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Meta-critic No. 3: A Conversation with Margo Jefferson, author of “Negroland” and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic

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Margo Jefferson grew up in a world whose motto was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” It should come as no surprise, then, that Jefferson has accomplished so much in her life: Jefferson has earned a Pulitzer Prize in Criticism for her work at The New York Times. It was a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship that led to her memoir, Negroland, which recently earned her a coveted National Book Critics Circle Award.

Negroland dissects the world whose focus was so much on pristine achievement, the black bourgeoisie of 1950’s and 60’s Chicago, the world from which Ms. Jefferson came. Part memoir and part cultural critique, Negroland toys with traditional form, bending structure, timeline and perspective to more vividly bring this complicated world into the limelight. Through this, Negroland successfully grapples with racism, along with classism and gender conformity.

In anticipation of her conversation with ArtsATL contributor Gail O’Neill about Negroland this Thursday, August 25 at 8 p.m. at the Atlanta History Center, I called the highly acclaimed author for an interview to discuss the inception of her memoir, her experience in criticism, and the sacrifice of privacy for the sake of cultural memory. Below is a portion of our conversation.

ArtsATL: You wrote this book while you were doing your Guggenheim fellowship –– how long had you planned on writing Negroland? What was it like turning the gaze on yourself after writing about other people for so long?

Margo Jefferson. Image by Michael Lionstar, courtesy Penguin.
Margo Jefferson. Image by Michael Lionstar, courtesy Penguin.

Margo Jefferson: You know, I don’t think I had known consciously for a long time at all. A few years before I got the Guggenheim, an Indian-English friend of mine who was a TV producer had talked to me about putting together a proposal for a documentary about this world, what I later called Negroland. We toyed around with it and then I put it away.

Then, a couple of things happened. I became more and more aware that my parent’s generation was aging and that I was old enough to have real talks with them, to collect their histories and stories, and look at them with a kind of textured clarity that you can give parents and family friends in that older generation once you’re an adult.

Another thing was, having written On Michael Jackson and after leaving the Times, I realized that I wanted more challenges. [Michael Jackson] had been a real challenge and it had pushed me to think about more vulnerable parts of myself, the parts of myself that I don’t show in piece criticism: ambivalences, queasiness, my irrational affections and passions. I thought, ‘Okay, what if I combined traditional memoir with a more culturally analytic approach?’ That’s when I was able to finally construct the Guggenheim proposal. Once I got the grant it took me a long time to find the book’s form. Negroland’s tones are mixed. Its focus and gaze constantly shifts from the microscopic to the macroscopic; the personal to the social and cultural; from group emotions to individual emotions. Sometimes these things are in conflict.

ArtsATL:  Michael Jackson was known for being an intensely private person, which seems like a common theme with yourself and your family, and especially your mother. Exposing this world and sacrificing that privacy –– was that the challenge?

Jefferson: That was the big challenge. One friend of mine jokingly but accurately said, “Oh Margo, in some real way everything in your upbringing legislated that you would not write this book.” I kind of love that.

That was very difficult, it wasn’t only personal in terms of myself or my family, it was a social, racial and ideology. In those decades we stayed private. Really, it was a philosophy that had come down historically through generations of Black people, over a couple of centuries. With so much racism, the body of stereotype and libel is so huge. We had to be excellent and scrupulous and therefore very guarded about revealing any lapse or failing –– however normally human it is –– that could be interpreted as a sign of inferiority.

ArtsATL: Those themes of discretion make themselves known throughout the book in so many different ways, through not wearing loud colors for example.

Jefferson: I love that you took that immediately to the feminine, to the black female. There’s this elaborate body of scruples and rules. Skin color, if it was too dark, [gasps] . . . that was one stereotype. If you wore loud colors, that was too vulgar. If you spoke loudly in public it meant you didn’t have good manners and were ignorant. All of this was on top of, mixed in with, and therefore intensified the whole set of rules and regulations, prescriptions and prohibitions that have to do with girlhood, gender and femininity. It was an absolutely packed double whammy for good Negro girls, or as everybody in the bourgeoisie used to say, “Ladies.”

ArtsATL: You would think from the title of the book, Negroland, that it would mostly be about race, but what you’ve done here is tackle race, classism and gender.  The voice of Negroland is graceful and cutting –– given those principles, the tone is one to be expected. You don’t show your cards. How did you even begin to write this book?

Jefferson: [Laughs] It was trial and error, lots of revising and rethinking.

It’s true. Class race and gender were always absolutely wound up and affecting, marking and inflecting on one other in the world of Negroland. I started writing in a more traditional narrative, with a chronological arch and quieter tone and I realized, pretty early on, that wouldn’t work. The main characteristic of this experience that I lived in was so many voices: the voices of parents, of society, of Negroland society, the voices of white society. At any given moment you are playing a persona, there are masks that you are slipping on and slipping off. I had to find a more collage-like form that would reflect and dramatize that.

Also, I was talking about a world and experiences that I had very complicated feelings about.

In the beginning of the book, I proclaim myself a chronicler, a dissenter, an elegist, a resident –– I feel so much love for so much of that world but also really had to criticize the snobberies and the prohibitions about gender. I felt strongly that they needed to be criticized. To do that successfully, I needed many voices, many shifts – even tense.

ArtsATL: How do you feel your experience as critic prepared you to write this book, which on some level functions as a social critique?

Jefferson: Well, when you’re working well as a critic you have several sets of equipment operating simultaneously. You have, of course, the analytic. You have the historical. You have pure research. You have the form, knowing the artist, and –– at least as important as the others –– you’ve got the sensual. You have to make the experience come alive again. You have to enter each critique with acute, vivid language, and then you have to conjoin your emotional responses to this analytic and historical portions. They have to speak to each other coherently. That is a useful set of disciplines that I brought to this world and to memoir. The fact is, writing about yourself is very emotionally combustible. At times I’d get manic, or depressed, I’d get very excited. I was in the grip of a sentimentality, of self-justification, and I think that this critical equipment helped me. It balanced all of that and hopefully got rid of some of the worst aspects of it.

ArtsATL: In the book and in an excerpt of it that was published in The Believer in 2013, you explore pronoun use and discuss your admiration of James Baldwin.

Jefferson: Yes! I wrote that fairly early on when I was working on the book. I was really assembling it in pieces. A friend, a writer and friend I’m very fond of named Whitney Walters was putting together a series, she and two others, called “First Person Pronouns.” I realized it was a way I could write about my relationship with first reading Baldwin.

You know, as a writer you get these great spurs from the outside world that I knew would find its way into the book.

ArtsATL: Yes, I really loved that essay. Aside from James Baldwin, and in an interview with the Nation you cited Florynce Kennedy as someone who was influential on you. Who are some other people of note who were influential on your craft and perspective?

Jefferson: Oh God, there are so many. Some of it I actually did write about and some people I acknowledge by borrowing lines. They show up in the book –– usually quoted, though sometimes not. Let me put it this way, some people I would still like to find ways to write about. I’m examining my relationship to Gwendolyn Brooks right now.

Two other strong influences to me, in terms of criticism, are Ralph Ellison and Virginia Woolf. I also really admire their fiction. They really matter to me. I thought of Baldwin more as a cultural and political critic, but also a personal essayist. When I was first going to graduate school and considering becoming a critic, I was really looking incredibly closely at Ellison and Woolf. Because they were artists who really valued criticism. That mattered to me.

ArtsATL: That’s something I grapple with –– helping people realize how important criticism is for a healthy cultural ecology.

Jefferson: That’s perfectly put: ‘a healthy cultural ecology.’ You know, at Columbia the head of the non-fiction program where I am in the school of the arts, is Phillip Lopate. Columbia’s non-fiction had not had a real seminar in arts criticism. So Phillip proposed a few years ago that we teach that together. We’ve done that since and we’ve each taught it separately. Our first title for it was “Criticism is Literature.”

ArtsATL: It’s a journalism form that’s too rarely taught. I guess it’s not as sexy as some other writing forms, not as much as it used to be.

Jefferson: That’s right. You would think the world of blogs and smart websites would make it sexier. There are these brief flurries, when a certain writer becomes fashionable, there was a brief period in journalism and criticism where John Jeremiah Sullivan was very popular. Every few years something like that happens and then it sort of slips away.

What Phillip and I did was move between 19th, 18th, 20th and 21st-century criticism in the seminar. I might be teaching [George Berndard] Shaw’s theatre and music criticism one week and Hilton Als’ literary criticism another week. We went all over the map.

ArtsATL: Dwight Garner is the critic who reviewed Negroland for the Times. He stated that, in both your criticism and in this book, you never pander to your audience. That, to me, begs the question –– who was your intended audience for Negroland?

Jefferson: You know, I have known this since I first became a critic. Partly because I was young when I started at Newsweek, and I was young, I was black, and I was a woman critic. I knew in certain ways I was more the exception than the rule. So I have always been aware, not only of the repercussions of what books, movies, or subjects I choose, but of the range of readers. Not only in terms of temperament but also in terms of race, gender and class. In some ways my pieces my work is addressing readers who may have a lot of tensions between and within themselves. A lot of times I’ll slip layered messages into something I’m writing –– an expression or an allusion that acknowledges a particular constituency because they have something to do with a non-traditional approach I’m taking to a traditional subject.

That’s a long way of saying I knew I had multiple audiences for this. There would be a couple of generations of Negrolanders, there would be my white peers, there would be women and blacks of my generations, particularly blacks interested in class, there would be feminists, and I wanted there to be people crossing all of those boundaries who were interested in the literary experiments with memoir, in the relation between cultural criticism and the personal.

Not all of those audiences are compatible, so I would acknowledge them at different points. There’s a part where I am upfront with the fact that I’m overwhelmed, what readers may expect of me. I could acknowledge them at points but keep them at a distance, lest they become censorious in my imagination or impose conflicting demands on me that I felt I had to answer.

ArtsATL:  What are your feelings on coming to the South on tour with this book?

Jefferson: Actually I am very curious and excited. I’m also a little startled that I haven’t done it before. There’s such a strong Black community in Atlanta. Atlanta has its own very long-standing Negroland, if you will, there are all of the Black colleges around and the city at-large has an extremely interesting history. I’m feeling a little bit backward that it’s taken me this long to get to this particular Southern city. Also, maybe I’m feeling a little less smug about being a Northerner than I used to feel.

I certainly never thought that Chicago was a paradise, but it’s very typical for Northern Blacks and Northern Whites to feel that we are more sophisticated, more enlightened, progressive and that our circumstances permit us more room and range than the South does.