This award-winning memoir published earlier in the year documents a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist’s early family life and later personal history. She shows how her inner conflicts were generated by the pressures she was placed under (and placed herself under) as a young talented black woman growing up in 50s and 60s Chicago within a wealthy family.
The book begins with an insightful analysis of the careers and written works of historical middle and upper class black figures, in order to anchor her book in that tradition. In the next part of the book she tells us about her family and their privileged social milieu, which she calls ‘Negroland’. She offers a clear-sighted analysis of the way her parent’s generation acted on their desire to assimilate in order to progress and win acceptance on merit regardless of the racism that was still widespread. They were part of a long line of African Americans throughout history who wanted to shrug off the low expectations that whites have always had of blacks.
She shows how conflicted her parents’ generation were, and how judgemental they were of themselves and their children, in order to maintain their foothold above less able or socially mobile blacks. She uses short passages to show us snapshots of her life, and analyses in detail the meaning to her of different interactions with peers of different ethnicities to help us understand the difficulties in real terms of going to a private school where she was one of a tiny minority of African Americans. She movingly demonstrates the personal cost in later life of growing up saddled with an almost crushing burden to fit into both black and white society.
Jefferson, her family and the other people in ‘Negroland’ were at the front line of a fight for equivalent ‘respectability’ to whites. They sometimes achieved it but paid the psychological price of eternal self-vigilance. They also bore the emotional scars of the subtly cruel forms of discrimination used by middle and upper class whites.
Jefferson shows throughout that race is not a ‘given’, especially when she talks about how light-skinned members of her family spent lonely portions of their life ‘passing’ as white – race is not in your blood, she argues, it is constructed in your own mind and the minds of others by daily awareness of unequal treatment and the reasons for it. Like many others, she felt liberated by the Black Power and feminist movements in the 1970s because they articulated a desire by a younger black generation to claim their right to be different. They finally became exhausted of living up to the impossible standards their parents felt they had to set them.
This book is written beautifully and quite experimentally (with footnotes, subheadings and lengthy pieces of text that are italicised). Jefferson often assumes the role of her own critic, commenting on her own writing throughout. I quite enjoyed this when I started to read the book, because it mirrors the painful self-consciousness she felt for years, but the device wears thin through overuse. She also writes with an almost relentless level of self-scrutiny and meta-self-scrutiny of her own and others’ motives. This turns her prose in on itself – in the end the analysis paralysis she writes herself into becomes tiring.
Despite these minor downsides, Negroland is an excellent book, which captures how historical moments in the evolution of black consciousness were experienced by individuals and their families, and it brings the struggles of blacks born in the twentieth century to centre stage in an original way. Jefferson writes like a details person, and being one myself, I appreciate how effective that approach can be.