Margo Jefferson
Photo by Mike McGregor/Guardian News Media

Margo Jefferson: “Criticism demands authority”

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Short Profile

Name: Margo Jefferson
DOB: 17 October 1948
Place of birth: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Occupation: Author, critic

Ms. Jefferson, is it ever possible to separate personal experience from cultural documentation, or are the two inextricably linked?

I think “inextricably” is a strange word because we tend to think that inextricably means that the two things are symmetrical. I would certainly say that my life, and perhaps human life in general, follows an intricate pattern of defining, declaring, struggling for, fighting for what we think of and treasure as the self. The inviolate self. This begins with our families: your parents are part of your cultural landscape, and they are also shaped by larger forces than them. However, I do think that race, gender and class — those are “inextricably” linked.

As a writer and Pulitzer Prize winning culture critic, is that problematic?

I want to dramatize and make visible those separates in ways from which they could never be wholly separate from each other. My book Negroland, for example, is a cultural memoir that’s really about the navigations between those strange spaces, between the personal and this larger, social, political and cultural landscape. I spent so many years being a critic, that to find my way into that bramble of intimacies from a personal place was tricky and frightening. My first thought was to give up, to relinquish everything and find a completely new voice.

“Criticism does demand a certain kind of authority, but what about the authority of not really being sure what you think?”

Really? How come?

Criticism does demand a certain kind of authority, but what about the authority of not really being sure what you think? What about the authority, the authenticity that comes from bringing all your intellectual, emotional and spiritual equipment to a piece of art or entertainment whilst still being uncertain and confused? What about the authority and authenticity of intelligent questioning?

What was the result? Were you able to push those boundaries further in your memoir?

Well, I realized that I don’t have to renounce being a critic because criticism has vulnerability and ambivalence, too. The act of transitioning from criticism to writing a memoir became more like a performer taking on a completely new style: you have to retrain the muscles of the mind and of the spirit. There’s a whole legacy of criticism and even a kind of mythology of criticism, in which you are the omniscient narrator. You are narrating with a voice that is declaring, “My tastes are sacred, they are fixed. I am mediating for you as the reader.”

But it seems like your narrative voice has even more authority in telling your personal story.

Right, and that’s definitely a powerful position. It means you have to be very careful and strict over how you use your personal material and your personal life. In many ways, everything about my upbringing decreed that I wouldn’t write a memoir because in the world where I grew up, in Chicago in the fifties and sixties, one key way of protesting ourselves — “we” meaning black people — against racism, against its stereotypes and its insults, was to curate and narrate very carefully the story of the people. I really was taught that not only does your behavior reflect the race, but we don’t talk or acknowledge our lapses, our weaknesses, our failures as a people outside of our own community, because white people will always take them as a sign that racism is justified.

That seems like a huge responsibility. Do you still feel that way today?

I mean, it sounds very primal and something that a sophisticated person — and I am saying that a little ironically — would have moved past. (Laughs) But we are very much shaped by this talk as a child. I had to find my own way to talk about it as a defense, as protective coloration, please forgive the pun, and almost to move past it to some forms of revelation.

Does the tension caused by nostalgia concern you?

Well, think about what we’re seeing right now in the emotional Trump ideology: this angry, furiously and poisonously nostalgic, “Let’s go back to the time when the only people that had privileges bestowed by right, whether it’s by God or whatever, were white men.” All minorities have been pushed into this dustbin, “Well, you were struggling for things that you don’t really deserve by nature, so we need to take back what you never deserved to begin with. Your privileges were provisional.”

Do you feel the weight of that manifestation, or is the entertainment industry evolving past that?

There isn’t only one way that black art or entertainment is represented, and that’s the most important thing. We’re permeating every style. We’re claiming, and when necessary appropriating, all kinds of forms. Nothing is forbidden because it’s not what black people do, because it’s not what we think of as black art. No false start — that’s exciting.

“I’m glad that as a writer I tried to do a lot of things that I hadn’t done before. Technically and emotionally, that excited me still.”

Are pop icons like Rihanna and Beyoncé helping to champion that?

You know what? I think they are! They are popularizers of various styles of cheekiness, of independence, of sexual power, sexual gamesmanship. Rihanna I haven’t followed that closely but God, I love looking at her. (Laughs) But I like her insolence as a performer. I really like that Beyoncé claims the word and the many meanings of “feminism.” She has absolutely ignited the conversation. One sees growth and change in her work and that really matters to me. Beyoncé has also clearly decided that staying away from interviews is enhancing, and that is a strong decision for an entertainer to make when curating their image, their story.

It goes back to what we you were saying about there being authority in telling, or in this case not telling, one’s story. It’s an act of power either way.

Right. Performers are always doing very delicate navigations between how accessible they are and how remote they are. You always need a kind of ongoing dramatic tension between the performer and their audience. She has got several layers going: she’s got the tension between herself live and herself on video, she’s got the tension between herself and all her fans and she’s got the tension between herself not speaking publicly very often and the “Beyhive,” whose members speak about her constantly. This preserves her mystery whilst giving her more power.

Do you feel like that’s something you achieved with Negroland?

Well, with Negroland, I wanted to capture the various masks and personas I have adapted and I was very open about the psychological struggles and costs. When I contemplate it, I’m proud that I didn’t try to impose a kind of arc of unity and of upward growth towards revelation and resolution. I used more than one voice, more than one persona because I wanted to capture the fractures in the experience. I’m glad that as a writer I tried to do a lot of things that I hadn’t done before. Technically and emotionally, that excited me still.