How can a book so slim take on such mammoth considerations and manage them with such efficacy? Perhaps because we gain entry via one girl and, later, the woman she becomes. Perhaps because no matter how conscious Jefferson makes us of societal circumstances, what drives Negroland is an abiding commitment to the primacy of the individual.
Jefferson’s method is impressionistic, discursive and often lyrical, revealing the deep divisions of black elites, who have fought silently but stoically against institutionalized white racism even as they’ve remained aloof from lower-income people of color. Negroland lifts the veil from the 'Talented Tenth,' striking at the hypocrisies still curdled beneath our conversations about race and class.
Jefferson combines memoir with cultural critique in a series of unsparing vignettes that describe the pressures of her childhood, her anxieties about success, and a struggle in early adulthood with suicidal depression.
[Jefferson,] toward the book’s conclusion[,] presents herself as 'a woman who grew up as a Negro and usually calls herself black,' and who saves the term African American 'strictly for official discourse.' If this elegant self-definition comes across as easily obtainable, the silken, wistful, and incisive narrative leading up to it assures the reader that it isn’t.
There are times, especially in the later sections of the book, when the writing becomes opaque and feels withholding and coy rather than suggestive and rich. But generally Jefferson succeeds at something remarkable: she tells her story while at the same time not only evocatively capturing her era but situating her experiences into a centuries-long cultural tradition.
As its title suggests, this is a bold and defiant work that enumerates the credits and deficits of black life; Jefferson’s reflections are leavened by a sharp wit and a literary rolling of the eyes when dissecting the nuances of prejudice ... Jefferson largely eschews fury but charts other shades of resentment – showing, for example, that working-class black Americans can better deal with white privilege than with black ... Self-pity forms no part of Jefferson’s writing palette. Her memoir doesn’t linger on grief: it’s mostly breezy and conversational, and every so often she breaks off to address the reader conspiratorially, like the protagonist in a film speaking directly to the camera. It serves the book well.