An unusual memoir, capable of sudden ironic flashes, built around linguistic research and a narrative style that recalls the passing of time, Negroland can be read as an extraordinary history book that acutely examines memory and its inescapable relationship with the present. In reconstructing the vicissitudes of the black upper middle class of Chicago, Margo Jefferson not only traces the history of her family, but the generations that followed from the time of slavery to the season of civil rights.
The most intimate moments, the pages of a domestic diary squared to show traces of inner wounds, are thus inextricably intertwined with a collective memory: the history of the country itself has traced in an equally indelible way on the lives and bodies of a part of the Americans. Jefferson builds an exciting and unforgettable text and proposes us, even with obvious differences to authors such as Paul Beatty and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a decisive page in the path of black America.
Your book suggests that when we talk about ‘race’ in the United States we are actually also talking about gender and class. Does Negroland help us to look into the Chinese boxes of multiple oppressions and their interweaving?
That was exactly what I wanted to explain. I have called race, gender and class my (and our) “laic triad.” There is no need to talk about racial status, racial discrimination and oppression, racial struggles and possible results without analyzing these details. When we ignore them, we are referring to simplistic ideas. Legal, cultural, political, and psychological: gender and class differences influence every part of our lives.
To what extent has feminism shaped the way you look at the theme of race?
Enormously. I wanted to represent the lives of black girls and women with great historical and emotional precision. Physical, social, intellectual and psychological. I wanted to create a narrative of race strictly linked to the narratives of gender and class. Intersectionality always implies contradiction, ambivalence and vulnerability. Black feminism has given me tools to describe and analyze all these aspects.
You report a sentence written by your mother in a letter: “I am so happy that sometimes I almost forget to be black.” A recurring idea seems to mark the lives of the women of your family, where pain and suffering are hidden under the rigid adherence to precise canons, in the physical aspect as in the “performances in society.” Has the world of the black elite built itself on the partial removal of the reality of the country?
It is a letter that she wrote to a friend immediately after marriage, and in the quote both the “sometimes” and the “almost” are crucial. It is about her “double consciousness”: being a “negra” means that you are continually aware of discrimination and oppression but at the same time, there are moments, experiences in your life that give you the freedom of total joy and pleasure. I would say that the world of the black elite has not been built to remove the reality of white supremacy, but to protect—to shield—us as much as possible from the burden of all this. The canons of bourgeois privilege and social performance were tools and tactics. Both were also constraints and protections.
What did it mean concretely for a young woman to grow up in “Negroland”?
It meant being always aware of my privileges: rewards, risks, responsibilities. It meant that I was an example in our “black and white” society, and a model for every black person and woman. It meant that I would have done better to achieve a good result. Because I was never just an individual: I’ve always been a symbol.
The N-word still has a strong charge. Why did you deliberately choose to use it and what does it represent in the United States?
It is an outdated word, and using it can imply a deliberate, politically conservative choice, an explicit refusal to use “black” or “African American.” I used it to indicate a specific historical moment, when it was the word preferred by blacks. A period that extended from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of the 1960s.
What remains of the period of American society described in the book?
This was the period before Black Power, but it was an integral part of the season of the non-violent movement for integration and civil rights. Much has obviously changed, even if, at least in social terms, the black elites are still in their place; indeed they have perhaps grown in weight and role.
With Obama’s election we talked about a “post-racial era.” Then Trump arrived. What did we not understand?
We were not able to remember that centuries of racism, of white supremacy, are deeply rooted in American structures and psyche. Therefore, real changes require constant work on many fronts—legal, political, cultural and psychological—and for many generations. A single event, the Civil War or the election of the first black and biracial president, sets the change in motion. However, it also has repercussions, which are all the more intense when it comes to leaps forward. And many people have underestimated those repercussions: the desire and determination to return to the “ordinary administration” of the United States in which the dominance and superiority of whites were the norm.
Today there is not only a return to racist rhetoric, but also widespread violence, especially against black young people. Is this something that has always been happening and not appearing in the media, or are the words of hatred turning into action today? And, in this sense, how do you look at movements like Black Lives Matter?
This is about the violence of police: impunity toward violence against black citizens and injustices in the prison system has been far from the spotlight of the media. That is why it is encouraging to see investigative journalists and scholars today working to shed light on this. As for the movements that are taking place now, I am not only on the side of Black Lives Matter, but I look with enthusiasm at the evolution of the many groups of activists who fight abuses and injustices. I’m also thinking of the March for Our Lives, started by Florida youths who want to stop the massacres in schools, as well as MeToo and Time’s Up.
A few years ago, you dedicated a book to Michael Jackson, described as a personality capable of playing with the notions of gender and race. Has the pop star managed to subvert the unwritten codes that govern life in “Negroland”?
With his life, his career and his changing character, Michael Jackson has represented almost every obsession of American culture. There was race—as appearance, as social reality, as musical and dance traditions. There was gender—as a series of constructs and biological and social performances. There was sexuality—as mystery, danger and violation of boundaries. All of these aspects were fascinating to me, although I think that, despite sometimes actually subverting these codes, Jackson has most of the time been trapped in them.