Technically, Margo Jefferson grew up in the south-side neighborhoods of Park Manor and Hyde Park. But metaphorically she comes from Negroland—her name for a small segment of black America “where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Her father was the head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital; her mother graduated from the University of Chicago. Her family belonged to the most exclusive black clubs, and their friends included the city’s most prominent lawyers and clergymen, academics and publishers, plus an opera singer and an Olympic athlete.
Despite that privilege and plenty, Negroland was a precarious place. Negroland the book details the peculiar pressures and insecurities Jefferson faced growing up there.
“We were the third race,” Jefferson writes. “We cared for our people—we loved our people, but we refused to be held back by the lower element. We did not love white people, we did not care for most of them, but we envied them and sometimes we feared and hated them. Our daily practice was suspicion, caution at the very least.”
At the U. of C. Lab School, Jefferson was the kind of student “who never stopped asking aggrieved rhetorical questions like ‘Why is it always the Nigger Jims who show up in Mark Twain’s fiction? Why couldn’t he base a character on Warner Thornton McGuinn, the first Negro graduate of Yale Law School?'”
Jefferson, who grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic for the New York Times, writes most affectingly about her struggle with depression—an anathema to both the proper Negro lady she was raised to be and the strong black woman she was expected to embody as an adult. How, she wonders, can you reconcile your responsibility as a representative of your people with your responsibility to yourself as an individual human being?
Negroland by Margo Jefferson (Knopf), out now.