Negroland is not a geographic locale. It’s the name Margo Jefferson gives to the place, time and circumstances of her upbringing in the upper echelons of black society. Her memoir, which reads with the blast force of a prose poem, looks back with love and no small amount of anger at a life spent navigating the freedoms of class while flirting with, and occasionally skirting, the imposed limits of race.
Jefferson was born in Chicago in 1947 to a socialite mother and a physician father who was head of pediatrics at a prestigious hospital. Their family had hired help, but Margo and sister Denise were expected to clean in advance of their arrival, to keep the habits and inflections of vernacular blackness at bay, to assert their privilege by keeping distance between themselves and those who didn’t share it. This often afforded them a rarefied perch, passing as white when it suited their needs, and allowing them to look down on poor blacks and all whites with equal distaste.
When the family takes a vacation without first vetting the hotel, only to have their reservation downgraded and the red carpet withdrawn the minute they’re seen, it’s a bitter reminder that their gilded cage doesn’t always allow access to the larger world.
Jefferson offers some broader historical context for her place and time, including thumbnail biographies of some “privileged free Negro(es),” then dives into personal stories, each helping to frame her highly particular circumstance and make it somewhat easier to understand. She is unsparing when describing her college years; if her life was unique, the melodrama she brought to bear on it is still a hallmark of that stage of life.
“ ‘Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro,’ my mother wrote seventy years ago. It wasn’t a disavowal, it was her claim to a free space.” This line from a letter Jefferson’s mother wrote to a friend reappears throughout Negroland. It’s a stinging reminder that identity can’t always be chosen but may be tailored to one’s advantage for those who have the resources in hand.