Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book #38: Negroland

Shortly after I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' book (week #36), I heard an interview with Margo Jefferson, a professor of writing at Columbia University, about her new book.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (week #32), who often explores in her work the varied experiences of black immigrants in America, rightfully argued that there is danger in relying on a single story to understand people and cultures.

I agree. Ergo this week's read.

Jefferson's memoir, like Coates', is also about growing up black in America, but from a very different perspective. Jefferson is part of an earlier generation than Coates, she was born in upper-crust black Chicago rather than in a poor, tough neighborhood in Baltimore, she is a woman not a man, and while Coates' grew up concerned about his physical safety, Jefferson grew up concerned about being perfect.

My generation, like its predecessors, was taught that since our achievements received little or no notice or credit from white America, we were not to discuss our faults, lapses, or uncertainties in public. . . . Even the least of them would be turned against the race. Most white people made no room for the doctrine of 'human, all too human': our imperfections were sub- or provisionally human.

Her story is not ancient history. She's not even as old as my parents. Her own parents had crosses burned on their lawns. Jefferson writes about the myriad ways she lived a life despite this framework she was steeped in, but it persists. It persists.

And in the meantime, while both she and I have felt pressure to be perfect from other quarters--as women, for example--I have never had to think about how my life reflects on the rest of white America nor have I ever had to think about how "unacceptable" behavior on the part of other white people reflects on me.

White people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They worked just as hard at it. They failed just as often. They failed more often. But they could pass, so no one objected.

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