Margo Jefferson, “TV Time in Negroland”

Reader: Richard Isomaki

“TV Time in Negroland,” first published as a stand-alone essay, became part of Margo Jefferson’s award-winning memoir Negroland. “Negroland” is her word for a slice of the black community in the 1950s that today might be called the black elite. “Negroland,” she writes, “is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.”

Her essay reaches back to a period and a style of entertainment that only a minority of readers, and no students of the traditional age, have personal memory of. It remembers variety shows, a type of program now extinct on television. The prototype is The Ed Sullivan Show, which featured pop, Broadway, and opera singers, tap dancers and ballet, stand-up comics, acrobats and jugglers, trained animals, ventriloquists, and other sorts of acts.

These shows had variety in another sense as well—demographic. At a time when opportunities on television for African Americans were narrow, variety shows featured dozens of black performers, among them Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge, and Lena Horne, the three stars whose performances Jefferson details.

A cross-check of the variety programs she mentions demonstrates that her essay does not describe a particular evening of watching TV. (The Jerry Lewis Colgate Comedy Hour ran from 1950 to 1955, for example, whereas the The Frank Sinatra Timex Show ran from 1959 to 1960.) Instead, Jefferson has assembled a representative collage, “seminal moments in the viewing mores of the whole nation,” as she puts it.

Jefferson narrates this idealized evening in the present tense, an essaysist’s choice that is sometimes criticized because the writer purportedly is less inclined to evaluate the experiences being narrated—a reflection on the past that many critics take to be an essential feature of memoir. Phillip Lopate, diagnosing apprentice writers’ predilections, decries “the current fashion for present tense,” which “helps writing students sustain the illusion that they are still in the dreamy trance-state that a recalled memory resembles, even as it destroys the possibility of judging its meaning through hindsight.”

In this essay, Jefferson eschews overt reflection on the past. But perhaps she has subtler ways of giving readers the means by which to judge the material she has assembled.

We observe Margo, her older sister, and her parents as they watch and comment on TV performances, sing along with classic Broadway shows, strike poses and postures that inflect the products of a predominantly white popular culture. The girls’ re-creations of this material are precise and finely detailed (“Singing along, I make the oddly more staccato and curl my lip”). They are practicing at becoming themselves—privileged black girls who, under their parents’ guidance, are getting their bearings with respect to both the encompassing white world and that part of the black world from which they want to distinguish themselves through posture, style, voice, and attitude.

The family’s awareness of their unwhiteness is conveyed in part by their shared esoteric knowledge:

  • “We know, though the rest of America may not, that Juanita Hall, who plays her mother, is really a Negro.”
  • “The lieutenant has learned a lesson I already know.”
  • “Ava Gardner, who’s from the South and may have black blood …
  • “But most people don’t know we Negroes dress like that.”

Their separateness from the black world is conveyed by hints of their discomfort with antiblack stereotypes that linger in the older men in the Will Mastin Trio, by physical traits that Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge dodge (“Lena’s nostrils flare; they do not spread. Dorothy’s nose is a little bit fuller, but it’s not full“).

It is through these tiny but profound distinctions that the girl Margo made herself a citizen of Negroland.

Discussion questions

  1. Has Lena Horne, as the essay presents her, achieved a different status than Dorothy Dandridge? If so, how has she done it?
  2. Does the essay just stop? Or does the last paragraph bring it to a conclusion, a summing up?
  3. The three performances Jefferson describes are available at YouTube (Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne), and the precision of detail (“There are four strands of pearls around her neck”) suggests Jefferson watched them prior to finishing the essay. Does awareness of that possibility change your view of it?