While a student at University High in Chicago in the early 1960s, Margo Jefferson was introduced to the essays of James Baldwin. The future New York Times drama critic and Pulitzer Prize winner was struck by passages in “Notes of a Native Son’’:
“ ‘One must say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds.’
‘One’: a pronoun even more adroitly insidious than ‘we.’ An ‘I’ made ubiquitous. ‘Our’: say it slowly, voluptuously. Baldwin has coupled and merged us in syntactical miscegenation.’’
Jefferson devotes the first chapters of her memoir to explaining the secret of that group’s success, which has a lot to do with the privileges their light skin bestowed. Like Betsey Keating, for example, who was freed by her master before giving birth to his five children. He died leaving money to educate his black sons, setting them up for the future.
She also tells of a biracial slave named Frances Jackson Coppin whose aunt purchased her freedom. Eventually Frances was able to work, save money, and attend Oberlin College. These mostly mixed-race blacks became teachers, writers, artisans, and abolitionists. They were careful to intermarry, establishing a color line between themselves and darker members of the race.
Jefferson herself is a descendant of slaves and slave masters from Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi, individuals who clawed their way into the elite milieu she calls Negroland.
“In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race,” Jefferson writes, “poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasions.”
“Negroland” is quite a title, celebrating an era when “Negro’’ was in vogue, while slyly asserting the word’s Uncle Tom properties. Negroland sounds like Neverland, or maybe Disneyland, any fantastic, childish realm outside reality. And indeed, Jefferson’s tone is playful; her voice witty and detached, as if she were speaking from both inside and outside her own black story.
This arch tone eventually gives way to a jazzy bebop line that conveys the sweet security of a happy, privileged childhood. (Privilege is a word that crops up again and again.) Jefferson was born in Chicago in 1947 to the head of pediatrics at the nation’s oldest black hospital and his socialite wife. This glamorous couple raised their children in the better black neighborhoods, enrolling them in enriched programs at overwhelmingly white schools and in extracurricular activities like drama, music, and dance.
The mother’s goal for the daughters was culture and cultivation, beauty and feminine grace. And above all achievement, not for its own sake, of course, but for the goal of winning the right, light mate to perpetuate the third race.
From childhood on Jefferson participates in dramatic productions like “The King and I,’’ “My Fair Lady,’’ and “Iolanthe.’’ While simultaneously, the mind of the critic evolves. She absorbs the running commentary on black people around the house and in magazines like Ebony, Look, and Life. Though why she ultimately chooses journalism over drama is not made clear.
At one point this supremely balanced woman questions her mental state, meditating on Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.’’ Only for Jefferson the rainbow is no longer enough. This curious chapter seems to interrogate seminal moments in black women’s writing: the scene in “Beloved’’ when Baby Suggs clutches a patch of pink and the image of Celie seeking solace in the color purple. Jefferson asks: At what cost to black women come these scraps of joy? The idea of a truly equal feminism gives her hope.
Among other things, “Negroland’’ is a veritable library of African-American letters and a sumptious compendium of elegant style. The stunning photo on the cover features a glamorous woman in white gloves, a sparkling bracelet, and a gold braid suit. We have only a partial view of her face — only an impression. Which is a good way to describe Jefferson’s unusual prose style throughout. She paints her rich inner and outer landscape with deft, impressionistic strokes. It’s a technique that disrupts convention — which is her privilege after all.
By Margo Jefferson
Pantheon, 248 pp., $25
Donna Bailey Nurse is a regular contributor to Maclean’s magazine and a columnist for CBC Radio’s “The Next Chapter.’’