Books: Afterword

Margo Jefferson: ‘You find ways to subvert White femininity in order to survive’

Tishani Doshi is a poet, novelist and dancer based in Chennai. Her latest book is Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods
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Margo Jefferson’s memoir about growing up as an elite African-American woman moves between femininity and feminism without getting polemical on either

Margo Jefferson is the author of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award-winning Negroland, a memoir about growing up as part of Chicago’s Black elite in the 1950s and 60s. ‘I call it Negroland because I still find the word ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. A word for runaway slave posters and civil rights proclamations; for social constructs and street corner flaunts,’ she writes. Her first book, On Michael Jackson, is a contemplation on the King of Pop, whom she describes as ‘fragile and feral, percussive and sinuous, vulnerable and unassailable’. Jefferson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, and has worked as a cultural critic for Newsweek and the New York Times. She is currently professor of writing at Columbia University School of Arts. We met in London, in advance of her appearance at the Southbank Centre.

“WHEN I WAS a young thing,” Margo Jefferson says, “I had certain gifts that charmed adults. I was well spoken. I was vivacious. I was a very good pianist. Every child is looking, don’t you think, for certain sources of power?”

Her extraordinary memoir, Negroland, opens with a scene where Margo, age four, at a dinner party, waits for a break in adult conversation to announce, “Sometimes I forget to wipe myself.” The laughter comes after a short silence, and she realises she’s being tolerated rather than appreciated. She would have liked to have been a child star like Shirley Temple or Freddie Bartholomew, a tiny creature capable of controlling the narrative and making everyone fall in love with them. She describes it as “a kind of paradise of love and power, absolutely linked”.

On Michael Jackson, her monograph on the 20th century’s greatest performer, explores this obsession for the child star. She is both fan and critic—marvelling at his gifts of voice and movement, his craving for superstar status, his obsession with PT Barnum (Jackson gave members of his staff copies of Barnum’s autobiography saying, “I want my career to be the greatest show on earth”). She talks about his role as a shape-shifter; the phenomenal wardrobe choices—a template upon which feminine, masculine and gender queer fantasy is thrown; the little Black boy who plays with all the tropes of the Black hetero body, veering away from it as he grows into that Black male body, following certain feminine modes until he becomes a new species altogether.

But she also addresses his failed public-relations stunts, the surgeries, the allegations of sexual abuse, the skin disease, the drug-induced death, the inability to acknowledge his transcendence of race, gender, sexuality. “He chose not to, or could not find a language which we are all trying to find to document, or at least declare in a sense, ‘This is my manifesto’—‘I am going beyond!’ And he never did that,” she says. “He always behaved as if he were an innocent child and everyone else was wrong to be startled. So he’s an interesting object lesson in how to take control of the language around these transformations.”

“I combined Negro with land because all Negroes live in our land of history, of discrimination, of struggle, of achievement—a world within that world”

At 70, Jefferson has the body of a dancer—lithe, upright. We sit on a terrace in her London hotel. She is animated and engaged, speaking across tones and octaves, ranging from loud exclamations, peals of laughter and hushed whispers. When I tell her I grieve for Patrick Swayze in the pure way she grieves for Michael Jackson, she understands. “Let’s go back and forth on this,” she says, dismantling why these icons represent our deepest longings and elected affinities. She talks about how we construct narratives with our icons—narratives we are free to enter at any stage, where we’re always safe. How in the real world, our longings and expressions always have a price, but there is no price if those longings are lived out by Michael or Patrick. How in the end, it has to do with their gifts, their virtuosities. How all of us long to be able to use our bodies and voices in ways that conquer and allure.

It’s interesting how even when Jefferson is speaking of love, the word ‘conquer’ shows up. Power as immutable, power to exclude and include, power as it intersects with race and gender. Writing Negroland must have been a shift in vulnerability, I ask; to relinquish the power of the critic and move into that dangerous territory of the personal?

“There was a real terror,” Jefferson says, “I knew I’d have to do things I hadn’t done before technically—dialogue, confession, certain kinds of dramatic narrative, but the vulnerability problem was huge. That had to do with being a critic, but also with the Negroland I’d grown up in, where you didn’t reveal anything that might be turned against you—failure, weakness, damage, etcetera. Once I discovered I could code the fact of that background, which in a sense was training me to write anything but memoir, I could put that into the confessional vulnerable material.”

Negroland is a cultural memoir—part collage, part personal, part black bourgeoisie history. Jefferson wanted to use the word ‘Negro’ because she wanted it to be a marker of a historical and emotional period—the 50s and 60s she grew up in, where ‘Negro’ was the preferred word. This was the civil rights movement world, where people like Lorraine Hansberry and Martin Luther King were talking about the Negro people with a capital ‘N’. “Names shift and change, they have enormous meaning, they are metaphorical, they are literal, they are reflections of what people are trying to say about themselves and what others are trying to say to them. I always say to people, ‘No, I am not a conservative person advocating the return of this word.’ It’s a metonym. I combined it with land because all Negroes, all African Americans in a certain way, live in our land of history, of discrimination, of struggle, of achievement—a world within that world.”

Finding a language to describe the particular things that had been hidden away in her Negroland history took time, courage and writerly ambition. She tells me about coming upon the work of James Baldwin in college, and describes his writing as “high eloquence” (even his scorn is “majestic”). In the intellectually progressive schools she attended, the writers they studied were mostly White, mostly men. Occasionally, they might have been given a Langston Hughes poem, but to encounter Baldwin speaking of things that had never been spoken of in that way was thrilling. She draws a Bloomsbury parallel: In 1907, Lytton Strachey enters a room where Virginia Woolf sits with her sister Vanessa Bell, and pointing to a mark on Vanessa’s dress, says, “Semen?”, ushering in an age where all social barriers are demolished. Jefferson chortles, “Whoever said that word before? I think I’m making the association because part of me realises how universal but also how masculine Baldwin was. It was always the ‘Negro he’, so it was revelatory, but yeah…”

Negroland girls couldn’t die outright. We had to plot and circle our way towards death, pretend we were after something else... Good Negro Girls mastered the rigorous vocabulary of femininity. Gloves, handkerchiefs, pocketbooks for each occasion. Good diction for all occasions; skin care (no ashy knees or elbows); hair cultivation. Manners to please grandparents and quell the doubts of any white strangers loitering to observe your behavior in schools, stores and restaurants. We were busy being pert, chic, cool—but not fast. Fast meant social extermination by degrees, because the boys who’d sampled a fast girl would tell another girl they’d taken up with (who was desirable but not fast) that the first girl was a slut. - From Negroland

There’s a sense of double consciousness that pervades Negroland, but the experience for Black women was a double feminine feminist consciousness. “Sounds like a mouthful and a huge burden,” I say. Jefferson laughs. “One of the women’s club mottos was ‘Lifting as we Climb!’ That’s a great deal of work!” She talks about the conflicting messages that Negroland girls were given. On one hand, because they were part of the bourgeoisie; they were being taught all the privileges they were to expect as women. At the same time, they were told Black life is fragile, and it was going to be hard for the men they would marry, so they’d better have a career to fall back on. Even while doing something small like setting a table for a party, you must always be the perfect lady and represent the race well in every way.

“In my household, there was a double message. You learn to play certain feminine games, absolutely. That helps you get married. It helps to sustain the marriage, child-rearing, etcetera, but you don’t let it go. I’m not saying there weren’t women in my mother’s world who weren’t bourgeoisie female causalities— too much drinking, pills, unhappy marriages—but you survive, you find ways to subvert White femininity in order to survive.”

There’s a cast of impressive relatives who trawl through Jefferson’s book, but it’s the women who really shine—dressmaker grandmothers who plot their children’s educational ascent with vigilance, who say things like, “If you ever get pregnant, don’t bother to stop by the house. Just keep walking east (to the lake).” Her mother, Irma, and her friends were in “feminine command” with their suits and silk shirtwaists, furs and smart hats. “When I was growing up, these women were fabulous to me,” she says, . “They were mine, they were my world.”

Jefferson has always adored fashion and sees no direct clash with feminism. It was always something to negotiate. When she went to feminist conferences, there would be everything from totally dowdy, to colour, to mini skirts (no Meghan Markle heels though). “As long as there’s certain freedom in rights of representation—style choices that feel they’re aligned with your temperament, your ambitions, what you want to dare rather than hide, why wouldn’t that be something we would claim as a feminist right?” She’s glad fashion has emerged as a site of slightly pretentious academic studies, that it is taken seriously as a weapon, as a vehicle, as metaphor, because it’s something women in every culture are master interpreters of. “It’s something you keep experimenting with,” she says. “At every age. If I move to Oregon, would I wear less eye makeup? I don’t know. I wouldn’t stop wearing it, but I might temper it. So all those navigations are treacherous but interesting.”

One of the most beautiful sentences in Negroland comes from a letter Jefferson’s mother writes: ‘Sometimes I almost forget I’m a Negro.’ It isn’t a disavowal but a longing for free space. I ask Jefferson whether she thinks identity politics have been a narrowing down rather than an enlarging of vision, why there is compartmentalisation in spite of hybridity, why someone like Michael Jackson wanted to transcend all binaries and boundaries and become another being. Books in a small way allow that, don’t they? A free space. Jefferson agrees.

“I think there’s a privacy with books that isn’t quite there with any other form,” she says. The best books for her work as music does—quickening her sense of rhythm, tonality and harmony. “They give me the safety of taking imaginative, emotional and experimental risks I know I’m not going to take in my real life. They give you the chance to examine—I’m angry, I’m ashamed, I’m sacred, I never thought I’d feel this way before— all of that is available for you to look at and think through… Even if you go to a book club, there’s always this solitary involvement with this multi-vocal text, and I think that’s special.”