By Chet Yarbrough
Negroland: A Memoir
Written by: Margo Jefferson
Narration by: Robin Miles
Margo Jefferson’s memoir is a perspective on growing up in America. Jefferson is born in 1947. She is raised in Chicago by two professional middle class parents; i.e. one is a doctor; the other a teacher. What makes Jefferson’s memoir interesting is her middle class upbringing. It sharply defines answers to many questions never asked by Americans.
Are you black enough? Are you white enough? Are you female enough? Are you male enough? Are you American enough?
Jefferson wrestles with many of the same baby to teenage insecurities all Americans face in their generation. However, there is an extra layer of complexity for Jefferson because of her color. Jefferson lightly touches on the history of slavery and its societal consequence but she personalizes that history in explaining how she became Margo Jefferson, an accomplished theatre critic and professor.
Chicago is a microcosm of America. Discrimination, crime, poverty, and failure in equality of opportunity are the same in Chicago neighborhoods as anywhere in America.
What Jefferson does in “Negroland” is explain how American society makes her life different because of her color.
Like most girls and boys in high school, Jefferson wants to be popular. She tries to become a cheerleader. With success in her senior year, she wonders about the reasons for it taking so long. Is it because she is not pretty enough? Is it because she is nearsighted and has astigmatism? Or, is it because she is not white enough?
Jefferson recalls her family’s trip to Atlantic City for a doctor’s conference. Reservations were made but when they arrive, the hotel gives the family a poorly appointed room and suggests the restaurant would be off-limits for dining. They checked out of the hotel the next morning.
Jefferson notes concerns of her mother about how other people of color talk and act while warning her daughter not to emulate their speech or style. Jefferson becomes aware of the potential stigma of not being black enough among people who are proud to be black.
Jefferson explains how she becomes best friends with a handsome gay white man and revels in the looks black men give that seem to question her interest in being with a white man when she is black. At the same time, she notes how beautiful women hit on her friend without understanding that he has no interest in them.
In listening to Jefferson’s memoir the day after Larry Wilmore’s routine about Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, one gains better insight to Wilmore’s send-up of President Obama. Wilmore is unfairly criticized for his tart-tongued stand-up when thought of in light of Jefferson’s memoir.
The last part of Wilmore’s presentation seriously praises Obama’s accomplishment and then uses a pejorative word for black Americans to categorize Obama. Wilmore’s comment is badly interpreted by some. Wilmore is saying Obama is great enough to be both the President of the United States (in the sense of acceptance by all Americans) and black enough (in the sense of being accepted by blacks).
Jefferson’s memoir, and Wilmore’s routine shows that being American enough, black enough, white enough, male or female enough, is just being a part of the human race.