Acts of Reclamation and Reconstruction: Margo Jefferson’s 'Negroland' and 'constructing a nervous system'

Dorrie Wilson
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While the programme with Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson didn't come to fruition, we wanted to give our readers a glimpse of what could have been. Therefore, we reached out to the moderator of the evening, researcher and writer Dorrie Wilson, to provide us with a reflective piece on the author's thought-provoking Negroland and Constructing a Nervous System. We invite you to immerse yourself in the following excerpt, allowing you to discover the depth that define Jefferson's writings.

The magic of Negroland is in its honesty, its multi-lingual way of detailing stratagems of survival but also those for thriving; of loss and of gain. By speaking to the complexity of her generation of Black women in America, Jefferson lays out the range of resilience resident within her community and reclaims its humanity for herself.

Margo Jefferson speaks as a woman of privilege, but also constraints; constraints which require her to investigate the construction of a nervous system. Reading Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, took me back to my childhood home – Oak Park, IL, and being a Black, working class girl growing up there.

Oak Park is a stone’s throw away from Jefferson’s “Negroland,” that realm of the privileged Black middle class, took me back to the Chicago I encountered as a teenager. I was immediately struck by the rigidity, the hierarchical nature of the place—the City laid out in a grid; the educational hierarchy, called the “tracking system,” which ordered the school system—everyone in their place, and most importantly, everyone knowing their place.

To me, moving from the fluidity of the San Francisco Bay Area (my Mom was a teacher, and was hired over the phone by Oak Park Public School District#97, during the Berkeley Teachers' Strike of 1975/76 – the longest teachers' strike in US history at the time.), Oak Park was concrete, hard; a suit of clothes I had to figure out how to fit into quickly, or be ground down under the weight of its glass and steel, stone and brick.

In Negroland I returned to the stories told at ‘grown folks table,’ conversations about struggle and restriction—the barriers faced by Black people in spaces we were not expected to inhabit.

Jefferson details the interior, intracommunal world of Black Chicago; our ways of moving and thought processes that facilitated our mobility both inside and outside of that community.

By the time I arrived in Chicago, Margo Jefferson was in NYC, working at an elite American newspaper and making her way within polite, liberal society. I was a little Black girl learning to navigate the City of Big Shoulders, trying to understand what all this “matter” really meant. Negroland offers a glimpse into the world of the Black elite, the “talented tenth” within the community – separate but still constrained by the mores of racial practice and place within the Chicago colossus. Jefferson is clear-eyed and candid in her depiction of how Black girls, for example, are instructed in the imperative distinction of being a ‘lady,’ from a very young age. The elaborate descriptions of her family shopping trips, the importance of colour coordination and the language of colour, texture, seasonal dress, hats, gloves, shoes, coats, are all signifiers to an invisible, yet ever-present white gaze.

In Constructing a Nervous System, she pushes through the wall of self, to re-examine and reflect upon what this process will actually entail. The way she does this is to provide us --up front--three of the most important roles Ms Jefferson defines herself as:




She begins with a compelling account of her role as critic:

A young novelist asked me: ‘Why did you choose to write criticism?’
I wanted to make my way to the centre of American culture, and find ways to de center it, I told her.
Why did you choose to write memoir? She asked.
I wanted to make my way to my own American centre and find language for the fractures there, I answered.

In her role as critic, Jefferson is telling us who she is. The focal point is loss as a universal lens through which to engage with the challenges of such an undertaking. Jefferson’s transparency, as diarist, allows the reader to be witness to her process of recombination; gathering the elements of herself, and gradually building them into a whole.

From critic, Jefferson moves to her role as teacher, her foundation built upon her stated desires as critic: “to make my way to the centre of American culture, and find ways to de-center it…” The text that Jefferson teaches, to a class made up primarily of young white women, is The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather. Jefferson describes her initial delight and subsequent disappointment in Cather’s work, stating:

I started teaching full-time in 2006. And taught The Song of the Lark in college
seminars between 2007 and 2011. I loved it for the solace that it brought / And I loved her (Cather) that she did offer it… [I] realized after I’d taught The Song of the Lark a few times that I was uneasy; as I revised my notes, I knew I must find a sustained way to—which of these verbs is best?—expose, excavate, evaluate—the rapture stirred in Cather by her heroine’s white skin.

What follows is Jefferson’s meticulous teaching strategy, chosen for her audience, of how to teach a flawed text to an audience which has never considered how the representation of a Black character in the novel resonates outside of a white context. Here again, Jefferson is unflinching in the details of her approach, concluding that her most affective form of engagement is chagrin. Essentially, she moves her students from the “thinking place” to the “feeling place,” forcing them to face the ways in which a writer of Cather’s stature chooses to erase the humanity of her Black character, in favor of “white rapture:”

I wanted them to feel chagrined. Chagrin implicates those who feel it. And I wanted them to be disappointed in this major American writer Wilella Sibert Cather. As I’d had to be, time and time again, in a lifetime of reading white writers.
READER, THIS IS A PROCEDURAL. So I’ll begin by recreating myself in teacher mode. Here I am, taking notes on the text. Expanding, supplementing what I said in 2010 or ’11; making up for what I did not say then.
…I start my examination of the white rapture motif by cataloguing specific invocations of Thea’s (the protagonist) milky skin and flaxen locks: the basics any Nordic peasant would need to make herself a Wagnerian Rheingold goddess… [T]his is the venom: whiteness as a sign for the treasure America so covets, the treasure of great art. Europe its sacred fount… [N]egroes were former slaves with murky African origins: What did they have in common with the European immigrants bringing European ways and means to the Midwest she loved? Blacks weren’t part of the usable past or aspirational future Cather was constructing for American art and culture.

The force and candor of Jefferson’s voice, in dialogue with both her students and Cather herself, is disarming, and culminates in the examination of her own learned behaviors when faced with the vagaries of Black erasure:

I let several years pass without speaking directly to Cather’s whiteness rapture. The old stratagem, devised in childhood: not wanting to exclude myself from the cultural access whites had; not wanting to look damaged by what had been offered grudgingly or compensatorily. This no longer served. My inner life had to keep pace with the facts and furies of the outer world.

However, “[t]he power to imagine what couldn’t or wouldn’t imagine me was my protection. My magic helmet, my anthem, and aria. `I could rage, but these weapons shielded me from permanent harm. When I attacked the bigotries of race or gender, I attacked calmly. With pointed historical evidence. With logic. With irony. No scars marked the smooth skin of my thoughts. No keloids.”

The third role, or in this case, mode, which Jefferson presents to us is what she refers to as the counter-diva, …”a mode I want to work with more, where anger uses comic brevity and takes pleasure in taut prosody.” The personage whom Jefferson believes epitomizes this mode, is Josephine Baker, or “La Bakair.”

Jefferson tells us of her first encounter with Baker, in a television appearance pointed out by her mother in 1963. Margo Jefferson introduces the segment in her memoir, by speaking first about her “kinship with non-human creatures driven by desire and unimpeded by doubt. Actual humans who can do this astound me. How could we belong to the same species? I ask myself. The same race? The same gender? ”

What Jefferson discerns is the way in which Josephine Baker transforms herself into the being that we know and admire. She is the template that allows her to see the fullness of what the construction can be and how it can be made manifest:

The counter-diva as comedienne, hoyden, flirts. The ugly stuff of her life poverty, neglect, abuse, child labor—was turned onstage into comic peril and triumph…[S]he said: “It is the intelligence of my body that I have exploited. ‘Exploit’ has the same root as ‘explicate,’ meaning to ‘unfold.’ She trained her body to unfold as one flawless unit of flesh, muscle, limb, bone and joint.

The template for Jefferson’s ”construction” is based on the reality of what Baker created. “She was a mobile army of metaphors calling on Africa, the Caribbean , America and Europe; playing on the borders between modernism and primitivism, between high and popular art, civilization and savagery. It will be a valuable, one-of-a-kind symbol of the global art traffic in black bodies and souls.”

Jefferson’s conversation with Baker becomes a springboard for her expression of how to tap into the artistry, savagery and monetization that Baker had to endure in order to ascend to the level of an international icon and presence. What she recognizes is that “French audiences had to be carefully taught that this superstar, hailing from a country more powerful than theirs, appearing in their most glamorous theatres, speaking their language, wearing their best clothes, collecting European lovers, was actually a permanent citizen of a land called ‘Their Basic Black Savagery.’” Jefferson presents Baker’s audacity as a way to detail the canniness of Baker’s presence and defiance within the European landscape. “She said, It is the intelligence of my body that I have exploited…[r]eady to ‘experiment with herself, to capitalize her natural resources and get her money’s worth…to apply business methods to being young.”

Baker’s example is an indication of how a woman of low rank can redefine power and presence in an environment where “her sexually-defiled-beast-of-labour past” removes her from the prospect of ever being considered a lady (“A Negro woman cannot be a lady”). By the time that Margo Jefferson saw Josephine Baker at the March on Washington, the only woman on the podium and dressed in full French military attire, she could already divine that she was something of a sport of nature; someone who had remade herself into someone that no one could fully define or comprehend. This Black American/French agglomeration, which was Baker, was formed from her own manifestation of what she declared herself to be. Margo Jefferson’s admiration of Baker is palpable, and stands as a triumph to what a new nervous system could look like.

Josephine Baker is an outlier, in contradiction to all the conventions forced upon Black women to be a lady. What she embodies is the fullness of agency in the face of opposition from both within and outside the Black community. The extremities of her life gave her license to redefine how she viewed herself -- in contradiction to powers, both foreign and domestic -- and send out a clarion call that the construction of a nervous system was not only possible, but worthy of consideration.

The joy of Margo Jefferson’s Constructing a Nervous System, is the uncompromising taking and holding of space. She has helped reinforce in me my own: a space in which, even though she and I are seen as “Black Women”, within that categorization is class; education, all of the nuances of human life. Her class liberated her, but also set her on her path. As I suppose my class has liberated me, set me on my path. Jefferson leans into the notion she has put forward, which is about reclamation, choices and movement towards a goal which centres the discourse on her lived and professional experiences. She is unapologetic in her reveal of her life and work, and that steely presence provides a platform for all of us to (re)consider the environments, communities and people that have defined us. Within the European context, this work can urge an examination into the ways in which African diasporic communities consider how they assess and expand their place within spaces they were not seen or meant to inhabit.

This memoir exists as a unique rendering and a good start; a push for us all to reflect upon the lives that we lead and our ways of viewing and perceiving ourselves. And a way to fashion ourselves out of our own Negroland.

Dorrie Wilson