Excerpt From 'Negroland'

I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor.

I call it Negroland because I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts. A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures arise to challenge its primacy.

I call it Negroland because “Negro” dominated our history for so long; because I lived with its meanings and intimations for so long; because they were essential to my first discoveries of what race meant, or, as we now say, how race was constructed.

For nearly two hundred years we in Negroland have called ourselves all manner of things. Like

the colored aristocracy
the colored elite
the colored 400
the 400
the blue vein society
the big families, the old families, the old settlers, the pioneers
Negro society, black society
the Negro, the black, the African-American upper class or elite.

I was born in 1947, and my generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses or uncertainties in public. (Even now I shy away from the word “failings.”) Even the least of them would be turned against the race. Most white people made no room for the doctrine of “human, all too human”: our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human.

For my generation the motto was still: Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.

Part of me dreads revealing anything in these pages except our drive to excellence. But I dread the constricted expression that comes from that. And we’re prone to being touchy. Self-righteously smug and snobbish. So let me begin in a quiet, clinical way.

I was born into the Chicago branch of Negroland. My father was a doctor, a pediatrician, and for some years head of pediatrics at Provident, the nation’s oldest black hospital. My mother was a social worker who left her job when she married, and throughout my childhood she was a full-time wife, mother and socialite. But where did they come from to get there? And which clubs and organizations did they join to seal their membership in this world?

By Margo Jefferson. Excerpted with permission from Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House.

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