One of the features of our current literary landscape is the "in conversation" event, where one author acts as interlocutor to another. One might describe "Constructing a Nervous System" as Margo Jefferson in conversation with Margo Jefferson — in intense, interior dialogue, interrogating, correcting, scolding and urging herself forward in bold-face type and all caps: "Repeat after me. It's time to construct another nervous system." Later, "STOP! Collect yourself, Professor Jefferson." Sometimes, she turns to us: "READER, THIS IS A PROCEDURAL."
"Remember," she orders herself, "Memoir is your present negotiating with your past for a future you're willing to show up in." I don't know that I've ever heard a neater description of the form, though Jefferson's own negotiation involves her intellectual past and present more than her life experiences.
As in her 2015 memoir "Negroland" and her 2006 "Michael Jackson" — as well as last year's "Little Devil in America" by Hanif Abdurraqib — Jefferson devotes most of her time considering the personal and cultural meaning of Black performers. A riff on Ella Fitzgerald ruminates on heft, her sweatiness and her privacy about her difficult childhood, finding moving evidence of the latter in a close textual analysis of Fitzgerald's rendition of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket."
A jazzy, high-energy chapter appreciating Josephine Baker places her "at the center of modernism's drive to colonize Negro creativity and to police Negro art." An intellectual heroine and forebear of Jefferson's, "She was her own devoted muse. She made her life a spectacular traveling production; she found new roles and plotlines for herself (military spy, political activist, global mother); she rotated leading men; she hired, fired and mentored supporting players."
Among other highlights are an imaginary conversation between George Eliot and W.E.B. Du Bois, an analysis of the author's experience teaching Willa Cather to white girls (that's the "procedural" referred to above), and an account of the author's sister Denise's worship of Martha Graham. "Whenever a white department store saleswoman failed to give her enough — or enough respectful — attention, she would pause, draw herself up, ask: 'Do you know who I am?' and in the silence that followed declare: 'I'm Martha Graham.' "
Despite all the brilliant cultural criticism, personal anecdotes like the preceding are my favorite part of the book and I wish there were more of them. As in "Negroland," we get to see the sisters in their girlhood and coming of age, but almost nothing about their adult lives.
We learn early on that Denise has recently died, and Jefferson devotes a couple of sentences to bemoaning the fact that her mother did not talk at all about Denise, or share her grief, in the year before her own death. And that's pretty much the last we hear of either loss.
There's one amusing and interesting account of an affair with a man described as an "Afro-Brazilan lover" that only whets the appetite for more stories of this kind.
Just a suggestion, Professor Jefferson. From a fan.
Marion Winik is a writer and teacher in Baltimore.
Constructing a Nervous System
By: Margo Jefferson.
Publisher: Pantheon, 208 pages, $24.99.