“Debi and Judi asked me if we know their janitor, Mr. Johnson. They think he lives near us.”
“It’s a big neighborhood,” Mother says. “Why would we know their janitor? White people think Negroes all know each other, and they always want you to know their janitor. Do they want to know our laundryman?”
That would be Wally, a smiling, big-shouldered white man who delivers crisply wrapped shirts and cheerful greetings to our back door every week.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jefferson,” he says. “Good morning, Doctor. Hello, girls.”
“Hello, Wally,” we chime back from the breakfast table. Then, one weekend afternoon, I was in the kitchen with Mother doing something minor and domestic, like helping unpack groceries, when she said slowly, not looking at me: “I saw Wally at Sears today. I was looking at vacuum cleaners. And I looked up and saw him—” (Here she paused for the distancing Rodgers and Hammerstein irony, “across a crowded room.”) “He was turning his head away, hoping he wouldn’t have to speak. Wally the laundryman was trying to cut me.” If this had been drama, she would have paused and done something with a telling prop—one of the better brands of an everyday food, or a nice-looking piece of flatware. Then she said, “And I don’t even shop at Sears except for appliances.”
Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it—the right, in this case, to snub or choose to speak kindly to your laundryman in a store where he must shop for clothes and you shop only for appliances.
Still, Wally went on delivering laundry with cheerful deference, and we responded with cooler—but not intrusively cool—civility.
Was there no Negro laundry to do Daddy’s shirts as well or better? Our milkman was a Negro. So were our janitor, our plumber, our carpenter, our upholsterer, our caterer, and our dressmaker. Though I don’t remember all their names, I know their affect was restful. Comfortable. If a Negro employee did his work in a sloppy or sullen way (and it did happen), Mother and Daddy had two responses. One was your standard folk wisecrack, something like “Well, some of us are lazy, quiet as it’s kept.” Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it: in this case, a spotless race reputation.
The second response was disquieting. “Some Negroes prefer to work for white people. They don’t resent their status in the same way.”
All right then, let’s say you are a Negro cleaning woman, on your knees at this moment, scrubbing the bathtub with its extremely visible ring of body dirt, because whoever bathed last night thought, How nice. I don’t have to clean the tub because Cleo / Melba / Mrs. Jenkins comes tomorrow! Tub done, you check behind the toilet (a washcloth has definitely fallen back there); the towels are scrunched, not hung on the racks, and you’ve just come from the children’s bedroom, where sheets have to be untangled and almost throttled into shape before they can be sorted for the wash.
Would you rather look at the people you do this for and think: I will never be in their place if the future is like the past. Or would you rather look at your employers and think: Well, if I’d been able to get an education like Dr. and Mrs. Jefferson, if I hadn’t had to start doing housework at fifteen to help my family out when we moved up here from Mississippi, then maybe I could be where they are.
Whose privilege would you find easier to bear?
Who are “you”? How does your sociological vita—race or ethnicity, class, gender, family history—affect your answer?
Whoever you are, reader, please understand that neither my parents, my sister, nor I ever left a dirty bathtub for Mrs. Blake to clean. …
Mother made it clear that we were never to leave our beds unmade when Mrs. Blake was coming. She was not there to pick up after us. When we were old enough, we stripped our own beds each week and folded the linen before putting it in the hamper for her to remove and wash.
Mother’s paternal grandmother, great-aunt, and aunt had been in service, so she was sensitive to inappropriate childish presumption.
—Margo Jefferson, Negroland (Pantheon Books 2015)
Some thoughts about this book:
• It was difficult to choose just one scene to excerpt. I have many others I’d like to share with you.
• Reading about the black elite in Negroland really opened my eyes to white privilege, which truly is a thing, in spite of those who continue to deny it. Long before I knew the phrase, I recognized that being born white in America in the middle of the twentieth century was a stroke of very good luck for me. “Those ugly stories you overheard or were taught by parents and grandparents,” says author Margo Jefferson, “these were part of the curriculum, stories that gave the lie again and again to public declarations that if Negroes would just prove themselves worthy they would be welcome as equals. Parents and grandparents told you some white people would dislike you even more if you were clearly their equal.” It seems counterintuitive, then, to say this book about well-to-do African Americans further educated me about privilege and societal class, but it did, and you should read it for that if for no other reason. (Though there are many—the fascinating glimpse of another world being just the tip of the iceberg.)
• Interestingly, Jefferson makes a distinction between privilege (what she had growing up) and entitlement (what white Americans are granted by, she says, history): “…white people, with all their entitlement. Not the entitlement a government provides, but the kind history bestows. This is your birthright, says history. Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.” A reviewer at the New York Times says, “I’ll put that another way: The visible narrative apparatus of ‘Negroland’ highlights its author’s extreme vulnerability in the face of her material. It also makes apparent the all-too-often invisible fallout of our nation’s ongoing obsession with race and class: Namely, that living a life as an exemplar of black excellence—and living with the survivor’s guilt that often accompanies such excellence—can have a psychic effect nearly as deadening and dehumanizing as that of racial injustice itself.” This is book that really makes you think—and maybe cry. I was alternately convicted and angry. I was enlightened. I loved it.
• Here’s the cover blurb: “At once incendiary and icy, mischievous and provocative, celebratory and elegiac—here is a deeply felt meditation on race, sex, and American culture through the prism of the author’s rarefied upbringing and education among a black elite concerned with distancing itself from whites and the black generality while tirelessly measuring itself against both.
“Born in upper-crust black Chicago—her father was for years head of pediatrics at Provident, at the time the nation’s oldest black hospital; her mother was a socialite—Margo Jefferson has spent most of her life among (call them what you will) the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.’
“Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson brilliantly charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions. Aware as it is of heart-wrenching despair and depression, this book is a triumphant paean to the grace of perseverance.”
Winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award (autobiography)
A New York Times Best Seller
New York Times: 100 Notable Books of 2015
New York Times: Dwight Garner’s Best Books of 2015
Washington Post: 10 Best Books of 2015
Los Angeles Times: 31 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015
Marie Claire: Best Books of 2015
Vanity Fair: Best Book Gifts of 2015
TIME Best Books of 2015
Chosen as a Book of the Week (2016) by BBC Radio 4
• Jefferson is just six years older than me, so we were growing up at the same time and experienced a lot of the same things. The civil rights movement, for example (I was also impressed with Dr. King), pop culture (the Rat Pack—including Sammy Davis Jr.—was popular in our house too), the confusing signals sent by the Black Power movement, and on and on. We read the same books, she and I, both in school and later for pleasure. I so identified with her discussion of what constituted feminine beauty, and how we all strived for it. We all wanted straighter hair and were willing to make sacrifices to get it. I myself slept with my hair rolled in tin cans, for heavens’ sake.
• This review at NPR also includes highlights from an interesting interview with the author (you can also listen to the entire interview).
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”