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A mind at work and play, in a critic’s memoir

Author Margo Jefferson has proven herself an enthralling memoirist.handout

In her confident, book-length critical essay “On Michael Jackson” (2006), Margo Jefferson announces that “every mind is a clutter of memories, images, inventions and age-old repetitions. It can be a ghetto, too, if a ghetto is a sealed-off, confined place. Or a sanctuary, where one is free to dream and think whatever one wants. For most of us it’s both — and a lot more complicated. A ghetto can be a place of vitality; a sanctuary can become a prison.” She argues that Jackson’s Neverland ranch was both a haven and “a circuslike prison, emblematic of his mind.”

Jefferson’s interpretation acknowledges the dialectic play of her own mind while signaling her turn away from Neverland toward Negroland, that “small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Her award-winning memoir, “Negroland” (2015), describes the comic moments and deleterious effects that come with maintaining the codes of and being raised within the paradisiacal confines of Black bourgeois life in Chicago at midcentury.


She closes “Negroland” admitting: “I still want to dismantle this constructed self of mine. You did it so badly, I think. You lost so much time. And then I tell myself, so what? So what? Go on.” Here’s the Jeffersonian impulse: holding, nurturing, blending her contradictions — anxiety, ambivalence, affirmation — in moments of conscious self-realization. Yet, in her ongoingness, Jefferson’s desire for renovation persists.

Having proven herself an enthralling memoirist and a masterful cultural critic, Jefferson overlaps those skills in her formally improvisational and percolating new book, “Constructing a Nervous System.” “Cultural memoir, temperamental memoir: What makes me so anxious? I want memoir and criticism to merge. Can they? And if so, how? Read on. There’s no escaping the primal stuff of memory and experience. Dramatize it, analyze it, amend it accidentally, remake it intentionally. Call it temperamental autobiography.”


Though she seems reticent to exposure, Jefferson takes center stage nonetheless. Her narration is kaleidoscopic; she forgoes chronology and exposition in favor of tumbling fragments and shifting personae. In the spotlight she poses, gestures, and animates her sensory network development through a series of avatars and “expedient muses.” She inhabits a parade of figures, including Bud Powell, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Ike Turner, Willa Cather, Sammy Davis Jr., and (strangest of all) Bing Crosby.

Playing Crosby, Jefferson admits, is a minstrel routine. Her desire to understand white male power intimately charges the performance: “I like to claim there’s power in learning to imagine what hasn’t, can’t and won’t imagine you. What kind of power is it, though? Negative capability won’t suffice — too much of white art requires a negative capability that negates whole parts of one’s self. Maybe it’s like learning a language that’s simultaneously dead and living, that requires you to amend it even as you absorb it. You must never deny how much you wanted it. You must never deny what delights it gave you. You must never disguise how punishing it could be. You must never deny how much and just what it cost you. In that collaborative consciousness lies your power. And your pleasure.”

Early in the book, Jefferson commands herself: “be a critic of your own prose past.” Following that imperative, Jefferson has sifted through her journals and her assignment history to resource the material informing her performance on the page. Using the profile, interpretation, close narration, and quotation as critical techniques, Jefferson collaborates with these characters, cutting, scratching, sampling to make herself. She also warns against thinking her book is “all cheeky reversals and appropriations.” “Constructing” is “a maw too, a mosh pit; it’s whiplash and mimicry; it’s flowery beds of ease laid over cursed ground and unquiet graves.”


I sense in the work’s capriciousness the author expressing mixed-feelings about writing another autobiographical work. Throughout “Constructing,” Jefferson stages some of her battles with the monster — as she calls it — that stalks her psychological experience. Many Black intellectuals and artists have our own private monsters. Sometimes, they’re bleak secrets ensconced in our works. Perhaps Jefferson’s inventive resistance to straight-ahead memoir speaks to her worries about putting her personal business on the page.

Watching Jefferson employ critique to craft her own song and dance sent me back to her writing for The New York Times and Newsweek. I began reading Jefferson in 1993 when she joined the Times. With unlimited purview, she covered books, theater, music, dance, television, film, and visual art in a measured, conversational mode. Back then, as a college senior thinking about graduate school and dreaming of a writing life, her journalism was my initial seminar in cultural studies. Whether detailing Ella Fitzgerald’s staggering artistry or quibbling about Eric Lott’s prose in “Love and Theft,” Jefferson’s fathomless intelligence and rigorous noticing trained me critically.

“Constructing” suggests that we deserve Jefferson’s collected reviews and essays. It would be both a handbook for writing criticism and her truest autobiography. For example: 45 years ago, as a young critic from Chicago, Jefferson, reviewed Studs Turkel’s “Talking to Myself” for Newsweek and noted — by way of Rebecca West — that Midwesterners “are addicted to self-consciousness and self-analysis, and as a result have developed a loquacity and a language wonderfully suited to describing ‘the events of the inner life.’” Forcefully, gracefully, “Constructing” illustrates that the Black critic always enacts her interiority, self-assembly, and education publicly.


Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir

Margo Jefferson

Pantheon, 208 pages, $27

Walton Muyumba holds the Susan D. Gubar Chair in Literature at Indiana University.