Features | Lit

Performing Reality, Embracing Style

Margo Jefferson on growing up in a black aristocracy

Andrea Giugni

I run behind Margo Jefferson’s red coat as we rush into the historic Artist’s Cafe on Michigan Avenue. On a rainy day in Chicago, Jefferson is beaming. She is fresh off her panel with long-time friend and fellow writer, Darryl Pinckney, for the Chicago Humanities Festival’s spring programs. The talk was held in the Fine Arts Building’s Studebaker Theatre, and is one of the venue’s first events open to the public. Jefferson, a New York Times theatre critic who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995, and Pinckney, a longtime contributor to the New York Review of Books, brought many interested festival-goers to the grand halls of the decorative theatre to listen to impassioned discussions on Style and the Black Bourgeoisie.

Both writers read excerpts from Negroland and Black Deutschland, their respective recent books. Both books center on themes of black aristocracy, family rituals and customs in 1950s and 1960s Chicago, and the ways gender roles and racial expectations impacted both their childhood and adult lives. Jefferson and Pinckney settled back into the two chairs laid out for them and proceeded to talk about how the social structures of their youth were shaken by the march towards integration. Pinckney spoke of how black boys are taught to become “men of the world,” possessing knowledge of both street and school. Jefferson mentioned the particulars of Negroland, while praising the social stature of “clubwomen” who were both domestically and socially adept. She went on to note how her perception of these women influenced her creation of a cultural self in the face of aggressions that were permanently beneath the surface.

After the panel, Jefferson was bombarded with audience members praising her message and sharing personal stories while they get their copies of Negroland signed. Jefferson is the embodiment of the carefully groomed social butterfly of her cheerleader high-school days, but with a heavy dose of sincerity as she charms all who meet her. At the Artist’s Cafe, she orders a Greek salad as we talk style, black womanhood and aristocracy, and identity politics.

What is it like for you, seeing the Chicago before and Chicago now, especially near the Hyde Park area?

It’s a strange combination of old buildings and sights that I’ve known all my life and then these sudden, new structures, and also over the years the neighborhood went through various permutations. I used to come back more, because my mother was alive. She just died about a year and a half ago, so I came quite regularly and I had friends here.

How did those experiences with your white classmates, with the school years at the University of Chicago Lab School you write about in Negroland and in the early stages of Hyde Park integration, shape your understanding of Negroland when you were young? Did those interactions fit into your conception of Negroland, or did you conceive of that as something completely separate?

It turned out to be part of my version of Negroland because the world was starting to integrate and my parents chose, as did some of their friends, to place us in a progressive, largely white school really from our very early years. Those were decisions certain Negroland parents made. So, you know, I think it did a lot of things. It gave me a sense that integrated friendships were normal and even natural, which prepared me well for the world that was to follow. At the same time, it also did expose me to certain assumptions and, I won’t say open conflicts, but the little rules and rituals that governed relations between the races—some spoken, some not. Some in facial expressions. Sometimes seemingly very present, intrusive, and other times, seemingly not there. So, you learned different languages and codes, which did have to do with racial conventions, discriminations, attempts at real liberalism and genuine goodwill. All of that, all of that.

Was there ever a moment where you felt you could exist without being othered?

You mean at Lab? Yeah, there were absolutely moments. I would say more in grammar school because, you know, adolescence is tricky anyway. We all become hideously self-conscious about our place in the world and our status, what groups we’re in, and put race and ethnicity on top of that. And your parents, all sets of parents, are worried about, you know, are you going to date across the line? And that became black, white, Jewish, gentile, all of that. You were inheriting all those anxieties and to some extent, we were acting them out. I had a black social life—all black, entirely outside of school—that was made up of mostly the children of my parents’ friends. Some of us went to white schools, some of us went to all-black schools. Darryl [Pinckney] was talking about code-switching and certainly, in that way, girls needed to code-switch, too. You know, we needed to show that we could do the dances and had the hip expressions.

Similarly, in your book, you talk about the decision to let a couple of white friends come join—

Yeah, join in on a party! A club party!

Exactly! I remember reading that and thinking that was so interesting because there is a weird power dynamic established there, where it seems to be almost reversed.

Absolutely. It was reversed, it was reversed. My sister was three years ahead of me and already there was more integration in my class. But I ran into a good friend of hers from Lab, who remembered Denise inviting her one Sunday to spend the afternoon on our father’s Cabin Cruiser. And we would often invite friends, but I had only remembered black friends coming—but Carol, a white friend of Denise’s, she had such a happy memory of it. She saw it as a real privilege, to get this invitation from Denise outside of school and kind of experience this.

Let’s talk a little bit about the theme of the Chicago Humanities Festival, Style. I’m thinking of style in relation to these rituals that are understood, sometimes spoken, sometimes not spoken, and the way that girls and black girls were taught to exist and in some way—their style and the style that was “correct” became a large part of identity. How did this understanding and this black aristocratic style shape your own identity as you were younger, and then as you got older?

Andrea Giugni

When I was growing up, something in me really, really enjoyed all those little particulars of, “this is what you’re supposed to do.” I loved fashion magazines, and all of this I really adhered to. I think some of that was just my temperament. And some of it was, I wore these thick glasses and I worshipped adorableness and girls who were pretty and cute, black or white, and didn’t seem to have any problem with it. Likewise, adult women. It was important for me as a little girl to do it properly, to follow the instructions that attractive, glamorous women and fashion magazines gave me. In some ways I was kind of an all-American girl in style, in high school—I was a cheerleader. I liked matching this-and-that and I carried that, to some extent, into college, then I started to vary it. The late sixties, the counterculture, everything from hippiedom to Black Power. You have an afro, you’re wearing an African-print dress even if you bought it in Saks Fifth Avenue or at a little shop in a black neighborhood. But you’re also wearing miniskirts and dripping shawls and big earrings and tie-dyed things. Your parents and your friends’ parents—they don’t love it. Yes, in some way, it’s another uniform because everyone’s doing it, but you’re also finding your own version of it. It does have to do with, “whoa, I’m making choices and I’m making them in opposition to decades of—centuries in a sense if you track women in fashion—codes.” And then when feminism hit, it definitely read as “I’m a new person.” No girdles, etc. Even something that seems as trivial as “I’m not always shaving under my arms.” people laugh at that now. You know, those needed to be nose-thumbed.

Definitely, I think about young girls who have had these codes, these rituals put into their minds since birth.

Yes, since day one. They’re visual codes and they are also literally body-movement codes. For example, stockings tear very easily, so you’re always thinking about how you’re walking. All of that, these physical and social confinements.

How did you think of your narrative style in relation to so many of the discussions of style in the text?

I didn’t want it to be driven by wholly chronology—I thought of it more as a mosaic or collage, and that felt entirely appropriate as I was living several different lives, constructing and being instructed to construct, and adjusting internally and having to adapt. I’m living in several worlds, I’m performing in each, and I’m being instructed on the conventions of appropriate internal and external performance. All of those sequences could change, modes of consciousness could change, switch in an instant. Even the pronouns could change. Initially, I tried to write more traditionally and I realized it just wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t going to get me through this book.

It seems like performance was very often a part of your reality. I think we tend to try to separate performance and reality but I believe that, in your case, those really existed simultaneously. Could you speak to how that changed with your understanding of feminism, and if there was ever a dichotomy between what was being performed and what was being lived?

I was lucky to be, in those first years of feminism, I wasn’t yet employed any place that had a dress code. I was a young woman making her way in New York. My first job, I think I was a secretary at Planned Parenthood. Then I went to graduate school the next year, there was freedom there. I didn’t have to live a double life, which often one does have to. If I was living a double life—I was laughing about this with a friend—we were all struggling with the contradiction which young women still do with the mini-mini-skirt and the tank top and the “how dare you!” But really it was, “how dare you talk to me in that way.” But I do remember that there were, among feminists, debates about how flaunting you were or how not.

Did you ever look back on some of the codes or behaviors you adhered to as a child and think, “oh, that was so anti-feminist?”

Oh, yes, that was part of the analysis. Whether you were a black, Latina, or white feminist, the codes of girlhood were central to the analysis. Clothes, manners, all of them: undergirded by assumptions about sexual and intellectual propriety. There wasn’t a sense of destiny, not until feminism came about. Of course there were always people, particularly in the arts, where it was more acceptable for a woman to want to be a dancer, to want to be a writer even. But if you wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor…And women were not given the respect for political movements they had been involved in. The sense of actions you could take on any front, that would have consequences. And then I write about that, so I’m not saying anything new, but it was such an amazing sequence of civil rights, anti-war, Black Power, and then the women’s movement, and then gay rights. Each one in some way demanded that you readjust, realign, expand, take apart certain ways you had lived emotionally, psychologically, and visually—and stylistically!

At today’s panel, you talked briefly about guilt and the idea of guilt being part of one’s consciousness, and I’m thinking about that along with this line from your book: “What I would have to do later, starting in college and in the years following, to become a person of inner consequence: break that fawning inner self into pieces.” That fawning inner self and how so much of who one is is projected externally—how does that impact your inner self? And how did that change you put yourself through, motivated by guilt, anger, and shame, contribute to that?

They’re all emotions, they all have their real uses. You have to internalize your changes in some other ways, in ways you can feel at peace with because that allows you to be more creative with them. If you’re constantly responding or taking action out of shame and what you’ve done before, that stays in your consciousness, but it has to be transmuted into something else, into something positive, you should forgive that word. But the changed you has to become a you that somehow gives you pleasure. Guilt and shame aren’t pleasurable and they can make you react even cowardly if you don’t take hold of them and use them creatively. 

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