Margo Jefferson: Constructing a nervous system
Margo Jefferson, the author of the original and bold Negroland, has, in her own words, written a ‘spirited autobiography’. Constructing a Nervous System is neither criticism nor memoir, but a blend of the two. It opens with the account of a bad dream. Jefferson saw herself alone on stage, her arm outstretched, her finger pointing accusingly at her own body. What follows is an inner tempest, an in-depth examination of black female identity, the nervous system of the title referring to the materials that make up her life: ‘chosen, imposed, inherited, made up’.
As the daughter of a paediatrician and a fashionable mother, Margo Jefferson grew up among the highly educated and well-off black elite in Chicago in the 1950s – in what she calls ‘Negroland’. Her life played out against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism, and was also marked by the contradictions of a black middle class with apparent privilege. In Negroland, she asked herself, ‘what has made and maimed me?’ She found her own form for this, zigzagging between perspectives, cheerfully borrowing phrases from song lyrics and from other writers.
The same holds for her new book, in which she explores who the ‘me’ is in that quote. Now Jefferson opens up completely the genre of the memoir. In Constructing a Nervous System, she takes herself apart and then rebuilds herself by interweaving criticism with the words of deceased family members and key moments in her life as well as poetry and jazz sounds. There are letters, song lyrics and diary excerpts. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner are two of her alter egos. Thus, she rewrites herself in a new musical form suffused with life.
Great sensitivity is required to make this anatomical dissection, this cutting, into a coherent whole again. Jefferson possesses this sensitivity, this talent, and what’s more, she reveals herself completely. This allows us to come into contact in a delightful way with artists such as Powell, Josephine Baker and Harriet Beecher Stowe, but we also cogitate with her when she writes ‘STOP! Collect yourself, Professor Jefferson’. This is all part of her nervous system, of her intimacy, which thus achieves a prodigious, hypnotic density.
Thus Jefferson explores how her tastes were shaped by artists for who she did not even exist, how she learned to think like artists who were condescending or utterly indifferent to black women like her. Yet self-consciousness in Constructing a Nervous System goes beyond gender, race and class. These are important, but her writing is more personal, more physical. Jefferson fits into the artistic tradition of Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo and Ingmar Bergman, who scrutinized themselves mercilessly, free from any political agenda or navel-gazing.
about the author
Margo Jefferson (b. 1947) teaches writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. She has been a staff arts critic for Newsweek and The New York Times and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her reviews. Negroland: A Memoir won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award. Constructing a Nervous System was released in 2022.
about the moderator
Dorrie Wilson is a Black American independent researcher, writer and cultural curator, whose work is centred on the examination of structural racism, citizenship and migration within the contemporary European context. She holds double Bachelor's degrees in Afro-American Studies and Humanities -- with a concentration in Black Women's Literature and Black Arts Movements -- from the University of California, and a Master's degree in European Urban Cultures from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, following study in the MFA programme in Theatre Management at the Yale University School of Drama. She has lived in Brussels since 2001.
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