Margo Jefferson spent many years as the theatre critic for The New York Times and is now a professor at Columbia. Last year, she published the highly acclaimed memoir Negroland. Stylistically innovative and unflinchingly honest, Negroland describes her life among Chicago’s society of black elites. With a critic’s precision, Jefferson illustrates the ways she negotiated and revised the many layers of her identity over the course of her life. Her experiences feel particularly relevant at a moment when identity politics are at the forefront of national debates about equality. We spoke with her about why she decided to write a memoir, how her style developed, and how her work relates to intersectional feminism.
How did you come to deciding to write a memoir after working in so many other forms in your career before that?
I had really only done varieties of criticism, and I wanted to try something very different that would let me experiment with other kinds of writing, strategies, style. And there was a call on me, emotionally and intellectually.
So you felt like you had to tell this story?
I wanted to tell this story, yes, absolutely. I didn't start thinking, let me write a memoir. This story, this world, and needing to write about it, came to me. I thought a memoir that blends the cultural and the personal would be the best way to write it.
The book is very stylistically adventurous. It shifts from first to third person, and it jumps through to different times from the historical into the personal. It switches between scenes, vignettes, and pieces of dialogue. How did you develop a way to combine so many forms?
I've actually always written piecemeal, even for my seemingly orderly reviews. I'm kind of a magpie. But also, I'd be writing these different pieces, and one would be a scene, and one would be an intellectual analysis, and there'd be history, and there'd be a little anecdote. I kept thinking, what's the narrative voice you need? Then I realized this variety is absolutely a key aspect of the experience: of the different levels of consciousness, and of performance, and of expectation that this world required. This world is a navigation between worlds, and between roles that you inhabit very genuinely and also perform. So I realized a kind of neat arc, a clear and obvious chronology—that's not what I want to do, and it's not true to the experience I want to address.
So it's varied in the same way that your identity becomes varied as the story unfolds.
Yes, you are using multiple identities, and they're coming to you and coming upon you. It's also partly a child's consciousness in the early part. That narrator is taking in a lot of different kinds of lessons and experiences from a lot of directions, sometimes simultaneously. They don't always make total sense to the child. The writer has to make sense. But, again, that's a reason for well-wrought juxtapositions and sudden shifts of tone.
The other thing is I have a bundle of feelings and opinions and thoughts about this world. I know I say early on in that long history section, I'm a chronicler, I'm an elegist, I'm a critic, I'm an expatriate. So I had to find different ways and means for all those roles that even I the adult writer am inhabiting.
Do you see your work as a critic and your memoir writing as separate? Are your process and approach really different, or are they related?
There's no reason they shouldn't be related. The book is, in some ways, very intimate cultural criticism. Since I stopped doing critical journalism regularly, on a beat, I've gotten more and more interested in the kind of criticism in which the writer is really engaged with ambivalence and mixed feelings, and is working with kinds of authority that aren't the usual masterful omniscient narrator authority. Where the writer is willing to be more vulnerable and uncertain. That range of tones has been more and more interesting to me. That's what I'd like to work with more in my criticism from now on.
Do you think the critical form has started to skew more towards the first-person and vulnerable style rather than having a distant, omniscient narrator?
It depends very much on what the publication is, but there's a lot of it now, which is good. But what's interesting is, once I started teaching this, I realized you can go back several centuries and find this kind of confessional, or very intimate form. I'm holding forth, I'm improvising, it's almost free form. You can find examples of this. There is a lineage. But I think it's particularly popular now, and you're even seeing more of it in the types of publications that used to be much more formal. They didn't want you to say “I.”
So maybe it's always existed, it just has a different status now.
Yeah, I think that's right.
There’s a part of the book where you talk about the transition into the late 1960s. There had been pressure for you to inhabit this stifled bourgeois identity, and then that exploded at the end of the 1960s as the Black Power movement and other movements were gaining speed. Did it feel like a relief for these standards to change, or did it become a different sort of pressure
Both. It was extremely exciting. And, of course, it imposed new pressures. New things you had to live up to. Political positions. Definitions of blackness, which were just as insistent as definitions of proper negro-ness. That's the nature of fervent change. Later, there were parts of that we ended up critiquing. Certainly the feminist critique was crucial. But again, that's the nature of things. That’s fine.
You wrote that at the time, feminism was considered this thing for white women, but you didn't feel that way.
There was a black feminist movement, and it really was starting, and it was contentious. We felt pushed between anti-feminist black men and white women who ranged from simply knowing nothing about race to caring nothing about race. But it was there. It arose. I was drawn to it inevitably and passionately.
It seems like a lot of those themes are coming up again in feminism now over the idea of intersectionality. Feminists are still having this conversation about how to incorporate different kinds of discrimination, how to combine different struggles and to be inclusive in these movements.
Well, thank god feminists are. I hope the male left is having these conversations, too. They just need to. There was sometimes a rhetorical gambit from men that would put all the need to work this out on women, when they weren't always working so well with intersectionality themselves. Of course it's going on now, and it's more sophisticated. The language is getting more textured, more subtle, bolder in many ways.
Negroland felt very relevant to that discourse.
Everybody gets that the book is very much about the absolute knotting together of race and class. Periodically, some readers don't seem as aware that gender, to me, is absolutely as knotted in there. It's really race, class, and gender—and the particulars of how they work together. It's not the same in every way, across gender lines any more than across class lines.
They all have their own particular ways of functioning and dividing.
Yes, and meshing, and disguising themselves, and hiding each other, and passing for each other. So it's really that triptych.
Are there any other projects you're working on right now?
I'm on leave right now, and some of that is dreaming and thinking time for what I will do next. I have many friends who have written more books than I have, but the one thing that seems to be true is, if you jump too quickly, which can be tempting, it’s like the rebound romance. Wait a minute, I don’t really want that, I made a mistake. So I want to give myself time.
Interview by Molly Long