Margo Jefferson has performed all her life. As a child growing up in an affluent black Chicago neighbourhood in the Fifties and Sixties, she was expected to be “exemplary” – and so she made sure she was.
“We were always performing desirable blackness and black femininity, and working to perform against what was designated undesirable,” Jefferson, now 74, says as she sits with a coffee in a cafe in Russell Square, London, in late May. Her parents – her father was the head of paediatrics at Provident, a black hospital on Chicago’s South Side, and her mother was a fashionable society woman – taught Jefferson and her older sister Denise to carry themselves properly. The racist wider world in which they lived had assumptions about how black girls behaved. The Jefferson girls confounded those expectations. They were polite, charming, well dressed, but never conspicuous. “I was taught to avoid showing off,” Jefferson writes in Negroland, her prize-winning 2015 memoir.
In her latest book, Constructing a Nervous System (Granta), Jefferson analyses her own performances alongside those of the artists she has watched onstage. In a series of interlocking personal anecdotes and critical observations, she turns to the performers she used to imagine as her alter egos – Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Ike Turner – in an attempt to forge the truest sense of herself. The book has been longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, which awards works that are “fearless in their ambition and execution”.
Jefferson doesn’t “view performing as necessarily any kind of hypocrisy”, she says. As an arts critic – she wrote book and theatre reviews for the New York Times from 1993 to 2006, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her work in 1995 – she has devoted much time to assessing the tact of performance, and understands how it functions off-stage as well as on. “It’s entering a situation, it’s being trained, it’s knowing what the mise-en-scène and the other characters expect of you. Sometimes it’s knowing when to tinker with that a little. Sometimes you have no choice, you break it, and then you deal with the consequences.”
Acting to fit in, or to purvey a certain image is something we all do to some extent. And as we perform, we too are an audience for others. Jefferson remembers, as a girl, “being interested in someone’s – what we call – line deliveries, just in conversation. I’d try to imitate someone’s voice.” Within her peer group, she would “study the types”. By adolescence she was selecting friends because of their “qualities” – a talent for dance, or music – and hoping in return to be picked because of hers.
Jefferson is an experimental, playful writer. On the page she is limber, switching between first, second and third person at a whim, borrowing extensively from other texts, italicising some phrases, bolding others. Her litheness and elegance are just as evident in person: she smiles keenly, and talks with as much verve about the “rapture” of listening to musical theatre records as a child as about the jealousy and spite of school-age friendships. “It’s just endless spectacle, isn’t it?”
If Jefferson is a consistently surprising critic-memoirist – writing in an experimental middle ground between Annie Ernaux and Rebecca Solnit, but with her mind focused distinctly on the arts – it might be because she didn’t always want to be a writer. As a child, theatre was her passion, but when she graduated in English literature from Brandeis University in Massachusetts in 1968 she realised she wanted to be more “in the world” than she could be on a drama course – the step she had been considering. “Something in me knew I needed to be kept in touch with the current, with the present, with the culture as it was enacting. That probably had to do with being a product of the Sixties. Things were happening, right! There was a sense that my voice could find a place in this changing landscape. I guess it was a sort of power movement. Everything I describe myself as caring about has to do with a passion but also with performative power, and that must have been why I never wanted to be a reporter.”
She was wary of being a “dilettante”. “It was a terror of mine, growing up. It’s an easy thing to mock in a female. You know, all those 19th-century novels where the youngest daughter sits down at the piano or sings a song in her little warbling whatever, right? There was that legacy attached so often to women of being an amateur. And I thought, ‘If I’m a critic, then I have to vault past that.’”
In 1971 Jefferson enrolled on to the journalism programme at Columbia University, where she now teaches. In her early writing days she was excited by the prospect of finding different voices to “sing to, at least evoke and invoke”, writing in tonal dialogue with the works she reviewed. “You know, even if you’re a kind of monstrous ego of a critic, some adaptation to the material, some suppressing of self to just take it in has to happen, and then when that self emerges, you’re beside yourself with excitement.” Her penchant for criticism has always sat alongside a developing understanding of herself as a human as much as a writer.
Some of the most enthralling passages in Constructing a Nervous System concern minstrel shows, a form of racist theatrical entertainment that began in the 19th century. Jefferson is fascinated by minstrelsy and its “transfers of power and desire, the way excitement merges with revulsion and antipathy in a homage that is also an antagonistic act”. The form provides Jefferson, as a critic, with a troubling yet beguiling subject. Many of the entertainers she loves have associations with minstrelsy: Bert Williams (1874-1922), the best-selling black recording artist of his era, performed in minstrel shows as a teenager, while Sammy Davis Jr (1925-1990) began his career in vaudeville, which had grown out of minstrelsy.
For a mind as open to knottiness as Jefferson’s, this subject offers endless intrigue – and literary possibilities. In her writing about minstrelsy she aims to balance the genre’s “power and pleasure negotiations” while holding on to its “comic” essence: “In a minstrel show, the power struggle is always channelled through the comic, which gives some kind of aura of the benign within which you’re amusing people – but you’re also signalling an alternative.”
Jefferson reads popular figures and politicians through the framework of minstrelsy, though she likes to invert the racial – and gendered – stereotypes in a way she understands as “vengeful” she says, mischievously. A minstrel is someone whose behaviour “attracts and repels you”, she writes. A minstrel might function as a kind of perverse alter ego – one who acts in public in a way you want to but would never get away with, especially if you’re someone who throughout history has been routinely oppressed.
“Everybody needs a minstrel man, and black women like me have finally won the right to ours,” Jefferson writes. Her “personal minstrel man” is Bing Crosby, a white man who is “entitled to everything”, no matter his bad behaviour. She extends the metaphor: Oprah Winfrey’s minstrel is Dr Phil, a man and television personality who “never smiled or made warm little jokes”, never had to worry about his hair, or hand out presents. Had Condoleezza Rice ever become president, hers would have been George W Bush, a man who “didn’t have to demonstrate every day in every way that he was truly outstanding and truly deserved the rewards routinely given to him”. Though if Kamala Harris follows Joe Biden to become the Democrats’ next leader, she won’t need one, Jefferson says. “She conducts herself differently.” Harris is a black woman who leads on her own terms, Jefferson says; she doesn’t need a white man in order to do what she wants.
Ever the arts critic, Jefferson describes the current state of US politics as a performance. Biden isn’t as visible as his predecessors. “We don’t see him as much as we saw Trump, but we don’t see him as much as we saw Obama, or possibly even the egregious George [W] Bush, who always liked a breezy little strut into the spotlight.” Biden is a different personality, but the public feeling that he is less present than his predecessor is partly because Trump “acclimated us to an expectation of constant presidential oversight. A certain style gets overdone and codified, and then everyone responds only to that. And some artists who are working a little differently and a little more subtly are being looked at maybe a little dismissively.”
Jefferson believes it is in hip hop that the thorniness of minstrelsy plays out today. The genre has always played with broad performative stereotypes of race – and of gender. “Maybe that’s why it took women a little longer to be allowed to claim that space,” Jefferson says, “for them to have that toughness and that aura and that ‘look at my body, just spreading out and contorting itself’, and not necessarily trying at every moment to be invitingly desirable.”
When Jefferson watches a female hip hop performer she is faced with a conundrum: ought she admire this woman, fear her, want to be her? “What about all three, that’s right! And once you get into that ‘do I want to be her’, you know, woah! Fascinating!” she says, her eyes widening.
Perplexing, exciting and with the possibility of not just critical interpretation but true playfulness: this is the kind of performance that most entices Jefferson.