Strong Women

Jeff_combined photosLast week I read Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Negrolandin anticipation of an April book discussion at the Evanston Public Library. The discussion can’t come soon enough; I am eager to talk to someone–anyone–about this book. Here is how the book begins:

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. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant.

I related to part of this underlying tension. The town where I grew up from the age of five until I graduated high school was a small suburb about an hour northeast of Philadelphia. We didn’t know anyone when we moved there, and while there were other Jewish families in our neighborhood, they weren’t prevalent. The nearest synagogue was 20 minutes away by car. In elementary school, more than once I was the only one not celebrating Christmas, and I felt that distinction keenly.

It’s not as if I wanted to celebrate Christmas or was embarrassed to celebrate Chanukah. I did not like was the scrutiny of ‘otherness,’ of feeling like an exotic exhibit outside the safety and security of my home. Otherness often felt isolating, more peculiar than special. Margo experienced a similar flavor of otherness as a black girl throughout her childhood.

Body image is a struggle for many women, and Margo navigated issues dealing with the shade of her skin tone, hair care, and thick lensed glasses due to poor eyesight. She excelled academically, athletically, and musically. Even with all of these accomplishments–and she writes of the period before she won the Pulitzer Prize!–I think this must have been a difficult book to write. She mined her psyche as well as her memories and the memories of her friends and relatives. She is brutally honest about opportunities provided to her and her sister as a result of her parents’ education, and equally candid about the limitations they faced because of racism. The book is not bitter, merely revealing in heart-wrenching detail.

After Negroland, Beyoncé’s new song and video, Formation, suddenly seemed very relevant. I don’t know if I would have thought about the song and accompanying video in any depth except for the kerfuffle surrounding the video’s unannounced presence the day before the Super Bowl. I watched and listened, then did it again. I read about the critics’ and public’s reactions to each, and then watched again.

Brava Beyoncé! Already scrutinized and reviewed countless times, the video offers a proud and unapologetic stance on being a powerful black woman. She is proud of who she is and where she came from. Beyoncé ties in images of and references to New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement and more. (Many of the references I did not understand until I read some of the commentary about the video. Read one here, here, and here. There are plenty of others.) She is a woman in control of her career and her personal life. She revels in the power and friendship of sisterhood. She is proud of her body. She does not shy away from making money and the power that comes with an elevated economic status.

Beyoncé is not apologizing for anything. Good for her. Negroland tells of dreams aborted or postponed; Beyoncé is proactively making her dreams happen. Knowing dreams can come true is good news for all of us.