Music and literature give shape to young people’s identities as they begin to build libraries of their interests. In the late 1970s in the UK, cultural preferences seemed binary: Did you prefer Joni Mitchell or Joan Armatrading? James Baldwin or Jack Kerouac? There was no consensus, but among the cognoscenti, apparently, arguments over whether Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday had the more attractive voice could be settled by judging which of them best demonstrated duende—the ability to transmit a profoundly felt emotion that resonates with the listener. As time goes on young adults refine their lists and sensibilities, and along the way find their own voice, their people, their tribe.
But surely there are so many moving parts to an identity that it is nearly impossible to give primary importance to one of them—to the soundtrack of your life, for instance, relative to your reading, writing, religion, genes, sport, or the myriad other factors that somehow define you. What is certain is that your identity is not fixed. “Cultural identity,” wrote the Jamaica-born political and social theorist Stuart Hall,
is a matter of “becoming” as well as of “being.” It belongs to the future as much as to the past…. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation.
How, then, do you begin to write about the evolution of your identity in a way that reflects the complexity of its construction, notwithstanding the necessary reliance on memories that are flawed and unreliable? Perhaps this is why some authors prefer to ply their trade in the porous discipline of memoir writing, a form that does not depend on verifiable facts but aims, in evoking the past, to discover emotional truth. The critic Margo Jefferson argues that “memoir is your present negotiating with versions of your past for a future you’re willing to show up in.”
Excavation as well as an unflinching interrogation of the past was the path pursued by Jefferson in her first memoir, Negroland (2015). The title referred to a state of mind more than a physical space; it characterized the outlook of her mother, who considered their family to be “upper-class Negroes and upper-middle-class Americans.” Jefferson now delves even more deeply, and with further innovations, in her zestful Constructing a Nervous System, an attempt to apply the tools of her critical writing to an analysis of her life. In an interview she described the resulting hybrid as “cultural memoir and confessional criticism.”
The end of Negroland seeds the beginning of the new book. On the final page, Jefferson writes wistfully:
There are days when I still want to dismantle this constructed self of mine. You did it so badly, I think. You lost so much time. And then I tell myself, so what?
The first pages of Constructing a Nervous System question that sentiment. Having chiseled away, like a stonemason, building a model version of herself, she admits, “I grew dissatisfied. This edifice was too fixed.” She could not go on.
Jefferson suggests that it was not necessary to disassemble her life in order to construct her memoir, but rather that she had to dismantle and reconfigure it, leaving certain parts on the workbench, as it were. The danger, of course, is that in the reassemblage the remaining parts do not fit together; that having started off with the equivalent of a perfectly constructed Swiss cuckoo clock, you end up with a quixotic Jean Tinguely–like kinetic contraption. In a way, though, that seems to be Jefferson’s aim: to take fractured shards of memory and reflections and piece them back together to create a work—disfigured and celebratory of imperfections—that is a thing of beauty in itself.
Early on Jefferson tells us that in the 1950s, as a serious child of Ronald, a highly regarded pediatrician (fraternity: Kappa Alpha Psi), and Irma, a snobbish socialite (sorority: Delta Sigma Theta), she embarked on a quest for excellence, driven by a determination to forge a life of “inner consequence,” never to be thought of as a dilettante, and always to strive to be distinguished. Her challenge—duty even—was to become an ambassador for African Americans. Racial uplift was a widely held ideal, and Jefferson includes Hattie McDaniel (the first African American to win an Oscar) among its prideful exponents. “I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” said McDaniel, weeping as she accepted the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940 for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
Jefferson, who was born in Chicago seven years later, muses, “What American Negro did not harbor a private version of that first hope?” She recalled in a 2022 interview, “Everything we did, however small, had consequences. It could be interpreted, if it were less than impeccable, as a racial failure.” To fail, she writes, was to run the risk of having to relearn “the standard race curriculum of wounds and grievances!” It was equally important, then, to confound her white compatriots with her charisma and her rectitude.
The bar of self-imposed social exactitude was high, and one of the tensile strengths of Negroland is Jefferson’s struggle with the imbalance of adhering to a family code of circumspection and a memoirist’s need for candor. Is it even worth the risk, she frets, of “hurl[ing] raw intimacies at new, uncommitted readers”? Of course it is.
For decades Jefferson has enthralled readers, especially of The New York Times, with the kind of assiduous criticism that led to her being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Here the critic in Jefferson prevaricates as she strives for precision; she is economical and judicious in her choice of words for ever-elegant sentences, yet she is also ambivalent and discursive. Words fail her and sustain her; the words of others give her relief. She revels “in those moments when I am a fugitive from the confines of my own words…. They people my solitude.”
Her memoir opens the door on that solitude. Samuel Johnson’s assertion that a writer spends the greatest part of his time reading in order to write—“A man will turn over half a library to make a book”—seems an apt description of Jefferson’s approach in Constructing a Nervous System, which is richly peppered with literary quotations.
She argues over and reimagines passages from seminal texts, rewriting scenes, for instance, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, particularly ones featuring the angry and anarchic Topsy and the saintly Tom. She imagines that there are sections in the novel that the characters couldn’t be happy with, “as if they could sense the scorn generations of blacks would feel for them.” Writing as an accomplice, Jefferson seeks to liberate them from the confines that Harriet Beecher Stowe constructed for them. In her version, questioning his death scene, Tom addresses his creator:
I’m no Frederick Douglass, he said, I know that. I don’t want to go north and write my memoirs…. But I died because I wouldn’t reveal the escape plans of two slaves. Women slaves. Can’t you do more with that? Why do I have to keep telling Legree I love him?
Elsewhere and intriguingly, in exploring other texts, this fastidious critic includes willful misquotations. Amelia Etta Johnson’s use of “repressers” (her word for a vindictive white person intent on subduing black people) in a 1903 essay, “The Nations from a New Point of View,” becomes “re-possessors.” “‘Re-possessors’ had a sharper note of menace, of ruthless conquest,” Jefferson writes, “of violence done to others, then taken in and done to oneself.” Her admission that even when rereading the original passage from “this indefatigable Race Woman” her cognitive predisposition insisted on the change shows one of the book’s larger purposes: to use her literary relationship to historical works as a bridge to transcend America’s resonant, unreconciled, racially toxic past.
Jefferson wants and expects more from writers whom she has admired from young adulthood. She questions whether the historical and social specificity of the time of their writing earns them a pass. Treating the interrogation of their work as a “procedural,” the answer is a hard “no.” Take, for example, Willa Cather as exhibit A: Jefferson confesses to having loved Cather’s beguiling portrait of Thea, the shape-shifting heroine of The Song of the Lark, a midwesterner who becomes a famous opera singer. But now, not only does she take her literary scalpel to the novel for “the rapture stirred in Cather by her heroine’s white skin,” she skewers her for her incuriosity toward American blacks who “held no aesthetic appeal for her.” Cather has far to fall, having been highly regarded by Jefferson since the late 1960s when she embarked “on a quest for women writers considered serious.” Jefferson admits to feeling rebuffed and humiliated by her own previous rapture for Cather. It’s as if she were a penitent on her knees at Saturday morning confession waiting for the priest to intone, “Recite three Hail Marys, then go and sin no more.”
Literary landmarks may be essential to an understanding of Constructing a Nervous System, but the memoir’s source material is equally to be found in music and the lives of musicians; the roll call includes figures such as Fitzgerald and Holiday. The focus is almost exclusively on the African American jazz vernacular. There’s no room, for instance, for considerations of the impact on her makeup of influential African artists such as Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Cesária Évora, or Fela Kuti. One day another writer, or Jefferson herself, might give them the Jefferson treatment. For now there’s a cornucopia of African American profiles to feast on.
Some of these thrilling musicians served as templates for the young Jefferson; she was drawn especially to performers who fractured expectations, such as Nina Simone. Even as a child, she recognized that Simone’s was a “non-womanly…non-soprano, non-limpid voice”; it did not fit with notions of so-called lyric expression but possessed some hard-to-locate, mesmeric quality. The notions of pushing beyond the boundaries of what’s expected and of artists transcending their own limits are powerfully rendered in the book.
Assessing female jazz singers, Jefferson breaks bread with them. “The voice was the source of their power, their alchemy their art,” she asserted in a Guardian interview. “In this, I began to sense—oh blessed intimation—they were like writers.” She sees them as outliers, setting the temperature of the culture.
The enigma of Holiday is teased out in both of Jefferson’s memoirs. Holiday’s vocal range was limited, Jefferson states, yet her voice was constantly affecting. On the question of duende and Fitzgerald’s supposed lack of emotional depth, Jefferson gently scolds herself and all of us who patronized the First Lady of Jazz but now say, “Poor Ella…she did suffer but she denied it—banished it from her life so she could dwell in a pristine musical wonderland.” In an excruciating passage, Jefferson confesses that an inherited snobbishness stalled her appreciation of Fitzgerald, as she recoiled from the singer’s unbecoming matronly heft, far removed from the primacy that her adolescent self placed on feminine allure.
In writing the memoir, Jefferson seems bemused rather than stymied by her youthful transgressions, though in the heat of her embarrassed remembrance of her feelings as a teenager that Fitzgerald had brought shame on the race, she tells us she suffers a delayed postmortification syndrome. Finally, she atones, addressing Fitzgerald: “People should have begged for the elixir of your sweat every step of the way. I do. I beg for it.”
As in Negroland, a signature strength lies in Jefferson’s ability to write against herself, illuminating the counterintuitive, departing from the norm. She confounds us with her fascination, for example, with Bing Crosby, described in Constructing a Nervous System as a “white minstrel,” a seemingly daring but ultimately conservative cousin to Norman Mailer’s “white Negro.” For Jefferson, watching and listening to Crosby was “an after-hours excursion to an off-limits neighborhood,” even as she concedes that the crooner, so admired by Middle America, was both “lustrous and…fatuous.” Though Crosby ought not to have been associated with or resided anywhere near the psychological confines of Negroland, he appealed to the frivolity of her youth, in defiance of the austere race-conscious mindset expected of her.
Crosby takes his place alongside Louis Armstrong but is also a counterpoint to the bedeviled jazz pianist Bud Powell, whose bruising encounters with the police and mental illness culminated in bouts of incarceration in jails and psychiatric institutions. “What was it like to blaze and blast through unsanctioned states of mind?” Jefferson asks, in opposition to the sanctioned, ennobling state of mind approved by the tribe of Negroland, for whom Powell was the shameful face at the bottom of the well, an embarrassment to the race, an unfathomable monster.
In contrast, Jefferson writes tenderly about Powell and his musical genius, which oscillated from luminous lyricism to discordant, fractured chords, taking risks and wandering into the ugly and perverse. She recounts the well-known story of a friend visiting him in one of the “institutional labyrinths” in which he was incarcerated. On his cell wall, Powell had drawn piano keys. He commanded his visitor to listen to the chords and then solicited his opinion of them. It sounds pitiful, but Jefferson argues that Powell shouldn’t be pitied. “You know, there’s something gorgeous about that with him,” she believes. The empathic author is exercised by the notion of a patronizing “manufactured pity” that some might bring to Powell’s story, “almost glorying in the fact that you have the power to pity.” At times, and this is one of them, she lets her velvet glove slip to reveal a concrete fist.
Powell is the touchstone for the book. The unsettling shadow of his story is emblematic of what Jefferson is trying to do throughout her memoir: to enter and illuminate that darkness, and to draw lines of connectivity. Looking closely at Powell and Fitzgerald, for example, seemingly poles apart in the public’s imagination, she encourages reflection on how and why both were cast patronizingly as candidates for pity.
At first, the internal logic of the book’s construction is not discernible; a pattern emerges with time, but it’s tempting just to surrender to the free jazz–like form that it often resembles. Turn to any page and marvel at how riskily but confidently Jefferson changes chords or strikes a discordant Powell-like note.
Part of the pleasure of Constructing a Nervous System is how daringly Jefferson switches registers from pathos to a more bearable lightness, to the joys of being frivolous, especially when such unbridled pleasure is provocatively tethered to landmarks of American culture such as Gone with the Wind. Just as she and her sister, Denise, revered that film when they saw it, so, too, decades earlier, had their mother and her friends on its release. The previous generation led the way as avid consumers of female refinement, watching Gone with the Wind in 1940 to study glamour’s “tropes and lures…[to] choose which ones to adapt, and which to mock with confidence.” It was their manifest right, she says, to be given the “choice to be frivolous and lighthearted. Shrug off caste constraints. Walk through the glass and succeed at playing the beautiful, powerful ones.” Few surely would fail to recognize the adolescent’s need, Jefferson argues in Negroland, for the “gift of recreational shallowness.”
Notwithstanding Irma’s earlier dalliance with frivolousness, though, it seems doubtful that she would have approved of her daughter taking the same approach. Jefferson recalls how fiercely exercised her mother was by the notion of waste, of squandering one’s talent and reneging on the ambition of becoming an exemplary person—a motif that is studded throughout Constructing a Nervous System.
Indeed, action takes a back seat here; there are hardly any dramatic moments, and the cast is spare, limited to a few friends and family members, namely Jefferson’s parents and her sister, who hover over the book. There are accumulating allusions to grief and rage and to her own mental distress following the death of her mother, the last of her immediate family.
This, after all, is also a story of absence, a kind of ghost story. If anything, Jefferson communes not with the living but with the dead—her mother, father, and sister especially. Although we are offered only glimpses of them, the delicacy of their portraits amplifies their presence; writing this memoir seems to offer the author a chance to reconstruct conversations and to continue unfinished ones. Sharing their discourse in Constructing a Nervous System, Jefferson gives us the keys to her richly capacious mind.
In chapter 6, for example, she writes reverentially about her father’s final illness, his “system’s shutting down,” and his inability to retrieve memories from his own formerly capacious mind. Her father’s death is followed swiftly by the welcome distraction of a romantic gentleman gangster. Jefferson and her Brazilian lover make a striking couple in “pseudo-gilded restaurants” on their nights out in Manhattan. Their six-year affair, hurtling through a couple of pages, ends with Jefferson’s reflections on their parting as a restaging of the last scene in The Wire between Snoop (the young, imperturbable female “hit man”) and a rival, Mike. Just before Mike shoots her in the head, Snoop asks: “How my hair look, Mike?” It’s all a prelude to Jefferson ending the chapter with an admission of cherishing Rumpelstiltskin’s grand exit—the delight in delivering your final line, stomping your foot, and being swallowed up by the groaning, welcoming earth.
This section, like so many, scans as a kind of literary scat in the realm of Fitzgerald’s 1960s eight-minute swing bop version of “How High the Moon.” With admiration, Jefferson recounts Fitzgerald’s virtuosic performance, which according to the critic Will Friedwald drew on forty-five compositions. Similarly, there’s a daring freshness to Jefferson’s prose. You have the sense of the book being written at pace as you read. It all underlines the impression that we are eavesdropping on a roiling, unresolved argument that the author appears to be having with herself, before reaching humbling conclusions.
In Negroland, Jefferson acknowledges that she is privileged but draws a distinction between privilege and entitlement. “Privilege is provisional,” she argues. “Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn.” Jefferson worked hard for its benefits but always recognized one important qualification: “The privilege of freely yielding to depression, of flaunting neurosis as a mark of social and psychic complexity,” was always withheld.
Nonetheless, her belief in stoicism is a weighty challenge. Toward the end of Constructing a Nervous System, she upbraids African American women of her generation, and by extension herself, for embracing victimhood, for “wearing the garb of ancestral suffering like it was vintage clothing.” Theirs is a psychological journey with an endpoint in depression; but depression is a luxury and a betrayal of forebears like Jefferson’s tireless, indomitable grandmother, who died following a heart attack at the age of sixty-five. The venerated critic and author is still that child striving for a life of “inner consequence,” who must justify her grandmother’s accomplishments by exceeding them. She must go on.
Finally, Jefferson imagines her grandmother chastising her for entertaining the idea that she’s tired of being a conscientious ambassador for the race, tired of being constantly commendable, too tired to go on. C’mon, her grandmother would say, “quietly and not without tenderness: You haven’t earned your right to be tired yet.”