‘Negroland’ by Margo Jefferson

‘Negroland’ by Margo Jefferson

The Boston Globe

Donna Bailey Nurse

While a student at University High in Chicago in the early 1960s, Margo Jefferson was introduced to the essays of James Baldwin. The future New York Times drama critic and Pulitzer Prize winner was struck by passages in “Notes of a Native Son’’:

“‘One must say that the Negro in America does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds.’

‘One’: a pronoun even more adroitly insidious than ‘we.’ An ‘I’ made ubiquitous. ‘Our’: say it slowly, voluptuously. Baldwin has coupled and merged us in syntactical miscegenation.’’

Jefferson devotes the first chapters of her memoir to explaining the secret of that group’s success, which has a lot to do with the privileges their light skin bestowed. Like Betsey Keating, for example, who was freed by her master before giving birth to his five children. He died leaving money to educate his black sons, setting them up for the future.

She also tells of a biracial slave named Frances Jackson Coppin whose aunt purchased her freedom. Eventually Frances was able to work, save money, and attend Oberlin College. These mostly mixed-race blacks became teachers, writers, artisans, and abolitionists. They were careful to intermarry, establishing a color line between themselves and darker members of the race.

Jefferson herself is a descendant of slaves and slave masters from Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi, individuals who clawed their way into the elite milieu she calls Negroland

Read the entire book review here.

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