Margo Jefferson’s Negroland: A Memoir is a 2015 American book all about life as a middle class African American. In a rarity for a piece of American life writing, I suppose, class is as central and as significant to the narrative as race, because Jefferson (born in the late 40s and a journalist and academic by career) is not just writing about her life as a successful black woman, but she is writing about her life as a successful black woman who grew up with huge expectations of success, living in a part of society that boasted an ostensibly high level of privilege, but one that was constantly fought for. In Jefferson’s childhood suburban life surrounded by doctors, lawyers, academics, judges and successful businesspeople, race was never forgotten, and the need for propriety, for prosperity, for dignity and for good marriages was paramount, because this privilege was hard-won, and those who possessed it were terrified it would be taken away.
“Negroland” is the term that Jefferson uses to describe her background (class and race), and she details how this social strata exists, and slowly came to exist (following the Emancipation Proclamation), across the USA. Black people had to work harder to succeed, and with gradual success came pressure to make sure that success wasn’t lost. Jefferson writes about being part of a society, a part of affluent America, where identity and public perception is even more important than elsewhere, because the educational, financial and – eventually – political capital gained by the other people in her circles was far more tenuous than the same capital gained by white people. Generations of unending work, of study, of investment in the self and in property and businesses, learning how to appear cultured and learning how to teach other black people how to be the same. A weighty distinction made between these people and working class black people, one as significant as that made by white American society between itself and between all people of other races.
Jefferson and her peers directly experience prejudice due to their race, but they also benefit from the privilege of money, good (i.e. private) education and always knowing people who know people who know people, y’know? Negroland is a portrait of a group of society that aspires towards a particular type of white, WASPy lifestyle, yet simultaneously doesn’t want to completely deny its own differences; it is a portrait of a society that wants to enjoy the benefits (including status) of privilege, but finds it important to maintain an understanding of their own “difference” from the “norm”. In many ways it’s about people who are trying to be exactly the same as other people but don’t want to necessarily admit that they want to be exactly the same as those other people. It’s a complex position, and it’s a complex and exploratory text because of this.
Jefferson’s prose is engaging, gently poetic, and it slips from first and third person recollections of her own life into retellings of the lives of other people who hailed from “Negroland”. Some of these tales are hopeful and optimistic, others are sad and distressing. She writes about the intersection between the civil rights movement (spearheaded by men) and feminism (spearheaded by women, and thus side-lined), about suicides and sexual repression and depression and confusion, she writes about identities that shift, that are claimed and abandoned, she writes about fancy events and fancy schools and high fashion and glossy magazines and expensive holidays and-
I have to stop. With Negroland: A Memoir, I finally hit upon a book on race that made me feel uncomfortable almost the entire way through. And that reason is due to my own internal class prejudices, honed from my experiences being bullied for being poor during my time in a Middle England grammar school and then spending a decade unhappily knocking around rich people in London. I’ve been around doctors, lawyers, academics, judges and successful businesspeople and their children for most of my life after aged 11, and many of them have been mean to me, and as a class unit they’ve made me feel like I’m not good enough, like I don’t fit in. My father was an unskilled labourer, working in a factory, who has been forced into early retirement due to ill health, y’know, I’m not from a fancy background, and I spent many, many years, most of two decades, being told to hate myself – often pretty fucking directly – because of that. Class prejudice is something I experienced myself, and in turn I learnt to feel it back. Maybe I was looking for these feelings to be confirmed, but I’ve seen plenty of evidence in my time to suggest that, broadly speaking, rich people are more selfish and self-important than poor people, “the more you have, the more you think you’re owed”, y’know. My problem is, now, though, as I’m working hard at myself to become more enlightened and (slowly, gradually) more self-accepting, I can’t understand why anyone would want to gain [upper] middle class levels of privilege, given the general dickhead behaviour that tends to come with it. This where my discomfort reading Negroland came from: it made me realise how much fucking easier my life is – as a white man – than it is for other people.
As an educated white man who has, in my life, flirted with affluence, I am able to reject privilege, I am able to choose to live an unconventional, outsider, life where I value my time and my ability to travel and hang out with my dog more than I value my immediate comfort.
As an educated white man, I am able to be confident and comfortable in my ability to a) earn money whenever I put my mind to it (I have earned money from four different sources this week – all above board and taxed and legit – and have literally moments ago received an offer of more work from someone else); b) not feel particularly scared of any kind of physical attack, particularly the fear of police violence, lynching or sexual assault; c) get practical and emotional help from my friends and family when I ask for it.
The privilege which I have is entirely built upon my gender and my race. I know lots of people who are cleverer than me (should that be more clever?), who express themselves better than me, who are better looking than me, who are better employees than me, but I have barely ever struggled to get a job and I have never been close to being on the streets even when I’ve been, as I still currently am, technically homeless. The privilege I have gives me the choice to decide to have a non-professional career, I have never been pushed by anyone to do anything to the best of my potential ability because I’ve found lots of things easy: I find it easy to splurge these blog posts, I find it easy to work and I find it easy to find work. I have connections with spare beds for me to crash on and emotional support that can be given immediately over the phone, and when I in turn get myself properly back on my feet, which I’m close to doing, I’ll be able to return these favours and give people work if they need it, give people a bed if they need it, give people emotional support when they need it. When I fall, people catch me, and when other people fall I will catch them. Even when we don’t mean to, we maintain our own status and the status of our peers: I can get work and credit from banks and free books from publishers, I am able to move towards starting my own business because I have the confidence in myself to make it happen, to make it work. This is my privilege, and I cannot deny it.
Jefferson’s book made me feel uncomfortable because it emphasised exactly what it is I take for granted, as a white man. It’s that ability to choose from the litany of lives one best suited to my personality. It’s the fact that I feel comfortable making jokes on the rare occasions I wear a suit for work: I have the ability to choose to not pursue traditional life goals, because I do not need to exert my status or justify myself in public; whatever happens, outside of the awful, awful, London Borough of Kensington, I receive good treatment wherever I go. I am able to be judged from my conversation, my knowledge, my thoughts and opinions, rather than from my material possessions. I am highly educated but have earned most of my money working in hospitality, and that’s something I plan to continue doing. I have enough privilege to feel no remorse and no guilt eschewing it. And that is why Negroland: A Memoir affected me so much.
But why, why, am I saying this is a good thing? Why am I pleased by the fact that I’ve read a book that made me judge myself? It is, as I mentioned above, the fact that I am used to being bullied, I want to be spoken down to, made to feel guilty and ashamed, unwelcome, out of place/ Do I read books about race and gender because I want someone to tell me, as a white man, that I’m bad? Is this the equivalent of a meeting with a dominatrix for a man who’s too sexually repressed to not understand why a doctor would describe loss of libido as a possible negative side-effect from taking medication? (I still don’t, I can’t grasp it, honestly, for me the statement coming from a doctor made as much sense as if she’d said “This may reduce your desire to honk gear and bang negronis”, y’know, I’m so confused so confused so confused)-
It’s all it’s all it’s all it’s all it’s all over the place, this post, this blog post (nb it’s a blog post, not a review), but Jefferson’s writing is not. It is clear, it is precise, it is human and moving and offers a significant insight into a part of American culture that I, as a white Brit, knew nothing about. Bourgeois sensibilities and their importance, the battle against ones own origins coupled with an intense engagement with them, it offers a portrait of the USA as a whole, from this microcosm of one sector, defined by both its class and its race.
Negroland: A Memoir is an important book, a serious book, but did I only enjoy it so much because it made me feel bad and because I want to feel bad, I feel like I deserve to be made to feel bad?
I don’t know. I’m a very confused man but, hopefully, as time goes on, I will unravel myself. Without the daily boozing and without voices in my life that tell me I’m worthless, maybe things will change. We’ll have to see. ONWARDS!
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