Margo Jefferson on Will Smith, TikTok and Identity: ‘I don’t like the feeling that we’re so fragile’ | Books

Ohen Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars last month, Margo Jefferson was momentarily away from her television. Like millions of us, she watched it on replay, absorbing the sheer newness of a normally staged show collapsing into chaos. Curiously, the incident crystallized several Jeffersonian themes: TV glamour, black performers, and the question of how to behave in public. In his 2016 memoir Negroland, about the lifestyles and mores of the black elite in mid-century America, Jefferson recalls his parents dissecting the television performances of Sammy Davis Jr, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne , and describes the oppressive power of the saying “everything we must think carefully about the race”.

But times have changed, she says. Rock’s routine, in which he joked about Smith’s wife, Jada, and Smith’s response sounded immature to her more than anything. “They are too old,” she sighs. “They’re definitely too old and they should be too crafty for these shenanigans.” Speaking to me from her apartment in New York’s West Village, where the only physical objects seem to be books, she says, “That kind of old ‘respectability’ thing didn’t really come into play for me. Why not? “Black culture, and our range of behavioral possibilities and choices, has expanded.” Judged as a performance, however – criticism in it is rarely held still for long – it was simply cheap, juvenile “hood theatrical staging”. “I wish this was handled by Jada herself.”

‘They’re too old’… Will Smith, right, slaps Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars last month. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The self-determination of black women – including her own – features prominently in Jefferson’s latest book, Constructing a Nervous System, which combines candid personal reflections with analyzes of cultural icons such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Josephine Baker. It is more formally experimental than Negroland, already a fairly experimental mixture of memoirs, social history and criticism. Jefferson frequently shows her at work, breaking a literary equivalent of the fourth wall with interjections such as, “I’ve reached an emotional impasse here. I want to dilute, possibly remove that… I’m a little ashamed. Or: “As I write this, I’m afraid I’m about to throw some raw intimacies at new, uncommitted readers.” If I delay, however, I pamper myself. Her easygoing kindness as we speak is very different from the demanding and rather ruthless tone she takes with herself in print.

What both books share is the belief that art is not “out there”, on the stage or the gallery wall, but in our minds and personal lives, shaping us intimately. Connecting with artists allows you to “go beyond your own conventional little self, giving you other physical and emotional possibilities,” she tells me. Fitzgerald in particular forced her to “question my own little protective devices and snobbery about what a pretty woman should be, what a glamorous woman should be, how helpful and useful female desirability was”.

With Nina Simone, the resonances are darker. Jefferson talks about his “capricious relationship” with the singer who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in her career. Is Jefferson also bipolar? “It’s also a diagnosis I received,” she tells me evenly, adding that she discovered it about a decade ago, although she has been in therapy for much longer. than that (she is 74 years old). “Not as damaging, luckily, for me, but that’s probably because they have meds, and there’s a whole range of bipolar.” She points out that “we always called Simone a strong, beautifully angry black woman. But she suffered too. And she was also angry because she was in pain and she couldn’t soothe her.

These kinds of personal insights are harder to fit into the formal criticism that Jefferson practiced at The New York Times, where she reviewed books and plays, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1995. is she now doing a bit of a reaction to these years of journalistic rigor? ? “Yeah, it’s freer, more interesting. As a writer, it allows me to try to make more discoveries, in terms of tone, technique or emotional temperature.

Although reading the book feels like hitching a ride on Jefferson’s own train of thought, the sense of structural looseness is deceptive. “It was very, very intensely, and sometimes frantically and frantically planned. I kept changing things up. The transitions were the devil, and I can still criticize some of them. But I knew it had to be carefully planned or it could be chaotic, in a way that I could follow but a reader could not.

What sights, sounds and people are attracting his magpie spirit right now? We’re talking about William and Kate in Jamaica – “Hands shaking through the fence,” she squeals, referring to the photo of the princess waving to Jamaicans through a fence in Trench Town. “They’re ignorant in their own way…not ill-intentioned [but] No idea.” She talks about the new season of Donald Glover’s Atlanta. And the singers – she lives for the singers. “Cécile McLorin Salvant wouldn’t surprise anyone because I wrote about her. But Megan Thee Stallion – I love look what she’s doing. I’m interested in that utterly shameless, what used to be called ‘vulgar bravado,’ and the sense of play, you know. She fulfills some of your expectations and desires and she outwits others. I’m always interested in performers [who do] that.” What else? “TikTok! I have a friend who is just really smart and funny, who always sends me TikToks that are almost like really smart cartoonists, you know, daily comics.

Nina Simone in 1966.
Nina Simone in 1966. Photography: David Redfern/Redferns

TikTok, of course, is also a place of self-projection, of airing the different identities we might claim, complete with hashtags and, at times, a heightened sense of righteousness. What does she think of the current craze for self-labelling? “It simplifies. It can become a source of defensiveness and pride that you don’t control. In this way, it can counteract some flexibility. But, she adds, “I see his goals” and warns that the phrase “identity politics” has become “like a truncheon”. “It was always delivered even on the page with a sneer, as if it were intellectual simplicity of mind.” Why is that? Because efforts to break old rules of race, class, gender and sexuality have actually been successful. Things have opened up, been redefined, and “if you’re fighting these kinds of political, social, and emotional shifts, you have to belittle, belittle, and simplify your opponent and find a phrase that will signal to others that it’s dangerous.” ”. She considers the term “cancel culture” to be compromised as well. “You can criticize a lot of particular choices without using that phrase,” she says.

And criticizes them, she does. For example: “In the canon, I’m not so concerned with ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ tearing out books that I don’t like. I don’t like bullying. And I don’t like the feeling that we’re so fragile, we’ve been treated so badly, we’ve been so oppressed that we can’t take any of this, that it can’t be anywhere around me. I do not like it.

And after? Jefferson has just been named the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize, which comes with a check for $165,000 (£125,000). But she doesn’t leave herself much time to relax and stream episodes of Atlanta. She is already preparing a “double memoir” with a white American friend of her own generation, a “seasoned writer” whose name she keeps secret but who will be familiar to her. The plan is to chart decades of history from two distinct but intertwined perspectives. “We went through separately, and as close friends, so many wild and vehement social, emotional and racial changes that we thought OK, let’s see. It will also be about friendship, from people for whom friendship has become as important as marriage. And in the meantime, essays, interviews, appearances. Jefferson clearly takes his grandmother’s exhortation to heart, also the last line of Building a Nervous System: “You haven’t earned your right to be weary yet, have you?”

Building a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson is published by Granta (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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