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.
JW: In high school you were a cheerleader! That’s not the typical route to becoming a literary critic. Was this cheerleader thing a miscalculation?
MJ: It’s so embarrassing. Now I love the idea that I would have hung out with the kids who were beats. But I was too much of a good girl, a vivacious all-American girl. I can only be ironic and rueful about it.
JW: You went to Brandeis from 1964 to 1968, the high point of the sixties, and left Negroland for the world of Black Power. How far did you go toward the Black Panther look—the leather jacket, the Afro, the dark glasses?
MJ: I didn’t have a leather jacket, but I did have a huge Angela Davis-like Afro.
JW: Did Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner play a part in your imagination?
MJ: Well, sure! In the early sixties my sister and I used to do Ike and Tina, but she was older, so she got to be Tina and I had to be Ike and the Ikettes. I loved Jimi Hendrix too.
JW: You say Florynce Kennedy was the first black feminist you saw in action. Why was she important to you?
MJ: Feminism completely took over my consciousness by 1969-70. Florynce Kennedy was a brilliant and dynamic and utterly flamboyant lawyer, the first black woman to graduate from Columbia Law School. She had begun as a lawyer for Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday. Then she moved into political activism, into every movement. She delivered a devastating one-liner to black women: “so many of you say feminism is a white woman’s thing. You have imitated every bad idea of theirs — about their hair, their helplessness, their femininity. Now for once they come up with a really good idea—feminism—and you’re fussing with them about it?”
JW: One of the foundational principles of Negroland was “you don’t tell your secrets to strangers — certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure.” I guess this book means you have left Negroland forever.
MJ: You never lose your homeland, but the world has changed enough for one to write with texture and with more freedom. The stakes are still just as high—for equality and justice—but the constrictions are by no means as extreme.
This interview has been edited and condensed.