Pride, Prejudice, and the Provisions of Privilege: Margo Jefferson on Race, Depression, and How We Define Ourselves
By Maria Popova
“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their revelatory conversation on power and privilege. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” The many modes of telling and the many types of trouble are what trailblazing journalist, longtime New York Times theater critic, and Pulitzer winner Margo Jefferson (b. October 17, 1947) explores in Negroland: A Memoir (public library) — a masterwork of both form and substance.
Jefferson transforms her experience of growing up in an affluent black family into a lens on the broader perplexities of privilege and its provisional nature. Her piercing cultural insight unfolds in uncommonly beautiful writing, both honoring the essence of the memoir form — a vehicle for reaching the universal from the outpost of the personal — and defying its conventions through enlivening narrative experimentation.
Jefferson, who came of age in an era when the biological fallacies of racial difference still ran rampant, writes:
I was taught to avoid showing off.
I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.
But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?
In my Negroland childhood, this was a perilous business.
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.
Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant. Showing off was permitted, even encouraged, only if the result reflected well on your family, their friends, and your collective ancestors.
What is perhaps most disorienting about visibilia like race, age, and gender is that they externalize the inner contradictions with which we live — those tug-of-wars between dignity and self-doubt, between the yearning to belong and the fear that we don’t. Jefferson captures these dimensions beautifully:
Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers. White people who, like us, had manners, money, and education… But wait: “Like us” is presumptuous for the 1950s. Liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money, and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice. They had ready a bevy of slights: from skeptics the surprised glance and spare greeting; from waverers the pleasantry, eyes averted; from disdainers the direct cut. Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege.
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largesse in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.
Among the most poignant threads in Jefferson’s cultural memoir is the paradoxical notion of privilege earned. Privilege, after all, is granted by definition — earned privilege is the simulacrum of privilege, staked at the entrance to the power club and demanding the price of admission: endless self-contortion.
A self-described “chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor,” Jefferson writes:
That’s the generic version of a story. Here’s the specific version: the midwestern, midcentury story of a little girl, one of two born to an attractive couple pleased with their lives and achievements, wanting the best for their children and wanting their children to be among the best.
To be successful, professionally and personally.
And to be happy.
Children always find ways to subvert while they’re busy complying. This child’s method of subversion? She would achieve success, but she would treat it like a concession she’d been forced to make. For unto whomsoever much is given, of her shall be much required. She came to feel that too much had been required of her. She would have her revenge. She would insist on an inner life regulated by despair… She embraced her life up to a point, then rejected it, and from that rejection have come all her difficulties.
One of Jefferson’s most unsettling points — lest we forget, Emerson wrote: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” — is that depression, or at least its cultural performance, is a disease of the privileged:
She rages against bigotries, big and small; falls into a depression (“I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely we have everything to make us hate mankind”), then upbraids herself for being insufficiently stoic. She strives for perfect selflessness. “Conscience answers it is wrong, it is ignoble to despair… Let us take courage, never ceasing to work, — hoping and believing that if not for us, for another generation there is a better, brighter day in store.” She sinks back into self-doubt. She is not a misanthrope, she is a melancholic — a depressed gentle-woman.
While vulnerability might be the crucible of self-transcendence, Jefferson — whose generation was expected to march to the motto “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” — argues that it is also a crucible of social status:
One white female privilege had always been withheld from the girls of Negroland. Aside from the privilege of actually being white, they had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance. A privilege Good Negro Girls had been denied by our history of duty, obligation, and discipline. 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.
With an eye to her eclectic lineage — “slaves and slaveholders in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi; farmers, musicians, butlers, construction crew supervisors, teachers, beauticians and maids, seamstresses and dressmakers, engineers, policewomen, real estate businesswomen, lawyers, judges, doctors and social workers” — she writes:
Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege. Our people have had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren’t looking.
Keep a close watch.
Jefferson considers the interplay of pride, prejudice, and the provisions of privilege in shaping this necessary watchfulness:
Let’s say you are a Negro cleaning woman, on your knees at this moment, scrubbing the bathtub with its extremely visible ring of body dirt, because whoever bathed last night thought, How nice. I don’t have to clean the tub because Cleo / Melba / Mrs. Jenkins comes tomorrow! Tub done, you check behind the toilet (a washcloth has definitely fallen back there); the towels are scrunched, not hung on the racks, and you’ve just come from the children’s bedroom, where sheets have to be untangled and almost throttled into shape before they can be sorted for the wash.
Would you rather look at the people you do this for and think: I will never be in their place if the future is like the past. Or would you rather look at your employers and think: Well, if I’d been able to get an education like Dr. and Mrs. Jefferson, if I hadn’t had to start doing housework at fifteen to help my family out when we moved up here from Mississippi, then maybe I could be where they are. Whose privilege would you find easier to bear? Who are “you”? How does your sociological vita — race or ethnicity, class, gender, family history — affect your answer?
In the remainder of the wholly terrific Negroland, Jefferson goes on to explore the fraught fragments of experience, both individual and collective, that shape our answer. Complement it with Mead and Baldwin’s tremendously timely 1970 conversation on privilege, then revisit Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice.
Published September 14, 2015