In her award-winning memoir Negroland, former New York Times theatre critic Margo Jefferson explores her own childhood as a member of Chicago’s black upper class in the 1950s. And in his latest novel Black Deutschland, New York Review of Books and Granta essayist Darryl Pinckney imagines a young gay black man who flees Chicago during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s for the artistic melting pot of Berlin.
On April 30, the Chicago Humanities Festival hosted a conversation between Jefferson and Pinckney on “Style and the Black Bourgeosie” at the newly renovated Fine Arts Building in downtown Chicago. They spoke about “dressing for the race,” Zora Neale Hurston, and how upper-class and middle-class blacks were ridiculed for “trying to be white.” Here is a partial, abridged transcript of their conversation.
Darryl Pinckney: When I was reading Negroland, a book I like very much, I was very struck by the texture of your memories for fabrics, for colors, for the way the clothes make you feel. Later on we see what this costuming represents to the larger world, but you always start as close to the skin as you can get.
Margo Jefferson: One does. One must, right? And also, that’s the way a child takes it in. I think of Cello, for instance [the character in Black Deutschland]. Our first glimpse of her is the full theatrics. Then you go back and we see all this meticulous construction of this cultural self. And style, of course, is a cultural form. Yes, it’s the music. Yes, it’s the practicing … but it’s also the hair. Everyone is obsessed with her hair and her blue dress. The music is in some way inseparable from the vision and aesthetic of female theatrics.
Our parents and our grandparents had to do such vast work to prepare us with all the armor of education, propriety, decorum … visually, externally and internally. You were often, in a sense, on trial. Even at home.
Darryl Pinckney: When I was reading Negroland, the parts about shopping: my mother grew up in Atlanta and I remember she had the great aunt who said when she died she wanted her ashes scattered in the aisles at Richard’s Department Store. I think it’s because it was one of those places where they couldn’t try on clothes. She ordered everything by mail in order to not to be insulted, or she shopped when she came north.
My mother, all her life, shopped like mad every Thursday. She would get off an operating table to go shopping. I didn’t have time to count the number of shoes when she died, but I did measure the pile I made, and it was six feet by three feet by three feet.
Anyway, shopping had a kind of ambassadorial function. You’re dressing for the family, you’re dressing for your husband.
Margo Jefferson: Yes. And you’re dressing your children so they reflect well.
Darryl Pinckney: And you’re dressing for the race.
Margo Jefferson: And you’re dressing for the race. That’s right. You’re making clear that you have the taste to be there. In your choices, in your manner, in how you carry yourself. That’s an expression you hear all the time, “how you carry yourself.” I heard so many black people use that expression.
Darryl Pinckney: Were you ever told not to wear a certain thing?
Margo Jefferson: Absolutely. I was going to the YMCA for something. It was casual and I must’ve been about 8, and Mother said “Okay, you can dress yourself.” I came downstairs in a bright-red blouse and a white and purple flowered skirt. My family looked at me in horror and sent me back upstairs.
We have a very good color sense, we black people, and for my parents this was not acceptable. It was loud. We were not supposed to be loud, and I wasn’t supposed to make a mistake like that. Like if you were a little girl, you weren’t supposed to wear nail polish, because that was cheap.
Darryl Pinckney: I remember a photograph that my mother sent my father in the army she didn’t like because the studio painted her nails and she’d never done that.
Margo Jefferson: What about boys?
Darryl Pinckney: It’s hard to say. When you’re a black guy of course you’re taught that you’re going to be watched.
Margo Jefferson: Under surveillance.
Darryl Pinckney: Yes. You’re always under surveillance. Nevertheless, you’re expected to be bilingual, so to speak. That you have to be able to hold your own with the guys in the streets and then …
Margo Jefferson: Who might just be living a few blocks away.
Darryl Pinckney: Right. Living a few blocks away … because you don’t want to get beaten up and you don’t want to be a sissy, and you don’t want to be a class traitor or a race traitor or anything like that. But at the same time, you’re supposed to switch and be alright in the classroom. I don’t think black women ever had that encouragement to have a “street side” at all.
Margo Jefferson: No, not until the 60s when Black Power moved everything around.
Darryl Pinckney: I think it goes back to history of black men in America. Which of course is that slander that black people aren’t human, they’re animals, which makes it okay to work a black man to death and to visit violence on the bodies of black men.
Margo Jefferson: Exactly. And then make clear we really visiting violence because they wanted it anyway. They didn’t know better.
Darryl Pinckney: Yeah. That’s true. With black women, though, sometimes they were objects of suspicion because they were “too independent.”
Margo Jefferson: Yes. One of the interesting things in terms of gender about these “club women” like Mary McLeod Bethune that all of our mothers respected who founded schools, they all had husbands…for a time. The husbands either totally faded into the background or quietly left. I’m not sure if there was a formal divorce. When you follow these stories you would hear that the husband was an appendage they felt they had to have, so that they would not be looked at so suspiciously. They would still be considered proper women.
Darryl Pinckney: I think that Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in order to tell a story about a black woman in romantic love without her being promiscuous. Because all the images from the Jazz Age, especially in the novels where whites wrote about blacks, the black woman had lots of lovers and children by different men. Zora Neale Hurston has no children. And she’s the one who picks the men.
We had such a discussion planned backstage, and now we only have five minutes to tell you that the black bourgeoisie was not always a disliked or shameful thing. After Reconstruction, even long before, all through the history of America, middle-class blacks and upper-class blacks were really disliked as troublemakers by white society and ridiculed for trying to imitate whites.
Margo Jefferson: And they were disliked partly because there is, amidst the history of consumerism and self-absorption, which every bourgeoisie has, there was a history of Civil Rights work, of progressivism. That, combined with education and the taking on of manners … this was heresy.
Darryl Pinckney: People made fun of blacks for “trying to be white,” which wasn’t it at all. This was where the black leadership came from, and what the whites minded was the implied equality in the way these people lived, and that they didn’t ask anyone permission. It goes on. We always think of Rosa Parks as this woman who was too tired to move. Not at all. She was secretary of the NAACP and had studied commerce laws, so she knew what she was doing.
But in the 60s, when everyone wasn’t black enough, then the black bourgeoisie and the upper class really took a beating for being sellouts or being too close to institutions that hadn’t changed black life.
Margo Jefferson: And there was truth in that critique.
Darryl Pinckney: The thing about it, it was very hard to get people to go to black doctors. But if you were self-employed, you didn’t have a white boss telling you you couldn’t go to a demonstration. Which is why the NAACP, its grassroots structure, had so many middle-class people, because they were free to do it and they were supported by the black community. And also, black criminals were a big part of the Civil Rights movement because they gave a lot of money.
Margo Jefferson: By the which you mean the numbers.
Darryl Pinckney: The numbers guys.
Margo Jefferson: The dashing numbers man. That’s absolutely right. And in a city like Chicago, they played a real role in the political system, too. They were fairly close to the people like Congressman Bill Dawson and such.
Darryl Pinckney: So anyway, that’s what we were going to tell you. And I just remembered my mother’s rebellion took the form of letting me wear … or forcing me to wear … a powder-blue tuxedo with red stitching for somebody’s wedding. I was really shocked. I looked like one of the Temptations. And not their hey day.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.