Margo Jefferson won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for her work at The New York Times. Her new book is Negroland: A Memoir. —Jon Wiener
Jon Wiener: You grew up in the fifties in Chicago in a world you call “Negroland.” What was “Negroland”?
Margo Jefferson: 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.
JW: The word “Negro” was full of meaning in that world.
MJ: “Negro” was first officially capitalized in 1947—that was a huge accomplishment. We Negroes had burdens to carry, and a destiny to fulfill: moving towards justice and equality.
JW: Your parents defined Negroland for you—tell us about them.
MJ: My father was a pediatrician, the head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, the oldest all-black hospital in the country. My mother had worked as a social worker in adoptions, but when she got married she became a full time mother, wife, and socialite. Luncheons, clubs, clubs for her children, going to the theater—all that was part of the life of being a lady.
JW: What was the attitude of your parents to working class black people in Chicago like Michelle Obama’s family? She was Michelle Robinson—her father worked for the city, her mother was a housewife; they rented an apartment. Would your family ever have crossed paths with people like the Robinsons?
MJ: Michelle and her brother might in theory have been patients of my father’s. But would the Robinsons have belonged to the same clubs as my parents? No. They wouldn’t have socialized together.
JW: When you were in high school your family moved to Kenwood in Chicago’s Hyde Park, around the University of Chicago—that’s where the Obamas’ house is now. What was it like for you to move to Kenwood in the sixties?
MJ: Kenwood was the only somewhat integrated neighborhood in the entire city. Chicago was fiercely and ruthlessly segregated. They had been cautious and calculating in Kenwood about how to integrate. The white people there had been trained to behave well. They tended to be more liberal. So we did not feel threatened or ostracized.