Influential writer Margo Jefferson is haunted by ghosts

Margo Jefferson, who worked for half a century as one of America’s most fearsome and quiet critics of culture, watched the city unwind from the backseat of an SUV. We moved slowly through traffic, maneuvering from the Loop to Wicker Park. She doesn’t come here often anymore. She grew up in Hyde Park and Bronzeville but her parents, who occupy an important place in her story and feel present in her daily balance, have died. her older sister, ballet dancer and school principal Ailey Denise Jefferson, died of ovarian cancer in 2010.

His Chicago is now full of ghosts.

Here, the Palace of Fine Arts, where she studied dance as a child; there, the shells of the Chicago department stores where his mother, a socialite, once shopped. And these are just tangible lairs. She writes in “Constructing a Nervous System,” her recently published second memoir, about Chicago actor Janice Kingslow, who died in obscurity. They never met, but Jefferson’s mother knew Kingslow, and as Jefferson recounts in the book, his mother and friends were having lunch at a downtown restaurant in the 1970s when “a frail, sallow woman approached their table and waited until they were quiet. ” None of you remember me, do you? she asked the women.

Slowly the name came back.

Meet Janice Kingslow, their sorority sister, but also Janice Kingslow, the black, Evanston-born, light-skinned actress was once offered a contract in Hollywood on the condition that she change her name and pass as white in the ‘screen. Kingslow would not, 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 struggles. She co-founded a local theater company, the DuBois Players, and performed on Broadway; she worked in NBC’s public relations department and at Provident Hospital in Washington Park, where Jefferson’s father headed the pediatrics department. Kingslow performed regularly on progressive Chicago radio shows and was eventually blacklisted during the Red Scare. In 1963, only four years after this essay on his nervous breakdown, Kingslow already appeared in the columns of “Whatever Happened to…”.

This story of Kingslow appearing as a specter in a Chicago restaurant has become a family tradition, Jefferson told me. Even now, “I think about her and what could have been.

“She haunts me, she does.”

Jefferson published his first review in 1973, titled “Ripping Off Black Music”, for Harper’s; in 1995, after years of covering theater and literature for the New York Times, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Critics. At 74, her last act is to be a memoirist, but she remains very critical. Only now, turned inward. If his first memoir, the 2015 bestseller “Negroland,” was about growing up in middle-class black mid-century Chicago and learning how to show up, “Building a Nervous System” considers the cultural markers of a life which merged with the many voices of Margo Jefferson. She imagined a nervous system. “But not the standard organic.”

We reach the Semicolon Bookstore in Wicker Park, where Jefferson agreed to sign his stock of his books. Jefferson takes a seat at a small table in the center of the store and digs. Then she looks up at the shelves and notices Viola Davis’ new memoir.

“Alto!” she says. “That face is in every US airport right now.”

She signs a book, closes her cover, and briefly returns 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 about how my opportunities and choices, compared to his generation, and how mores and fashions have shaped him, but also now there’s a centrality to black art and latinx art and queer art that absolutely never existed. It’s progress, but when I arrived I was the first woman of any race to review books at Newsweek. I am therefore interested in my reactions to the plenitude of young people. But when am I envious? Stiff neck?

“Building the Nervous System” — which “dismisses old ideas about memoirs as mere biography,” wrote the Washington Post — is a cultural dismantling of Jefferson, so that the person can be better understood. This is something glossed over in many biographies – how an artist is a pastiche of other artists and works, good, bad and mysterious. “We forget that our origins are often more humble than we let on,” she said. “We assemble and reshape our sensibilities, pick up and discard cultural cues even when they’re inane or morally ugly.” While writing ‘Negroland’, she became more aware of the closeness to the artists she grew up revering and writing about. Musicians like pianist Bud Powell traced her back to her father, who had a large collection of jazz records; she could explore an intimacy with dance through black athletes. She considered her fascination with minstrelsy, joining it with a long love for Bing Crosby: “Everyone needs a minstrel man, and black women like me have finally earned the right to ours.” Oprah had Dr. Phil. Condi had George Bush. I have Bing Crosby.

It is both a personal story and a personal appreciation.

“I hadn’t fully realized the influence of black men,” she told me. “DuBois, Ellington, Marvin Gaye – I loved them and took that for granted. I hadn’t realized how far you could go in the world, how conquering you could be, even as a black man, who still had a license that few women had. I had ambivalence about Ike Turner being a monster to Tina Turner, even though he’s an important character. I wanted to touch the unholy covenant of what we love even though it makes us disgusted. In one of the most invigorating passages, she connects a visit to the Art Institute and Jules Breton’s painting “Le chant de l’alouette” with a love for Willa Cather and her novel of the same title; then, when she teaches the book at Columbia University, she sees in Cather the “fetishism of white skin”, the lack of place for black figures. She wanna his class disappointed – “As I must have been, time and time again, in a life of reading white writers.”

Jefferson grew up in one of the few black families living in Hyde Park in the 1950s. His early memoirs are in part a portrait of a cloistered world of expectations and appearances. The first line of “Negroland” reads: “I was taught to avoid showing myself.” Jefferson and his sister attended the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. When she asked her mother if they were upper class, her mother replied, “We are considered upper class blacks and upper middle class Americans. But most people would like to think of us as Just More Negros. If someone asked if he was rich, she had to explain that he was “comfortable”.

When we speak, that sense of presentation is always there. Her hands skate through the air as she speaks and a certain old world formality appears. She drops a verb like “participate” in casual conversation, and there’s no sweat in the usage. She is, she is okay, theatrical.

She had once wanted to be an actress; after graduating from Brandeis University, she joined experimental theater troupes in the late 60s. But she didn’t have the range, or the stamina for rejection.

Yet that voice, with its penchant for showmanship, lingers in her writing: “Don’t pity him,” she tells the reader about Powell, whom she dubs “a genius-monster” — a genius by practice. , a monster by “Cop beatings, drugs, alcohol, breakdowns, electroshock treatment, heroin and forced detentions in mental institutions.” His memoirs are full of lists and lines that are crossed out and bolded. But also, questions about memories as a roadmap to memories and deep connections and conjectures.

“I learned, in a fun way, about becoming a critic of myself and how I question my own critics,” she said. “I was more suspicious and insistent on my own assumptions.”

She found his harsh assessments of Sammy Davis Jr. now “high and dismissive. Not that I was wrong! He just needed more. On Ella Fitzgerald, she wonders why as a child she was so embarrassed that the jazz legend dared sweat on TV.

“Oh my God, now it’s… gorgeous“, Jefferson said, enter the library of the University Club of Chicago. He was hosting an onstage conversation with Chicago-based literary critic Donna Seaman. “It’s, wow, deliciousshe continued as she moved into the long, dignified room overlooking the Art Institute and beyond, Lake Michigan. They would speak here in front of Chicago Public Library leaders, book clubs, club members. It’s the kind of wood-polished elegance you imagine it growing into.

When a question is asked about the chat’s punctuality and efficiency, she offers to go back to her hotel room and take her watch. No, no, no, he is told, not necessary.

“Okay, but I box,” she says.

On the page, it is less suitable, although getting there has not been easy. She had to grow in the ability to be less accommodating and gracious. “When I started right away (Columbia University’s graduate school, where she now teaches), I felt my voice was muffled and I had to be fearless in opinions, which didn’t It’s not the way I was raised.” As she wrote about herself in “Negroland”, Jefferson had come “to feel that too much had been necessary”, so she would “have her revenge”. As she told Seaman that evening at the event, ironically enough, she found inspiration in her mother’s and her mother’s friends’ reactions to “Gone with the Wind”, which they looked forward to despite reservations about its portrayal of black Americans. “They took what they wanted from it,” she said. And they left her with the mind to own her opinions: “I have my mind, my skills, my intelligence, my sense of humor. I am an equal participant in this culture and will do with it what I want.

Then, as if peering into her own empowerment, she offered another ghost: her grandmother Lillian McClendon Armstrong Saunders Thompson, who left a husband because he wasn’t ambitious enough, who started out as a field overseer. gambling in Chicago and then worked his way up. to the riding captain. Who owned real estate and was involved in Chicago politics. When he died, his last words were, “I’m so tired. So tired.”

In a journal Jefferson kept in the 1970s, she wrote that she wondered what was the right way to honor a black grandmother who didn’t want to be just another tired black grandmother (and ” had an untimely death to show for it”. ) She felt tired for her grandmother, but imagined her grandmother would push back: Have you earned the right to be tired?

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