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Editor’s choice: ‘Negroland’ by Margo Jefferson

Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson, Pantheon, 248 pages, $25. In American literature, you can find the great writers, as often as not, born on the fault lines of social class. That’s where seismic activity is felt from all directions.

In Margo Jefferson’s memoir, which clearly bids fair to be something of a literary classic, Jefferson explains her title thusly: “Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience.”

Or, to get to specifics about this book by the 67-year old journalist and critic (for the New York Times, among other places) this is a “midwestern, midcentury story of a little girl, one of two born to an attractive couple pleased with their lives and achievements, wanting the best for their children and wanting their children to be among the best.”

Which Margo Jefferson, as a critic, has always quietly been. “Clever of me to become a critic. We critics scrutinize and show off to a higher end. For a greater good. Our manners, our tastes, our declarations are welcomed. Superior for life. Except when we’re not. Except when we’re dismissed or denounced as envious or petty, as derivatives and dependents by nature. Second class for life.” Which doesn’t begin to describe a memoir so brilliantly written and acute that it routinely makes universal distinctions – that distinction crucially, for instance, between privilege and entitlement. As the daughter of a doctor, she knows “privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege. Our people have had to work, scrape for privilege, gobble it down when those who would snatch it away weren’t looking.” (Would dentists’s son Miles Davis agree with that? Or Duke Ellington, the son of a White House butler?) Not looking i.e. not reading this remarkable, indeed unique book, would be an immense mistake. This seems to me one of the great books published this year.

Jeff Simon