Writers & Company

Margo Jefferson on her musical icons, the Black elite and the power of self-creation

The American writer, academic and cultural critic spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her memoir Constructing a Nervous System, an incisive look at race, class, music and feminism.
Margo Lillian Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer, academic and cultural critic. (Claire Holt)

"THRUM go the materials of my life," writes Margo Jefferson in her new memoir, Constructing a Nervous System. "Chosen, imposed, inherited, made up." 

In Jefferson's vision, these materials include music and literature, as well as the people, places, memories and experiences that shape our identity and sense of self. For the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist, a central component is her upbringing as part of Chicago's "Black bourgeoisie" — an elite society of accomplished, prosperous African Americans — in the 1950s and 1960s.   

In her entertaining and innovative new memoir, Jefferson pulls apart and reexamines formative influences — from musical icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ike and Tina Turner and Nina Simone; to her parents, a respected pediatrician father who struggled with depression, and a vivacious, socialite mother with high expectations of her children.   

Jefferson is the winner of the 2022 Windham-Campbell Prize in Nonfiction. Constructing a Nervous System follows her acclaimed 2015 memoir Negroland, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.   

Jefferson spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in New York City.

Margo Jefferson, c. 1950 (Submitted by Margo Jefferson, Penguin Random House Canada)

Creating self

"We all have this self that has a set of memories, associations and experiences. We're determined by geography, by history; but we also have our own personal cultures, this collection of materials.

"It might be the most ostensibly fleeting impression. It might be some book that you read at some critical age. It might be a piece of music, it might be a landscape. But these are the things we take in and never forget.

"We are obsessed with them. We may love them, we may hate them, but they settle into our blood system.

We may love them, we may hate them, but they settle into our blood system.

"They are the materials that we are constantly drawing from, making mesh with, or that contradict our ongoing historical, social and political self. 

"It's as if we're always curating our own culture — that's very much what the objects and the people I write about in this book are."

Among the elite

"Part of what goes on in Negroland is what goes on in any bourgeoisie — an appreciation of life's pleasures, making sure that you and your children have plenty of literal privileges, ways of entertaining yourself, travel, good schools for your children. And since we were a Black bourgeoisie, the onus was particularly strong.

"All the ways in which you can show and prove and also savour and enjoy accomplishments, which, if you are Black, you are aware have basically been acquired amid the resistance of the larger culture. So there was a certain sense of, 'We are vindicated,' that went along with, 'Here we are, we've earned this and we're having a lot of fun.'"

"There was also a kind of insistence that we were the vanguard of the race, and it was up to us to prove that any Black person could be as good as, if not better than, what white people wanted to believe we were. So we were constantly meant to be emblems of equality and even superiority.

"So everything that you did — from doing well in school to behaving well in restaurants — everything you did or said, if you didn't do it perfectly, could have a bad effect on the reputation of the race.

"You weren't simply an individual. You were a symbol of the race's possibilities." 

Clockwise from left: Margo Jefferson's parents, Irma and Ronald, just engaged, in Los Angeles, c. 1941; Margo Jefferson, Right, with her mother Irma and sister Denise c. 1950s; Margo, Front, and her sister, Denise, in Quebec, Canada c. 1956. (Submitted by Margo Jefferson, Penguin Random House Canada)

Black feminism

"I grew up with a strong sense of what my responsibilities were as a young Black girl, as a Black woman, as a representative of the Black bourgeoisie or Black elite, and as a person living in a society that had very stern and often punitive definitions, notions and ideologies about the ways in which Black people and women were inferior.

These women — I was a follower, they were leaders — began to think about, theorize and politicize what we call Black feminism, which was many identities at once that have to be navigated.

"Black women around the country were at the crossroads of these conflicts. A Black power movement that was misogynist, a feminist movement that was full of racism.

"These women — I was a follower, they were leaders — began to think about, theorize and politicize what we call Black feminism, which was many identities at once that have to be navigated. Unless you're navigating all of them, you're not doing justice to the political movement.

"You're not doing justice to its power, to its complication." 

The power of music

American pianist and jazz singer Nina Simone's deep, raspy voice made her a unique jazz figure and later helped chronicle the civil rights movement. (Getty Images )

"What I didn't realize until much later was that Nina Simone suffered from bipolar disorder. I now think that part of what distanced me from her was that, not knowing any of this, I lost that intimate connection I had with her in the late fifties and early sixties. 

"In later years, she very much became a symbol of Black power and the kinetic force of Black anger. And I found that thrilling. But I lost the one-on-one sense of this artist I had a private relationship with — which, when I realized how much she had suffered from her bipolar disorders, I actually regained. 

"If one hears a piece of music such as I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, I now hear it as a very bizarre double. One is: 'I wish — as a Black person, as a Black woman, as a voice for all Black Americans — I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.'

"It's also: 'I wish — as Nina Simone in the grip of my own complexities, agonies, mood swings and psychological horrors — I wish I knew how it would feel to be free of that.'"

Performative living

"Both temperamentally and culturally, I have been brought up in extremely theatrical, performative worlds. That meant learning which persona was needed for what situation, for what setting, for what set of cultural demands. That was absolutely crucial to my identity.

I wanted the reader to be aware of that at all times, and maybe I wanted to set that loose in the reader — to start staging your own performances, if you're reading about mine.

"For a time, I did want to be an actress. But this is just the rituals of assuming other manners, selves, ways of being that are very intimately connected with what you think of as your core self, but that allow you to go elsewhere. 

"To be virtuosic in other ways, that's just thrilling to me — in other people and when I'm able to do it myself.

"I wanted the reader to be aware of that at all times, and maybe I wanted to set that loose in the reader — to start staging your own performances, if you're reading about mine."

Margo Jefferson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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