“How refreshing, then, to find a memoir that isn’t actually about its chief protagonist at all?” – Negroland by Margo Jefferson

nmjThe term ‘memoir’ doesn’t exactly get the pulse fluttering, does it? In modern times, in fact, memoirs and autobiographies have become all too closely associated with the crippling celebrity culture we find ourselves consumed by. Boybands releasing books before they’ve even left their teens. Trophy-less footballers peddling lies about their upbringings over 300 pages of double spaced tripe. Warts and all reveals about scandals that most sensible people didn’t care about in the first place. Katie fucking Price. Memoir has essentially become the tool of choice for the self-indulgent.

How refreshing, then, to find a memoir that isn’t actually about its chief protagonist at all? Because in Negroland, while Margo Jefferson may be at the centre of all that we read, we are really exploring a dark and disturbing period of world history from a refreshingly original angle.

Civil Rights Era America has been documented in a million different ways. As one of the most important periods of history anywhere in the world it is correct and understandable that new books, documentaries, and films on the subject appear ever year. So they bloody should. But how often do they focus on the same few themes: Martin Luther King, the Black Power Movement, the sits in and the freedom rides? Fascinating and frightening as all of these sources often are, Jefferson’s memoir approaches the same era from a position that is barely ever considered.

That position, as Jefferson explains early on, was often known as the coloured aristocracy. Or the coloured elite. Or any one of around twenty other names that she outlines in the introduction. In this book we hear from someone who grew up in the middle of a highly confusing conundrum. While those all around her instilled the idea that she must help to ‘uplift the race’, she was confused by how often this entailed acting like white people, trying to hide your distinguishing features, and looking down of those less fortunate members of her race who supposedly ‘brought shame on them all’.

There are some excruciating moments in the memoir. Perhaps hardest to take are the times when the young Margo and her sister come to realise the inherent racism in the games they play with their white friends, or those snapshots of them realising just what the arbitrary fact of their skin colour excluded them from. Or maybe it’s the moments when Margo admits how uncomfortable some black friends made her as a teenager, worried as she was that they might embarrass in front of white friends. Although it’s actually hard to imagine reading anything as harrowing as the chapters when Margo discusses the confusion and depression of young adulthood, the suicidal thoughts that came from her feelings of shame.

Any Cop?: That Jefferson can tell such a torrid tale with large pinches of wit and humour at the centre is a testament to her writing and her personality. That a memoir can have so much power, while telling a story that relates to millions of people rather than just one, is a testament to the potential of the form. Jefferson tells the Civil Rights story from a new perspective. One that is equally important. An absolutely essential read for anyone with an interest in recent history.

 

Fran Slater


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