Margo Jefferson Speaks on Race and Childhood
Issue   |   Wed, 12/09/2015 - 02:42

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and critic Margo Jefferson spoke about the experience of growing up and becoming aware of race in the Center for Humanistic Inquiry on Monday, Dec. 7. The event was focused on Jefferson’s recently published memoir, “Negroland.” Jefferson is a professor of writing at Columbia University and has worked as a theater critic for the New York Times. In 1995, she won a Pulitzer Prize for a work of criticism published in the New York Times.

Jefferson discussed growing up as part of an upper-class African-American family in Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s. She said the way she understood herself and her place in the world while growing up was dominated by the three aspects of her identity that became the subjects of “Negroland.”

“It has a lot to do with the social and cultural inhibitions that I grew up with in terms of what [my sister and I] were allowed to say and reveal, and those, of course, have to do with race, gender and class,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said she used the title of her memoir to consider the separate ideas of “Negro” and “land.” She discussed the history of debates about African-American identity, and talked about how during her childhood, “Negro” had been an established and accepted label. On the other hand, she said that “land” has multiple connotations — in the case of a homeland, “land” can represent something prized and cherished. She said that a land is also a geographically defined area with boundaries that are policed but permeable. Jefferson said these descriptions apply to the urban neighborhoods where African-Americans are concentrated and where she locates her childhood experiences.

At the event, Jefferson read two passages from her memoir. The first passage described the rules of behavior that she was given as a child. She was told to excel and represent African-Americans well, but to avoid standing out too much and offending whites. In the second passage, she told a story of discrimination that her family faced while on vacation in Atlantic City. After receiving poor service from their hotel’s white staff, her parents cut their vacation short and drove home, regretting the vacation.

Jefferson said she intended her memoir to be an examination of commonly held ideas about culture.

“It was very important to me — without addressing them directly — to take big tropes like self-hatred, or trying to be white, and pick them apart to show more subtlety and more variety.”

Jefferson’s memoir focuses on her childhood experiences and concludes before the beginning of her career as a writer. Jefferson said she made this decision so that she could fully focus her commentary on the subjects of race, gender and class, and their impact on her experience of growing up.

“I didn’t want an arc of triumph,” she said. “What I wanted was to really document how all of these forces construct the self.”