Privilege And Pressure: A Memoir Of Growing Up Black And Elite In ‘Negroland’

Privilege And Pressure: A Memoir Of Growing Up Black And Elite In ‘Negroland’

Code Switch: Fronties of Race, Culture and Ethnicity
National Public Radio

Terry Gross, Host
Fresh Air

Growing up in the 1950s, Margo Jefferson was part of Chicago’s black upper class. The daughter of a prominent doctor and his socialite wife, Jefferson inhabited a world of ambition, education and sophistication — a place she calls “Negroland.”

That afforded her many opportunities, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic says. But life was also undercut by the fear that her errors and failures would reflect poorly on her family and, subsequently, her race.

“It was very important that you show yourself a bright, lively, well-spoken person,” Jefferson tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “If you go back and read editorials in black magazines — even in white magazines — watch television, this attitude is everywhere: ‘Jackie Robinson, he’s advancing the race!’ ‘Marion Anderson, she’s advancing the race!’ This was the way America … [viewed] blacks: The individual was a collective symbol.”

In her memoir, Negroland, Jefferson describes the social pressures of her upbringing, as well as the sense of separation that it engendered. She writes that she and other members of the black elite thought of themselves as a “Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.”

Ultimately, it was the Black Power movement that led Jefferson to question some of the tenets that she had grown up with: “Black Power was really a major challenge to the social privileges and structures of the kind of privilege that I had grown up with,” she says. “That whole belief … that you will only be able to advance if you are perfectly behaved, if you present yourself as what white people would consider an ideal of whiteness … all of that just began to burst open.”…

Listen to the story (00:34:47) here. Download the story here. Read the transcript here.

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