“I think it’s too easy to recount your unhappy memories when you write about yourself,” Ms. Jefferson comments. “You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.”
This refrain, which appears three times in “Negroland,” performs several duties. It suggests the author’s unease with the lurid state of the American memoir.
It reminds you that you’re reading a critic — Ms. Jefferson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her book reviews in The New York Times — who didn’t pander to her audience and won’t begin to do so now. (Her tenure at the paper was mostly before mine, by the way, and I have not met her.)
Finally, it speaks to what is perhaps this powerful and complicated memoir’s central subject: the lessons of Ms. Jefferson’s childhood in a upper-middle-class black family in Chicago. Her father was the head of pediatrics at Provident, America’s oldest black hospital. Her mother was a social worker turned socialite.
The author was taught that “you don’t tell your secrets to strangers — certainly not secrets that expose error, weakness, failure.” In her family, and in black families like hers, the strictly observed motto was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.”
A disinclination to probe unhappy memories is a complicated thing for a memoirist to admit. It suggests we may be in for a spiritless teatime of polite talk and cucumber sandwiches.
Yet power dwells in the restraint of “Negroland.” Ms. Jefferson gets a lot said about her life, the insults she has weathered, her insecurities, even her suicidal impulses. There’s sinew and grace in the way she plays with memory, dodging here and burning there, like a photographer in a darkroom.
This book runs on several rails at once. In part it’s a history of the upper strata of black society in America. Ms. Jefferson attends to its manners and mores and central figures, and traces its shifting names, which include “the colored elite,” “the colored 400” and “the blue vein society.”
She has her own term for this elite, at least as regards her generation. (The author was born in 1947.) “I call it Negroland because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonder, glorious and terrible,” she writes. “A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations.”
It was a word that dominated her childhood. “I lived with its meanings and intimations,” she says, “for so long.”
In part it’s also her own story, and a primer on being what she calls a “Good Negro Girl” in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s. This meant mastering a “rigorous vocabulary of femininity” that Ms. Jefferson recounts in full.