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An Interview with Margo Jefferson

[Writer]

“Critics analyze, yes, and we do ‘criticize,’ but we dramatize too; we use our senses acutely. I wanted to make all this overlooked or newly emerging material come alive, and I also wanted to give it a place in the culture—with its canons and its long-sanctioned history—that it hadn’t been given before.”

The different roles of Margo Jefferson:
Margo the actor
Margo the confessor
Margo the mediator
Margo the loyalist
Margo the good girl
Margo the critic

by Zinzi Clemmons
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Margo Jefferson

[Writer]

“Critics analyze, yes, and we do ‘criticize,’ but we dramatize too; we use our senses acutely. I wanted to make all this overlooked or newly emerging material come alive, and I also wanted to give it a place in the culture—with its canons and its long-sanctioned history—that it hadn’t been given before.”

The different roles of Margo Jefferson:
Margo the actor
Margo the confessor
Margo the mediator
Margo the loyalist
Margo the good girl
Margo the critic

by Zinzi Clemmons
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Margo Jefferson

Zinzi Clemmons
139 Snaps

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Margo Jefferson since 2011, when I took her class The Critic as Artist as a student in Columbia University’s graduate writing program. I’d thought I knew all there was to know about Walter Benjamin—until she had us read Berlin Childhood around 1900, which introduced me to the idea that a writer’s life is worthy of detailed study; that it can illuminate their work when placed alongside it.

It was to my great surprise and delight when, in her 2015 memoir, Negroland, Margo placed her own life—her childhood among Chicago’s black elite and accomplished adulthood as a journalist (she won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1995)—under the scan of her unrelenting eye. I had long admired Margo’s incisive and extremely attuned writing, her ability to elucidate the most subtle detail and make it sing. When her memoir was published, I had been out of grad school a couple of years, had moved away and hadn’t seen her in as long, though I had already torn through her first book, On Michael Jackson (2006), after reading everything of hers I could find online. Reading Negroland was like opening a portal into her mind, and just like Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood had, it offered new insights into a thinker I thought I already knew.

It also taught me something about myself as a woman and as a writer. I was so excited by the book that I couldn’t wait until I’d finished reading to tell her how much I loved it. “It makes sense,” I wrote to her in an email, “that in your memoir you would act as a critic—as black women, we are constantly forced to see ourselves through others’ eyes, and thus become critics of our own lives. This is something I have always felt on some level, but I confronted it in your book as plain truth.”

I spoke to Margo on the phone in June 2018 about various aspects of her writing and her career. Her work has not only challenged me to think about art more deeply, but to do the same in regard to my own life. For that, I, and her many readers, will always be grateful. 

—Zinzi Clemmons

 

I. “PERFORMANCE AS A FORM OF TRUTH, NOT OF LYING”

THE BELIEVER: A lot of your work investigates unexplored aspects of various identities, but primarily race and gender. I might describe your project as arguing for nuance in order to rethink identity. You did it in On Michael Jackson by connecting the dots of his personality and drawing attention to our blind spots about his persona. And you filled in a picture of black womanhood in Negroland by talking about privilege and vulnerability. And in your essay about Nella Larsen, this is something that you say explicitly: that we need to abandon old notions of authenticity in regard to race, in regard to craft, and also in regard to how we think of people. There’s a passage in Negroland that comes amid a section where you discuss suicide: “I found literary idols in Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, and Ntozake Shange, writers who’d dared to locate a sanctioned, forbidden space between white vulnerability and black invincibility.” Is this a conscious part of your project, or is it something that filters in unconsciously from your lived experience?

MARGO JEFFERSON: I think it’s both. When I was starting out it was probably instinctual. I thought of myself as a progressive black feminist, so that meant I had a class analysis, a race analysis, and a gender analysis. But these particulars about identity and what’s authentic and what’s not—I followed my instincts with those and then began to think about them partly because they were enormously interesting to me, and some of that was autobiographical. I had grown up intellectually, socially, and also emotionally in these spaces that bordered on various… let’s say identity neighborhoods. That family down the block could be completely different. So I had to keep trying to make analytic and emotional sense of that, and if I didn’t keep analyzing it, then a couple of things could have happened.

One, I could have gotten very class-defensive about it, which was the last thing I was interested in doing—into black respectability, into a conservative stance. That seems unlikely for me to have been tempted by, but criticism always tempts you to certain kinds of lofty stances. The other thing, which is almost its opposite, is I wanted to find a place for myself. I did not want to pretend to be, you know, more “street” in origin than I was; I didn’t want to come up with performances of what I was calculating and sometimes seeing as the preferred authentic stances. So I had to find a legitimate space. And I had to find allies, of course, in that space. I was once having a conversation with Adrienne Kennedy about this, and we agreed that both of us, in our work, wanted to find a fixed space for black culture—and our culture, which was mixed within that—at the center of white culture. That was our quest.

BLVR: You’ve used the term cultural mulatto in your criticism, and it’s been used to describe you as well. The term mulatto itself isn’t used much today, but I think cultural mulatto is still very much present—post-racialism is perhaps an analog? Do you still see that concept showing up today, and where do you see that conversation that you started with Adrienne Kennedy now?

MJ: The term is tricky, so let’s instead think about concept, because it doesn’t work in every context. You can’t use a word like mulatto, or colored, or Negro without surrounding it with explications and qualifications that make very clear that you are stripping it of certain things and supplying it with certain others. You’re revising it and renovating it. I would say that intersectionality is in many ways a more sophisticated take on—or an extension of—what we might call cultural mulatto–ism. I’m thinking particularly in culture and the arts. But one could say the same thing in terms of politics. There are so many kinds of mixed people now, people of color who are mixed in various ways. You’re an example of that. We’re just really beginning to quantify and analyze and emotionally dissect that. I think that’s very, very fruitful.

I encountered it a lot in England, with Caribbean blacks, with South Asians. Whenever I talk to Latinx critics, women in particular. Writers like you are continually probing and dramatizing those states, and that move from what appears to be certainty to uncertainty. These [are] identity changes, not in terms of tragedy, but negotiations. Code switching is a term I’m getting tired of, but code switching. And also understanding that that is a performance that’s crucial to who you are. It’s performance as a form of truth, not of lying. It’s very tied to a different notion of authenticity that really now does include a sense of constructed, inherited identity that keeps reconstructing, and that you can negotiate and perform with. I mean, isn’t that what we think of as identity these days? It doesn’t mean it’s any less deeply felt.

BLVR: I think that as time goes on, identity will increasingly be constituted performatively, as we move away from biological links, in terms of gender and race and everything else. For example, because of our habits online, we’re beginning to be defined much more by our interests, by the people we’re friends with, and by our politics.

MJ: And also, class was never biological, though it’s been linked to biology. That’s a huge factor as well that inflects every one of these mixtures.

 

II. THE SECULAR TRINITY

BLVR: In the 1977 documentary Some American Feminists, you gave a very good definition of what we would today define as “intersectionality.” Also, I have a feeling that as a critic you might be resistant to such labels. What perhaps attracts you to that theory, and what might give you reservations about it?

MJ: In terms of what I’ve read of it, I’m really unreservedly attracted to intersectionality. It just seems to me to be a kind of theorization or formalization of all the things we’ve been talking about. It seems like a basic tool for understanding identities, and also clashes. If each of our intersectional structures could be visible, like architectural structures or movable sculptures, we could see much more clearly. It would almost be like being able to read blueprints, or a doctor being able to read X-rays. But in terms of the language, have I used [the term] much? I don’t know that I do. In Negroland, I say race, class, gender; I call it my secular trinity. I was probably feeling—and that does address your language question—where I was writing and in terms of the voice I was using, [that] it would have sounded a little stilted, as if I was trying for a certain kind of intellectual properness. I don’t think that would have to be the case in everything I wrote, by any means. It would depend on the essay and the subject. I try to be quite responsible, as a journalist and as a critic, to pay attention to more theoretical and scholarly materials, and I’m not against using them at all. But I just have to be very careful tonally with how they work in terms of my prose. So I don’t want to seem to be showing off. I don’t want to sound unduly laborious. It’s just a negotiation for me.

BLVR: Sometimes when we use rhetoric and terminology to stand in for ideas, they can be misused. And I wondered if—as a critic and someone with a sharp mind who is used to questioning—that might be part of why you’ve chosen not to use the term. In many ways, your entire body of work explains that term; it’s almost redundant to use it.

MJ: That’s very nice. You made a good point. Rhetoric, including rhetoric that people [whom] you very much respect have all agreed on, jumps up and jumps out. It can alter the landscape of your prose and it can change the degrees [of] subtlety. As a critic, it can even change your position. It can also just get stale. There was a certain period when more-general media critics and journalists got very excited about using deconstruct, and it started turning into a little winking cliché that was supposed to do the work for you.

BLVR: Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced intersectionality in a paper published in 1989, and it started to be used in the ’90s, and I feel it’s reached a saturation point today, almost thirty years later. But you’re proof that its principles were widely held beforehand, and it’s important to consider its history—or perhaps prehistory.

MJ: The work and words of black feminists came before its coining. What is black feminist analysis but a real documentation [of] and insistence on the power and the place and the precedents of intersectionality. That was happening, and I was learning from it and taking from it, and also using my own words. That was the core strength of the black feminist analysis that was being worked on.

 

III. “A NEW AND ALTERNATIVE CANON”

BLVR: You consider yourself part of the women’s movement?

MJ: Oh, absolutely.

BLVR: I’m so eager to hear about your experience during that time.

MJ: I was actually just reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, and I’m just starting the feminism chapter, where she says kind of mournfully, “It hurts to call out racism among white feminists because feminism was actually my first entryway into really thinking hard about oppression.” That was moving to me. That wasn’t true for me, because I grew up in the civil rights movement. As we were getting out of college, my generation migrated to Black Power, along with the anti-war movement. My first exposure to feminism, which was almost entirely white feminism, was in 1969, when these little magazines started to come out. Flo Kennedy, Celestine Ware, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and others insisted that we were absolute feminists. They said, “You’re doing white middle-class feminism,” and that class thing was very important. And I was thrilled to read radicals like Ti-Grace Atkinson and Shulamith Firestone. I was able to connect with black feminists through a tiny little group I found in graduate school in 1971, and I went to some of their meetings and wrote about them, but we were kind of fugitives. I never relinquished my feminist passion, and we women of color started to find each other organizationally in the early ’70s. The National Black Feminist Organization started [around that time].

A group of us that included June Jordan and Alice Walker started a group that included lawyers, journalists, editors, critics, called the Sisterhood. We would meet maybe once a month, and I remember one woman wrote a letter saying, “Look, are we going to do political action or is this about hand-holding?” Well, you know, it was very much about hand-holding, but also hand-holding as consciousness-raising, as emotional support, and also as a way of thinking about how black women artists and intellectuals could sustain themselves as a group and as individuals. And then there were black women scholars who really started putting that work on the map. This is all in the early and mid-’70s. By that time I had gone to Newsweek, and I wanted to write about everything that white male critics were not writing about. In our various places, we were creating a new and alternative canon.

I was trying to cover that waterfront because the work was there, and all the artistic and activist communities around it were there, and that felt very, very good, particularly because often in these mainstream publications you could feel very alone, very much a creature of solitude. I remember once at the books meeting at Newsweek, we were picking books and I decided I was going to write about Toni Cade Bambara’s The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. This particularly snide editor was leafing through it and said, “The Sea Birds Are Still Alive—does anybody care?” Those kinds of possibly genuinely offhand remarks sent you screaming into a black colleague’s office, or would just plunge the heart and surround you with that kind of angry defensiveness as you did your work. So we really needed some hand-holding. There are so many forms of resistance and recalcitrance to feminist progress, to racial progress, et cetera. They’re so flexible; they’re so versatile!

BLVR: Did those sorts of experiences at the beginning of your career inform your feminism? Do you think the workplace is progressing?

MJ: It’s a little paradoxical, or maybe it’s just a very predictable contradiction? Getting jobs was not difficult for me, because women and blacks had been lobbying and threatening lawsuits a few years before I came. I basically got to Newsweek with very good writing samples, and having graduated first in my class from Columbia, but would I have been paid attention to as a job applicant if the women at Newsweek had not threatened to sue, and the settlement dictated that a certain group of women were promoted from inside? All quite qualified, I might add. And another group of women were hired from outside. The [New York] Times had been put under exactly the same justified pressures, and I started freelancing for them in the ’80s. I’d left Newsweek by then, and I was teaching, but I was freelancing because I wanted to keep my voice, and my belief in more-welcome journalistic spaces. So I made a point of starting to freelance for The Village Voice’s literary supplement; The Nation, which I’ve always written for; and Ms. So the Times would come court me at regular intervals when they were looking for black women in the arts, of which very few were hired. I talked to them about coming on as an editor and as a critic, and several times I said no. And then, in 1993, I said yes.

For me, getting the job was less the problem, because I benefited from social action. It was more these somewhat subtler cultural and psychological hostilities, as well as indifference. That was really what kept you constantly angry and analyzing, asking, What’s going on here? What are the hierarchies? It kept that part of you alive, as did constant conversation. Not only with women in writing, but in my generation, women were going into law firms for the first time; they were going into business; they were going into NGOs. Men, including some minorities, if they’d gotten enough class privilege, got certain kinds of training in how to deal with power in certain kinds of institutions, and I don’t know any woman of any background of my generation who had that kind of training. Most of us, at least my friends, we wanted to keep our principles, so that training—learning how to negotiate it, how to fight it, but also how to fight—was incredibly worthwhile. I didn’t want to just fight to review a cool white book. I wanted to fight for my right to review minority books, women’s books, and any white book that I wanted to [write about] as well.

 

IV. “I REALIZED IF I DIDN’T SAY I WAS BASICALLY BROUGHT UP NOT TO WRITE THIS BOOK RIGHT AWAY, I MIGHT NOT EVER GET IT MADE.”

BLVR: I love this quote that comes on page 172 of Negroland: “We were to be ladies, responsible Negro women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung.… I craved the right to turn my face to the wall, to create a death commensurate with bourgeois achievement, political awareness, and aesthetically compelling feminine despair.” This section has deservedly been discussed a lot. I really like the idea of suicide as an act of rebellion against your upbringing and how society’s trained you to exist as a woman.

MJ: And makes you just exceptional enough to succeed, but keeps you ordinary enough not to be threatening, and what—if you’re a black woman—will advance the race.

BLVR: Exactly. That’s the why behind that statement. It made me think that, today, we’re hyper-focused on certain issues within blackness, and those issues don’t often include suicide and mental health. There might be critics—and I certainly have some credits along these lines as well—who would say, Who cares about suicide when things like police brutality exist? Especially today, when so much of the discussion about discrimination focuses on incarceration and this very brutal sort of violence and death that is completely out of our control as black people. (Also, it also focuses almost entirely on male victims.) For black people, what is the importance of having a space for our internal struggles and our fragility?

MJ: Maybe I’ll go backward and say: What is the suicide rate among incarcerated black men? Incarceration is a kind of emotional brutality and torture. If we look at centuries of white supremacy, and the toll of police brutality, the economy, structures and hierarchies of every form of social and legal injustice, how could we not also be looking at emotional abuse and brutality and those structural hierarchies that threaten and damage our collective psyches? Part of oppression, part of racism is, to me, a variety of attacks. Of course they shift according to your position, what class protections you may have, what gender protections you may have, even what familial support you may have. But psychological abuse is a massive part of the system. I’ve found, especially among young people, a real interest in this airing of minority community mental health issues, and the state of neglect of treatments for it. The truth of black people’s depression is that it is manifold and multiple and it takes every form at every strata of society. Now, I’m much better off than your typical prison inmate, male or female, but we’d be fools not to carefully analyze the ways in which even the most privileged among us have been socially, intellectually, and emotionally attacked and damaged. That’s our burden. We’re also bringing that material to everything that we do, and our work gets read and attended to. And so it matters.

BLVR: Negroland immediately struck me as a book that’s not supposed to be written, because it airs some of our community’s dirty laundry.

MJ: Which is why I had to put that on practically the first page, because I realized if I didn’t say I was basically brought up not to write this book right away, I might not ever get it made. Mental health is one of those issues that’s considered dirty laundry. You will be punished by certain people, and, importantly, you will have proven that racism has won, so you will be one of its victims, and that will also again damage our collective project of a kind of invincibility.

BLVR: Yes, exactly. And the narrative of suicide, especially as you put it, directly contradicts that idea.

MJ: Hopefully, the book can also play some role in helping us look more realistically at the different kinds of damage that are done. Of course, we all want a black narrative of progress, but maybe progress does not have to include stoic, warrior-like invincible triumphs. Because it doesn’t. If we look at our history, it doesn’t. What are we going to make of that?

BLVR: Similarly to your discussion of mental health, I saw your discussion of class to be taboo-breaking and unexpected. Writing about privilege among African Americans is something that is not really done anymore, and when you admit to your privilege, there are consequences that come to bear upon you. Privilege is almost seen as a disqualifier from an authentic black experience. Why is it important that we write about privilege among black people?

MJ: I would say it has something in common with why it’s important to write about whiteness when it seems invisible. Invisibility is the mark of total excepted privilege—when it doesn’t have to be talked about, when it’s agreed upon that we don’t need to discuss it, because the status quo preserves it. One of the tactics of socially privileged people, contrary to the ones who often showboat and build huge mansions, has been to close down the conversation of exactly what they have whenever they want to. They say, Well, you know, we’re just comfortable. We’re not really… We also see something different in the age of Trump, but it is usually a trope of so-called well-behaved WASP families. They say something like, I don’t really think there’s such a thing as an upper class anymore, do you? That was the only reason they were being interviewed!

I think among the “best” black families, there is a certain pride, a kind of self-congratulation that magazines like Ebony used to stand for. Nevertheless, there is also a way in which the black privileged manage by virtue of genuine language—which black privileged people do do—by participating in the civil rights movement, and by taking part in advancing black people on various fronts, that takes attention away from the specifics of how privilege and the accumulation of wealth shape you. In a way, I’m taking the easy route by first sounding like a muckraker, and I’m being righteous in saying we have to expose that privilege. But I also really just feel that, again, one of the classic ways of dealing with an oppressed people is to reduce them to generalizations—to certain sentences, to ID tags—with declarations of what their main problems are. They get repeated over and over, and we have to keep making all of these distinctions and adjustments and identifications so that we can see all the ways in which we’re rewarded, how we’re deprived, how racial identity is a form of unity, where in fact it’s a form of fractiousness and difference. Class plays a very, very big role in that. As a writer, I would also just say that the more stories we have to tell, the better.

 

V. “CRITICS ARE WRITERS TOO!”

BLVR: Can you talk about what the importance of criticism is to you? Did you choose it as a form, or did it choose you? What is its power as a form?

MJ: I knew I wanted to write nonfiction, and I knew that I had a mind that wanted to analyze and place things. In that historical period of 1969 to 1970, all of the things that interested me—a global nonwhite culture, feminism, and gay rights—everything was opening up. That was thrilling to me. I felt I could have a voice there. Critics analyze, yes, and we do “criticize,” but we dramatize too; we use our senses acutely. I wanted to make all this overlooked or newly emerging material come alive, and I also wanted to give it a place in the culture—with its canons and its long-sanctioned history—that it hadn’t been given before. I wanted to create a collaborative, polyphonic culture.

BLVR: Your memoir made me think about the identity of a critic. I sometimes contend with the stereotypes of a novelist—namely that we tend to be solitary, with fragile egos. I tend to think poets are more social and generally have more fun. Do you interact with these stereotypes of critics, and if so, do you think they apply to you?

MJ: As critics, we wrap the whole port. That’s part of our job. There is this kind of play of omniscience, the performing of the omniscient narrator. But a lot of us are also rattled by this sense that we’re kind of at the bottom of the hierarchy you’ve just named. It used to make me crazy. I knew it was just a phrase or a trope, but it said something when people would say, as they often still do, “We’re going to invite critics and writers.” I remember once saying to a writer friend of mine who was writing journalism but also fiction—I said, “Critics are writers too!” I realize I sounded so desperate and defensive. I think you see more critics writing openly about that. What interests me most now about criticism, and I’m sure we talked about this in class—criticism is vulnerability; it’s ambivalence. It’s being open to encountering a work with a combination of analytical and sensory material. How encountering a work or an idea doesn’t have to close down to a series of conclusions, however fascinating, but that it can open up to questions, strange little fractures and fissures.

To me, that is what’s most interesting about what a critic can do. I think that writing a memoir that included the fact that I was a critic as a form of consciousness pushed me past my own comfort level. Writing is always hard work, but as a critic you learn certain tricks; you learn certain ways of approaching the work; you learn what makes people impressed by and excited by your work, and you just keep repeating that. One reason that that becomes so easy is because you’re not exposing the parts of yourself that the work has really unsettled or rattled. How do you do that and remain interestingly coherent? How do you question yourself and offer a kind of implicit self-examination, which is, if not always, sometimes self-criticism, and in examining a work to compare its limitations and achievements to what you think yours are?

BLVR: Maybe part of the reason why there’s this bad popular misconception of critics is because when people think of criticism, they think of little capsule book reviews where the critic hasn’t read the book? But if they thought about your work, they would have a much better idea of what criticism is actually supposed to be.

MJ: I think that’s always been true of criticism. It can be a serious exploratory, sometimes experimental venture. It can be a form of literary or creative nonfiction. Some of it, in the sort of great marketplace, has always been and always will be just little capsule judgments that aren’t necessarily stupid, but that are just meant to keep the consumers coming and going and the writer feeling very on top of things. Listen, I’ve done pieces like that myself. I know the temptation of feeling in control, that I’m the mistress surveying and you’re going to be punished.

BLVR: As you said, Negroland is a memoir, but your critical voice is very much incorporated, on a sentence level, and there are some straightforwardly critical passages. In writing the book, did you consciously shift from criticism into memoir writing?

MJ: Initially, I was just scared to death and desperate to get writing. So initially I would just do a scene: I’m on a train. I’m seven and my sister’s ten… Then I would do a confession about something else. I did a little portrait of one of my parents. I was always collecting historical materials, so I’d do something about a black neighborhood. I was collecting these scenes, but when I tried to find a shape I couldn’t quite do it. Now, that’s partly because memoirs often have a very definite chronology, and though there is some chronology in mind, there’s a lot of digression and veering. So I had to come to realize that a narrative voice that’s as identifiable as the lead character in a play or novel—and that you often find in a shapely memoir—was not going to work for me. I was taught to play a lot of different roles, and to manage a lot of personae. That had to be a part of my voice. That was my first really helpful realization. Then I started enumerating all these personae: the good daughter, the good student in a white school, the kid who went to a white school and who want[ed] to be very cool at a black party. And then I suddenly thought, Wait a minute. I’ve been a critic since the 1970s. This is part of my sensibility. It is as much a part of my identity as all this other stuff, and it has to be there. I also realized that every book needs sources of tension, and I already had some, but I thought, Oh my god: I’m enacting it. Now I have to make it consciously work in terms of the shape and the prose. The tension between Margo the critic, Margo the actor, Margo the confessor, Margo the mediator, Margo the loyalist, Margo the good girl. And how does Margo the critic respond to all of those? When does she recede and when does she advance? I change tones quickly, without necessarily explaining that I’m going to change my tone now; instead, I invite the reader to watch me offer a different performance.

BLVR: I was quite struck by the continuity in writing style between Negroland and your other writing. It felt like the same voice—your natural voice—applied differently. I saw it even in your first book, On Michael Jackson.

MJ: On Michael Jackson was a transition for me from a critical voice that was mine, but that was still working within what I’ll call the house styles of publications I’d worked for. It was also very aware of the audience. One reason I wanted to do the Michael Jackson book was to claim more of the critic’s voice itself, free of these other external conditions. After Michael Jackson, people kept saying I should write about Beyoncé or Prince next, and I would think, I don’t want to do that at all! I wanted to push further. I wanted to try something new. I wanted to dig, and that’s when I began to think about a memoir. People would say, “Why don’t you write about that mysterious world you came from?” But I hadn’t taken it seriously. It’s the oldest story in the book for [us] writers: what I might not be able to do, but I’m determined to do.

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