Margo Jefferson coined the phrase Negroland to refer to the small, but significant, portion of African Americans who have been mostly shielded from prejudice by virtue of wealth and privilege. She was herself born and brought up in that world, her father a renowned pediatrician and her mother a socialite who once wrote, in a letter to a friend, that “sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro.” Jefferson found herself in a weird in-between world, one that we’re more comfortable talking about now than anyone was when Jefferson was young. She was too black for the white kids and too white for the black ones; what did that . . . what does that make her? While this book does have a lot of material from Jefferson’s childhood in it, it’s more elliptical than most memoirs; it leaps around from time to time in a more thematic way and it’s written very differently from most memoirs. There’s little sentiment and, at the end of the day, Jefferson, I think, still doesn’t entirely know how to feel about her upbringing and that makes the book compelling. Late in the book, there’s a section where she just kind of eschews commentary and just presents a series of anecdote from the lives of herself and her friends and just lets the reader sit with them and decide how to feel and what to think about them. Some of those have real power. There’s a wonderful anecdote about two bewigged women confronting each other in the bathroom of a club; one is wearing a wig to make herself look more white, the other to make herself look more black – and the look they share in the mirror isn’t one they forget, nor will you. Likewise, a brief anecdote of walking down the street in New York with a close friend that happens to be male and gay is sharp and funny. The effort to be really experimental is a mixed bag; some sections, like a long section where she talks about herself in the third person, don’t really work, but others do. It’s a slim book and an easy read; Jefferson’s prose is brisk and engaging. It’s thought-provoking and interesting; by the time you finish the book, you’ll probably wish she’d actually found a way to tie it all up in some sort of a conclusion, but the messiness, I think, comes with the territory. 3 stars.
tl;dr – rambling, experimental memoir explores issues of race and class in thought-provoking, engaging ways; ultimately doesn’t hold together, but messiness doesn’t sink things. 3 stars.