What I’m Reading Now

Another in the series. Margo Jefferson’s Negroland should have been an “Oh, me too” experience. Instead I kept exclaiming, “Some of us actually lived like that?!” Unlike Finding Martha’s Vineyard, which included people from across the socio-economic spectrum, Negroland skews emphatically upper class. Her father had a cabin cruiser, after all. This nugget is buried in the middle of a piece about family members who crossed the color line but returned to visit. It almost overwhelmed the sad and moving account of the grandmother who disowns her own son and denies her grandchildren the knowledge of their African heritage.

Since she grew up in Chicago, Ms. Jefferson’s circle of black friends was much larger than mine, which consisted of the children of my parents’ New York friends. Given her political views, there’s no way my mother would have enrolled me in Jack and Jill even if there had been one in the area, nor would she have allowed me to join a sorority.

No one ever said, “Children 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.” And my parents never regarded themselves as a third race, as she terms it, “poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.” We were never anything but “Negro”/black/African-American.

Of course there is some familiar terrain here. Ms. Jefferson and I both were cast as maids in school plays, though my role was much more fun. It was a Jules Feiffer satire, and I got to be militant. She was a “warm and loving Negro American maid” in a musical.

Her mention Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books – green, blue, etc. brought back memories of the same works perched on our shelves.

Just as her father taught her black history, my parents did the same by introducing their friends – Dr. Frost Wilkinson, composer and entrepreneur Frances Kraft Reckling, labor organizer and government official Dolly Lowther Robinson, college professor Charlotte Watkins.

Overall, Ms. Jefferson offers a satisfying look at privileged black history, in which the denizens still confronted segregation and prejudice.

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