Margo Jefferson remembers a childhood holiday on the East Coast of America in the summer of 1956
TNegroland: A Memoir by Margo Jeferson is published by Granta (£12.99). She will be in conversation with Ekow Eshun at the South Bank Centre on May 29 at 7.30pm (southbankcentre.co.uk) his is the Boston portion of our family’s trip from Chicago to the East Coast and Canada. American families loved taking to the highway in the 1950s, proudly driving their waxed and polished cars across the country. (‘See the USA in your Chevrolet/America is asking you to call,’ went one television jingle). I’m eight, my sister Denise is 11, and we’re visiting Boston Harbor. Our parents have posed us to look as impeccably American as the ship we stand next to. Our crisply ironed clothes and upright posture signify we’ve taken our rightful place here. Note how my arm and Denise’s hand are placed with easy confdence on the prow. Note that our hats are as precisely angled as any captain’s, and the stripes of Denise’s jacket set of the checks of my dress.
How we carried ourselves was essential to how we travelled. We were a Negro family (‘Negro’ was the preferred word then), and being on vacation meant we were on display in a United States that practised racial discrimination with vigour. There was always anxiety (overheard or sensed by us children) as to whether the hotels that had taken our reservation so eagerly by letter or phone would be as welcoming when we showed our faces at the front desk. In Boston, New York and Canada they were. In New Jersey they were not.
First impressions didn’t guarantee courtesy, but they often helped. And they had an inner purpose. How we looked, spoke, behaved, mattered deeply to us. It proved how American Negroes deserved equal rights and respect, access to the privileges taken for granted by the white people driving cars along the same highways, checking into the same hotels, visiting the same landmarks and beaches.
The conventions of girlhood took nothing for granted either. They mandated that girls be taught ‘good manners’ – that is, what it meant to be a ‘young lady’. Clothes were one of many signifers; as were how you spoke, how you listened, how you walked, how you arranged your body when you sat down and stood up. At eight, I still have a child’s open-foot, cheerfully gauche stance; Denise has learnt to place one foot in front of the other and angle her body slightly.
Race and gender are constructions – and how hard my parents worked to counter demeaning constructions of the Negro and the Negro Woman. To give us the tools they thought would best do this work. Political and cultural change would demand that Denise and I work to counter the negatives of this training (snobbery, propriety, repression). And yet, as I look at us here, I remember how proud and happy we often were, outftted, body and soul, with all the armour our parents could bestow.
There was always anxiety as to whether the hotels that had taken our reservation so eagerly by letter or phone would be as welcoming when we showed our faces at the front desk