Negroland: 1

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I am having such a hard time with Negroland, you guys. I keep putting it down. I don’t know what my problem is. It’s well reviewed by people I respect a lot. Roxane Gay says it’s “searing.” I just cannot connect easily with the language or with the stories. They are so, so far from my experience.

Which makes sense. Margo Jefferson is writing about a world I know nothing of. She says on the first page: “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” This book is largely about navigating that particular intersection of class and race, and as a white person who grew up comfortable but not socially elite, I just don’t know much about Jefferson’s position on either axis.

I’m learning that Negroland had its own rules. As a child, Jefferson was to distinguish herself “through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.” Her stories have cocktail parties and jewelry in them. Her parents were once snubbed by Eartha Kitt.

I say snubbed. Margo Jefferson says cut. The only other person I know who says cut is Miss Manners, and I think that’s as much a part of my alienation from this work as the race factor: Jefferson’s experience of class is so different from mine. She operates on a social level whose complexity I can’t begin to understand how to access. I struggle to relate with her anecdotes because I have just never had to live in that world.

I don’t envy her a bit.

Class and race are inextricable in Negroland. Between now and when I finish it– because dang it, I will– here is an excerpt for your reading pleasure:

“Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers … They had ready a bevy of slights: from skeptics the surprised glance and spare greeting; from waverers the pleasantry, eyes averted; from disdainers the direct cut. Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege.

Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largesse in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.”

(Margo Jefferson, Negroland, p. 90-91)

I suspect one reason this book is so hard for me is I just haven’t encountered anything like it before. I can’t envision anyone I grew up with having these conversations or being insulted by these slights. And duh, that’s about my privilege. I say “these slights” like it’s no big deal to be bumped from a fancy reservation at a hotel to a little room facing a parking lot once the clerk sees your parents’ skin.

Maybe I’ll reread this one later, after I’m a little better at understanding alltheracism in its more commonly-written-about iterations.

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