The Rumpus Interview with Margo Jefferson


In her vivid new memoir Negroland, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson has written about growing up in an elite upper-middle-class black community in the segregated Chicago of the 1950s and 1960s.

For young Jefferson, her childhood was a swirling world of parties, neatly pressed dresses, and well-behaved children. Her father was a prominent doctor and her mother was a socialite; the children were sent to the best schools, often white private ones. Outside “Negroland,” her term for the black elite world in which she was raised, was the larger white world that constantly pressured the well-to-do black community with their racial codes and discrimination. The success of the black elite was often resented by whites, as were their new cars, homes, and thriving businesses. Financial success did not always protect Negroland’s members from harassment and conflict with law enforcement and white civilians.

Jefferson’s portrait of the once geographically unified black elites is fascinating, nostalgic, and at times mildly mocking. She was protected by vigilant parents from racial slurs, but was under intense pressure to perform in school and represent her community with impeccable manners at all times. The turmoil of the 1960s and the rise of the Black Power movement profoundly shook up the community of Jefferson’s childhood. Negroland deftly explores the long and complex history of America’s black elite, which has its roots in slavery

Jefferson, sixty-seven, was a theater critic for the New York Times, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995. She is currently Professor of Writing at Columbia University. She is the author of the book On Michael Jackson. Jefferson spoke to The Rumpus by telephone from her home in Manhattan.


The Rumpus: Why did you use the term “Negroland” to describe your childhood community of upper-middle-class blacks in Chicago in the mid-20th century?

Margo Jefferson: Several reasons. I wanted the title to imply a kind of timeframe. If I am choosing to say “Negro,” I’m talking about a particular period in history. I also wanted “land.” Land is a complicated word. It is literal, but it is also mythological. Homeland, my native land. The world I grew up in had both a literal and mythological quality. We were on the borders of several worlds—the larger black world bordered us on one side. More distantly, there was the larger white world. We interacted with some, but not others. If you think of it as an internal geography, it is a land, a contested space with these very charged historical, cultural, and emotional borders.

I once asked my mother if we were wealthy. She said we were middle-class in the larger world, and well-to-do in the Negro community.

Rumpus: Your parents were a glamorous couple. Your father was the head of pediatrics at the oldest black hospital in Chicago and your mother was a social worker-turned-socialite. What was your family’s life like?

Jefferson: My parents threw big parties. It was, in many ways, a typical haute bourgeois American world. There were bridge clubs. The men had their clubs. The women had their clubs. There were luncheons. There were parties. At a certain point, there were boats. It’s not exotic in that way, except it was all achieved in the face of a country that believed that you can’t really achieve this and you don’t deserve it. It felt natural in the way that a childhood feels natural for any haute bourgeois kid, but with these sudden fraught moments. These fraught moments had to do with negotiations with the larger world. For example, your piano teacher enters you in a national piano teachers’ competition, and you get the talk the day before: “You have to perform extremely well, because none of the judges believe you can do this.” Then you go back to your regular life. You put it away.

I wrote a lot about this with my sister Denise and ballet. She was an incredibly talented ballet dancer, but her teacher warned her that ballet companies didn’t hire black dancers. She eventually became the director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

Rumpus: You went to the elite University of Chicago Laboratory School and High School. Was there pressure to work harder than the white children around you?

Jefferson: There was a constant kind of surveillance you were under. Again, it eases up at times. It’s not possible to live life without pleasure, ease, and comfort.

Rumpus: Your mother and grandmother were fiercely vigilant about racial slights in the segregated Chicago of the 1950s. How did your mother deal with situations like the time your elementary school teacher sent you home singing the original version of “Swanee River,” with the line, “Oh darkies, how my heart grows weary”?

Jefferson: Many of us were very protected. There was a reason why I didn’t know what the word “darkie” meant. My parents had chosen, and many of my parents’ friends had chosen, to make sure that there were certain crudities that we did not encounter. They were also doing a kind of surveillance, to make sure that a certain part of our childhood was protected, and thus carefree. These intrusions would arise and had to be negotiated. That’s why I keep using the quote by the [writer and civil rights activist] James Weldon Johnson, where the parents are always calculating and strategizing, like how much do you reveal to the child, how much do you withhold? You negotiate that so they are prepared but secure.

Rumpus: In the aftermath of the high-profile police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of Michael Brown last year and other police homicides of black men, America has restarted painful discussions on race. Why do you think the mainstream press covers the black underclass but rarely ever deals with the small but highly successful black upper-middle class?

Jefferson: I will give you some speculation. When I was growing up, we were often taught that mainstream society doesn’t really want to know about us or write about us because we run counter to all the stereotypes that they cherish. We help undermine the bigotry that they hold so dear.

The black bourgeois, in dress, manners, and all that, look like other bourgeois. One of the bigotries that I encountered growing up was, “If you are not what I think of as an ‘authentic’ black, like performers like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, then what are you worth?”

There are upper-middle-class success stories, like Dick Parsons [the former CEO of Time Warner]. We still don’t fit into the narrative of bourgeois life.

Rumpus: You dig back into the roots of the black elite, much of it coming from the antebellum South, where the freed blacks and house slaves were often best positioned to become economic and community leaders in the black community in the postwar era. What examples of early black elites interested you?

Jefferson: Exactly. One person I wrote about was Joseph Willson, a dentist who wrote that first book, Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society. His mother was the mistress of a bank owner in Georgia. They relocated to Philadelphia and started a new life.

Rumpus: The sexual relationships between slaveowners and the female slaves often consisted of rape and forced sex. Many of the freed slaves who had the skills, marketable trades and savings after the Civil War were connected to their former slaveowners by blood. Often those who succeeded had lighter skin tone. How do families handle this tortured history?

Jefferson: It moves from rape to other kinds of nonconsensual sex. Some relationships had genuine meaning and love. The power dynamics made even relationships that emerged with love and loyalty very tricky. We have a continuum that is a complicated one.

Every black family handles these things differently, but when I was growing up, we didn’t talk about these alliances in great detail. I didn’t really hear about these relationships until I passed puberty. The history your parents wanted to give you was of struggle and achievement, not necessarily the miscegenated underside.

Rumpus: Despite the economic success of its members and the vibrant social swirl they created, there is a feeling of vulnerability of Negroland in the face of segregation and racial attitudes in the larger white society. You tell a bad hotel story, where a desk clerk, discovering that Dr. Jefferson and his family were black, moved you and your parents to a substandard room. Did your father confront the staff?

Jefferson: My father confronted them in a mannerly fashion. We did not storm out of the hotel.

I did feel the vulnerability of Negroland, because we were told at regular intervals, “You are representing something beyond yourself.” Like the piano story I told you about. You are representing the answer to the question, in the negative or the positive, are black people capable of playing classical music? That became huge and those questions came at regular intervals. I did feel it, and my sister and my friends would talk about it. We talked about it more openly and more analytically the older we got. When we were younger, these things were more shielded. We talked about it less, but we felt it.

Negroland was such a world of manners and rituals, about how little black girls should behave, how you should carry yourself. “Don’t be too loud.” Many of these things had to do with stereotypes about black girls and women.

Did I feel vulnerability in my parents? Yes. As we got older, we talked about it more. I felt it more acutely in my father. His family had spent some harsh years, or years that became harsh, in Mississippi, then they moved to California. In his very last years—he died in his nineties—there were times when he would be just overwhelmed by grief. He’d tell some old story that I’d never heard before, like he was allowed to play his trombone in the school orchestra, but was not allowed in the marching band because they didn’t want to see Negroes marching. He never told me these stories until I was much older.

Rumpus: When your father’s family escaped Mississippi for California, a cross was burned on the lawn of their new house. Your paternal grandfather had to defend the property with the shotgun he brought from Mississippi. When did you hear this story?

Jefferson: I didn’t hear that story until I was much older. I am still getting more family stories. There is one of a white baseball team playing a black baseball team. Threats were made that the Ku Klux Klan would come. There was the terror, the trauma, and the fury of arriving in California.

My mother told me the story of the little white girls next door who came over to our backyard and used our swings. My mother found a ladylike way to get rid of them, but she never had the nerve to tell their mother, and years later, she was still ashamed of this. There was a certain pride that they didn’t have a swingset.

Rumpus: There were pressures on the young heirs to Negroland. You write of young men committing suicide and the young women jeopardizing their status by pairing up with black street men. When did this happen?

Jefferson: I was thinking of the 1960s, which was an extreme and difficult time of social upheaval. Sometimes the girls paired up with impressively political working-class black men. Those times were on the spectrum, from self-destructive to regenerative, unearthing all sorts of things in your own psyche. I do believe, and I’ve spoken to my friends about this, that many of the boys and men of my generation were really struggling with this bourgeois identity versus a kind of manly street identity. Some of them really wanted to be bad boys. You often see this in families that have achieved a great deal. The earlier generation really triumphed, then another younger generation seems to be showing all the cracks. That was a particular struggle for the boys. There is the drama and glamour that can attach itself to being street, black street, which is one of the only glamorous roles traditionally assigned to black men in America.

Rumpus: You have some great examples of relatives who were fair-skinned and made the choice to pass in white society for professional reasons. After a long career as a white man, your Uncle Lucious retired back to the black community. Could you tell me about passing in early 20th century Chicago?

Jefferson: Yes. Uncle Lucious was a travelling salesman. There was also John Eddie who passed very successfully as a business executive. Uncle Lucious retired back into blackness.

Rumpus: Did you intentionally write Lucious’s story as both touching and pathetic?

Jefferson: I wanted it to be that, to have a bit of satiric punch. Daddy told me these stories. Lucious would come to Chicago and he would be escorted covertly to visit various relatives. When he came to our father’s office, his contact would be our very light-skinned cousin Lillian. I am sure he would visit his sister and her children. There was a picture of Lucious on my father’s cabin cruiser. This is a very familiar story, the basic parameters of the covert visit, the clandestine meetings, the lunch in the white restaurant with the relative who can pass. I heard more of these stories as my friends and I got older.

Rumpus: The most dynamic and compelling character in Negroland is your maternal grandmother Lillian McClendon Armstrong. She was a rural teacher in Mississippi, was widowed young with small children, and moved to St. Louis and became a dressmaker. She married a second husband from a good family in St. Louis but abandoned him because he lacked sufficient ambition. She moved with her children to Chicago and became a dressmaker to wealthy whites, then became a Democratic political operative, then became one of the city’s first black policewomen. She wound up owning two apartment buildings. Where did her grit come from?

Jefferson: My mother, if she were alive, would say that she was the most interesting character in the book. In my grandmother’s case, it was a combination of elements. Her family in Mississippi had land and a general store, sort of like Zora Neale Hurston’s stories about her family. They were secure, they were pleased with themselves, and they had a place in the community. There were thirteen children in the family, and they gathered, as big families do, into little groupings. I was told that Lillian was the head of her group.

Lillian was admired by her parents for being very smart, and she was very pretty. Early on, she got a sense of, “You are interesting, you are smart and you are pretty. You can control your destiny.” Her parents had sent her to a small black college, Rust College, in Mississippi. Being respected and rewarded and prepared in that way by her family must have also given her great confidence.

I went rent collecting with her once. It was the one memory that rattled me. She kept to her low, firm voice, but I could see the class differences, that she was going to collect the rent. One of the tenants had a very good reason for needing another week, but that didn’t matter. It was probably my first naked exposure to the operations of social differences. There I was, the building owner’s granddaughter, at the top of the scale and able to do what I wanted. It was the first time I saw my grandmother behaving in a way I did not really love. I spoke to my mother about it. I was about nine. My mother said, “I know what you mean,” and changed the subject. She did not say, “Your grandmother is a wonderful woman.” That stayed with me.

There is the phenomenon of women of that generation who went into real estate. That even goes back to the 18th and 19th century, where there are records in places like Philadelphia of these women who own little houses, which they rent. Property, property!

Rumpus: Was skin color important in the black community of 1950s Chicago?

Jefferson: It played a big role, especially for women, of your visual marketability and desirability. That again goes back centuries. The beauty standards of the time preferred the lightest skin possible and the most Anglo-Saxon features possible, with kind of Latin American, Spanish, or Middle Eastern features coming next. Manners, modes, rituals, conventions for girls and women meant repudiating all the stereotypes, from physical appearance, sexual looseness, being incapable of being a good mother. Repudiation of all these things by your looks and manners, that was part of the absolute training of a girl child, the Negro girl child.

Rumpus: You write about a recent encounter at Ricky’s, the cosmetic chain in New York City, where the young black man behind the counter asked you, “May I ask you your ethnicity?” How did you respond?

Jefferson: Wasn’t that adorable? It was comic, I wrote it to be comic. That was my consciousness and that was all of my upbringing. He’s young, clever, and gay. He’s very dark-skinned. Is there a problem there? What exactly does he mean by asking me this question? Many kinds of groups these days look like they could be part Negro. I’m calculating all sorts of things on my background. I do intend this moment to be a comedy of manners, of race and gender, and of generational manners.

Rumpus: You write in the book of an ex-friend, who is black, savaging you by telling your mutual white friends, “Margo thinks she’s a white woman.” What was your reaction to this?

Jefferson: Relationships are tricky. When you are angry at people, you use the weapons at your disposal. I even decoded his response by thinking, “He thought I was being snippy, and a little high handed, and not paying enough attention to him.” I think he knew that these one-liners still hurt.

Rumpus: Do you think there is a modern version of Negroland?

Jefferson: As long as class and hierarchy, structure, and privilege exist, Negroland, called different things by different generations, exists, as its equivalent exists among Jews, among the Irish. Negroland would only not exist in this form that I am writing about in a society whose class differences were wildly different, whose ways of assessing and rewarding were wildly different, other than America’s.

Rumpus: In your more than four-decade career as a journalist and critic, you have moved from one rarefied community to another, where you were one of the few black critics at Newsweek, and the New York Times, and the even more rarified community of Pulitzer-Prize winners. Did your childhood prepare you for this?

Jefferson: Negroland was a very sheltered community. It was a world apart. We were being groomed to demonstrate, to prove, to embody these achievements, these honors. We were raised and sent out in the world to accomplish such things, to represent the community at its best, in terms of achievements in terms of values, and I have to say, in terms of manners. That’s what they wanted us to do.

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is working on a postwar history of bohemians in Greenwich Village. More from this author →