Margo Jefferson and the Art of Life

Margo Jefferson and the Art of Life

In her work, especially her new book Constructing a Nervous System, she transforms criticism into an experience one feels in the body, not just the mind.


Much has been made, since the days of the ancients, of art’s desire to imitate lived experience—an absurd expectation, as Plato would have it. But for a seasoned critic, the inverse might also make for a truism: that the hours spent defining, investigating, and understanding the possibilities of artistic expression can incline you, for good or ill, to see life itself as a problem of creativity, form, and genre.

Margo Jefferson understands the stakes well. In her Pulitzer Prize–winning tenure as a critic at The New York Times, Jefferson’s work brought a mesmerizing blend of her talents to the form: Her critical voice was playfully arch, the observations perceptive and informed by a vast and omnivorous knowledge of music, theater, and letters. So often in the criticism of our day, writerly courage is considered a matter of valor and uncomplicated morality; yet what makes Jefferson’s work brave and refreshing is its willingness to engage, with both humor and pragmatism, the uncertainties that stalk us as raced, gendered, and classed subjects; as humans; and as consumers and producers of culture. Her work as a critic is really a committed study of the demands that art makes of an artist and an audience.

Jefferson’s recent memoir, Constructing a Nervous System, is partially devised around a series of careening juxtapositions: She imagines dialogues between W.E.B. Du Bois and George Eliot, Ma Rainey and Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin and Sammy Davis Jr. These unlikely döppelgangers thrilled me, and I was not sure why. Such enigmas are just the effect Jefferson is aiming for, and they are what makes Constructing a Nervous System a spirited work of literary expression in its own right. The book revisits the writers and performers who have left a mark on Jefferson and, thus, in a sense, helped define the story of her life. This approach is not without antecedent, belonging to a particularly contemporary yet nameless genre of art criticism that masquerades as life writing. But in Jefferson’s hands, the result is uncanny, as she transforms criticism into an experience one feels in the body, not just the mind.

A nervous system, like any work of art, is a mysterious set of processes that are totally individual from one person to the next. We like to imagine such systems as straightforward, rendered comprehensible through language. Often we come closest to understanding their effects on us more than the actual mechanisms. In this book, Jefferson asks what made and remade her, and lets us know the answer is never easy or simple.

Uncertainty was, as usual, my point of departure when I called Jefferson on a perfect spring day earlier this year. When I began by asking her about Du Bois–Eliot and the other surprising duos that populate Constructing a Nervous System, she was ready with a characteristically layered answer: “I think it has to do with the way my temperament works with such a varied set of canons and cultures that I grew up in and around.” She caught herself describing the sum of these traditions as “murky” and reconsidered. “At another, more simplistic point in the culture, the desire was no doubt to find some way to blend them and transcend. Since then, what I’ve become much more interested in is these strange conjunctions that then go in other directions, but my mind is making patterns out of them. I’m not, you know, trying to impose a kind of canonical worldview pattern of them on them.”

Murk, variance, transcendence, “cultures” in the plural: These comprise an apt lexicon for describing the unusual privilege—and injury—of Jefferson’s mid-century upbringing in Chicago’s Black bourgeoisie, which she chronicled in 2016’s excellent Negroland. Jefferson debuted as a memoirist long after making her name as a critic, but one can’t help but note how mutually imbricated both vocations are. Jefferson’s parents and schooling afforded her a tutelage in ballet and piano, and she began acting in high school. While none of these pursuits became careers, such early artistic practices inform her understanding of creativity and stagecraft. “I had personality, but not much variety,” she says of her life as a performer. “The way I enter these different lives and take these different roles—that’s my repertory company. I couldn’t do it onstage with a lot of versatility, but I can do it much more on the page.” The peculiar first-person style of Negroland, I learn, comes from its origin as a series of monologues written for the stage in 2002. Jefferson tells me that, even in a memoir, adopting several personae was a crucial element of her process; the book opens with a woman on a bare stage, as if to remind us that life has its own theatricality to it, and that the best memoirs are frequently character studies rather than straightforward biographical narratives.

If Jefferson’s childhood provided a material basis for her interest in performance, so too did it entail a more difficult act, paraphrased early and often in Negroland as “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” The “perilous business” with which the book announces itself was a matter of Jefferson’s greatest preoccupation: one’s temperament and how it comes to be. The inhabitants of Negroland had to achieve without showing off, to live with the awareness that one could be estranged from one’s privileges—fret over curls, color, and clothing. By her college years, Jefferson had grown into an anxious and indecisive overachiever seeking an uneasy balance between the expectations she had inherited and the racial politics of the era. Reflecting on the 1960s, she now describes Black Power and the concurrent women’s movement as “absolutely galvanizing” for her sense of self as much as for her writing.

Jefferson is too self-aware to fall into the memoirist’s trap of seeking easy sympathy. It’s clear from the smile that springs from her reminiscences that her youth was just as much a time of love, wonder, and good fortune. “We knew we were appreciated,” Jefferson says of her and her sister Denise when I ask her about the Jeffersons’ family life, and each of her memoirs marvels in particular at the resilience and ingenuity displayed by the Black women she grew up with—at home, as well as on the screens and record players of the era. Since Negroland appears to be a memoir of class, its commentary on gender can seem incidental, which Jefferson acknowledges. Constructing a Nervous System, however, is quite explicit about reclaiming Black womanhood as a critical position from which to create sophisticated and restlessly experimental work such as her own. It’s a silly canard of our age, that art shouldn’t make too many sociopolitical observations on “identity,” and one that Jefferson stylishly refutes.

One of my favorite passages in Constructing a Nervous System carries the motif of Ella Fitzgerald’s sweat, which would have offended the denizens of Negroland:

Ella Fitzgerald sweats on TV, in concert halls, in nightclubs (are there sweat stains on that dusky rose gown when she’s through performing in it?), on national television shows. On television sweat dots her brow and drips, even pours down her cheeks. Sweat dampens her pressed and curled hair. Sweat runs into the stones of her dangling earrings.

Jefferson ends the chapter with Fitzgerald perspiring through a scat rendition of “How High the Moon” that doubles as a seven-minute history of Western music. When Jefferson reflects on her youthful admiration for the singer, she realizes that while Fitzgerald’s sweat makes what it touches sodden, it also glistens: the proud residue of an honest day’s work. Footage of the performance is still available online, and watching it now reminds us that Fitzgerald was an unfailingly individual genius of improvisation, the likes of whom we’ll never see again.

Jefferson inherited her lifelong affinity for jazz from her father Ronald. “He was equally good, in high school and college, at jazz and classical,” she recalls. “His particular passion was for jazz, but there wouldn’t have been any place for him in the world of classical music. So we got all of this jazz, but I also got very good classical piano lessons with both Black teachers and white, and we went to concerts. He was important to me, culturally and emotionally. It contributed so much to my personal culture. Without that, I couldn’t write about music.”

Jefferson’s mother Irma, a socialite and homemaker, shepherded much of her daughters’ instruction in matters of etiquette, entertainment, education, and identity; she stands as the guiding presence in Negroland’s documentation of a milieu that her mother personally helped sustain. Jefferson’s father was more of a puzzle, industrious each day in his work as a pediatrician, and solitary when he arrived home each evening. “We knew our job was to give him space to rest,” she says of him now. “Was he overbearing about it? Was he an autocrat? Not at all. But in some ways he was unavailable in terms of one-on-one emotions. My sense of him is as an embodiment of a certain kind of honorable, achievement-oriented individual, working to advance the race. But my sense of him as a symbolic figure is also quite acute. It’s accompanied by very specific memories of gestures and so on.”

I came to know Dr. Jefferson better after reading Nervous System. In one Christmas morning scene, Irma asks him why he must “always talk about the bad things,” as he often did on Christmas. The season’s ecstatic choirs, we learn, remind him of his collegiate musical ambitions, which had been stunted by the fact of his race. It’s implicitly a portrait of Jefferson’s own balancing act between accomplishment, class, and identity, and she promises to “inherit his despair and shape it to my own ends.”

I was curious if Jefferson had a sense of writing toward some understanding of her father in memoriam. “I did. I did,” she confirms. “And as I got older, because some of the material about him really comes from later in his life. I became more aware of what I was missing. We would have more conversations; I would observe him more closely.”

Jefferson describes her father as an impressive but ultimately melancholy figure, and reexamining his silent suffering led her to reconsider the interiority of Black men elsewhere, too. “What are my fascinations with and resentments of Black men as performers, in my life?” she asks herself aloud to me, in another revealing and uncanny twinning that, I notice, motivates much of the book from the very first chapter. Jefferson admits a degree of complicity in mainstream culture’s obsession with—and emulation of—tormented, charismatic Black men like Sly Stone and Ike Turner, and yet she posits that no one is more aware of their faults than the women who share their race but not their maleness. “That chapter in Negroland where I talked about death and the Negro man—that’s very much about the ritualistic, the social, and the psychological perils and demands of asserting certain views of Black masculinity. And about the ways in which females got away with something, but also were deeply constricted.” It’s a vexing contradiction that Jefferson has parsed elsewhere, in her intelligent and sensitive writing on Michael Jackson. Indeed, so much of Jefferson’s practice as a memoirist is wondering how well she truly knows herself and, secondarily, cataloging the seductively alien ways of other people. There’s much subversion, we agree, in imagining what cannot imagine you.

Jefferson ends Constructing a Nervous System by pondering the ethical costs of so much stylized world-weariness. It’s that matter of temperament again, but with a sense of its moral and historical implications. “Have you earned the right to be tired?” she imagines her grandmother asking her, after all that has been said to be exhausting, and this is where we end our roving and enlightening conversation, too. What is a person to do in this moody predicament, which Fannie Lou Hamer described as “sick and tired of being sick and tired”? Jefferson reminds us: “God knows they were tired, but it was transformed into something splendid. Very splendid.”

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