An Interview with Margo Jefferson
Margo Jefferson is a master of appearances. Growing up in the Chicago branch of Negroland -- a liminal realm of existence she describes as "that small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty" -- she had to be. Under constant scrutiny from whites who "would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience," waiting for the smallest misstep to use against them, the residents of Jefferson's beau monde held their fellow citizens to the highest (im)possible standards of dress, education, profession, and association. At the same time, they sought draw a clear line between themselves and the rest of black America, whom she was told "ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice."
Though undoubtedly a heavy burden to place on a child, her community's emphasis on demeanor and appearance, its effort to counteract the effects of unabating inequality that reached even to their high ranks, nurtured something particularly special in Jefferson's writing. She skates along surfaces, tracing the studied movements of bodies performing on stage and off, noting in great detail the glitter and grit that cover those things in our world that bind us in our own particular circumstances, revealing as she does the tension between our complex realities -- our personal and collective anxieties, our contradictions battling and coexisting -- hidden underneath the placid gleam of artifice. As Jefferson's fellow Pulitzer-winner Edith Wharton put it through the eyes of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth: "There were moments such scenes [of opulence] delighted Lily, when they gratified her sense of beauty and her craving for the external finish of life; there were others when they gave a sharper edge to the meagerness of her own opportunities."
Like Wharton, Jefferson, who won the prize for criticism in 1995, is an expert chronicler of an elite society most people never get more than a passing glimpse of, if that. Jefferson homes in on the flaws in its logic, the consequences and constraints of insularity, and a nuanced understanding of the wider cultural context of her particular milieu. Continuing and deepening her explorations of race, class, gender, prejudice, and privilege in her earlier book of excellent essays On Michael Jackson, her memoir, Negroland, concocts a sophisticated mix of the historical, the critical, and the personal.
Jefferson's criticism and essays have appeared in numerous outlets, including The Believer, Harpers, New York, and Vogue. She was a longtime staff critic for The New York Times and an associate editor at Newsweek. She currently teaches writing at Columbia University, where we first met when I was a student of hers. Occupying a spate of "best of" lists, Negroland has been shortlisted for The National Book Critics Circle Award.
We sat down in late December to talk about valuing complexity, exploring the forces that make us, writing our shifting identities, and why likability and empathy are often beside the point. [ed. note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and to incorporate several questions answered via email following a tragic recorder failure.]
As a memoir, one could see the potential for Negroland to be much narrower in scope and style. But what you created is an expansive examination of private and public life, history and culture, class, race, and gender, politics, literature and performance (of all kinds), all constructed with elements that are still quite radical for the genre. Blending forms, bringing your training as a critic to bear on everything from school plays to television broadcasts to advertisements to precise cataloging of hair types, skin tones, and other physical attributes.
There are perspective shifts, and those meta moments where you explicitly reveal your writerly tricks to the reader ("I'm going to change my tone now."), and at the end, retellings of Little Women and your mother's and grandmother's stories (I love the story of the Ebony Fashion Fair in this section).
Are innovation, playfulness, and eclecticism qualities that you're generally attracted to and excited by? In light of the bad rap memoir sometimes gets as overdone, not literary, formulaic, how has your own experimentalism been received?
Three cheers for thoughtful innovation, for playfulness that isn't too showoffy, and for passionate eclecticism. I'm so proud to see every kind of nonfiction writer basking in so many possibilities and traditions. And I say "basking" because they've always been there, but they're being so publicly claimed and worked with, made visible in literature now.
I want to thank you for that description of Negroland. It makes me very happy. I don't want to sound querulous; I do have to say that I wish more reviewers had paid as much attention to the form as they did to the content!
Of course! You're also as unsparing with yourself as with any of the subjects of your criticism, which is clearly intentional, but also seems entirely natural. Is that the case, or do you just make it look easy?
I think it's "natural" in that it's a temperamental affinity. But as a critic you don't get to practice and sustain it in public. Not in a central way (though the critics I like best find a place for it). And it's something I've gotten more and more interested in as a critical tool, so I certainly wanted to bring it to this book. Maybe even flaunt it a bit! That was exciting to me -- how could I use it as confession, performance, along with analysis? I do think memoir asks that you be unsparing of yourself, however that is expressed stylistically. And the worlds I was writing about, my very self-conscious training for them and place in them, demanded it.
Because of that refusal to be soft on yourself, I've seen reviews of Negroland use words like "cold" and "aloof" to describe Margo-the-character. What do you make of the tendency for female characters (and writers!) to be heaped with criticism when they don't come across as "likable" or "relatable" or "emotionally vulnerable" enough, or otherwise don't conform to a very narrow interpretation of femaleness?
We've talked about this in the past, Ashley, haven't we? On this front, literature and performance are just as stubborn and backward as life. So we need to turn the criticism around. What if the critics had to 'fess up and tell the public what exactly, for them, in a woman writer or performer -- in a woman, period -- constitutes being likable? Just what characteristics do you, the critic, need in order to feel that you can relate to her? Name them, and let's see what that says about you. How are those needs different from what you need to relate to a male character or artist? Must you always "relate" on a personal level to appreciate? Is "emotional vulnerability" always a virtue? And again, how do you define that? There are many styles of vulnerability, but fewer of them are allowed to women. What do your needs, as a critic, a reader's needs, reveal about you intellectually, emotionally, socially? With Negroland, it's worth charting this in terms or racial difference too, and the intellectual and emotional expectations that stirs up.
The decision to root your story in a history of leaders, thinkers, and activists of the past is striking, one reason being that it highlights how little has changed, how easy it is to overlay the efforts and philosophies of long-gone people on the modern social landscape. Did you ever find yourself struck by the closeness of the past while constructing your history of Negroland?
I'd add artists and entertainers too. Some of the people I wrote about are much honored now (like DuBois or Baldwin); others (often women) are acknowledged, but mostly in more specialized worlds, like African-American and feminist scholarship, And all of them were prey to the fluctuations in reputation and respect that are part of the social, intellectual, cultural history/legacy of segregation and bigotry. So yes, the past intruded on the present as I wrote -- the simultaneity of how much had been achieved and how much was still obscured. Even dismissed. Considered "special interest," which is a way of saying "minor, "non-essential." Or garishly faddish: one of those sideshows the powerless feel compelled to put on. The past kept gesturing to, insisting on, how much must still be said and done; accomplished and imagined.
As fearsomely intelligent as they were, this struggle to always keep in front of you all of these forces -- race, class, gender, sexuality -- was so huge, and something in the analysis would always drop off or fall to the side, and it does for me too. That was one of the struggles of the book. It's something that's easy to do in officialese, but it's so hard to do in language that's yours.
And the fact is, you do shift. Sometimes you do feel, "I'm speaking more as a woman," then "I'm speaking more as a black person," or, "God, am I speaking from my particular social background?" And also our positions change. In some situations we have a lot more power. Right now -- I'm thinking now of the LGBT [movement] -- if we're not, then we're in some way na´ve, privileged, a little defensive. Then I can move into my sort of righteous space if we're talking about race or gender. With class, I can't be righteous. There always has to be a critique there. So again, how do you keep all of those realities going simultaneously and be just to those shifts?
Speaking of shifting, I think many people have this feeling now that civil rights progress has slowed, even reversed. Things can feel as though they're crumbling in terms of gender, and race, especially.
Backpedaling, sliding, exploding again, and in a really ugly way.
Yes, exactly. Part of why things feel this way is we're pushing now against this insidious myth of the post-racial society, "colorblindness." I was raised with this as a white kid growing up [in the '80s and '90s]: you do not notice, or speak about, differences.
Meaning we've gone beyond this, so we don't have to address it as a problem?
Right. And in a section in Negroland called "Parting Monologue," you say:
-- I've never been so sick of RACE in my life. If I have to talk about RACE and its subdivisions -- ethnicity, culture, religion -- any more, I will do a Rumpelstiltskin. I will stamp my foot and disappear into the earth.
Every group with its rights and grievances, its mathematically precise litany of what has been denied. [...] Even everyday WASPs compete now. Because their sense of being dispossessed, displaced, bullied, has in an amazingly short time become as acute, as outraged, as righteous as that of the groups they managed and mangled for so long.
-- This is my dream. Eradicate them all. Then fix your hair, and put your hands in your muff as your heels go clip clip clip across the pavement. -- May I help you, ma'am? -- Thank you, sir, I've just murdered quite a few people and I need a taxi."
Were these things at all a motivating factor in the timing of your memoir -- writing or releasing it?
That's hard to say. What was a driving factor was a sense that racial complexity is imperiled. And that I had something to offer. That as many black voices as possible need to be offering, presenting themselves, documenting the truths that we share in common, but also the very particular routes by which we came to them. So that certainly drove me.
I started the book -- really started it -- around 2008. So wasn't that the first year of Obama's presidency? So actually without claiming or thinking even then, "Oh, we've gotten post-racial," things were more promising than they are now. There was a possibility that this was one thing that could keep pushing us further. As opposed to all the backlashes, the explosions of fury, and then these revelations of things that not only haven't changed, but that in some ways have gotten worse by definition. So that didn't all have to happen. But it did. And, as it did, yes, that intensified my desire, but I can't say I was writing this book selflessly, which I think your question in some way implies. I wasn't. I also really wanted to document this world that I felt had not been documented. Would that contribute to greater sense, a language, a rubric of racial complexity? Yeah, but I wanted to do it.
And I wanted to do it from this point of view that is, in some ways, less often represented. So that I could bring those twists to it. Today one of the phrases that we use is "The Politics of Respectability." With all its limitations as well as its necessities, that's the world I grew up in. So it turns out that it is more useful to have presented a record and a critique of, as well as an honoring of, this within its historical period. That turns out to be more timely than I expected.
An unfortunately timely topic.
Yeah, not a bad thing from the totally self-centered point of view of a book, but we're in ugly times now. We really, really are.
And I don't think -- there's a body of writing about it -- but I also really wanted a black feminist consciousness to be right out there. It exists, it's documented. I don't mean I'm the first person to write it, not at all. But that was really important to me, that lineage.
Switching gears a little bit, on the topic of mental illness, you say:
[O]ne 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.
You know, as I said earlier, it's this memoir where it's being shaped by particular worlds, and what all that does to a particular temperament, psyche. And for me, depression, melancholia, mood swings, really were one of the results. Many black people are still raised, as certainly my generation and preceding generations were, to feel they must hide evidence of -- I hate to even say "mental illness," but let's call it that -- because in some way that shows that racism has damaged you hopelessly. The Man has gotten to you. We're supposed to be too strong for that. And there is also the fact that, you know, psychoanalytic theory and psychology, their strong suit has not been...
Exactly. Diverse racial and social perspectives. But this is changing, and it really matters to tell this story and to record and dramatize this nexus of family, the nuclear family, and the larger superego of society, and again, what it does to a child, how a child's consciousness is shaped by this.
Also the strange, intricate ways in which the private and the public can mimic each other and take over each other's roles, even. You know, if your parents are raising you -- along with everyone in their world -- to be perfect, so that society will judge you equal, then you step out into society, and in some ways, society has taken over that role, but in another key. It becomes, maybe, the cruel parent, whereas your parents are supposedly the loving parents.
I like that you touch here not only on your own struggles, but you also go into the struggles of the people you grew up with and the larger community. Things that in almost every culture, subculture in America are swept under the rug and pretended against. But it seems to fall particularly hard on racial and ethnic minorities, and immigrant populations.
Right, because they are embodying. They are forced to represent a much larger reality. They don't have the luxury of being only individuals. So the pressure is double, triple.
Have you heard of Samantha Irby at all? She's a Chicago-based essayist who has a blog called Bitches Gotta Eat.
Yes! I have heard of that. Bitches. Got-ta. Eat!
I saw one of her posts recently [reposted from Nepantla Journal] called "do black girls even get to be depressed?" It's hilarious and it's painful -- and it's amazing. She describes being in the ER with a panic attack as "letting Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman down by talking about my silly little feelings."
There we go. Perfect. That nails it.
It seems like it's a topic that's opening up, though and that there are more writers of color now who are engaging with that.
More and more.
There is, like you said, already this tradition of white female despair in literature. Plath, Sexton, Woolf.
Marilyn Monroe. You name it. The aesthetic, in a sense. I don't mean to belittle the suffering, but it has become an aesthetic of despair, too.
Baldwin got into this, too.
He did. That's absolutely right. And with Baldwin it was still from the space of "I have gone through it, I am enduring it, and even as I endure it, I am mastering it, somehow."
Which it seems is often the narrative we want to hear. We want that comfortable perspective of recovery rather than enduring struggle. We want to simplify, click yes or no.
We do. And it's remarkable how much he sustained that struggle. But there still was some implied sense of recovery, and I don't know how it could have been otherwise for a male writer, actually.
I think it's a thing that artists often feel: "Look I'm an artist, so in some way I have transcended, I have risen above." And in some ways you can, and then you turn around and you're just another ordinary trapped person. Two hours later: A little sucker.
Writing about that struggle in yourself and your community, I imagine it was still difficult to overcome your --
Reticence, yes. The instinct for deflection that was instilled in you during your upbringing. Did it feel to you like a betrayal at all when you were writing about it?
Initially, yes. You get to a point in a book where you know it's going to be written, and the rewards of figuring out how that can be done start to outstrip the reticence. But a friend said to me, and I can't say it better, so I'll quote her, she said, "You were raised not to write this book." [laughs]
A concise assessment!
Exactly. So it was difficult and then it became a kind of drive: a technical as well as emotional challenge. That's when you're okay, because it's more interesting than terrifying. You find ways. I think the shifting moods and places allowed me to do that more easily. There isn't one long sustained: AND THIS.
Right, it's not isolated as its own thing: I started from here and ended up here. It's: This was a facet of everything else.
Yes. So that helped me. Not so different from my strategy of: "Okay, I have to end on a couch being excluded by Baldwin in a certain way from a tradition that I want to be part of, and a black male tradition, but I have to address loving Little Women somehow. I'm gonna retell this." That's how I get to it.
And that's what I kept doing with the depressions, the melancholy, preparing for it in so many of those little stories along the way. Like the mortification of the white teacher sending me home singing, "O, darkies." Then the double mortification of my mother coming out and saying, "How could you?" And then the same summer, I think, that my grandmother sees this little white girl playing monkey with me and I don't get it, and then I end up saying, "There are so many ways to be shamed and humiliated, by adults as well as by race." And so that's a kind of preparation, as I moved from a sort of group despair that culminates in the chapter that says, "The boys started dying; the girls had to die differently." But there were lots of little breadcrumbs before, and then finally I took responsibility for my own version of it.
You definitely felt the pressure closing in on you.
But I probably could not have just begun with that, I think. I really don't think I could have. Let's admit how much technique has to do with what you can't do as well as what you can do, right?
Hopefully people from very different backgrounds will start -- not empathizing with me -- but thinking about how all those forces made and maimed them too. Just desimplifying the personal story. Where no one's above their social circumstances. No one's above those pressures we call political or historical, however dazzlingly gifted and interesting. You know, what makes your temperament? Your psyche?
I recently reread On Michael Jackson, and, not long after I finished, I was in a cab on the way to the airport and heard Curtis Sittenfeld and Marlon James on The Brian Lehrer Show. They were talking about the development of empathy through fiction. There was a study [at Carnegie Mellon] that indicates that reading fiction helps to develop empathy, [because you're reading more varied accounts and stories than you might otherwise encounter, and it activates the same parts of your brain as real-life experience].
Sittenfeld was talking about how she can have sympathy for even the most unsympathetic characters. Of her fictionalized version of Laura Bush, she said, "If you know the backstory of their childhood, there's almost no one who it's impossible for me to feel some degree of sympathy for." I really felt that in your handling of Jackson, whom I never felt particular drawn to, personally. By the time I was really conscious of him, he had already sort of started hurtling toward his own implosion.
In Negroland you talk about being fascinated by child stars, and having wanted to be one yourself. Was there anything else that drew you to him as a subject?
It's true. You know, I think it's much easier for me to feel sympathy for someone who I admire in some way, who I'm excited by, intrigued by. I thought he was a genius of a performer. I just did. And I was in my early twenties when the Jackson 5 burst out, but I thought they were adorable. I mean, at that point, you sort of acknowledged the other fairly dreary brothers, but I always thought that he was phenomenal. So I was invested in the implosion -- and the decay -- and I wanted to think about it.
I get what Sittenfeld is saying, but, for me, I would say understand rather than sympathize or empathize, in many, many cases. Maybe I'd get a moment, but no, I have no desire to totally sympathize or empathize with anybody, whatever their background. I'm curious about understanding, and being able in some clinically intelligent way to make sense of who and what made them what they are.
I think sympathy and empathy can be a little overrated. And of course I'm not talking about this from the perspective of the fiction writer.
I think nonfiction has to have a similar effect. I can't imagine that it wouldn't.
I think it does, too. I just think that sympathy and empathy need more texture as words. Empathy can be really easy because it's evanescent. You feel it and then boom [makes a gesture of bubbles popping and dispersing in the air]. "I went through that." It can be self-congratulatory, too, can't it?
You feel it and then you can dismiss it because you feel you already fully understand. Another way of dismissing nuance, potentially.
Yeah, it can be. It's a lot of hard work to create that, isn't it? In fiction or nonfiction. It really requires a lot of disciplined work.
You came up in a different literary and journalistic climate than what's going on today. Before the Internet, newspapers falling apart, buyouts and consolidations. Celebrity chefs putting out memoirs. It's a strange time.
[laughs] A hint of bitterness there with the celebrity chefs.
As far as resources allocated, there's a lot going to celebrities, reality TV stars, things like that. But everybody's hustling, everybody's a writer-slash-something-else. When you first came to New York -- maybe this is part of the myth and fantasy that younger people have now -- it seems like it was still a time when artists could live in a major city, in not necessarily rich but energetic, productive enclaves.
Artists, journalists: practitioners. Yeah, it was. I was living on the Upper West Side and then in the Village -- I couldn't possibly live in the Village as a young person now. I was earning my own rent! This is not possible now. There were these lofts in Soho that people were basically homesteading, and you were living in a fairly bourgeois way. There were plenty of jobs you could get. You could be an editorial assistant, you could be a young journalist. When I came to New York, late '60s, the US economy was still flourishing. So it's a huge, huge, huge difference. The Internet's great, but it doesn't pay. And internships don't pay.
It was also a good time to be who I was, because journalism had really just started to racially integrate in the late '60s in any serious way, starting of course with the uprisings in different cities, where you needed a black journalist to go into the neighborhood. And, a few years later, it had started to sexually integrate.
When I got to Newsweek, women had threatened to sue and they'd signed a memorandum of understanding with the Newsweek editors, meaning a certain number who had not been promoted and deserved to be would be -- and hired. Black reporters and writers had had similar kinds of talks. So things were really opening up. Now, in a way, I guess it's better for people of many colors. It was black and white then. Now it's black, white, Latina, Asian, so diversity has had to expand, that's good. More women are working in all these places and yet we're still in that age of ugly pushback. "What are you all whining about? You have jobs!" Really.
We talked earlier about this pushback against minorities and women that is also operating in this crunching, reduced market. "Did you deserve your job? You've got it. There are plenty of you. What's the problem?"
A white denial of entitlement.
Yes, and particularly a white male denial. Because it also operates against women of all groups. And I think that's getting more intense. It was always there, but it's getting more intense. "You all don't deserve more than you already have."
Are you optimistic, then, about the creative future of America?
That's too big. I just don't know. There are a lot of younger, really interesting writers and artists around, and they have no choice. If you're smart and interesting, you in some way make contact with these fluctuating, enlarged, multiple forces. So that's a good thing. You have to multitask, emotionally and intellectually, more than earlier generations did. Will you all be able to do it? No. We weren't all able to do what our time assigned us.
You evidently take great pleasure in historical research and are a master of chiseling away at these big collections of stories and events to reveal the underlying narrative shape. Was there anyone during your investigations whom you felt a particular affinity for, a kinship with?
All the ones that I really focused in on. Some of them I gave more attention to. There are a bunch of entertainers that I engage with, particularly women, like Lena Horn, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt. They were glamor figures from my childhood, so getting a little deeper was fun and poignant.
That tradition of writers from Nella Larson to Adrienne Kennedy to Ntozke, I thought, those are the Modernists I love. But I've been reading them for years, so I knew that would be part of what I really wanted to do. More lit crit in a funny way.
And you know, I had loved Sylvia Plath, too. Which is also why I put in that nasty little line about Anne Sexton. [ed. note: "'Thief!' Sexton wrote, 'how did you crawl into, / crawl down alone / into the death I wanted so badly and for so long...?' Maybe because Plath had more nerve and wrote better poetry."] Because I really did feel that, completely, when she wrote that poem.
I think Plath speaks to the adolescent/post-adolescent girl like nobody else.
She certainly does, and she's a good poet. She does it and remains a good poet.