What the World Demands of You: The Millions Interviews Margo Jefferson

September 26, 2018 | 9 min read

I meet Margo Jefferson for breakfast at her hotel in Boulder, Colorado, where she’s speaking at a literary conference. She’s energetic in both her speech and movement, gesturing, reaching, illustrating with her hands—artifacts, I think, of her years immersed in theatre, where her criticism earned her a Pulitzer.

After our interview, I watched her at various panels during the conference and even in the face of confusing questions, she was smiling, gracious, witty as she discussed her upbringing and Negroland, her 2015 memoir of life in 1950s and 1960s America within upper-class black society.

We spoke about that book, its implications within today’s political context, her advice for young women of color, and what she’s working on now.

The Millions: Negroland is a cultural memoir. I had the feeling in reading it that you’re quite strategic in the places and times that you show us your emotions and motivations versus the times that you present yourself quite objectively, even clinically. How did you go about making these choices?

Margo Jefferson: It was a big breakthrough for me working on it, when I realized that certain ways in which I was brought up—always presenting a certain strategically composed self—and the fact that these things were sometimes competing, and sometimes collaborating. I had to both write about it and embed those contradictions in the writing.

Also, I’d spent my writing life as a critic. My initial feeling was that those kinds of tones and voices had to go; this was memoir. But then, I realized, no, that was as much a fixed part of my identity as other things. I realized I had to include the critic who is diagnosing, who is assessing, who is judging against a kind of backdrop that is aesthetic, cultural, political.

Third, I’d been brought up in the world of Negroland, a world where you might have to switch persona at any moment, depending, for example, on what my mother’s needs were, here’s what Betty Anne down the street needs, here’s what my teacher needs. In this situation, I have to confess to a certain awareness, a certain kind of knowledge. In this [other] situation, I have to play innocent. That’s theatrical, but that’s also psychological and factually accurate, this constant construction of different performing selves. Those were my guidelines.

And there was also a kind of raw emotional drive–I really did find that I couldn’t get at certain of the passages when I was in high school until I put them in the third person and I thought that once I did that, I could rewrite it in first person, but then looking at it on paper, I realized that it could work the way it was because adolescence is such a peculiar and isolated story. It’s almost fantastical, getting through adolescence!

TM: Yes, it seems that you were playing around not only with form, but also with perspective and point of view.

MJ: That was really interesting to me. I thought, if I’m trying a new form, then let me try strategies and devices as a writer that I haven’t before. I wanted dialogue, I wanted scenes, I wanted confessions, I wanted lists. So, it had to be more collaged in terms of form, style, strategy.

TM: You had a habit in your book of stating your intentions. At various points, you write, “let’s unpack this,” “I’m going to change my tone now,” “I’m going to begin in a quiet, clinical way.” What was the reasoning behind this?

MJ: Yes, it was deliberately disruptive, almost like a placard. I believe that began when I wrote the introduction, when I said “I was raised not to do certain things”—essentially, not to write memoir. That was a huge breakthrough for me because I was giving myself license to write, to struggle, with this writing. And those announcements were a kind of externalization of those little “clicks” where I had to re-adapt my persona in real life as the situation changed, as who I was with changed. I liked them as a theatrical device, too—you interrupt the dramatic action with an alienation effect.

TM: You wrote, “white people wanted to be white just as much as we did. They failed just as often. They failed more often.” That’s a really interesting statement in today’s political context. Do you think those competitive urges among white people—for everyone in society to live up to the ideals of whiteness while making sure that non-white people did not outdo whites—played out in the 2016 elections?

MJ: The Obamas embodied the dreams of minorities and everything that was impressive and traditionally thought of as white, but they showed it could also be acquired by black people. When Obama was at his best, he signaled that those ideals were not purely white. The best of Obama came in part from intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois—there were black and “third-world” intellectual and cultural and political traditions informing him. To see how those combined with “Western training”—that was impressive. But many of us knew there would be punishment—“there will be blood,” as the saying goes!

TM: When you appeared in the Still Processing podcast a few days after the 2016 elections, you pointed out that you and Hillary Clinton were born in the same year and that you both had to make yourself into “serious” women. How do you think those processes differed for the two of you?

MJ: For one thing, I became a writer; I got involved with the arts, and that demands in some way—even from a critic—a certain expressivity. Even as a little girl, I wanted to be a pianist, then I wanted to be an actress—I think all of that kicks in. I was fortunate that I didn’t enter politics in that mood of the sixties and seventies—anti-war, Black Power, civil war, feminism, gay rights—because I could act up and act out more. And Hillary has said that she wished that more of the “cracks,” vulnerabilities—or even if they’re not vulnerabilities—she wishes that she’d behaved less… “properly.” You know, it’s inhuman when Donald Trump is moving around behind you, prowling. If you just pretend it’s not inhuman, to people watching, that registers as mechanistic, as not to be believed and that gets converted to not to be trusted.

TM: There’s one part of the book when you’re in college and you object to play a maid in a theatre production, but eventually you gave into your desire to be onstage and eagerness to not appear as touchy. I think a lot of women, especially women of color, struggle with such choices: taking steps to realizing their artistic ambitions combined with the reluctance not to appear to touchy, versus some level of humiliation, whether that’s a stereotypical casting, or tokenism. What have you learned since your college days about making these kinds of choices?

MJ: This is what I remember so gratefully from the early days of the women’s movement—first, feminism and then black feminism—is finding or forming a band of women you trust, who have the same basic principles, beliefs and passions, or at least whose passions overlap. The personal is political and the political manifests itself in the personal. Women need to talk, confide, confess, and strategize. Of course, you’re always going to struggle it out with yourself but you can’t always get it right alone. To know that there’s a community, that you’ve got your constituency—that has been a huge help to me.

TM: You write that “starting in college and in the years following, to become a person of inner consequence,” you had to break the self that existed prior into pieces. What did that process and the end result mean to you?

MJ: By the time I graduated college, I became aware that “inner consequence” meant really living to act out my deepest passion and needs, but it also meant to meet the demands of this broiling, bracketing society we were living in with black people, women of color, gay people. And I would add with anti-war and environmental concerns. You know, I wasn’t suited for that; I wasn’t prepared for it. My parents were honorable and they did care about my sister and I having “good characters,” but that was still within the framework of being ladies and behaving well. And that was where bringing a critical lens in the book was useful—I could openly critique my own acts of snobbery, for example, when I told my friend who’s a working-class girl that she should shave her legs. A person of inner consequence—it’s the alignment of your own desires and needs with what you feel the world demands of you, and should demand of you, as opposed to what it shouldn’t—it’s being able to make that distinction: What’s the world asking of me, what is my job asking of me, what is the person I’m dating asking of me that is wrong, that shouldn’t be asked? How will I find the right ways to respond? Getting to that place is a long process but it does seem to me that many of the young women I meet are much bolder than I was at their age, and that’s heartening.

TM: You take a lot of care in protecting people you mention in this book, including some childhood friends and your parents. The responsibility of essayists and memoirists to those they write about is hotly debated. How did you come up with guidelines for yourself on this?

MJ: I just kept thinking and feeling my way through it. I also have a couple of close friends who’ve written memoir. You also look at your own responses to the memoirs you’ve read—what do you admire about the boldness, the violation of so-called codes of behavior? What are the consequences within your world of people? You think through all that and you weigh it against what you’ve got to say. My father was already dead. My mother died before the book came out—I think she would have had mixed feelings but been proud. My sister was very helpful and I wasn’t worried about her reaction but she also died before the book came out. I had to be more careful with friends and peers I wrote about. My protection was largely by not using their names. I believe I said their stories are mine but their names are theirs. But still, I did get some harsh letters from people that I didn’t expect, and some chilly silences.

TM: Your memoir came out in 2015. Would you have changed or added anything if you’d written it or if it had come out after the 2016 elections?

MJ: Claudia Rankine brought up the same lines you did about white people’s efforts and failures at being white, and she said, “Oh, I wish you’d developed that more!” So that certainly would have deserved to be pushed. And in many ways, performatively, Trump is such a clown, such a type of what would’ve been called “the black minstrel,” the buffoon, the boaster. I think I would’ve done a whole portrait of that. It’s very much a minstrel show—his greedy children, parading—and I would have talked more about the below-the-surface resentments and competitiveness.

I also might have talked more about biracial black people. It was easier for my generation—not necessarily psychologically for mixed-race people—but politics and sociology simply said you were black if you were mixed race. Obama fell into the old world of that by identifying as black, yet he talked about his white parent. But there was never any discourse in journalism or politics that said he is our first biracial president—what does that mean? When I wrote about Meghan Markle for The Guardian, I deliberately called her “black and biracial”—I always kept those phrases together.

TM: In that article for The Guardian about Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding, you wrote that Meghan could be considered as “marrying up,” but so could Harry: He was marrying into “all the possibilities of postmodernity.” Can you speak more about that? What do those possibilities look like?

MJ: On the most superficial level—we start always at the most superficial!—this man is gaining access to glamor, excitement, styles of being in the world. Serena Williams was at the wedding, Oprah was at the wedding! He’s meeting all these fascinating cultural figures. His involvement with Africa is taking on a kind of honorableness as opposed to looking like just a kind of white-boy dabbling. He’s entering new lines of aristocracy as well as political dynasty. He’s saved from being a relic. Choosing Meghan and choosing the world that she has access to takes him out of the museum of the royals. It bestows a kind of daring on him. It’s almost like someone who’s been in a sitcom or a drama comedy playing the same role all their lives and they get a chance to stretch, they get another script, they get to act in ways they haven’t before, they get to show other aspects of their character.

Post-modernity is multiracial (I hate the word diversity; I’m so sick of it!), it’s multicultural—aesthetically, politically, sociologically.

TM: I felt a lot of solidarity in your descriptions of your family as “third race”—not white, not stereotypically black—and I imagine a lot of other non-black women of color felt the same sense of solidarity. Is this something you anticipated when you wrote the book?

MJ: I noticed in England a lot of South Asians would say that to me and in America, a number of East Asians have said that to me. I didn’t anticipate it, but from teaching and from readings I’d assigned, I sensed that this possibility existed. And I was really pleased, it made me really happy to get those reactions. The racial conversation in America at this point is too centered on white and black. That would’ve been another interesting thing to take on if the book were coming out now. If you say today that Trump is a racist, you have to consider at least as much the implications for Mexicans and Muslims as for black people. How does that affect relations—which are sometimes competitive—between people of color? I think that’s fascinating.

TM: It is, very much so. As a last question, what are you working on these days?

MJ: I’m working on a new book; I just signed the contract for it. It’s again going to be a combination of memoir and cultural criticism but more experimental—it won’t a Volume 2 of Negroland. It will explore, for example, my encounters with political, cultural, social situations through an aesthetic text. I’ll be writing more about the female and the black female body as experienced through someone like Ella Fitzgerald, or the Tennessee Tiger Bells who were sort of forbearers of Serena except they were totally genteel and gentrified. There was a tone of anxiety hovering over them that hovers over Caster Semenya, the black South African runner that the Olympic committee found to have “higher estrogen,” that sense of “are they men? Are they women?”

Essentially, the book will be centered on cultural objects, fetishes, passions, obsessions tied to memoir, but also read on their own.

has work published or forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Roads & Kingdoms, Entropy and Warscapes. She lives in Colorado.