The Politics of Skin, Hair, and Ballet: An Excerpt from Margo Jefferson’s ‘Negroland’

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“But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?” Margo Jefferson writes in her memoir, Negroland . Maybe, but when “showing off” looks like this, we call it theatre. Thought moves — even dances — in Negroland, which is to say that each line traces or tests or altogether invents its truth.

Take this, for example:

Privilege is provisional. Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn. Entitlement is impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.

White Americans have always known how to develop aristocracies from local resources, however scant.

The Negro Baldwin has inserted himself into your life, white reader: this “our” claims all you possess.

This is the caliber of performance, of thought in motion, that literary memoir was meant to stage. And Jefferson not only stages it, she invites the vision of the reader off-stage, to witness her own life’s rehearsals under the auspices of Negroland, which she describes as “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” It quickly becomes clear that Negroland is a “region” of space, yes, but also a regime of rules and standards governing midcentury black life. Jefferson describes these standards — in this case: the “beauty standards for girls” — in the excerpt below.

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Denise and Margo wear matching woolen coats with Persian lamb collars. They tuck their hands into Persian lamb muffs. They are in a state of self-enchantment. They rarely wear matching clothes, but these ones make a statement. Denise and Margo are a matching set and a set piece. Their clothes are the rewards of immaculate girlhood: dresses of taffeta and velvet with lace collars, petticoats, ankle straps, pocketbooks and initialed handkerchiefs, seasonal gloves of cotton and kid, matching coats and muffs. Straw hats and headbands with flowers. Not a single flower, corsage style, but an oval row, like a bower.

The bower of girlhood. We don’t talk or laugh loudly in public. We don’t slouch. Our speech is crisp and unaccented. When our aunt Ruby, a primary-school teacher, visits from California, she has me put a penny in a bank each time I say “gee.” I enjoy it. I enjoy being irreproachable.

Beauty standards for girls are stringent in 1950s Negroland. Negro girls must be vigilant about their perceived deficiencies. Be ruthless. Catalogue and compensate.

  • Flat feet instead of high arches.
  • Obtrusive behinds that refuse to slip quietly into sheath dresses, subside, and stay put.
  • “Ashy skin.” White sediment on the surface of brown skin that has gone unoiled for too long. Knees and elbows must be attended to. “Elbow grease” is not a metaphor.

SKIN COLOR

Ivory, cream, beige, wheat, tan, moccasin, fawn, café au lait, and the paler shades of honey, amber, and bronze are best. Sienna, chocolate, saddle brown, umber (burnt or raw), and mahogany work best with decent-to-good hair and even-to-keen features. In these cases, the woman’s wardrobe must feature subdued tones. Bright colors suggest that she is flaunting herself. Generally, for women, the dark skin shades like walnut, chocolate brown, black, and black with blue undertones are off-limits. Dark skin often suggests aggressive, indiscriminate sexual readiness. At the very least it calls instant attention to your race and can incite demeaning associations.

GRADES OF HAIR

  1. Dead straight hair can be grown into thick, lustrous braids that stretch to the middle of the back, even to the waist.
  1. Glossy hair with waves and curls: this evokes allusions to Moorish Spain and Mexico.
  1. Tighter waves with a less shiny texture: this hair can be brushed almost straight but must be maintained with light hair cream. Humidity can make it rough in the back (the kitchen) and frizzy around the face. Apply quick light strokes with a hot comb.
  1. Nappy hair, stage 1. Requires heavy hair cream daily and regular hot comb use. Usually does not grow past the shoulders.
  1. Nappy hair, stage 2. Requires heavier and heavier applications of hair cream and constant hot comb use. Usually does not grow beyond the middle of the neck.

NOSES

The ones nobody wants are broad and flat with wide nostrils. Wide nostrils are never good, but a narrow tapering nose that ends in flared nostrils is acceptable, even alluring. An aquiline or hooked nose suggests American Indian ancestry. It can also be called Roman. Small, pert, upturned noses are invariably welcome.

THE JEFFERSON GIRLS

Do not have flat behinds, but theirs are cleanly shaped and not unduly full.

Neither Jefferson girl has one of the top three grades of hair.

Their mother works the hot comb and the curling iron through it. She oils it daily; besieged by rain or intense humidity, Negro hair reverts to bushy, nappy, or kinky textures. “Bushy” is the word used most; “nappy” and “kinky” are harsher, coarser words. Denise’s hair is worse than Margo’s by a few grades. On the other hand, when Margo was very young, she was silly enough to believe her hair would turn blonde when her mother washed it. Fortunately, she aired this belief, and it died a clean, brisk death. Hair oil can stain ribbons and headband flowers and the inside rims of pale embellished straw hats worn to church and dress events if your hands aren’t clean when you put them on and take them off.

Mrs. Jefferson has a prominent Roman nose. Denise has a small, trim nose; more decorous than pert. Though Margo’s nostrils flare, they do not flare in a way an unsympathetic observer could fixate on.

Both girls have full but not extravagantly full mouths. They’d prefer smaller, narrower ones, but the basic shape is clean. No one could justly call them big-lipped.

THE JEFFERSON GIRLS AND BALLET

The elder, Denise, has a more than respectable arch, even by the demanding standards of her Scottish ballet teacher, Edna McRae. Their father’s high curved arch is a thing of beauty, which his daughters study with acquisitive rapture when he stretches out on the bed after a long day at the office. Margo and her mother have flat feet.

We see every dance company that comes to Chicago: the Royal Ballet, the New York City Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, American Ballet Theatre. We pore over ballet books: A Candle for St. Jude, The Classic Ballet: Basic Technique and Terminology, tales of les petits rats, the young Paris Opera Ballet students, profiles and exquisite pictures of major dancers. Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn, Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, Alicia Alonzo . . .

In the catalogue of physical features rendering Negroes unfit or at least unsuited for ballet, muscled, un-slender bodies figure as prominently as flat feet. There are exceptions, and we repeat their names eagerly, doggedly, dutifully.

Janet Collins, Metropolitan Opera Ballet

Raven Wilkinson, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo

The skin of Raven Wilkinson radiated sufficient pallor to justify her inclusion in a band of twenty-four sylphs haunting the glades of a Europe basking in ethereal melancholy, their bodies mere extensions of luminous white tulle and satin. Janet Collins had an epidermal undertone that ruined visual and narrative consistency onstage. She had been accepted by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo on condition that she paint her face and limbs white. She refused, packed her leotards and tights, and left the building. Instead she set her feet on the roads that led to race- and myth-driven musicals (Run, Little Chillun’, The Swing Mikado, Out of This World) and to modern dance, where small groups of Negroes and Asians performed on the stages of Ys and civic auditoriums, often beside those ethnic Caucasians (Jews and Catholics) less likely to have found their way to ballet.

She was thirty-four years old in 1951, when the Metropolitan Opera Ballet selected her to embody heroines in operatic interludes set among French gypsies, Ethiopian royals, and biblical Semites. It was groundbreaking, though everyone knew the Metropolitan Opera Ballet was not a first-rate company. It was an auxiliary, a subsidiary. (They always wait till you’re past your prime, our parents and our Negro journalists complain. The Metropolitan Opera didn’t invite Marian Anderson to make her debut there till 1954. She was the gypsy fortune-teller in A Masked Ball and she was fifty-eight years old.)

Denise was seven in 1951 when she told our mother she wanted to take ballet lessons. Serious ones. Till then, she spent her time at the Beatrice Betts Ballet School playing with friends and fluffing up her tutu. Mother consulted artistic Negro friends who knew about the best white teachers and who among them was most likely to take a non-white student.

Your daughter has real talent, says Miss Edna McRae, whose studio was downtown in the Fine Arts Building. Still, considering onstage convention and offstage prejudice, she will probably have to dance with an all-Negro modern company like Katherine Dunham’s. We aren’t ashamed of Katherine Dunham, we’re proud; she is a worthy dance pioneer with a university education, and not a minor university either: the University of Chicago, our mother’s school. Her Caribbean and African dances are based on her PhD research into the culture and folklore of those regions. “Folklore” is the word generally used. It suggests tradition, but it’s a few tiers below “civilization.” No matter how much formal training they have, no matter how hard they study and practice, these dancers/performers are enacting rituals many in their audience believe are driven more by biology than by art. Why, then, with some of the best ballet training Chicago possessed, would Denise choose to do what most Americans believed it was her body’s natural inclination to do? Especially since her teacher warned that it was probably her only option? Denise has a talent and an arch. Her feet curve becomingly in pointe shoes.

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From the Book: NEGROLAND: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson. Copyright © 2015 by Margo Jefferson Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC