often struggled with their identities. Obviously they were Black people but they spent a great deal of time worrying about their hair textures, nose shapes, skin tone and other superficial things.
“Denise’s skin is burnt sienna,” Jefferson recalls. “Margo and her mother are café au lait, and the blue veins in their hands can be seen by anyone.”
Before reading “Negroland” I wondered, “What real problems could a member of an elite society have?” It did not take long to see that the immense amount of time spent trying to satisfy White people could easily become stressful.
Every move, word and look was calculated. Any decision that a child made would reflect not only on them, but most importantly their family. This consistent pressure drove Jefferson to thoughts of suicide.
“In the late 1970s, I began to actively cultivate a desire to kill myself.”