Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Land Within (2016)

Book Review from the November 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Negroland: A Memoir'. By Margo Jefferson. Granta £12.99.

Jefferson was born in Chicago in 1947, and her father was a doctor. Negroland is her term for ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty’. The name includes ‘Negro’ because of this word’s historical importance (in posters relating to runaway slaves, for instance), though she usually refers to herself as black, with ‘African American’ being for official contexts only. This volume is not exactly an autobiography but a series of anecdotes and reflections on life as a (relatively well-off) black woman in the US; Jefferson herself became a writer and journalist.

There is some brief history, such as on black slave-owners, and the segregation of the US Army in the Second World War. There are examples of discrimination from the 1950s, affecting even the inhabitants of ‘Negroland’: Jefferson’s family were given inferior rooms in a hotel, and in their fairly select Chicago neighbourhood her father was stopped by police who asked if he had drugs in his bag (it contained medical equipment).       

One point which emerges more than once is the extent to which ‘race’ is in the eye of the beholder. The author describes herself as being of African, Irish, English and Indian (Native American) descent. Her own skin is ‘cream-brown’, and a shop worker with black-brown skin asks her what her ethnic ancestry is. Many of her relatives could pass as white, and she refers to an uncle who worked as a travelling salesman and then ‘stopped being white’ when he retired.

In the US the fight for ‘black rights’ was dominated by men, and that for ‘women’s rights’ by white women. She quotes one black feminist who argued that black women had spent years copying bad ideas from white women but then decided they wanted nothing to do with the one good idea of feminism. Jefferson will not say which of race, gender and class matters more, since all are ‘basic elements of one’s living’. Note, though, that this is not the Socialist analysis of class but one which sees the inhabitants of ‘Negroland’ as middle or even upper class.

But an insightful and often moving account.
Paul Bennett

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