50 Years: Negroland Author, Jefferson, Celebrates Oracle Book Club

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Margo Jefferson

The Oracle Set Book Club celebrated its 50th anniversary and featured Pulitzer Prize winner cultural critic, Margaret (“Margo”) Jefferson, author of award winning “Negroland."

The Oracle Set Book Club is the only known African-American women's book club in the Washington D.C. area to be in continuous operation for 50 years.

Rosalyn L. Coates, Luncheon Co-Chair, introduced the afternoon’s guest author. Margo Jefferson, flashing an engaging smile, addressed the luncheon group. She warmly thanked the Oracle Set for the invitation to be their guest author, and spoke briefly on her connection with them. She then proceeded to talk about Negroland and explain why she chose that title.

She said that it wasn’t meant to contest the word “colored," and that the classification of “Negro” being capitalized was a battle forged by W.E.B. Du Bois. Negro was the accepted name for Black people during her childhood. Black as opposed to Negro came about at the same time the Oracle Book Set came into being, in the mid 6o’s.

“Negroland is a kind of Museum. I wanted it to preserve a whole lot of personal and private styles and beliefs. It only exists because we bring those objects of our past into the present,” she said. “In Negroland, I wanted class, race and gender to be oscillating and vibrating on the page – less chronological and more of a collage.” From the long lines waiting to purchase copies of Negroland before the luncheon and after, she’ll receive plenty of feedback on her success.

The daughter of a prominent Chicago physician who, for many years, headed pediatrics at Provident hospital, and a well-dressed socialite mother, Margo grew up ensconced in the black elite world. Parents raised their children to perpetuate the values of the Negro bourgeois. Margo said, “I wanted to describe the world I grew up in and the experiences, and to capture the contradictions and pleasures of the Black experience.”

She was extremely aware of how her group was seen in the white and black world. She said blacks have infinite varied experiences. The variety of black experiences is re-emerging in memoir form, and named a few recent best sellers like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Margo said we all have memories, and they should be recorded.

This year’s luncheon boasted a record-breaking attendance at the College Park Marriott Hotel Conference Center in Adelphi, Maryland. The mission of the Oracle Set Club is to provide literary skills than encourage, support, and reward the reading and writing achievements of children and youth in the D.C. area.

Initially, the founder of Oracle, the late Claudette Franklin Ford, organized a group of women friends to read and review books, plays, and other literary forms. The Oracle has morphed into a Club which continues to stoplight significant authors who focus on Black culture, and have awarded over 50 graduates of D.C. public and charter high schools the Claudette Franklin Ford Memorial Scholarship.

The Oracle Set Foundation is the philanthropic arm and was established in 1999. Their most important activity is the scholarship essay competition. To date, over $125,000 in scholarships has been awarded to over 60 recipients of D.C. public and public charter schools. The grants range from $500 to $3,000.

A previous year’s award recipient, Mary Dillard, thanked the Oracle Foundation for their scholarship support and brought the luncheon folks up to speed on her current status. She is now a registered nurse, and in September will be working towards her Master’s in public health. She said that the scholarship went a long way toward helping her afford college.

Over the last ten years, the Club has featured numerous guest-authors. Recently, writers such as F. Michael Higginbotham, author of ”The Ghost of Jim Crow”; Lalita Tademy, author of “Cane River”; Walter Mosley, author of numerous popular mysteries; Civil Rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); and journalist Gwen Ifell have been keynote authors. The first book the Club read was “The Man” by Irving Wallace about the first Black U.S. president.

Acting Oracle Set Foundation President, Carlton Terry, said, “Each year our luncheon speaker has been a woman or man of extraordinary intellect and talent – who as a writer – challenges our imaginations, stimulates our intellect, and enlightens us on both the past and future, and provides us with fresh ideas and ammunition going forward."

Through a series of meetings in 1978 the then director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, encouraged the Club to submit records and information on its members for inclusion in their archives. In 1997, this became a reality, and the Club’s archives are now a permanent part of the Moorland-Spingarn Center.

In addition to adhering to its original mission, the group has made financial contributions to various organizations such as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the Schomburg Collection in New York and to Nethula Enterprises’ Nethula Journal, a publication for local black writers.

The Club has also donated children’s books and magazines to local hospitals and institutions for children.

And last, but hardly lease, the Oracle Set Foundation simultaneously held its 2016 Silent Auction where guests bid to win various items and services donated to the Foundation. The proceeds from the sale goes to the scholarship fund.

To the Oracle Set Book Club and Foundation, we say congratulations on your 50th anniversary. May you continue to highlight writers who bring insight into the rich black cultural past and present, and assist future generations to overcome financial hardships so that they will one day carry on this great legacy.

You are indeed an asset to our communities and a fine example for others to follow.

To learn more about the Oracle Set Book Club or to start a book club in your area, contact Anita Byrd at canitabyrd@aol.com

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