Negroland: A Memoir

by Margo Jefferson, Granta, £12.99

In this beautifully evoked narrative of her childhood and youth in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, with its potent mixture of irony and wistfulness, Margo Jefferson shows what it means to have grown up as an African American. Actually, Jefferson repudiates that phrase as “strictly for official discourse”, stating that as a writer, a journalist and a critic, she “grew up as a Negro and usually calls herself black”.

The book makes entire sense of Michelle Obama’s stirring speech in support of Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic candidate when she reminded viewers that the White House was built by slaves – that is, her ancestors. Recalling this shocking history, one can understand why the title is deliberately challenging, describing “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty”.

Born in 1947 into a prosperous upper middle-class family – her father, who had fought in the war when the US army was still segregated, was a paediatrician – Jefferson makes it clear that whatever her parents did to promote the education, talents and social acceptability of their two daughters, to white Americans the family would always be regarded as “Just More Negroes”.

To explain the author’s search for her own identity, she writes: “I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible … a word for runaway slave posters. Its meanings were essential to my first discoveries of what race meant, or as we now say, how race was constructed.” In Chicago, where the aspiration was to live in an affluent white suburb, she comments wryly that “a very few Negro families lived nearly alone in a very few tenuously integrated suburbs”. The Civil Rights movement came later. Reading this memoir one wonders how much and how little a change in the law can actually alter deep-rooted attitudes towards race, the instinct for segregation rather than integration.

The author weaves the story of the American Civil War and its aftermath for the emancipated slaves with her own education in the subtle, yet essential distinctions between her people and others: “Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, under-dogs and interlopers.”

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection