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literature : interview

Margo Jefferson

by Tobi Haslett

“Crude action is required here. Take off that limb, see what’s left.”


Margo Jefferson’s sister, Denise, contemplating her reflection, c. 1951. Courtesy of the author.

Margo Jefferson was born into a world of exquisite, punishing distinctions. A daughter of the Negro elite—or the colored aristocracy, or the blue vein society, or the “big families”—she was raised among a fearfully dignified milieu, a people desperate to prove themselves. To prove their intelligence, refinement, moral scruples, and impeccable taste. “Clever of me to become a critic,” she writes in her recent memoir, Negroland. “We critics scrutinize and show off to a higher end.” In 1995, she was rewarded, yet again, for all of that scrutiny—with a Pulitzer Prize.


In Negroland, Jefferson’s discriminating judgements are pitched at her own upbringing, full of strenuous dignity and strident achievement. For the women of Negroland, of course, the stakes were impossibly high: Jefferson recalls the brutally enforced social hierarchies and the cruel inspection of physical beauty. Her girlhood was a minefield dotted with malicious little differences—in hair texture, skin color, the flare of the nostril, and the thickness of the lips. By the 1970s, she was a radical feminist.

Listening to the recording once more, I noticed that a few moments in our conversation—points of agreement or evasion, of revision or understanding—carried a strange emphasis. A word would be stretched, or sighed—or blurted out. I have rendered these words in italics, and it seems, in a way, fitting. The slanted letters look like what they are: two people—two Negroes, actually—leaning in a little closer, trying to say exactly what they mean.

Tobi Haslett I hope you won’t find this first question too much of an ambush—but I just watched a film you were in.

Margo Jefferson Oh my god—Some American Feminists?

TH Yes! It’s such a wistful view of the women’s liberation movement. And you have clearly been positioned as the ambassador for black feminism: there are certain aspects of how you carry yourself, how you express yourself, that suggest that already know that you are not there as a single feminist thinker or a woman entitled to your own idiosyncrasies. Ti-Grace Atkinson is sort of the melancholic radical who’s suffered a grave disillusionment, and Kate Millett is affable, charming, and bohemian. But you blast out these eloquent little manifestos—like when you quote Kay Lindsey: “The white woman is the sexual object and the black woman is the sexual laborer.” That stopped me cold.

MJ I’m going to play a little with what Zora Neale Hurston says: in a white setting like that, the aspects of your blackness that are useful to legitimatizing that whiteness are what become important. So the filmmakers needed me. And I needed them because I—we all—felt under siege in those days, because there weren’t a lot of us and we were poised between white women and black men. We needed a voice, and why shouldn’t it be mine? Ego, I suppose, is involved here. But now that you present it in this way, I see that for all of my pride in being part of this upstart, somewhat renegade movement, I was still performing in this so-called radical context as what I’d been performing as a well-brought-up Negro girl for years. There are certain places where your personality is allowed to flourish and be fun, and there are a lot of other situations where you are just representative. So, in a strange way, that film was an extension of a much more decorous job I’d been performing since I entered the Lab School, or since I first went to Marshall Field’s with my mother.

Now, I wasn’t dressed preppy. I do remember it was a Kenzo top!

TH I didn’t say you were preppy! But how you held yourself, how you talked—

MJ It was a KENZO top! (laughter) I can’t believe I remember that! But that formality of speech, yes. And sometimes I look at myself on tape—I haven’t seen this movie in years—and I think, “Ugh, God, that perfect diction.” It’s natural to me—but oh it’s just so pristine. You know? It’s strange to keep confronting, in these stylistic ways, how you were constructed. What you were constructed to be in the world.

TH The bourgeois rebel is such an unusual pose for a black person to strike. I remember reading Darryl Pinckney’s novel High Cotton and having a little shudder of revulsion—and recognition—when the narrator finds himself ostentatiously reading the latest issue of Semiotext(e) or a huge collection of the Frankfurt School’s writings when he takes the subway down from Columbia.

MJ Yes, he picked a perfect emblematic moment. But then there are moments when you decide you’d better hide that. During the peak of the Black Power days, you’d much rather make sure you were reading Malcolm X, or The Black Aesthetic, or Amiri Baraka—still a form of intellectualism, but it was different.

TH Your own book is so handsome… almost too handsome. It was eerie for me be carrying it around—this scrupulously pretty book called Negroland, with the vintage photograph and text that makes it look like a French novel—

MJ And to have someone looking from your face, to the book cover, to your face—

TH And finding perfect equivalence.

MJ Yes! (laughter)

TH A question about the memoir itself, though: Was there ever really a sense of pronounced bourgeois guilt in your family? There are so many strange attitudes surrounding race and class available: the sense of “lifting as we climb” is different from noblesse oblige is different from a more Marxist take: revulsion at a class position that can only be arrived at through the exploitation of others.

MJ I would not say that in my household there was a lot of any real bourgeois guilt. There was a sense that, “We do not want to be wantonly snobbish. We want to have decent liberal politics, we want to talk about prejudice, but everything we have, we have justly earned. Now, that person over there, Dr. So-and-So, who maybe does such-and-such to his patients...” That’s another issue. Or, “So-and-so who spends money like water.” Sometimes it was a sociological judgment, but sometimes it was an aesthetic judgment. When my sister was turning sixteen, my mother said to her, ”Alright, you can ‘come out’ [as a debutante] or you can go to Europe for the summer. You can’t do both.” And my sister picked Europe. And my mother said, “Well thank goodness you have the good sense to do that”—meaning, much better taste—and then she said, “Oh, what are Negroes coming out into anyway?” And I thought, what a double-edged social comment! As if to say, “Please, let’s not let our pretentions get so great that we look foolish. On the other hand, let’s not pretend for a moment that these may not be pretentions we choose to utilize.” My mother was a genius.

TH I was besotted with the image you present of her in the book. And I mean no offense when I say this, but she seems not like a cold presence, but a removed presence, somebody who’s almost embalmed in her class and generational authority, who serves as this receptacle of lessons in how to be a dignified black Lady with a capital L.

MJ You did pick up a certain authorial… coolness. She was very witty, and I hope you can see some of that in the book. So she could improvise and be loads of fun. She was playful, but she did want my sister and me to be perfect. Perfect ladies, but not at the expense of being perfectly accomplished students, of having what she thought of as good ethics. She once told me, “You don’t just want to have personality, you want to have character.”

TH Was she jovial, ever? I’m remembering what she said about your afro: “If a fly were to get caught in that thing, he would break his little wings trying to get out.” What was that? A signpost of her class prejudices, or a kind of melancholy farewell to the age of black decorum? Was she being cruel?

MJ She was laughing her head off with a friend of hers. Light-skinned with red-blonde hair from Alabama. And they were sitting on the sunporch just having a marvelous time, but it was also—well, there is hostility in it. Humor is one of the best vehicles for hostility, isn’t it? It’s quite cutting. It was done in the spirit of merriment, but I remember standing outside the porch thinking, “How dare the two of you? Go to hell!” She’s an interesting character; maybe I’ll have to theatricalize her and let an actress take her over. But I’m glad you were besotted with her, because that was her effect on people.

TH But also besotted with her absence. She’s this coruscating presence that glitters through the book, and then turns suddenly serious, and then seems to, by the end of it, recline into this persona of grandeur and noblesse. It was so mysterious to me. But maybe I’m comparing your book to Fierce Attatchments, Vivian Gornick’s memoir. There’s something about the friction between race and class, the exquisite sense of having been ever so slightly derided or overlooked, of having to be ever so slightly defensive or proper—it’s a virus, a mania. There’s an odd symmetry to being a black woman born to Black Society who is jealously guarding your own class advantages—and being a Jewish Marxist growing up in a tenement in the Bronx. There’s the feeling that while you might be maligned or marginalized for now, that history is secretly working in your favor. The Talented Tenth will triumph, the proletariat will be redeemed.

MJ Ah, yes!

TH But in Fierce Attachments, Gornick’s mother feels almost betrayed by her radical feminist daughter. Feminism dispensed with this grand narrative that had animated her mother’s imagination forever, the romance of the working class. And it also seemed a rejection of love, a notion that, for her mother, was so very important. How did your mother feel about your feminism—and your enduring singledom?

MJ She and her generation were intrigued, but defensive, about my feminism. They didn’t just say, “Oh, this is ridiculous.” The form of it was more, “Well, we were independent and we knew what was going on.” At the time of the Anita Hill affair, she and her friends would say, “Well, men were always trying to come on to you, or make advances. You simply found ways—you had to find ways to keep them at a distance.” But I think that was the resentment that we were complaining openly, and openly challenging ideologies, habits, conventions that they had had to put up with, no matter how unpleasant. But to say, “Oh, you’re being whiney,” doesn’t entirely reflect well on you, and it starts making you ask, “Did I make too many compromises?” And my keycard was always my professional success. That was very important. My sister became the director of the Alvin Ailey School. I became a successful journalist—that mattered to them. In some ways I exceeded her plans for me.

TH In what way?

MJ Some of the things that I was able to enter were simply not available when she and her friends were coming along. Journalism was segregated. Very few black people were getting Pulitzer Prizes. History in that way has been on my side, and clearly was. My parents came to think, “Ah. We have a prize here, in certain ways, don’t we?” We were both girls, but they were clearly quite ambitious for us, or we would not have become what we became. So that wasn’t a betrayal, which is what you’re saying, what I find so interesting about Vivian and her mother. Now, how did I first meet Vivian? There we were, as part of this second wave of Feminists in New York, so I must have met Vivian in the ’70s. She was much better known than I. She was already writing with the Village Voice, but you know we were all part of the movement—Vivian, Honor Moore, whole bunches of us belonged to this loose feminist world. Ti-Grace was a good friend of mine actually.

TH Gornick has a beautiful line about Delmore Schwartz: “For intellectually ambitious Jews, the late ’30s and early ’40s were the equivalent of life for African American intellectuals in the ’60s and ’70s: The door of assimilation had been pushed sufficiently open so that some of them could walk through (if they turned sideways).” I think it’s a lovely metaphor for the literal torsion, the tortuousness of a precarious social situation that derives a little bit of cultural capital from its precariousness. The formal slyness of your book, how it twists…

MJ I like “formal slyness.” I knew once I agreed with myself that I would write something called a memoir, that a straightforward narrative, either through chronology or through a kind of tonal uniformity, would be false to the experience. Quick shifts of manner, mood, of tactic, of performance, of necessity. Now you see me, now you don’t. Oh, a minute ago you thought that I was your all-American cheerleader, but now I’m stepping back and talking about a Civil Rights demonstration. But oh no, no, no, let’s go to the movies this weekend. Constantly shifting. And I knew that the structure of the book and the range of tones had to manifest that. Also, a friend of mine said to me, “You know, given the prohibitions in terms of what you’re able to say aloud, what should you reveal to the larger world? Where do you start? You were brought up in every way not write this book.” So you could see the book as my finding various ways, in fact, to write it—write at it, write through it, write around it.

TH You make an elaborate show of withholding people’s names.

MJ Trying to take into account every single possible outcome or subtextual possibility in each moment.

TH In Kafka’s journals he writes about different “impossibilities”—and he points to the “impossibility” of being a Jewish writer writing in German.

For me, that statement is almost too big to think about all at once. But, along with the metaphysical grandeur of that impossibility, what’s interesting to me is that it’s also a question of audience. The audience of a text, when you are writing from outside—becomes a chorus of damning or fetishizing or supportive or condescending voices.

MJ Yes! Because it’s a series of imagined audiences, as your “chorus” already indicates. And you’re projecting them, but they also have been projected onto you, as you know perfectly well. They are not in concert with one another; many of them are oppositional or suspicious of each other. But you speak in the language, the tongues that can address, maybe placate, and acknowledge all of them. Which can be absolutely overwhelming. Which takes us back to that opening scene—of me in the movie, the sense that everyone is requiring much too much of the performance. The problem is technical, partly. How do you work all that into an essay without seeming to rather desperately be gesturing toward these different constituencies?

TH The scene in the book when you read James Baldwin as a schoolgirl—you talk about “syntactical miscegenation.” Who was this “we” that he was talking about? Who was the “I”? The “our”? You arrive at the conclusion that this univocality, this almost Whitmanian expansiveness, is achieved at the expense of at least one constituency: women.

MJ The intellectual universe that Baldwin was a part of—and now I’m really thinking of the essays—was a male universe. Homosexuals were no less male in the sense of the canon. And what real achievement was and who the great, great writers were—you were no less male if you were gay than if you were straight. The masters: Henry James, or Richard Wright. Did Baldwin ever write about a Nella Larsen or a Gwendolyn Brooks? He is of his time in that way. The “our” in virtually all the essays is that old-world “our” that essentially means women can come along—like the way “he” used to mean all human beings. The drama of black oppression was much more searing for decades, generations, even centuries, in the American consciousness when it was applied to men, because we were all being held up to be standards of the truly important stories in male narratives. Baldwin could write lovingly about women, but that’s not the same thing.

TH You write about how your family oriented itself toward lower class whites. Your laundryman snubs your mother in Sears. Her relationship to other blacks is a highly codified, baroque affair. When Elizabeth Hardwick went to Selma, she saw these poor, white racists demonstrating on the courthouse steps, and it reveals her ethical genius: “This group of Southerners has only the nothingness of racist preoccupation, the burning incoherence.”

MJ It’s fascinating. I can’t say I feel that viscerally—in the way that you’re talking about—but I have come to understand and feel that just by the reading of history. And literature. People’s grief and terror are enormous. But that virtually absolute lack of sympathy for interest in the narrative of poor, presumably bigoted whites that my parents’ generation had—that was just pretty non-negotiable. That was something that you could cling to. White people don’t have an excuse; they could have had anything. Of course, my parents knew that was not completely true. They’d read “Grapes of Wrath.” But it was a form of revenge for them almost. The confidence to be able to utterly denounce and feel utterly superior to that one group of white people. As soon as you moved into people of your class and above, it all got trickier. But you can truly, fully hate and feel contempt for the clerk in the hotel who doesn’t give you a good enough room. Because what is he? He’s a clerk in a hotel. And that can help cover the absolute humiliation you experienced. So with these elaborate trades and compensations, that hole of pain opened.

TH A culture of haggling—a laborious negotiation.

MJ Yes, which sometimes I had to not even acknowledge as being negotiated.

TH You say that you were born at the perfect time in history to have the news and the world of politics be an objective correlative for your inner life: the chance to reinvent yourself as a result of Black Power, the New Left, Feminism. You write: “One had to take blunt weapons to oneself and start hacking away.” The bluntness that rejects the finely modulated world whose mores you had inherited.

MJ Crude action is required here, or you’re damned in some way. Just hack, take it away. Take off that limb, see what’s left.

TH And yet, when you talk about your attraction to suicide, that is not blunt in the slightest. That, to me, is a mere excrescence of precisely the world you are trying to reject. You say that you wanted a death—I love this line—“a death commensurate with bourgeois achievement, political awareness, and aesthetically compelling feminine despair."

MJ I had to give them a death they could live up to, okay? (laughter) I won’t be disdained. No, you’re right about that—that moment is my version of the absolute ecstasy you felt within all those movements when it’s all gone. I can yell at this person, I can scream, I can say, “How dare you talk like that to me?!” I still often think with movements we don’t talk about how much sheer fun those moments were, those eruptions.

TH And yet, you could maintain that this urge to self-obliterate was in keeping with your political ideas. Not in keeping with, maybe, but resonating with them.

MJ I’m not sure that I really cared. It was not the kind of contradiction, as we used to say, or compromise. It was my private, interior life. And in a sense, it was probably a reproach—or not a reproach, but I was really telling every area of my life. Either you’re not enough for me, or I’m not enough for you. I can’t make these things work, however much I try. It doesn’t give me enough to make me feel I want to sustain. And that was a kind of charge thrown at blackness, at feminism. I think I say that at one point in the book: “You’ve all asked too much of me. I can’t—no.”

TH And “the enemies of your people took too much.”

MJ Yes, they took too much, you asked too much.

TH So the self is… cancelled?

MJ The self gets cancelled, but then the self—in this rather perverted way, through grief, loss, despair—reconstitutes itself.

 

Tobi Haslett is a writer living in New York.

Tags:
memoir
criticism
race
feminism
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