Polyphonic Autobiography: Margo Jefferson Discusses Her Memoir in Complex Issues

Emily Johnson
October 25, 2022

If you have never heard Professor Margo Jefferson ‘71 speak aloud—and I would encourage you to try to do so as soon as possible—you should imagine that each word she utters appears in a different font. 

Some words are italicized, as though whispered; some are cursive, as though purred; exclamatory all-caps thunder mid-sentence, bold as a comic book POW, before slinking into an elegant serif, enunciated precisely.

With Jefferson, every clause is an adventure. She is a one-woman jazz band. The tremendous dynamics of her speech occur not only in her spoken voice, but in the depth of intelligence she flashes with every thought, sequins in the shimmering mantle of her prose.

All of this is to say that the attendees of the Complex Issues talk on September 28, 2022 were treated to a very fine performance. Jefferson was at the Lenfest Center for the Arts to discuss her latest book, the hybrid memoir Constructing A Nervous System, out this past April from Pantheon Books.

“I want memoir and criticism to merge,” she read aloud from the first chapter. “Can they? And if so, how?”

The book is a constellated map of Jefferson’s cultural obsessions—from the earliest to the most recent. Subjects of her electrifying cathexis range from Ike and Tina Turner, to Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy David Jr., Bing Crosby, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Willa Cather.

As Jefferson told Associate Professor Deborah Paredez, her partner in conversation for the evening, “I wanted the objects and figures, the records that I was falling in love with…to have an internal life that was intense and very specific. That is constructing an aesthetic system, a nervous system,” Jefferson said.

Their discussion zipped around considerations of form, and how Jefferson approached her chosen modes of memoir and criticism, her ideas as critic and fan. Paredez pointed out that early in the book, Jefferson describes her occupation as ‘temperamental autobiography.’

“Criticism,” Jefferson said, “whatever its august formalities, always has to do with your temperament. With these all but irrational, intense responses.” 

The book is in many ways Jefferson’s vigorous attempt to attune herself to her intense responses, and to organize them.

“Each encounter, each thing that I became obsessed with, like Ella Fitzgerald, or Bud Powell, or certain legacies of Black male singers—each one of those took place at a different point in my life,” Jefferson explained, “So I would try to genuinely recreate…to document or dramatize what as an eight-year-old I couldn’t say, couldn’t think, couldn’t allow myself to—and at the same time try to re-engage with that, re-animate it.”

“It’s so polyphonic, this work,” Paredez said, “There’s not just the conversations between Margo-then and Margo-now, but also the staging of conversations between multiple characters who inhabit the book.” 

Jefferson talked about the excavation of various selves, various characters and personae, as tools which allowed her to bridge vulnerability.

She had a habit of suddenly acting out apostrophic asides, both in the book and on stage before us, as if we were seeing Margo in her chair at work:

“Ok, this is the [persona] that likes Tina Turner. But really, really likes Ike just as much. Now what are you going to do with her? Gotta talk about her! How are you gonna do it?

“That allowed me to engage with, debate with, play games with, these self-censoring emotions like shame, like embarrassment. And periodically appropriating other people’s words—and I gave them credit for it—would help me with that too because that was a call and response.

“I also decided to make my manipulating hand, as the uber-narrator, very, very obvious. Because it helped keep me alert to what I might be leaving out.”

Paredez likened Jefferson’s uber-narrator to a kind of MC, a performer guiding the reader through changing tenses, time jumps, and dialogue. 

“It’s so performative, this work. And it’s theatrical!” Paredez said.

“Thank goodness,” Jefferson quipped. “The only thing I didn’t write in terms of memoir was how very much I longed to be an actor.”

Jefferson’s hands were never still. They moved hypnotically with her speech, her long fingers capturing and carving energy in the space in front of her. She didn't care about microphones. She kept putting the mic down in her lap in order to describe something with both hands. At one point, she put it down and forgot it there for the rest of the evening. Thus abandoned, the mic projected the gentle rustling of her dress through the speakers, and though amused, the eager audience only leaned closer to continue to hang on her every word. No one dared interrupt. 

“I would love to talk about the word ‘diva,’ and what it means for you,” said Paredez, who is herself working on a memoir titled American Diva. “What I appreciate so much is that you mark how that term has been used historically as a term of diminishment, and racialization, and punishment for Black women.”

Jefferson related an unforgettable passage in which she discusses her childhood view of legendary jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. In the 1950s and 1960s, Jefferson recalls, “Young Black women, we had Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, but we were not in the honorable gallery of what was considered glamorous, beautiful.”

It led her and her peers to monitor and view with approbation “what was less than perfect, by mass white standards.” Of Ella Fitzgerald, “the voice and singing were perfect. She was big. She dressed very nicely, but she was not glamorous. And that was unsettling to me.

“And when I saw her on television…she would sweat. And it was very obvious that she was sweating.” This was not the norm for actresses, or even dancers on television at the time. 

“Sweat, in my racial imagination, was also very much associated with Black labor, female labor. So I would get rattled, in all my aspiring decorum.”

Jefferson pointed out that Fitzgerald did not otherwise show the strenuousness of her virtuosic performance; she learned to wipe her brow with her handkerchief: “She learned how to make it a useful and winning accessory. She stopped dabbing anxiously.”

“The discussion of Ella for me,” Paredez said, “was a model of [your technique of] using that moment of your own uneasiness, or shame about what you once thought, as the very starting point for opening up a discussion of the labor that is not talked about in diva-like figures…Your attentiveness to how we reach that [handkerchief gesture] is through documenting that labor.”

“And [my] responses to it, which were not always appreciative!” Jefferson added.

“And that’s a moment where I see the memoir and the criticism feeding one another, fused,” Paredez said.

That nuclear fusion of memoir and criticism in moments of authentic observation is what propels Constructing a Nervous System. As a writer, and as a conversationalist—a performer in both spaces—Jefferson is constantly holding herself to account, putting her intense responses in context, dramatizing the currents of feeling in herself as a means of talking about the vast currents within our culture.