Margo Jefferson Reflects on Depression and Class in New Memoir, "Negroland"

By Margo Jefferson for The Cut

In her latest book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Margo Jefferson offers a new definition of "Negroland." “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty,” she writes in the introduction to her new memoir. Chronicling her affluent upbringing in Chicago, which hits shelves September 8, Negroland is a sharp reflection on the intersection of race and class in mid-century America.

A candid observer, Jefferson articulates the complicated and calculated performance of upper-class black life. “Nothing highlighted our privileged more than the menace to it,” she writes. “Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers … we knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.” In the excerpt below, Jefferson considers another paradox of her privilege: her experience with depression and thoughts of suicide, and the pressure she felt as a black woman to hide it.

In the late 1970s, I began to actively cultivate a desire to kill myself. I was, at the time, a successful professional in my chosen field of journalism. I was also a passionate feminist who refused to admit any contradiction between, on the one hand, her commitment to fighting the oppression of women and, on the other, her belief that feminism would let her draft a death commensurate with social achievement and political awareness.

A little background is needed here. The women’s movement was controversial in the black community at this time. Many men and all too many women denounced feminism as a white woman’s thing, an indulgence, even an assertion of privilege, since she was competing (and stridently) for the limited share of benefits white men had just begun to grant nonwhites.

Black feminists responded that, thanks to sexism, women of color regularly got double blasts of discrimination and oppression. And, anyway, we had our own feminist history. Relations between white and black women had been wary, inequitable, or bluntly exploitative. Alliances between them had been scant and fraught.

Nevertheless, social and cultural progress through the decades had made interracial cooperation and friendship available to my generation. I’d had white friends since kindergarten. And I was willing to acknowledge this irony; the rituals of bourgeois femininity had given the girls of Negroland certain protections the boys lacked.

That vision of feral, fascinating black manhood possessed Americans of every race and class. If you were a successful upper-middle-class Negro girl in the 1950s and '60s you were, in practice and imagination, a white Protestant upper middle-class girl. Young, good-looking white women were the most desirable creatures in the world. It was hard not to want to imitate them; it was highly toxic, too, as we would learn.

Still, these rituals allowed girls the latitude to go about their studies while being pert and popular, to stay well-mannered and socially adaptable, even as they joined the protests of the sixties and seventies.

So, when the black movement and the women’s movement offered new social and cultural opportunities, we were ready to accept them.

But one white female privilege had always been withheld from the girls of Negroland. Aside from the privilege of actually being white, they had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance. A privilege Good Negro Girls had been denied by our history of duty, obligation, and discipline. Because our people had endured horrors and prevailed, even triumphed, their descendants should be too strong and too proud for such behavior. We were to be ladies, responsible Negro women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that.

I craved the right to turn my face to the wall, to create a death commensurate with bourgeois achievement, political awareness, and aesthetically compelling feminine despair. My first forays in this direction were petty. I conducted my own small battle of the books, purging my library of stalwart, valorous titles by black women and replacing them, whenever possible, with morbid, truculent ones by my sisters. Out withThis Child’s Gonna Live, up with There’s Nothing I Own That I Want. Good-bye, My Lord, What a Morning, by Marian Anderson; hello, Everything and Nothing by Dorothy Dandridge. As for Mari Evans’s iconic sixties poem:

I am a black woman

beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
on me and be

I tore it out of my black poets’ anthology and set fire to it in the bathroom sink.

I found literary idols in Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, and Ntozake Shange, writers who’d dared to locate a sanctioned, forbidden space between white vulnerability and black invincibility.

A Negro girl could never be purely innocent. The vengeful Race Fairy always lurked nearby; your parents’ best hope was that the fairy would show up at someone else’s feast and punish their child. Parents had to protect themselves, too, and protect you from knowing how much danger you all were in.

And so arose one variation on the classic Freudian primal scene in which the child sees or imagines her parents having sex and finds it stirringly violent. Here the child sees and imagines her parents having fraught encounters with white people who invade their conversation and shadow their lives beyond the boundaries of home or neighborhood.

Work hard, child. Internalize the figures of your mother, your father, your parents (one omnipotent double-gendered personage). Internalize The Race. Internalize both races. Then internalize the contradictions. Teach your psyche to adapt its solo life to a group obbligato. Or else let it abandon any impulse toward independence and hurtle toward a feverishly perfect presentation of your people.

Photo: E.B. Bartels

Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic. She has been a staff writer for The New York Times and Newsweek; her reviews and essays have appeared inNew York Magazine, Grand Street, Vogue, Harper's and many other publications. Her book, On Michael Jackson, was published in 2006. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation /Theater Communications Group grant. She has also written and performed two theater pieces at The Cherry Lane Theatre and The Culture Project.

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