Updated: Dec 21, 2022
True to oneself! Which Self?
By Dominy Gallo
Fifty years before Lizzo sang, “Black people made rock n’ roll” in “Rumors,” Margo Jefferson was telling readers of Harper’s performing arts column so. The writer’s 1973 debut work of criticism, “Ripping off Black Music,” cast white pop and rock stars as 20th-century minstrels, cannibalizing Black art for their own profit. What might have been a coup de maître for any aspiring critic was, for Jefferson, just the beginning: She’s followed it up with a half-century of cultural commentary and book reviews acclaimed for their perspicacity and grace. In 1994, her pristine repertoire won her a Pulitzer Prize.
Jefferson’s insight into the world of performance is too keen for a critic of the armchair, so it should come as no surprise that she spent years at the piano bench and acting onstage. The performers and writers whose art she consumes and comments on are part of the fabric of her being—as a critic, yes, but also as herself. “The self is the work of art,” Jefferson once told Leslie Jamison, her colleague at the School of the Arts. “Criticism puts the self in service of other art.” This is the subject of her second memoir, Constructing a Nervous System, released in April.
The text unfolds as an extended meditation on many of the artists Jefferson has adored, assessed, and apprehended over the course of her career. But this time, her writing is intimate. The critical subject wavers as Jefferson renders herself stirred, configured, inspired—ashamed, even—by the artists she judged on the page. Sparkling personalities—Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tina Turner, Josephine Baker, Janice Kingslow, Willa Cather, W. E. B. Du Bois—each get their turn beneath the light, exposed and understood by the critic whose psyche they’ve formed.
The title, Jefferson told her audience at the Lenfest Center of the Arts this September, came from a conversation with the writer Wendy Walters, who referred to the “elaborately structured discipline” of the memoirist’s project. But Jefferson the memoirist remains a critic. With “the instruments of critical distance”—to borrow a phrase from her talk—Jefferson stages conflicts, dramas, games between the many selves submitted to her critical eye. The “Uber-narrator” who moderates the conversations between Jefferson’s identities and interlocutors throughout the text, she said, called attention to this process of construction. It needed to be there, too, so her more vulnerable selves didn’t feel alone.
When she was on tour last spring for the memoir, another project of hers hit the shelves in England, where I was living: a little-known reissue of a little-known masterpiece, Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks. The novel—Brooks’ sole experiment with fiction—was first published in 1953, the same year two towering figures in American literature, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, made their novelistic debuts. Maud Martha cycled in and out of print for decades. After a 20-year print run with Harper, Brooks republished the work in the ’90s through Third World Press, whose primary commitment was to serve African American readers. But, as Jefferson writes in her new introduction, it “settled into library catalogues to go largely unnoticed.”
After publishing both her memoirs with a U.K. press, Jefferson was contacted last year to introduce and edit the first edition of Brooks’ only novel for British audiences, through Faber. We chatted in the sweltering heat of July; piles of books towered behind her on Zoom. Jefferson has a warm poise, a searing elegance. I thought of the bench and the stage. She speaks as lucidly she writes. She was generous—with her time and with her answers. She’s generous on the page, too.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
. . .
B&W: Of Brooks’ work, is Maud Martha your favorite?
MJ: No. I admire much of her poetry. But it’s her only novel. Poets’ novels are very interesting. They always are, because they work against and mutate the form. I like that. Of course, it offers things: It offers modes of expression and ways of reflecting on her, as well as her art, that don’t come in the poetry in the same way. It’s not the literal vernacular, in the way we think of it, but it’s very meticulous. And yet the prose offers air and space—psychological space of a particular kind.
B&W: Brooks was working with Third World Press. In our email exchange, you mentioned that you’re familiar with the aspirations and commitments that led her to the press. Would you be able to elaborate?
MJ: She writes about that, actually, in her memoir, Report from Part One. The famous story is that she went to a Black writers’ conference. This was in the midst of Black Power, which had a great deal to do aesthetically with Black language and Black self-sustaining independence in the publishing world. She was attacked in some ways, as I recall, by [Amiri] Baraka. But she was also galvanized and, I think, appreciated and welcomed, as well, into this more postmodern (we might call it) awareness of the Black aesthetic in language, which also was accompanied by Black publishers appearing. It has a lot to do with the fact that at the same time, Black musicians were forming their own collectives, their own record companies. John Lee was in Chicago; they became very close.
B&W: Chicago is also where you’re from, but now you live and work in New York. Is Chicago still a part of your life, of your writing?
MJ: Absolutely. Now, it’s much more my memory landscape, which is somewhat different. But thoroughly and wholly. Even when I left—which I did, in the ’60s (I haven’t lived in Chicago for more than a year since then)—I could go back! My parents were alive, lots of friends were still there. Some of us have dispersed, some of us are still there. Now, it’s history and legend. And it’s memoir. But I’m very much a Midwesterner, still, in certain ways.
B&W: What does that mean?
MJ: What do I mean by that! It’s something to do with coming to New York because—it’s New York! You want to be part of it: its history, and its myth, and its practical art range. But recognizing that you bring another perspective, another history that could be written off as provincial, but isn’t always. I think it’s valuable not to be a New Yorker when you come to New York because you make it the center of your universe, in some ways, but you know it’s not. I do also still have some of those—“How are you?!”—chipper manners of the Midwest, which I don’t always like, but they’re there.
B&W: I want to talk more about your memoirs. Your more recent one: I was dazzled by the cast of characters that you put together. I would love to know how you constructed the nervous system. Did you just follow where the impulse led you?
MJ: It’s always a combination, or it certainly was, of following the impulse of what is seizing me now. Because everybody I wrote about—musician, writer, whatever—in some way had been with me, had been running the gamut from “I’m interested” to “I’m obsessed” for a long time. But things rise to the surface and assume proportions in different ways once you’re really engaged. I’m living with this, because I’m writing about it. It was partly letting that process take place. Ten years ago, maybe even five or six years ago, I might have spent much more time, let’s say, on Billie Holiday. But this experience, through the Times, and writing about [Ella Fitzgerald] dying, and being in a documentary about her [Just One of Those Things]—that intensified my need to pursue her and live with her and try to live inside her through her music.
You go back to your note cards, which I refer to at times in the book, and it’s to see what’s going to set you off, still. Sometimes, it’s to spur some other link. It’s accumulation and association. The one criteria would be that all the cultural stuff I was writing—about all the texts, all the objects, all the moments—be intensely personal. And be as acute in terms of how they affected me, as what we think of as more traditional autobiographical material—my parents, race, class, all of that. It could all be filtered through that. But I wanted to think, all of these people, all of these experiences, all of these objects, these texts: they are themselves, but they are also the material of my psyche.
B&W: You’ve mentioned that you want memoir and criticism to merge. Throughout your book, you take these figures who exist in our imaginations as personalities, and you delve deeply into the private life behind the public. This seems analogous to the criticism and memoir parallel. Also, you’ve been mentioning “myth” and “history.” What space do these genres occupy for you?
MJ: I’m a journalist. And some of this just starts with the material you do as a journalist-critic. A biography of Ella Fitzgerald came out. She died. All of those things pulled me in, but in a somewhat indirect way, the way criticism can. When I wrote about her … I found myself slipping towards little personal revelations that felt crucial, like feeling implicated in this slight condescension towards her, which I mentioned in that very first piece.
[“Ever since I found out about the horrors of Fitzgerald’s youth,” Jefferson wrote in her 1996 obituary for the New York Times, “I’ve wanted to protect her from the scrutiny of critics and fans like myself, who have always inflected the pleasure we took in her singing with patronization.”]
She reminded me physically of my first piano teacher. But then, when I went back to it during this book, I realized that that was one side of it, and that was real, but that the more unsettling and disturbing side was my distress with her fat, and the very pressed hair, and what seemed to me the lack of glamor and the exposure of certain potential flaws in the Black female body and presentation.
[The singer, for example, sweat on stage—something women simply did (or could) not do. “Ella Fitzgerald,” her passage in Jefferson’s memoir concludes, in an intimate and apostrophic mode,
you labored to be beautiful. You earned your diaphoresis, day by day, night by night, rehearsal by rehearsal, tour by tour. People should have begged for the elixir of your sweat every step of the way. I do. I beg for it. … You turned the maw of black female labor into the wonderland of black female art.]
So things deepen. You start with a certain combination of critical interest, even passion; but also the dispassion of, You’re the vehicle for this. And then you become a character. That, maybe, is where the line crosses: You become a character in their story, they become a character in yours. And every piece of writing involves rewriting, which is a certain form of censorship. But you’re not censoring or excluding the very intimate personal reactions that you have, you’re finding out which ones of them you can test and really work with. Which ones will reveal something about the artist as well as about you, that can’t be revealed in a more conventional way. You’re freer about the associative power of the object being criticized, or the person. We critics always talk about, Yes, we’re part of the audience in a certain way, and we have to use our senses acutely. But you really become super aware about sensory encounters and a certain vulnerability at being overwhelmed by a piece of work, or just thrilled, or lulled. How do we express that and not always turn it into an authoritative declaration or pronouncement?
B&W: A friend of mine recently told me that critics are not artists. And your memoirs, to me, come as a testament to the fact that he was wrong.
MJ: I wanted to show that. [Laughter.] With both memoirs, actually.
B&W: The premise of your second memoir is that these are the people who make up your psychology, and they’re, most of them, artists. Your sister, I understand, was a dancer. Do you think of yourself as an artist?
MJ: It’s a good question. And it’s a tricky one. [Pause.] I think criticism can be an art. It can be practiced as nonfiction, basically—art. Imaginative elements. I think that I have been working towards that during much of my life as a writer. There was a very snobbish critic—and mean, often; intelligent—named John Simon. He once said, I was a poet when I was at Harvard, and I think of every piece I write, even 200 words, as a poem. And I thought, Well, no, it isn’t. [Laughter.] You can work super hard on it and work on getting every word in place. But don’t puff up yourself by saying it’s a poem.
I’ve always been concerned with language, with its sensory as well as its intellectual power. I’ve had real ambitions as a critic in terms of my range. But I think it’s really Nervous System and Negroland [Jefferson’s first memoir, from 2016] that, in terms of the writing, the experimenting I was doing, and the playing with form: That generally doesn’t show up in criticism very often. Dialogues, confessions, lots of—within just a few pages—changes of first person, second person, third; moving back and forth in time. These were all things I very, very much wanted to work with and experiment with.
B&W: There’s one moment at the very end of your memoir. You witness a woman [“She could have been a writer or artist; she could have been a graduate student: she looked too bohemian to be a lawyer or doctor”] at a Black Women for Wages for Housework conference, saying that she’s tired for the work that her grandmother did.
MJ: “I’m tired for what my grandmother did!” That’s right.
[In the memoir, Jefferson descends into a “silent rage.” “My generation of black women,” she writes in her journal, is “wearing the garb of ancestral suffering like it was vintage clothing.” Elsewhere: “Why don’t you let your grandmother be tired for herself?” Back to the memoir’s narrative voice: “When my Chicago grandmother died … I was told her last words were: ‘I’m so tired. So tired.’”]
B&W: Now, I think we would call this “intergenerational trauma.” I would love to hear you speak more about it, and also about your own grandmother.
MJ: I’m very interested in intergenerational—in historical, let’s call it; intergenerational, it’s true, but historically inherited and passed on, often unconsciously as well as consciously—trauma. As young feminists, we all just seized hold of women’s history and took it inside ourselves; we draped ourselves in it, and maybe sometimes played, in those days, a little fast and loose. But that’s consciousness-raising; that’s how you become historically and emotionally aware.
At the same time, from my parents’ generation, they wanted us to be racially, ethically conscious—aware—but they wanted us (certainly my parents did) to take the full measure of the privileges we’d been granted, and not, in a sense, to poach on their struggles. To acknowledge them until we learned from them, but not to poach on them. I think it’s got something to do with how each generation needs to protect its specialness, even when that specialness involves suffering.
This business of making more ways for the people who come after—your children, your grandchildren—it’s tricky emotionally, I think, in that sometimes you might feel a little envious. Which I’m now aware of in myself; as I see certain opportunities coming, being more varied—they are for younger women. And I think, This is just what I want! And then sometimes I think—[a groan]—I want it for them, but—[another groan].
That’s part of the frightening power, in a sense, and the seductive power of Compelling Grandmother—and, as you can tell, mine had quite a personality! They’re kind of like gods. They’re watching over you, they’re inspiring you, but they’re also scrutinizing and surveying your behavior. Every god needs their homage! That homage is in the form of behaving properly, and I don’t just mean, Oh, I’m a good girl! I mean, achieving: moving yourself and the family and the race forward. And justifying what they’ve been through. And being interesting! She died when I was nine, so there’s also a certain [gasp!] almost worship and fear—awe!—let us say, of the nine-year-old.
B&W: In Jasmine Sanders’ profile of you, she says, of you and your family, “Theirs was a world of firsts and onlys.” These are words that are used, often, referring to Brooks. [She’s hailed as the first Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1950, for her book of poems Annie Allen.] It’s also something that comes up in your memoir: Several of the people that you’re referencing are the first in their fields. I’m interested in what this means to you.
MJ: You are The First. Gwendolyn Brooks and her Pulitzer Prize, me as the first Black woman critic at Newsweek, and then the first—I guess I was the first Black woman critic at the Times. So that means as soon as you move into that space, the psychic, the practical, the social, the political—you’re carrying all of the weight of the history with you. A people’s history. The people: your race, your gender, etcetera.
All of that is both empowering and impinging on your voice, the particularity of what your task is. You’re always negotiating the personal—which every work requires, certainly writing—and the symbolically collective. And that’s very tricky business. It gives you a kind of boldness, but it can also make you timid—very watchful is what I should say, yes. Those impulses, again, to censor things. You censor yourself, for the sake of, I want to make a larger point, or I don’t want this to be misunderstood.
You feel you have to be impeccable. And in some ways you do, cause if you fuck it up, they may not hire another person of your race or gender for a while! The courage of expression, that can make it difficult. Firsts are also ironic. My mother used to sometimes joke—with a certain bitterness—about firsts: A friend of hers, a classmate at the University of Chicago, she said, “Mary Garden was the first Negro telephone operator in Chicago.” She said, “Well, that’s all very well! But she had graduated from the University of Chicago!” And we were wildly grateful that she was the first Negro woman telephone operator! [Laughter.] So there’s the grandeur, and then there’s the—Oh, my god!—the teeniness, if you will.
B&W: To the young writers that you teach at Columbia, any words of artistic wisdom?
MJ: Be so aware of the complexity of your “I’s”—capital-I-apostrophe-s—and your “we’s.” Probe your impulses, your comfort zones. Make use of what is disturbing to you. Always question what makes you feel kind of smug—pleased with yourself. And rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!