Flash­back

Margo Jef­fer­son re­mem­bers a child­hood hol­i­day on the East Coast of Amer­ica in the sum­mer of 1956

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Flashback -

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

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