“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.”
Note: the historical meaning for the term Negroland (or Nigrita) was an old term used in some of the maps of Africa by European map-makers to describe the inland and poorly explored region in West Africa.
Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, addresses the privileges and pains of growing up in a small privileged segment of African-American society, a group that Jefferson calls the black bourgeoisie. This select group of wealthy African-American families called themselves various names: the Colored 400, the Talented Tenth, the colored elite…
No matter what their group name was, it was a world unlike any other for Jefferson and her family. Her father was the head of pediatrics at one of Chicago’s largest black hospitals and her mother played a socialite role, and so Jefferson’s perspective growing up in this rarefied space is unlike most of the other African-American authors whose work I have read in that they did not live in poverty.
This was a challenging read in the end, not because it was hard to read or follow, but because I had mistakenly entered the experience thinking it would be a straight-forward narrative arc, when actually, it’s more of a series of linked and not-linked memories. (I think that this is where some of the reviewers on GoodReads went astray in that they were expecting a fairly chronological read and instead got a more looping and wandering group of events. Several people did not enjoy this at all. It took me by surprise as well, but then I decided to hang on for the ride.)
Jefferson is an intellectual writer and university professor who has been recognized for her critical writing, so this is very well written, and once you get the hang of the book’s style, it works really well. The caveat is that it’s not a traditional read: I was born here, I went to school here, I attended university there… but is much more of a vague and meandering tour of her memories growing up in the era of Jim Crow (and its after-effects) whilst living in a rather removed world of privilege, surrounded by others who were in that same social and racial realm.
It’s a worldview that does not shy away from the indelicate surroundings of race, but one that is also enmeshed in a strict class distinction from other African-American families not so fortunate to have a large bank account. There’s a ripple of dissonance here. Yes, we’ve earned this and we should be allowed to enjoy our good fortune, and we are not going to be held back just because so many others do not have this privileged life.
There’s an uncomfortable push-pull mechanism here in terms of living an African-American upper class life (with the privileges that accompany it), but it’s also a life that seems a bit tenuous at times, in terms of not quite being secure despite their wealth. The surrounding society still has that racial bite that needs to be addressed, and I got the feeling that the Jefferson family are, understandably, irritated and frustrated by this fragile balance despite their healthy bank account and position in their class.
For Jefferson, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, this insecurity is a heavy burden to bear as she is very aware of how fragile and easily broken this lifestyle of her parents actually is. It’s difficult for her parents (and thus her) to settle in and relax with this set up, and it must have been exhausting trying to balance it all, knowing that a simple racist incident could upset the whole hard-won apple cart. There’s such a responsibility, in some ways, to be more than perfect as “representatives” of successful African-American people in a country that conspired to knock them down at every opportunity.
This wasn’t a comfortable read in any way, but I think that’s the whole point of it for the author. Her whole life has been uncomfortable and ill-fitting in some ways (notably for people outside her own life) so that there is a level of rage below these descriptions of events and of her friends and family, and I think that Jefferson wants you, as a reader, to feel just as out-of-place as she had to.
This was a pretty provocative read for me that I’m still contemplating a few days later.
After reading some earlier work by Jamaica Kinkaid (see review of Annie John), I already knew that Kinkaid was a really good writer, and so when I happened upon this volume, I picked it up with little hesitation as I knew it wouldn’t disappoint me. And it didn’t. Hooray for good consistent writers!
This novella is rather a coming-of-age/bildungsroman recount of how a young woman from the unnamed “islands” (but clearly referring to the Caribbean area) takes her first job as an au pair for a rich white family in the States. Lucy, the titular character, is young and not very experienced, and is excited about this opportunity to travel. Happy to be elsewhere, Lucy strikes out for this new adventure with trepidation and anticipation, but also colored by her having just finished a rather difficult childhood with a complicated relationship with her mother. This mix of emotion is a constant thread throughout this short story, and colors every experience that Lucy has in this new world of au pair-ing.
Being an au pair is a tricky situation. Most families try to be welcoming and include you as “part of the family”, but there is always a reminder that you’re not actually equal to the other family members, and it’s difficult to set up boundaries for both the au pair and the family. When is an au pair really off the clock? How private can his or her time really be? It seems to be fraught with issues, and the situation with Lucy is no different than that.
So this title follows a year of employment for Lucy with her au pair employers, and it’s certainly a year of growing for everyone involved: the children, Lucy herself, the parents… Just like any development, this gradual maturation can be a situation filled with dissonance for all.
Lucy has grown up on a small Caribbean island with her mother and step-father. Her mother is educated and employed as a social worker, but as is quite common, her mum is very patient and understanding with her clients, but this doesn’t carry home for Lucy. It’s curious – her mother is big on her clients growing and learning new skills, but she is resentful of Lucy continuing her education and of spreading her wings. (Perhaps it’s jealousy…)
Stateside, her employer family are having complications of their own, and they can’t help but involve Lucy in these problems as well, since she is with them all the time. As the saying goes, you can never step in the same stream twice, and as the novella continues, the family and Lucy grow and change both as a group, but also an independent beings.
Lucy is a bundle of conflicting emotions: happy to be away from her claustrophobic country, a common vacation choice for the Americans who surround her, Lucy also deeply misses her island and her family. Given the difficult childhood that she’s had, Lucy is relieved to be away from her family, and yet she yearns to be understood as only a family member could do. She yearns to “belong,” but she also wants to be independent from everything that she’s known before, so although this is a short novella, there are a lot of contents to be unpacked when you go through this read.
Considered to be highly autobiographical for Kinkaid (who lived a similar experience in her younger days), it’s a challenge to enjoy Lucy due to her fractious ways, and yet at the same time, I felt sympathy for her at the same time. As an expat from England who also moved away from home to a foreign country at a similar age, it’s true that you do really have a lot of mixed emotions about the first year in your new home. So much is different that, at times, you yearn for it to be more familiar so everything is not a surprise or a puzzle. And yet, at the same time, I’d been wanting to live abroad since I was a young girl ready for a change, so it can be tough to balance those two conflicting views.
This was well-written, but I’m not sure that I enjoyed this particular read that much. 😦 Aah well. Can’t win them all.
Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.
Look at what showed up hanging on my mailbox outside the other day…
I am so lucky to have such thoughtful friends living close by. Thank you, Dede!
She knows me so well! Forget chocolates. Forget roses. Books? Yes please.
I had no idea of what to expect, but went along for the ride with this book to see how the narrative would go. I’d heard of this title, naturally, but had not read it, and thought this month would be the month to try it.
Hmm. I’m not sure that I can say that I enjoyed (or even understood) the read. It’s strongly influenced by Christianity, specifically the African-American Pentecostal perspective, and so I think, since I’m not religious, that I probably missed half the references and thus didn’t really understand what the book was talking about.
It’s well written – very lyrical – but hell’s bells if I wasn’t mightily confused for the majority of the read. So, this might be a short review!
The title of the book comes from an 1865 African-American spiritual song, “Tell it on the Mountain”, and this book has been highly ranked in both the Modern Library’s 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century, and Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005.
So – short post today. Glad I read it. Highly unlikely that I will ever read it again. :-}
This title is part of JOMP’s celebration of African-American History Month.
…they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others are doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was to be bold, do something nobody had thought of…
Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, is one heckuva powerful novel to read, and I can’t believe that it’s not more common in required reading lists for English classes, because it brings up so many discussion points: racism, housing, poverty, education, perseverance… And the writing… It was just great.
To back up a little, let me explain how this title was chosen in the first place. February is African American (or Black) History Month in the U.S., which is I think an important public recognition of the contributions of the African-American people over the years.
I have been wanting to add more POC authors and topics to my TBR, and thus, this reading project was born.
Native Son is a novel that covers the journey of one Bigger Thomas, raised in one room with a single mother and two other siblings, and one of thousands who lived in on the South Side of Chicago (or the Black Belt as Wright describes it). It’s the late 1930’s, and Bigger (like a lot of other people) had stopped his education early due to having to work to support his family. It was during one of the gaps in employment when the crux of this whole matter arises.
Bigger is selected by one of the wealthy philanthropists to get trained to be his chauffeur. It’s win-win for everyone it seems: the rich people feel better for “saving” one of the many poor people, and the guy in the job gets to feed his family. What could possibly go wrong?
Surrounded by desperate people with little access to resources, Bigger is skirting the edge of crime, but it’s not until one night that he actually crosses over into that dark world. After accidentally committing murder one night with someone in his employer’s family, Bigger finds a freedom in himself and his life that he had never experienced before. And once someone has tasted freedom after years of being in chains, it’s very hard to go back…
“No Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.”
The novel is divided into three separate parts (Flight, Fear, Fate) and time is very compressed in the story. The whole book’s action happens only over a couple of weeks, and it’s compelling to see Bigger’s life journey as it just spirals and spirals down.
Wright uses an omniscient POV, so readers can see what everyone is thinking as the narrative progresses, and it’s a really good writing choice to use this as you get to understand the motivations of each person in the story balanced with what the rest of the world sees. The world only sees the actions and reactions of the characters, and without the access to the characters’ thoughts, you can see how things can go very very wrong.
So – to the story itself: Bigger takes the new job eagerly, and meets his employers who allow him to have a room in their big house. You never really know when you might need a chauffeur, and the married couple who hired him thinks themselves very big-hearted to take a boy out of the South Side. Indeed, they have done a lot for the African-American community, donating millions of dollars to black schools, and training centers.
On the first night of his first day of chauffeuring, Bigger takes Mary, the (white) daughter of the house to a party elsewhere, where she stays for a while and picks up a male friend, and then they cruise around, reluctant to go home. Both Mary and her new friend are progressive for the time, so when they want to stop and get a drink or two, they naturally invite Bigger in with them to have a drink as well.
After a while, it gets to be very late and Mary needs to get back to sleep as she’s traveling out of town the next day. She is, however, completely wasted from all the alcohol she’s been drinking, and after dropping her friend off, Bigger is forced to help Mary into the house and put her to bed. No big deal, except that this was 1930’s Chicago, smack in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and “negros” didn’t go into young white lady’s bedrooms at three in the morning.
And then the story ricochets from there, and you go along willingly for the wild ride. Bigger ends up being accused of rape and murder, which is the start of his downfall, as you can imagine. However, as the book progresses, Wright carefully points out all the cultural problems in such a way that you can follow Bigger’s thinking and how easy it was for him to fall into this legal trap.
Murder is wrong, but it was accidental. Why didn’t Bigger just leave Mary in the room? Because one thing happens which triggers a whole onslaught of other related events, but every single stage of this journey is based on faulty cultural assumptions (i.e. White vs. Black), so honestly how could this event have played out any differently? It really couldn’t have, and that’s why it was a really effective writing decision to use the omniscient point of view. Having all the thoughts of each character means that you, as the reader, see the logic in some of the decisions that follow when the book’s characters don’t.
The first part, Fear, is when Wright is setting up the scene of the poverty and high levels of unemployment that the African-American community faces just trying to live their lives. There’s a lot of fear around: white people fear black people, black people fear white people, and almost every action that anyone takes is grounded by being afraid. It’s a fraught time for the country, and such racial tension is easy to be ignited with the open flames of unrest and discontent.
The second part, Flight, is right after Bigger murders Mary, and the events that occur very quickly after that, as Bigger has to leave home to hide from the police. This is a really tense novel, if you haven’t picked that up already, and it was soooo difficult to actually put down. (There are no chapter breaks and no paragraph breaks to take a breath. You are as exhausted as Bigger gets when you’re reading it.) Bigger is on the run…
The final section, Fate, is when the law catches up with Bigger and he faces his court trial for the death penalty for murder (and not just murder: murder of a white woman by a black man…). Even more shocking and great media fodder. The trial ends up drawing massive attention, and people rally outside the court room shouting and chanting what they think should happen to Bigger.
But Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, gives an astonishing speech in his closing arguments – you’ll have to read it to believe it – and throughout his talk, Mr. Max clearly shines the spotlights on the cultural mores and assumptions that have led to this situation. Taking a birds-eye view (with the omniscient POV) opens the full range of reasons why Bigger murdered Mary. Was he culpable? Sure, but how much blame can you assign to a racist society which cuts off opportunities for betterment to a large part of society? Where does the line stop?
Anyway, a fascinating read and one that kept me up rather later a few nights as I just couldn’t leave Bigger without knowing his fate. Highly recommended as a African-American classic. Everyone should be reading this, even (and perhaps especially) the Orange Goblin (if he can read).
Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.
Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day nine years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.
All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…
It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)
So, prowling my shelves and thinking of Black History Month as one does, my eye was caught by a thin title and pulled it off the shelf, curious to learn more. The book turned out to be about Queen Victoria (swoon) and how she semi-adopted a young African princess when the girl first arrived in London. It’s an interesting story, but I had not heard of it before, so I dug right in.
Based on a stash of original nineteenth century documents that the author unearthed in the National Archives one day, the book follows the life of young Sarah Forbes Bonetta when she is first “rescued” by a white military officer from an African nation full of warring tribal groups, and then introduced into royal circles in England. (It does have shades of the movie, Greystoke… Perhaps the author wasn’t the first person to find this info out.)
This was in the mid-nineteenth century and slavery was in full force in both England and the States, and, although there were people who were abolitionists, it hadn’t taken up full swing just yet. A Royal Navy officer happened to be at one of the ports where the slave ships would embark with kidnapped slaves-to-be, and after a skirmish of some kind, the girl’s parents were killed, and so she is alone. The military officer decides the best thing is to take the new orphan, and deliver her to England. (Cue: Greystoke here.)
Upon arrival, the young African girl has no English language skills, and hardly any schooling. She was surrounded by people who looked nothing like her, and she was trapped in multiple layers of uncomfortable English clothes in a strange cold country. However, she made the news and that alerted the Queen of her presence.
Hearing talk of this arrival, Queen Victoria asked for a meeting, and that’s how the whole English part of the story began.
Queen Victoria enjoyed the young girl and gave her the best tutors and education that one can receive, and it all seemed to be working out well until the young girl started to get sick more and more often. The Victorians didn’t have a good grasp of medicine at this time, let alone tropical medicine, and after trying to treat her, the little girl ends up on a boat back to Africa where she attends missionary school, but unfortunately has a very hard time fitting in with her peers due to the recent English influence. This is overcome, and in the end, she grows up into adulthood, and no one seems to know of how her life went after this experience.
While I was reading this, I really enjoyed it, but as I started to think about it in a critical manner, it dawned on me that this was a tricky situation to look back on through twenty-first century eyes, especially with the knowledge of slavery for England and US. On the one hand, the little orphan was saved from a poverty-stricken life in an African country and given the royal treatment for a year. On the other hand, this is covered with the haze of white/ colonialism/power, so it’s not easy to parse.
Still, an interesting read. BTW, it’s classified as YA, so it’s a fast read, but it’s still informative.
Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.