by Margo Jefferson
Of course I didn’t mention to Longreen anything about my grandfather being a senator or that we had once had a horse and carriage and a Japanese servant. He wouldn’t have believed me if I had, and I’d learned by then that with the general run of Negroes it was better not to refer to such an elegant background.
Cayton was also clear that writing his autobiography was an attempt at self-reclamation. In the late 1930s and into the 1940s he had been a part of a vigorous scene of black intellectuals in Chicago, described in Lawrence P. Jackson’s important The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934–1960 (2011). Yet after World War II, its promises of freedom unanswered, he became increasingly bitter in his lectures, and as a community-center director he worried that he was little more than a stooge for the white man. One day he woke up in his office with a pistol in his hand. His autobiography ends not long after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, with him fighting depression and alcoholism, trying to start over, heading back out West. Horace Cayton would die in 1970 in Paris, where he was doing research for a biography of his friend Richard Wright. The black autobiographical tradition does not have many losers.
Jefferson has a deep sympathy for intellectual black women in the nineteenth century—poet and diarist Charlotte Forten; teacher and essayist Anna Julia Cooper, who received her doctorate from the Sorbonne when she was sixty-five years old; Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching crusading journalist; and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of a finishing school in North Carolina for black girls. Jefferson writes that W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born in 1868 and published his first book, The Philadelphia Negro, in 1899, “shares Cooper’s radical romanticism” as well as “Wells’s outrage,” but that “he is intent on cutting a much wider swath, sometimes at their expense.” On recordings, his voice resembles FDR’s.
Perhaps because of the influence of northern abolitionists or the New England schoolteachers who went south to teach the freedmen during Reconstruction, the image of the stern, stringent Bostonian replaced the doomed, noble southern aristocrat as the class ideal for black people largely trained at anxious black-church colleges. But for black America social status came to depend mostly on what an individual had achieved, precisely because individual achievement was not separate from the advancement of the black race as a whole. What Du Bois described in his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth” was not an abstraction. In his vision, the few would lead the many. It was not where you were from that mattered but rather where you were headed.
Such treatment encouraged privileged Negroes to see our privilege as more than justified: It was hard-won and politically righteous, a boon to the race, a source of compensatory pride, an example of what might be achieved.They were not a normal family, not like the ones Jefferson saw on television or at the movies. Her parents had to do careful research before holidays in order to make sure things would be okay for them when they got to where they were going, and even then something could still happen. In the 1950s,
liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money, and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice. 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.Her mother told her a lot of white people did not like to address a Negro as “Doctor.” It would seem little compared to, say, the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 for the crime of supposedly having whistled at a white woman, but mob violence and casual disrespect had roots in the same license to attack black people. Trouble knows your name, James Baldwin said.
Yet Jefferson is describing a world of black confidence, not one of uncomprehending imitation or secret self-loathing. It matters that she grew up in Chicago when she did. In her youth, Chicago was the undisputed second city, a manufacturing powerhouse divided into ethnic zones. Violence often attended the spread of the black population. Black Chicago was large and had capital, substantial enterprises, and strong churches. Black institutions still had prestige in the black community. Negroland was real:
In Negroland we thought of ourselves as the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians. Like the Third Eye, the Third Race possessed a wisdom, intuition, and enlightened knowledge the other two races lacked. Its members had education, ambition, sophistication, and standardized verbal dexterity.Home life took place in and around Fortress Negro. “In the privacy of an all-Negro world, Negro privilege could lounge and saunter too, show off its accoutrements and lay down the law.” Jefferson writes about the group activities of childhood and the extracurricular schedule of her adolescence as rituals of cohesion, tribal defense against the social disorganization of black life in general. However, though she may have been born into Negroland, education was a mixed-race experience. She had access to white high schools and exclusive music camps. In her memoir, Jefferson takes up distinctions between classes and races, but also between genders, and it is as a girl’s coming-of-age story, a black girl’s story, in a time of social change, that Negroland explores yet more unexpected territory.
Jefferson grew up knowing that the women responsible for her believed in “feminine command.” “It’s never too hot for fur,” her grandmother said on a visit back to the South. As young black women, she and her sister were learning how to comport themselves as ladies. It was a kind of vindication. That nice-girl problem of how to attract boys without getting a reputation was further complicated by the history of black women forever being depicted in American culture as oversexed and animalistic, which justified the exploitation of their bodies. Respectability was therefore a grave matter. Nice black girls learned that women of achievement renounced vanity and lightheartedness, exhibited unceasing fortitude, and put the needs of others first. “I enjoy being irreproachable,” Jefferson writes.
The cost of self-control was easily underestimated. “Oh, the vehement inner lives of girls snatching at heroines and role models!” Meanwhile, as a nice black girl Jefferson was judged by standards of beauty that were of social history’s making: grade of hair, skin color, flat or straight nose, size of ass, shape of foot. Whiteness. “The fashion and beauty complex has so many ways to enchant and maim.” She takes pride in and has sympathy for Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, but conceives a teenager’s passion for Audrey Hepburn. “No! You cannot ever be white like these idols of feminine perfection. Let that final impossibility reproach and taunt you.”
Jefferson’s story becomes more and more about gender difference and where it intersects with race after she graduates from Brandeis College in 1968. Eventually, she is conspicuous as the only black woman columnist at Newsweek magazine. “The white world had made the rules that excluded us; now, when it saw fit, it altered those rules to include a few of us.” Her childhood is about Negroland at its segregated zenith, but childhood is a woman’s story waiting to happen, one influenced by—if not directly about—the feminist movement of the 1970s.
Jefferson is touchingly honest about her inhibited response to the black feminist sensation of that era, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuff (1976). Shange, born Paulette Williams, was a nice black girl and Barnard College graduate who’d gone off the rails. However, Jefferson summons to the rescue the figure of Florynce Kennedy, the great activist lawyer in a cowboy hat, a beloved presence in radical circles in 1970s New York. Many black women back then argued that feminism was a white woman’s thing and that if you scratched a white feminist you would find simply a white person. It was more important to address social needs along racial lines. Kennedy answered that black women had been copying bad ideas from white women for so long it was crazy when they came along with a good one not to want to copy that:
[The black woman’s] history of struggle, degradation, triumph; her exclusion from the rewards of bourgeois femininity; her duty to strengthen the Negro family. Not a history one wanted to haul through one’s social life. Not a history one wanted to lumber into the sexual revolution with. Not a history one wanted to have sternly codified by white sociologists and Black Power revolutionaries who found the faults of The Black Woman much the same as those of The Negro Woman. She was bellicose, she was self-centered; she was sexually prudish when not castrating.When Jefferson was growing up, race mattered, but gender didn’t. The fight for women’s rights was greeted with “mockery, contempt, or repressive tolerance.” Girls of her class were encouraged to take certain privileges for granted, but these privileges were designed to make them eligible for good marriages, i.e., yet more social status, and they were taught to “cherish that generic female future.” Black women historically had entered the white-collar workforce faster than black men, because of the relatively low status of clerical and secretarial work, and most of the black professional women Jefferson knew of as a girl were also wives and mothers. Sometimes she was warned to have something to fall back on, an acknowledgment that the black man’s economic life could be insecure. At the same time, a woman alone was an object of pity or whispers.
The question Jefferson asks of her experience was: How could she adapt her willful self to so much history and myth? The answer is that she didn’t. There is, in her account, no accommodation or acceptance of middle-class standards and life. This isn’t a memoir that tells us how a black person with opportunities got over her guilt and relaxed into the life of getting ahead that her family had sacrificed for her to have. She made instead a life as a journalist and critic and then another life in the high bohemia of New York intellectuals and artists, away from the conventions of her male-dominated professional world. “All that circumnavigating of race, class, and gender made for comedy too.”
s. e. anderson
author of The Black Holocaust for Beginners
If WORK was good for you, the rich would leave none for the poor. (Haiti)
Posted by: "S. E. Anderson"