Margo Jefferson writes about the experiences she encountered throughout her life as a woman of mixed race. Born in 1947, into an educated and successful family living in what she calls Negroland***, she writes about her struggles as a woman of color in a world where race, gender and sexual identification were unsettled struggles. This is not to imply that those issues are settled today, but to merely state that they have come a long way from the time when she was born. I believe that progress has been made.
She writes with a tongue in cheek irony and occasional sarcasm that is captured well by the narrator of the audio. However, there were times when the mocking tone confused me a bit, and I wasn’t sure whether an issue was being defended or denigrated, praised or reviled. She discussed black and white behavior in the same way…, mocking attitudes, calling out the falseness and lack of sincerity on the part of certain people.
When Jefferson wrote about her own background, I was impressed with the opportunities she was able to take advantage of, opportunities that were never afforded to me, and I am of a similar generation. She received the benefits of most children in upwardly mobile, generally white, Anglo-Saxon families. She went to camp, achieved well in school and went to highly acclaimed universities for her advanced education. She was indistinguishable in terms of accomplishments from her white brethren, but in terms of her lifestsyle and fears she was entirely different. She was taught she must behave better, dress better and to do better in all of her endeavors to prove to the white establishment that she was not their equal, but, perhaps, she was even their better. She was taught to conform to predetermined rules of behavior. She was not to dress loudly, look slovenly or have loose morals. She was to do as her family before her had done, rise above the masses and succeed.
However, she had some other ideas. She did not necessarily wish to marry or have children but she did wish to become a successful journalist. Her climb up the ladder was fraught with confusion and conflict in her life. She cites successful authors and entertainers and others in all walks of life that have achieved success although they are people of color and of mixed race and places great emphasis on those of color who have ended their own lives prematurely, in one way or another. She writes of the ways in which they were defiantly successful in thwarting the prejudice they faced citing one instance which stuck with me in particular, and that was of Marian Anderson performing outdoors when she was forbidden access to the stage, for her performance. Still, people of color were often depressed and downtrodden, conflicted even when upwardly mobile and from highly successful families. They were unable to be accepted into society fully. She, too, contemplated death and she extensively analyzes her feelings. Throughout the book she cites a variety of well-known personages and quotes passages from several books to explain her viewpoint.
She describes the black experience in terms of civil rights, women’s rights and class distinction. She reveals the decline of decorum in the black community and seems to blame it on the Viet Nam War with regard to drugs and on a developing ghetto mentality which took hold and surpassed the previously highly held practice of achieving and being upwardly mobile, of dressing properly and behaving morally and ehtically, of behaving with a certain deportment which was respected by all and brought honor rather than shame to the family and the race, albeit sometimes under a cloud of race baiting. Whites might wonder if people of color were as good as they were but people of color were beginning to more and more spout the wisdom of the idea that they were actually better and could simply be themselves! She describes the social change, intellectual change, and general lifestyle changes which ultimately altered their own world view and influenced their behavior and ethical and moral conduct, both positively and negatively.
Her memoir mocks the attitudes of whites toward blacks and blacks toward whites. She exposes all of the behaviors that each find annoying and condescending. She speaks of those, including her own relatives, who passed for white in order to achieve success. She highlights the lives of famous people of color who have achieved success, and she uses them to show how they have influenced her life and thinking.
The memoir is supremely honest. She describes herself, including how she believes she looks, mocks her poor eyesight and difficult to manage hair. She explains her family’s attitude to those of color who were not of their class, those she was told to avoid because of the negative influence they would have upon her. She also describes how she was told not to trust white people because they always harbored racial prejudices. She describes the negligence of the police when neighborhoods were stalked by anti-black acitivists who wreaked havoc and destruction willfully and without any intervention. Crosses were burned on lawns where her parents lived, where those in the community did not want blacks to move. She openly describes all of the insults and humiliation they were forced to endure because of their racial background. Blacks mocked them as well. Those of mixed race did not fit in, those of different degrees of color did not fit in. Being too dark was a problem as well as being too light. The size and shape of ones lips and nose was a concern as well. Certain body shapes were preferred over others. Having hair that was too frizzy, too curly, or too unmanageable was a problem, as well, and they each had to learn to handle their own particular perceived deficiency.
Jefferson does not seem to glorify or denigrate the black experience, but instead, she writes about it with sincerity, mocking her own experiences and the experiences of the whites she encountered, remarking that whites wanted just as much to be white as blacks, and they also often failed in that effort. I think Jefferson believes that the effort to be white is not the right lifestyle for those of color. They should want to be proud of who they are and not try to be something or someone else, but she also said, to overcome that need, they decided to prove they were better than those who were not black, actually better, and not equal. She sites examples of those who left the system in order to carry on the lifestyle they chose, like Josephine Baker. However, some who have made an effort to be themselves have had a negative impact on their race.
Her prose is simply flawless, without an inappropriate or wasted word. The vocabulary is a cut above what is found in so many books today. After reading her book, I wondered why it did not receive as much or more acclaim as Te ha-Nisi Coate’s book which is not written nearly as well, but is easier to understand, I must admit, because the language and vocabulary cannot compare to that of hers.
Robinson seems to me to be an erudite woman who simply wants to be allowed to live as she wishes in society, to be accepted as she is, not to have to act or become someone she is not, regardless of her racial background. I believe that in the end, Margo comes to the conclusion that in spite of all she has witnessed in her 70 years, we must all change and grow, continue on and not give up.
I must admit that while I really enjoyed listening to the narrator read this book, often, I didn’t understand the entire message because the author is extremely knowledgeable, and I am afraid, I was not quite up to the task of deciphering all that she wrote. Her articulation was a bit more cerebral than I am, and some of it went over my head. That being said, what I got from it was enlightening. I did download a print copy of the book as well as the audio because although the narrator enunciated beautifully, with exceptional expression, her sarcastic edge sometimes seemed over the top to me, and I wasn’t sure if it was her interpretation of the author’s words, or the actual intent of the author.
***Jefferson writes of her title, “I call it Negroland,” “because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.” “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 that “Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.”