The Talented Tenth

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

Negroland is an insider’s account of 1950s upper-crust black Chicago. Its author, Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Margo Jefferson, draws on childhood memories and family archives to place herself within a wider context of the Black experience in the United States.

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. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir (Vintage Books 2016)

Jefferson is a self-proclaimed citizen of Negroland. There are other terms for this tiny slice of Black America. The colored aristocracy, the black bourgeoisie, the Talented Tenth, the Third Race. The term distinguishes its members from “the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.”

A Model Child

I am charmed by this glimpse into another world that, in so many ways, is so foreign to my own American immigrant experience. Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 in Chicago, the second daughter of a pediatrician father and a socialite mother. This was a time and place where hats and gloves were de rigeur. The Jeffersons were a family with the means to show they knew how to behave.

Denise and Margo wear matching woolen coats with Persian lamb collars. They tuck their hands into Persian lamb muffs. […] Their clothes are the rewards of immaculate girlhood: dresses of taffeta and velvet with lace collars, petticoats, ankle straps, pocketbooks and initialed handkerchiefs, seasonal gloves of cotton and kid, matching coats and muffs. Straw hats and headbands with flowers.

Jefferson is a generation older and at least two socioeconomic classes higher than me. She is Black and I am Asian. Despite our dissimilar circumstances, we have both been indoctrinated by the same precepts. Do not show off. Do not call attention to yourself in a way that might disgrace your people.

We were taught that we embodied the best that was known and thought in—and of—Negro life. We were taught to resent the relative lack of attention our achievements garnered. We were taught that we were better than the whites who looked down on us—that we were better than most whites, period.

A Critic

Negroland is rich with history (political and cultural) and reported facts, skillfully wielded by the professional critic that Jefferson is. The memoirist Jefferson recalls the exceptionalism with which she was raised. The critic offers a counterpoint, in this case a quote from James Weldon Johnson.

The question of the child’s future is a serious dilemma for Negro parents. Awaiting each colored child are cramping limitations and buttressed obstacles in addition to those that must be met by youth in general; and this dilemma approaches suffering in proportion to the parents’ knowledge of and the child’s ignorance of these conditions.

The deftness of Jefferson’s writing is highly effective. To inject a little more objectivity, Jefferson shifts from the first person narrator to the third. She constantly self-deprecates, calling herself by turns arrogant or condescending. Jefferson seems hyper-aware of her readers’ needs, urging herself to write more transparently.

I’m going to change my tone now. I think it’s too easy to recount unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.

Inside Negroland

As deft writer as Jefferson is, it takes her halfway through Negroland to graduate from primary school. She glosses over the subsequent years in a handful of paragraphs per decade. I lose sight of Jefferson amid the tumult of the times.

It is the 1960s when civil rights and feminism burst onto the scene and upturn the world of Negroland.

The entitlements of Negroland were no longer relevant.
We were not the best that had been known and thought in black life and history. We were a corruption of The Race, a wrongful deviation. We’d let ourselves become tools of oppression in the black community. We’d settled for a desiccated white facsimile and abandoned a vital black culture. Striving to prove we could master the rubric of white civilization that had never for a moment thought us the best of anything in their life of history.

Presumably, this was a turning point in the life of the young Margo Jefferson, but I can’t see where it led her. Did this denouncement of the Talented Tenth cause Jefferson to renounce her own past? It’s hard to tell.

Here is Jefferson in the “Here and Now” (aka 2010s), competing for the prize of receiving the nastiest insult. A mutual acquaintance has accused Jefferson of thinking she is white. Jefferson defends herself:

Actually, I think he was attacking what he saw as a certain snobbishness in me, a way of distancing myself, and a tendency to cherish my neuroses as a sign of my specialness.

Little Margo grows up to be adult Margo with her sense of entitlement and insularity seemingly fully intact. If memoir is a journey then I’m not sure we’ve left Negroland.

7 May 2023 | Karen Kao