Negroland - A Memoir22 Sep 2015
Negroland has gathered a lot of attention in the past few weeks. It wasn’t on most critics’ summer lists for books we’d be chattering about this fall, but it has made its way onto those lists now. Margo Jefferson has been promoting her book on podcasts and through interviews in the last few weeks. I’ve listened to a handful and happily found that the kind of wisdom she puts on display in the book is present outside the book too.
In Negroland, Jefferson plays with form, structure and conceptions of truth. These choices help us, the readers, remember that a memoir is not a history. It is not the facts as they were, but the facts as the writers was. I appreciated that Jefferson took ~30 pages to set up some historical context, removing herself from her own memoir before jumping into her life. The context setting was necessary for those of us unfamiliar with the history of the kind of place and people she wrote about. Her constant unsettling of perspective, voice and place reminded me of David Carr’s memoir “The Night of the Gun” which also played with form in a similar way to make the point over and again that this retelling of a life cannot and is not perfect. It is the author’s interpretation and projection of what happened.
Another book I was reminded of was Tanehisi Coates’ “Between the world and me”. The recent memoir, about similar cultural topics, also featured beautiful prose and big language. This stylistic similarity helped lift both books off the page and into my imagination. If they had been written in more cold, critical style, their impact would have been lessened.
But more than anything else, I enjoyed Negroland because of Jefferson’s brilliant descriptions of the differences between privilege and entitlement. Her ability to inspect her own intersecting identities - woman, black, young, militant, intelligent, depressed, among others - and place these identities against the backdrop of 1950s, 60s and 70s Chicago described some uniquely American experiences. These are the kinds of descriptions and comparisons that help us learn about our country, our times and ourselves. And these are the lessons we must learn if we hope to build a future that isn’t mired in our past’s mistakes.