Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends

Big Crowd Comes to See Alumna Discuss ‘Negroland’

March 4, 2016

Professor Jasmine Johnson, left, and Margo Jefferson, right.
Professor Jasmine Johnson and Margo Jefferson ’68 are all smiles during the discussion of “Negroland.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson ’68 returned to campus on March 3 to speak to a crowd of 150 people at the Faculty Club about her highly acclaimed memoir, explaining the creative process she employed to make “Negroland” more than simply a collection of some of her past experiences.

“I was pushing against the conventions of the memoir,” she told students, alumni, faculty and staff, who gave her a rousing ovation when she was introduced. “I did not want this to be a single voice, but wanted to represent the entire historical narrative of the time.”

Professor Jasmine Johnson interviewed Jefferson about the book, which chronicles her life as a member of Chicago’s black elite and takes a critical look at the intersection of class and race. Interim President Lisa Lynch welcomed attendees and thanked Professor Chad Williams, chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS), for his persistence and determination to bring Jefferson to campus.

During the interview, Johnson asked Jefferson why she chose “Negroland” as the title for her memoir.

“‘Negro’ was the honored word of choice in the 1940s and ’50s until the late ’60s, when ‘black’ replaced it,” Jefferson said. “I used ‘Negro’ to signal a particular time and cultural reference. Negroland is a literal, physical space as well as a mythical, ideological place.”

Jefferson discussed the expectations that were placed on her growing up, including avoiding behavior that would reflect poorly on her race and gender, and thereby impede the collective progress of blacks. She relayed a humorous story about singing a pop song in front of her mother as a teenager. Her mother told her, “Your black accent isn’t so good. You sound like one of those white rock ’n’ rollers.”

Johnson’s class is reading “Negroland” and many of her students attended the talk to hear directly from Jefferson.

“It was absolutely great to put her voice into context,” Makalani Mack ’16 said. “I often wonder where Brandeis will take me, as a black student, and seeing how far Margo Jefferson has gone and what she has done is so inspiring. I also love the anthropological aspect of her book and the way she approached it.”

The event was sponsored by the Brandeis Alumni Association; the Brandeis Alumni of Color; the Department of African and Afro-American Studies; the Women’s, Gender, and Society Program; and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice.

Jefferson won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995 while working for The New York Times. She also served as a staff writer at Newsweek. She is currently a professor of writing at Columbia University.
Jefferson closed her talk by offering students some advice. “Do not look for perfection in your personal, professional or political lives,” she said. “Perfection always includes lies. Our individuality matters terribly, as well as our solidarity. Really, value all these black lives, including your own.”

Read a profile of Margo Jefferson in the current issue of Brandeis Magazine.