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Jefferson’s memoir more than personal

Jefferson’s memoir more than personal

By Ryan Spencer

Section: Featured, News

March 4, 2016

Brandeis alumna Margo Jefferson ’68 returned to Brandeis to discuss her critically acclaimed memoir “Negroland” on March 3 at the Brandeis Faculty Club. The memoir discusses Jefferson’s life particularly as it pertains to her identity as an upper-middle class black woman brought up in Chicago’s South Side, an area she dubbed “Negroland” and titled her memoir after. “Negroland” is a New York Times Bestseller and was listed on The Washington Post’s “10 Best Books of 2015” and the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2015.” Jefferson has also won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1995 for her work as a critic with The New York Times.

The event featured an interview with Jefferson by Jasmine Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Brandeis.

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot prior to the event, Jefferson described her writing of “Negroland” as a movement away from her past as a critic saying, “I wanted to try things, in terms of writing technique, in terms of subject, in terms of challenges, that I haven’t done before.” Despite this goal, Jefferson confessed, “You never can renounce or completely bury the kind of way you’ve been working.” She also accredited the death of her sister in 2010 and their life together as another driving force behind the memoir, saying, “This was always a big part of the book: girls, three years apart being shaped by very particular ideologies of gender and race.”

Jefferson described the title of her memoir, “Negroland,” as a reference to a time period in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when “Negro was a word that became the honorable, the sanctioned, the preferred word” before it was replaced with “black.” Jefferson further described the term “Negroland” in juxtaposition with other lands, saying “a land is also bordered by and infringed upon and permeated by and defending itself against other lands.”

“This was by no means just a personal memoir,” said Jefferson, instead describing her book as a “cultural memoir.” Jefferson said she specifically fought against “the convention of a single voice” when writing “Negroland” because “in a memoir that single voice is associated with you and I wanted to present this ‘me’ as a series of personas, performing certain roles [and] inhabiting certain roles.”

The memoir dedicates a brief chapter to Jefferson’s time at Brandeis, but Jefferson says “I didn’t write that much about [Brandeis] in the book.” In her interview with The Hoot, though, Jefferson described Brandeis as “very caught up in the new left, anti-Vietnam [and] civil rights” during her four years on campus. “[My time at Brandeis] was very intellectually intense and there was a lot of angst,” Jefferson said as she recalled going to demonstrations as well as her involvement as one of the original members of Brandeis first black student organization. Jefferson was also involved in theater during her first and senior year at Brandeis. Looking back on her time at Brandeis, Jefferson said she wishes she had been “more courageous” and encourages current students to “find your constituency and be as independent as you possibly can.”

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