Life in the African American Aristocracy

Negroland is a memoir by theater and book critic Margo Jefferson about growing up in the American Negro aristocracy in the 1950s. Far more than a memoir, the book carefully chronicles the history of Black America’s elite professionals, academics and business people. For the most part these families are descended from the children of white slaveholders, from ancestors bought and freed by slavery-hating whites, from ancestors descended from free Negroes (non-slaves) or ancestors who bought their own freedom with hard work and cash.

These ancestors, in turn, used their wealth and privilege to ensure their own children pursued higher education and professional or academic careers. Prior to the 1970s they also used their wealth and privilege to found clubs, organizations and charities to improve the conditions of less privileged African Americans.

Jefferson’s father was a pediatrician and prior to marriage, her mother a social worker. As a member of the tiny African American aristocracy, which Jefferson refers to as “Negroland,” Jefferson grew up with very suffocating rules of refinement that were far more strict than those applied to white women. Living daily with heavy mainstream racism, Jefferson came under heavy criticism (mainly from the women in her family) for drawing attention to herself with flamboyant dress, activities or talk, with “ashy” elbows or knees or poorly straightened hair that became “frizzy” in damp weather.

Jefferson writes poignantly about the identity crisis she experienced when her upbringing was challenged by the Black Power movement of the 1970s. It was at this point she realized how the pressure to assimilate to white society had isolated her from fully embracing her African American history and culture. She also suddenly became aware of the unwritten Negroland rule against experiencing or acknowledging feelings of depression. Owing to concern that emotional weakness would reflect unfavorably on the entire race, members of the Negro aristocracy were expected to power their way through depression with duty, obligation and discipline.

In Negroland, Jefferson achieves a good balance between subjective experience and a historical/cultural backdrop that helps us make sense of it. I highly recommend the book for its excellent depiction of a sadly neglected aspect of US history.

Dr. Bramhall is a retired American psychiatrist and political refugee in New Zealand. She has published a free, downloadable non-fiction ebook 21st Century Revolution. Her first book The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee describes the circumstances that led her to leave the US in 2002. Email her at: stuartbramhall@yahoo.co.nz. Read other articles by Stuart Jeanne, or visit Stuart Jeanne's website.