CHICAGO — Margo Jefferson, who has worked a half-century as one of the more formidable and composed critics of American culture, watched the city unwind from the back seat of an SUV. We moved slowly through traffic, maneuvering from the Loop to Wicker Park. She doesn’t get back here often anymore. She grew up in Hyde Park and Bronzeville but her parents, who loom large in her story and feel present in her everyday poise, died; her older sister, the ballet dancer and Ailey School director Denise Jefferson, died from ovarian cancer in 2010. “There is something melancholy in having one’s immediate family all gone, seeing many of their friends gone, much of their world gone,” she said.
Her Chicago is full of ghosts now.
Here, the Fine Arts Building, where she studied dance as a child; there, the shells of long-passed Chicago department stores where her mother, a socialite, once shopped. And those are just tangible haunts. She writes in “Constructing a Nervous System,” her recently published second memoir, about the Chicago actor Janice Kingslow, who died in obscurity. They never met, but Jefferson’s mother knew Kingslow, and as Jefferson recounts in the book, her mother and friends were having lunch in a downtown restaurant in the 1970s when “a frail, sallow woman approached their table and stood waiting till they grew silent.” None of you remember me, do you? she asked the women.
“SHE HAUNTS ME”
Slowly, the name returned.
Here was Janice Kingslow, their sorority sister, but also, Janice Kingslow, the Evanston native and light-skinned Black actor once offered a Hollywood contract on the condition that she would change her name and pass as white on screen. Kingslow would not, and then wrote about the experience (“I Refuse to Pass”) for a 1950 issue of Negro Digest; a decade later, she wrote bluntly for Ebony about her mental health problems. She cofounded a local theater company, the DuBois Players, and starred on Broadway; she worked in the PR department of NBC and Provident hospital on Washington Park, where Jefferson’s father ran the pediatrics department. Kingslow performed regularly on progressive Chicago radio shows and was eventually blacklisted during the Red Scare. By 1963, just four years after that essay on her nervous breakdown, Kingslow was already popping up in “Whatever Happened to …” columns.
This story of Kingslow appearing like a specter in a Chicago restaurant became part of family lore, Jefferson told me. Even now, “I do think of her and what could have been.
“She haunts me, she does.”
HER LATEST ACT
Jefferson published her first criticism in 1973, titled “Ripping Off Black Music,” for Harper’s; by 1995, after years of covering theater and literature for the New York Times, she won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. At 74, her latest act is being a memoirist, but she remains very much a critic. Only now, turned inward. If her first memoir, the 2015 bestseller “Negroland,” was about growing up in Chicago’s midcentury Black bourgeoisie and learning to present oneself, “Constructing a Nervous System” considers the cultural markers of a life that coalesced into the many voices of Margo Jefferson. She imagined a nervous system. “But not the standard biological one.”
We reach Semicolon Bookstore in Wicker Park, where Jefferson agreed to sign its stock of her books. Jefferson takes a seat at a small table in the center of the store and digs in. Then she glances up at the bookshelves and notices Viola Davis’ new memoir.
“Viola!” she says. “That face is in every airport in America right now.”
She signs a book, slaps its cover shut and returns briefly to Kingslow.
“See, history didn’t have time for Janice, but it had time for her descendants. I’m haunted (by her), I think, because of my generational positioning. I was thinking of how my opportunities and choices, compared with her generation’s, and how manners and modes shaped it, but also, now, there is a centrality to Black art and Latinx art and queer art that absolutely never existed. Which is progress, but when I came along, I was the first woman of any race reviewing books at Newsweek. So I’m interested in my reactions to the plenitude younger people have. But when am I envious? Stiff-necked?”
A CULTURAL DISASSEMBLING
“Constructing the Nervous System” — which “shoves aside old ideas about memoir as mere biography,” wrote The Washington Post — is a cultural disassembling of Jefferson, so that the person can be better understood. It gets at something glossed over in many biographies — the way an artist is a pastiche of other artists and works, good, bad and mysterious. “We forget the origins of ourselves are often more modest than we let on,” she said. “We assemble and remake our sensibilities, take and reject cultural markers even when they are inept or morally ugly.” While writing “Negroland,” she became more aware of how closely she overlapped with the artists she grew up revering and writing about. Musicians like the pianist Bud Powell drew her back to her father, who owned a large collection of jazz LPs; she could explore an intimacy with dance through Black athletes. She considered her fascination with minstrels, joining it with a long love of Bing Crosby: “Everybody needs a minstrel man, and Black women like me have finally won the right to ours. Oprah had Dr. Phil. Condi had George Bush. I have Bing Crosby.”
It is both personal history and personal appraisal.
“I had not fully realized the influence of Black men,” she told me. “DuBois, Ellington, Marvin Gaye — I adored them and took it for granted. I didn’t realize how far you could move in the world, how conquering you could be, even as a Black man, who still had a license few women had. I had ambivalence about Ike Turner, who was a monster toward Tina Turner, even as he’s an important figure. I wanted to get at the unholy alliance of what we love even as it makes us squeamish.” In one of the most bracing bits, she strings together a visit to the Art Institute and Jules Breton’s painting “The Song of the Lark” with a love of Willa Cather and her novel of the same title; then, while teaching the book at Columbia University, she sees “white skin fetishism” in Cather, lack of room for Black figures. She wants her class disappointed — “As I’d had to be, time and time again, in a lifetime of reading white writers.”
GROWING UP IN HYDE PARK
Jefferson grew up in one of few Black families living in Hyde Park in the 1950s. Her first memoir is partly a portrait of a cloistered world of expectations and appearances. The first line of “Negroland” reads: “I was taught to avoid showing off.” Jefferson and her sister attended the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. When she asked her mother if they were upper class, her mother replied: “We’re considered upper-class Negros and upper-middle-class Americans. But most people would like to consider us Just More Negros.” If anyone asked if they were rich, she was to explain that they were “comfortable.”
When we talk, that sense of a presentation is still there. Her hands skate in the air as she talks and a certain old-world formality pops. She drops a verb like “partake” into casual conversation, and there is no sweat in the usage. She is, she agrees, theatrical.
She had wanted once to be an actress; after college at Brandeis University, she joined late ‘60′s experimental theater troupes. But she didn’t have the range, or the stamina for rejection.
Still, that voice, with its fondness for stage directing, remains in her writing: “Don’t pity him,” she instructs the reader on Powell, whom she dubs “a genius-monster” — a genius through practice, a monster through “cop beatings, medications, liquor, breakdowns, electroshock treatments, heroin and forced confinements in mental institutions.” Her memoirs are full of lists and lines crossed out and boldfaced type. But also, questions about the memoir as a road map to memories and connections and deep conjectures.
“I learned, in a funny way, I was becoming a critic of myself and how I questioned my own criticisms,” she said. “I was more suspicious and insistent of my own assumptions.”
She found her harsh assessments of Sammy Davis Jr. now “lofty and contemptuous. Not that I was wrong! He just needed more.” On Ella Fitzgerald, she digs into why, as a child, she was so bothered by the fact that the jazz legend would dare to perspire on TV.
OWNING HER OPINIONS
“Oh my, now this is … sublime ,” Jefferson said, walking into the library of the University Club of Chicago. It was hosting an onstage conversation with Chicago-based literary critic Donna Seaman. “This is, whoa, exquisite,” she continued, as she moved into the long dignified room overlooking the Art Institute and beyond, Lake Michigan. They would talk here before leadership from Chicago Public Library, book clubs, club members. It’s the kind of wood-polished elegance you imagine her growing up around.
When a question is raised about keeping the chat on time and efficient, she offers to race back to her hotel room and grab her watch. No, no, no, she’s told, not necessary.
“OK, but I can,” she said.
On the page, she’s less decorous, though getting there wasn’t easy. She had to grow into the ability to be less accommodating and gracious. “When I started straight out of (graduate school at Columbia University, where she teaches now), I felt my voice muted and that I need to be fearless in opinions, which was not how I was raised.” As she wrote of herself in “Negroland,” Jefferson had come “to feel that too much had been required,” so she “would have her revenge.” As she told Seaman that night at the event, ironically enough, she found inspiration in her mother and her mother’s friends’ reactions to “Gone With the Wind,” which they saw eagerly despite reservations about its depiction of Black Americans. “They took from it what they wished,” she said. And they left her with the spirit of owning her opinions: “I have my mind, my skills, my intelligence, my sense of humor. I am an equal participant in this culture and I will do with it what I wish.”
Then, as if scrutinizing her own self-empowerment, she offered one more ghost: Her grandmother Lillian McClendon Armstrong Saunders Thompson, who left a husband because he wasn’t ambitious enough, who started as a playground supervisor in Chicago and then worked her way to precinct captain. Who owned real estate and was involved in Chicago politics. When she died, her last words had been: “I’m so tired. So tired.”
In a journal Jefferson kept in the 1970s, she wrote that she asked herself what was the right way to honor a Black grandmother who didn’t want to be just another tired Black grandmother (and “had an early death to show for it.”) She felt tired for her grandmother, yet imagined her grandmother would push back: Have you earned the right to be tired?