‘Too Strong for That’: Margo Jefferson on Depression as Taboo in Affluent Black America

But one white female privilege had always been withheld from the girls of Negroland. Aside from the privilege of actually being white, they had been denied the privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity. A privilege that was glorified in the literature of white female suffering and resistance. A privilege Good Negro Girls had been denied by our history of duty, obligation, and discipline. Because our people had endured horrors and prevailed, even triumphed, their descendants should be too strong and too proud for such behavior. We were to be ladies, responsible Negro women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that.

I craved the right to turn my face to the wall, to create a death commensurate with bourgeois achievement, political awareness, and aesthetically compelling feminine despair. My first forays in this direction were petty. I conducted my own small battle of the books, purging my library of stalwart, valorous titles by black women and replacing them, whenever possible, with morbid, truculent ones by my sisters. Out with This Child’s Gonna Live, up with There’s Nothing I Own That I Want. Good-bye, My Lord, What a Morning, by Marian Anderson; hello, Everything and Nothing by Dorothy Dandridge. As for Mari Evans’s iconic sixties poem: I am a black woman…I tore it out of my black poets’ anthology and set fire to it in the bathroom sink.

I found literary idols in Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, and Ntozake Shange, writers who’d dared to locate a sanctioned, forbidden space between white vulnerability and black invincibility.

-From The Cut‘s excerpt of Negroland, Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson’s new memoir, about the expectations imposed upon her while growing up in what she calls “Negro America, where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.”

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