One of the curious side effects of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been an increased appetite for the black perspective on identity. Often this is a black male perspective, as evidenced by Ta-Nehisi Coates' critically acclaimed Between the World and Me, and subsequent complaints that Coates excluded the black woman’s perspective. Some of the criticism stems from the fact that there is no female black American equivalent to Coates who is believed to capture the zeitgeist of this moment.
With Negroland, Pulitzer-Prize winning cultural critic Margo Jefferson (On Michael Jackson, 2006) reminds us that black women can offer surprising, resonant cultural memoir, even if their contributions don't draw the same kind of attention as their male counterparts. Her slim volume blends historical reflection, confession, and meditations on race, culture, and class. Jefferson describes herself as descended from slaves and slaveholders in Virginia: a family that is a firm fixture in the world of the black elite. Instead of a chronological, third-person memoir, Jefferson writes a nonlinear, incisive commentary that locates her in the sphere of Jack and Jill, black sororities, and other exceptional places within the social world of the black upper class.
With Negroland, Jefferson locates her personal story in a cultural paradigm that is both a literal and an imaginative space. The use of the word “land” in Negroland provides an “aura of ideas, myths, histories, as well as that sense of some literal place,” Jefferson says. “Every group in America has an image of itself, sets of history and sets of interpretation clashing and not having much to do with one another.
The title is meant to evoke that sentiment. "The more we recognize that in America, certainly in white America, but in black America as well…that we have multiple spaces, along with shared spaces, the better.”
Jefferson wrote Negroland over a span of five years, during which racial discourse found a renewed prominence in American culture. “In certain ways, it’s a release,” she says. “So much of life in earlier decades, race was center stage when it was a crisis, but that sense of race as a fact of daily life was absent from American culture. That was burdensome and disorienting and dishonest.”
One of the most compelling aspects of Negroland is Jefferson’s perspective on writing. She writes of treating success almost like a concession and “an inner life regulated by despair.” As a writer she has spent a lot of time battling insecurity and second-guessing herself. “I've never spoken to a woman writer who does not feel like there are these particularly acute struggles about our voice, our place, the meanings, the significance vs. insignificance of our history,” she says. “I've never spoken to a black woman who did not feel it even more acutely. It's that doubling down—all the absences, all the silences that define history and black female history. It's a huge thing to take on and it's that sense of very limited cultural roles and almost no cultural space."
Jefferson navigated those challenges by “writing as widely and broadly as I possibly could. It was very important to me to really open up the conversation, the critical conversation about race and gender. And also class. And all the cultural achievements and conundrums that this set in motion and it was important to write and think about white culture. I'm perfectly trained, I'm qualified, I'm a native daughter. I'm not going to be typecast, ‘Oh, only give Margo the stories about race and the stories about women.’ Margo wants access to do everything.”
Jefferson says that when she moved from being a book and theater critic to critic-at-large, it was a conscious decision to get involved in cultural debates and immerse herself in the multiplicity of American culture. “One week I was really interested in Dennis Rodman as this interesting figure of gender and style and racial and black manhood dissonance. I'd be writing about Dior and American actors and all their vernaculars, Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It gave me great pleasure to feel like I could be anywhere on the landscape of American culture. It was a right and a privilege and a legacy. It is something I got from my family: the range of interest, the training, the sense that you can have access to anything that your discipline and imagination want. My parents were that way; it was a wonderful way to be raised.”
At the same time, Jefferson was ultimately aware of critics as both superior and second-class. Perhaps, as with the discussion of race in America, “You enter a profession and you inherit its history,” Jefferson says. “For me, becoming a critic meant claiming a certain cultural power in terms of race and power.”Joshunda Sanders is the Washington, D.C.-based author of How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why The Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color.