Just last week I finished reading Negroland, I had started reading it a couple of weeks ago and though it took me some time to finish, I really enjoyed it. Just in time for the last day of February, Black History Month, I wanted to share the book. The book is great, and probably hasn’t gotten the attention and recognition it deserves. It was thoughtful, thought-provoking, and fascinating. Margo Jefferson, a child who grew up in the 1950s and 60s, explores many topics, both from her own life, and those that seem common in her community. Her father was a doctor, she grew up in an elite black community – the upper class. Within the city of Chicago, she and her sister had a unique childhood.
With this privilege, came a certain responsibility, and certain expectations. This seems to be one of the main topics of the book, and something that shaped her early life. They existed somewhere between and black and white, and this was a very delicate balance. Her family separated themselves from the rest of the black community; she even describes this as the “third race”.
She raises interesting questions about how race should be represented. As a member of this elite black community, she was judged not only by race, class, and education, but also by manners and speech. She also describes in detail the proper, acceptable appearance of young black women, the standards of which were incredibly stringent and inflexible. This experience was something that most of her community felt, that there was constant pressure to live up to expectations. For some, the expectations were too high. Here, she describes the way in which African Americans are judged:
“Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant.”
This book was definitely an eye-opener for me, exposing me to the special standards placed on black women. It changed and challenged what I thought I knew. They are unfair standards, certainly, but unfortunately I don’t think those standards will relax any time soon. Despite the special scrutiny she experienced, she excelled. It was what was expected of her. And her success is so emblematic of black success, that she rise within her own community (though she certainly transcended that). She was expected to not challenge the status quo, and to not challenge expectations. Miss Jefferson has had a long writing career, and is even a Pulitzer Prize winner. I hope she continues to write, and to enlighten, and to challenge expectations and prejudice.