by Jioni Tuck, Thomeka Watkins, Vivian Phyo, and Von McKnight
Privilege in Negroland
Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, illustrates her life growing up in 1950s upper-crust Chicago and the privilege and discrimination that came with it. Being born to a physician and a socialite, she had her share of privilege and wealth that many blacks did not have.
“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience.” ~Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir
However, what set the black upper class apart from the white upper class during her time is what Jefferson defines as “privilege” vs. “entitlement.”
“Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege. Our people have had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren’t looking. Keep a close watch.” ~Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir
Whereas the white upper class’s power and influence was rarely threatened and the purpose of many of their social constructs was to stay relevant by distinguishing themselves from those of lower socioeconomic classes, the black upper class’s status was constantly on a struggle against discrimination and stereotypes. They worked arduously to maintain a certain reputation to avoid being discredited.
“Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious.”
“Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.” ~Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir
Growing us as a member of the black elite in the 1950s was essentially a paradox where while you may be wealthy enough to go on vacations to New York, Montreal, and Atlantic City, you were not excluded from race-based discrimination such as having your reservation automatically downgraded during peak vacation seasons in favor of white families.
While you could go to a primarily white private school and befriend fellow students, you had to be extra scrupulous to only hang out with white friends with progressive parents, lest you be reminded of your distinct, second-rate status as negro.
The 1950s black upper class was the abundance of privilege, wealth, and education, but the lack of entitlement and cross-race respect.
Social Clubs in Negroland
Jefferson references a couple different social clubs in her memoir including Jack and Jill, the Co-ettes, and the Etta-quettes. Because Black people have historically been excluded from predominantly white social organizations like country clubs and Greek life, Black people have had to create their own spaces.
They created sororities and fraternities, adult social clubs like the Boulé and the Northeasterners, and social clubs for children and teens like Jack and Jill and the Co-Ettes. Black people had to know other Black people who were in the organization in order to get an invitation. In the case of Jack and Jill, members have to be approved by the whole club in order to join. This makes sense since the point of social clubs are to socialize with people of similar backgrounds and interests and to network.
Other objectives that social clubs had were to hold their membership to high standards as well recognize the achievements of individual members since white society was likely to ignore them. Social clubs also educated their membership about Black history and culture.
Black people created social clubs and organizations to create Black-positive spaces to socialize, celebrate Black achievement, and learn about Black history and culture.
Service Jobs in Negroland
While Margo Jefferson’s mother had described their family as “comfortable” rather than “rich,” they had a fair amount of people work for their family. Either that, or they were comfortable enough to live in a neighborhood that took good care of all of the families who lived there. Jefferson mentions them as “our” laundryman, milkman, janitor, plumber, carpenter, upholsterer, caterer, dressmaker, and general cleaning person. Just a couple of them were white; the rest, black.
Her relationship with them as a child was to be well-mannered, respectful, and polite, as instructed by her mother. Jefferson and her sister were not to do anything to intentionally make these people’s jobs more difficult. With the black service workers specifically, she felt that they had a “restful” affect that she found comforting.
She briefly acknowledges that some black service workers preferred being employed by white people. It was easier for the workers to not be envious of those they worked for if there was no chance of them ever achieving the same level of privilege. Working for the black elite, on the other hand, inspired “what if I had done more, studied more, or worked harder? This could be my life right now” thoughts.
Beauty Standards in Negroland
White beauty standards had a great influence on African American women in the 1950s.
Skin: Fair skin color was preferred over dark skin color. Some of the best skin colors, as described in Negroland, were Ivory, tan, fawn, and café au lait. Some of the darker skin colors like walnut and chocolate brown were considered less attractive. Moreover, African American women must avoid bright colored clothing and wear subdued tone of colors to attract least attention in public. Women with darker skin were forbidden to wear black with blue undertones.
Hair: African American hair was graded based on its texture and appearance. Dead straight hair was considered as first grade hair. Second best grade was shiny hair with large waves or curls. Next came less shiny hair with smaller waves. Last grade was nappy hair. Besides nappy hair, all other types of hair were allowed to grow past the shoulders but only first grade hair could grow up to the waist. Nappy hair requires daily usage of heavy hair cream and hot comb and usually, does not grow beyond shoulder length.
Noses: Broad and flat nose with wide nostrils was considered least attractive. However, narrow tapering nose that ends in flared nostrils was okay. The best kind of nose was pert, upturned nose.
Lips: Small, narrow lips were preferred over full, big lips. The smaller the lips are, the more attractive they are considered.
Negroland is thought of as a memoir but it does not read like one. Jefferson attempts to intersperse historical facts and analysis into the re-telling of choice moments from her life, but does not do this in a cohesive manner. As a result, the book felt very disjointed, at times it was unclear where Jefferson was going with a certain topic.
This was exemplified at the beginning where she dedicates 35 pages to talking about “Black elite” from the time of slavery to the mid 1900s without tying it back to her life or the overall themes of the book. She does this again when she spends 6 pages talking about Little Women with little explanation about the book’s relevance to her life.
The book is also strangely impersonal and excludes the reader from the conversation. Jefferson touches on many important topics in the memoir like depression in Black communities, Black feminism, and Black social clubs, but does not do a deep analysis. She mentions Black feminism once in the book despite implying that the movement resonated with her and was important to her. She also talks briefly about her involvement in Black social clubs like Jack and Jill without defining what they were or why they were important.
Negroland does a good job of giving an insight into the Black elite during the mid to late 1900s, though the lack of structure, impersonal language, and lack of analysis of important topics takes away from the impact of the memoir.