Tracy K. Smith at the New York Times:
In her new memoir, Margo Jefferson, a former critic at The New York Times, chronicles a lifetime as a member of Chicago’s black elite, a world she celebrates and problematizes by christening it (and her book) Negroland. “Negroland,” she writes, “is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”
That warning — that manner of instilling in children the understanding that with privilege comes responsibility — strikes me as the true impetus for Jefferson’s book. For once we become accustomed to delicious glimpses of Negroland’s impeccable manners and outfits, the meticulously orchestrated social opportunities and fastidiously maintained hairstyles, what we begin to notice is the cost and weight of this heavy collective burden.
Jefferson’s memoir pushes against the boundaries of its own genre. Yes, it begins with a scene from the author’s childhood. And yes, we learn about Jefferson’s older sister, Denise, and their parents: a father who was the longtime head of pediatrics at Provident, once the nation’s oldest black hospital; and a mother who was an impeccably dressed socialite. But it quickly swerves into social history; a good 30 pages of the book’s opening are dedicated to defining and chronicling the rise of America’s black upper class.