Allow me to start this review by saying I’m giving Negroland 2 out of 5 stars.
I stopped at two stars because I’m not sure if anyone truly read this book before sending it to print. That’s harsh. I know someone read it, and that authors go through numerous drafts/redrafts/superredrafts before publishing.
In this case, knowing that makes it even worse.
Last week, a coworker loaned this book to me after I saw it on her desk. I’d seen the book at the neighborhood bookstore-within-a-restaurant, but wasn’t close enough to a paycheck to justify the purchase. It took me days to get beyond the first 100 pages, because it takes that long for the story (if there really is one) to get started. I’d truck through a few pages before dozing off, only to wake up and doze off again.
I’m happy I didn’t purchase this book, because Negroland frustrated me in a way I haven’t been since proof reading people’s thesis drafts in undergrad.
This book was so fragmented that it read as though the author wrote too close to a deadline (I really can’t say enough about this). Chapters were inartistically unrelated in a way that suggested the author was inspired by For Colored Girls , but couldn’t pull off mixing that style with prose without coming off rather like Faulker. I’d have to study this book to really understand everything Jefferson wrote, and I don’t like the book enough to do that.
Or perhaps she was aiming for something more like Between the World and Me, which, while largely anecdotal, has an overarching literary device that ties the book together. Whether or not Ta-Nehisi Coates was really writing for his son was irrelevant (hint: he wasn’t), the thought that he was talking to someone with a child’s understanding of race and class unified the stories about which he was writing. Two hundred forty pages later, I still don’t know for whom Jefferson was writing.
That’s my biggest issue with this book—other than the tone, which sounded as though she expected me to be impressed with her name-dropping and empathetic with her occasional aloofness—it was directionless. Margo Jefferson is far too gifted to write what was essentially a historical text with arbitrary anecdotal filler.
Before my criticism becomes unconstructive, I want to acknowledge the numerous gems. I strongly wished that her discussion of depression and mental illness had been fleshed out. About depression, she writes:
“Because our people had endured horrors and prevailed, even triumphed, their descendants should be too strong and too proud for such behavior. We were to be ladies, responsible Negro women, and indomitable Black women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that,” page 172.
This is a sentiment that many minority communities share, not just African Americans. The idea that admitting mental health issues are a “white issue,” remains prevalent, with the assumption that previous generations went through worse and were fine (were they?).
As Jefferson details, this responsibility to be strong, proud and indomitable stems from the fragility of black affluence, then and now. Regardless of her father’s medical practice, Jefferson’s status as a wealthy black family in Chicago would never amount to automatic acceptance by her white neighbors in Hyde Park. There weren’t enough ballet and piano classes to lessen her mother’s intimidation in the face of the white children who would encroach upon their yard to play on her swings. These are all great points that deserve to be made, but oftentimes aren’t due to the lack of attention given to upper middle class black families in the 60s, and 70s.
I’ll admit my bias. I admit that I wasn’t sold on the premise, and there was nowhere to go but down. A memoir written by a black affluent woman who is otherwise uninteresting seemed…unnecessary. However, I don’t believe my bias was strong enough to masque a good book. I’m not sure why, but I had hoped for something similar to Having Our Say, a lovable, yet historically accurate account of the African-American Delany sisters. A memoir after which I could have sworn I knew the sisters myself. After reading this book, I know (and like) little of Jefferson, and I know even less about the people around her.
In short, Negroland had promise—it just needed to be written by someone else. If you’re looking for a memoir, this isn’t it. In fact, it’s not a memoir at all, in the classic sense. Negroland is a historical text, tinged with existential philosophy and autobiographical anecdotes. It’s dense, unable to be read straight through and without a highlighter and sticky notes. Borrow it from a library if you’re interested in the subject matter, but I’d only put this under the tree for a very specific type of person.