Swinging on a Star

Constructing a Nervous System BY MARGO JEFFERSON. NEW YORK: PANTHEON. 208 PAGES. $26.

The cover of Constructing a Nervous System

THRALL IS A JEFFERSONIAN WORD. In Constructing a Nervous System, the critic Margo Jefferson is enthralled by or to: her mother, her father, Bing Crosby. She suspects Condoleezza Rice is enthralled by or to George W. Bush, and Ike Turner by or to “manic depression and drug addiction, to years of envy,  . . . to a Mississippi childhood that was a trifecta of domestic abuse, sexual treachery and racist violence.” A young James Baldwin enthralled the Harlem faithful. Nina Simone refused the thrall of “warring desires.” It’s the last that clarifies the stakes. Thrall, some time after it meant “slave” to Northern Europeans, found a new Gothic use. Dracula, through hypnosis and sheer erotic power, holds his servants and whole towns in his thrall, the better to protect him while he hides from the sun. Those enthralled submit totally, pleasurably. Influence doesn’t always have to provoke anxiety. There is danger of losing oneself, of being absorbed by the force of another’s will and gaze and magnetism, and that’s before they seize upon your neck. But there’s a reason Dracula persists. Beneath our regimens of self-help, self-care, and self-improvement, we might think briefly of annihilation and find it sweet.

Margo Jefferson’s previous book, Negroland (2015), danced more furtively along the border between pleasure and self-destruction. It, too, is a cultural memoir, but one that uses her family as the lens onto, and reflection of, a society. She, the Jefferson of the book, is a dramatically interesting character because she is born of the Chicago black bourgeoisie, a significant but oft-misrepresented (if represented at all) sector of American society. The raising of a young, black woman of means is one of the richest narrative veins the country has to offer. It is rife with contradiction, self-deception, vigor, and, depending on the situation, power. There is a common way to tell this story and it is purely celebratory. For so long as it has existed, the black bourgeoisie has been cast and cast itself as the leaders of a people so diverse and factionalized that the very idea would be laughable even if class struggle were a yet-unrealized term. What can a doctor in Bronzeville or a real estate speculator in Harlem do to lead a factory worker in Watts, a nurse in Cairo, or a farmer in Macon? It would take an expansive, emancipatory politics to stitch them together. Doctors do stitch, but rarely so well.

Negroland was remarkable because it interrogated this position and refused paeans to an easy solidarity. It went further and refused emotional indulgence, too. “It’s too easy,” she wrote of both race and unhappy memories, to “bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.”

Constructing a Nervous System takes up the same character and the same milieu, but conceives of autobiography differently. Rather than using her life’s narrative to structure the book, she organizes her becoming through her models. Who, she asks herself, were those people she secreted away? In whose eyes did she see herself reflected? The collection is unorthodox. (“We look for expedient muses,” she says.) Her list includes: the aforementioned Bing Crosby, Bud Powell, George Eliot, Ike Turner (not Tina), W. E. B. Du Bois, Willa Cather, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jefferson resented the strictures of “a race ruled lesser” and “a sex ruled lesser.” She writes: “I craved imaginative compensations. License. I wanted to play in private with styles and personae deemed beyond my range.” When she inhabits Bing Crosby, she thinks: “I can get away with anything. I’m entitled to everything.”

She is rich, a woman, and black. Money protects, but not absolutely. She could never move through a room, dancer though she was, like Bing Crosby. Just before the close of World War II, Bing Crosby won the Oscar playing a priest from East St. Louis who comes to New York and saves a church from ruin through the power of music. There is never a hint that any clergyman from that city and of that age would have lived through the East St. Louis race riots. You see him singing “Swinging on a Star” and history slides right off him. There are some people, Jefferson’s book contends, to whom history always sticks. Imagine, though, if it were as simple as singing a song to step out and make it as you please.

Memoir, the highest form of autofiction, is an unmannerly genre. Its appeal lies in its indecency. Jefferson’s indecency lies in her honesty about the contortions into which black intellectuals have long been forced. Black unity has demanded a popular front. But behind the line a niggling thought sometimes explodes. Jefferson wonders, “How long did it take the average black woman of my generation to become fully aware that we too had been lynched?” Their fight against lynching “made us ancillaries, not martyrs and sufferers,” and the martyrs loom large in the black American cosmos. True, Jefferson acknowledges, the murder of black women was ignored, but rape was not. Still, this did not grant them entrance to the pantheon of the tormented, because even the suffering of black women rarely belonged to them. Sexual violence “was unceasingly denounced and lamented: by our men and by us. Somehow, though, the language of lament and denunciation made the rape as much a crime against them as against us. Black men had been deprived of their right to possess and protect the most compelling symbol of success besides money: women.” There is an entire lineage of ostensibly emancipatory rhetoric in the black freedom movement that is undone by these few lines.

Margo Jefferson, 2021. Claire Holt
Margo Jefferson, 2021. Claire Holt

In a cultural memoir, the author’s terrain is more perilous than in the more personal type. In spite of its unreliability, memory confers authority. Testimony about the broader culture, rather than the self, invites attack according to the current social battle lines. Jefferson doesn’t shy away from her attraction to certain artists who might otherwise have earned her disavowal. She is at her most dexterous when discussing two otherwise unrelated giants: Ike Turner and Willa Cather. Cather, a touchstone of hers for a long time, presented a problem in her teaching career. Jefferson drew on her, and especially her Künstlerroman The Song of the Lark as a “taxonomy of a diva,” in preparations for her own book. But whiteness cast its shade across the text. Jefferson catalogues the author’s “white rapture,” her intoxication with “milky skin.” Her task is not to prove Cather’s racism, but to stand in front of a room of predominantly white women and “expose, excavate, evaluate” this fact of her literary practice. “How,” she wonders, “could I make potent the historical discord stirred by race worship without obliterating the novel’s aesthetic concord?”

Jefferson did not want her students to think her anger betrayed her authority, and beyond that she thought: “Teaching them to feel intellectual contempt was too easy. I wanted them to feel chagrined. Chagrin implicates those who feel it.” The political failures of a great artist wounded her, “disappointed” her. Elsewhere, about a promising actress whose life went all wrong, Jefferson recalls her mother saying, “I hate waste.”

Ike is harder to talk about. Tina Turner’s revelations about the scale of his abuse make even contemporaneous accounts of their life sound knowing, haunting. In the US release of their Phil Spector–backed record River Deep—Mountain High, the liner notes read, “We found it almost impossible to believe that the beautiful Tina was really a happily married mother of four!” But Jefferson doesn’t revise her sense of Ike’s allure. She tries to think through what made him so attractive in the first place. It was not physical. She wonders, quoting The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, if it was “the mere radiance of a foul soul” that drew her and countless others. That’s too easy. He was masterful. Like Tina, he came from the working class. They were rougher, more sensual, more thrilling—beyond her range. Ike’s insouciance, his menace, his “expecting to be pleased instead of working to please” were more useful. Like Bing, he had license.

Earlier in the book, she questions the purity of her interest in black men performers. “Does the race I share with these men shield me from the taint of white culture’s longue-durée obsession with black male bodies and psyches? Its predatory appropriation of black male styles? Its fixed binaries of pleasure/danger, love/theft, catharsis/cathexis?” It’s a startling moment. Proximity breeds certain kinds of intimate knowledge, but her desire is refracted through the same apparatus that affects the rest of the country. She is also speaking from a position of higher social standing than most of these men, at least until their talent and good fortune led them to fame and greater fortune. Some future critic may write of their attraction to 50 Cent at the turn of the century: a Queens-bred twentysomething with a Southern drawl, splashed half-naked across the nation’s screens, promising death while the oil rubbed across his body shone. It’s a hell of a thing, black culture meeting white dollars.

But then there’s the ease of contempt again. White dollars is tidy. Something slips in the mind when you see where black culture meets black dollars, too. I exhaled sharply during the passage where Jefferson writes, “There’s such fraught history—intellectual, political, artistic—of how the black bourgeoisie has used, honored, disdained, studied, learned (borrowed, stolen) from, been inspired by, gone slumming in—the culture of The People; The Folk.” Rarely is this admitted so publicly. Borrowed, stolen is often used on the frontiers of racial animus. Borrowed, stolen is supposed to be about white dollars. But the way that The People produce a culture that redounds to the benefit of their bourgeois skinfolk is thornier. Jazz, hip-hop, the blues, the spirituals, the quilts, the cuisine, the style, the first blush of novelists and filmmakers—when we speak of “black culture,” we are often speaking of The Folk, rarely the well-off, most often the lowborn. Borrowed, stolen admits the inadmissible.

The book is a marvel as a work of criticism and would serve well as a manual for writing, in the sense of teaching the practice as a means of thinking. As in Negroland, Jefferson circles back on herself, questioning, clarifying, and complicating her own intentions. She works through what cannot quite be expressed. There is so much, for her and for her people, that is family business, better left unsaid near unsympathetic ears. But this has often led to a slick and immaterial solidarity. We say we and hope that wills it into being. But not everybody cleans the dishes, cares for the elderly, pays bail, riots, gets hired as the voice of a people. The brilliance of the culture we have shaped is not dimmed by the pressure of Jefferson’s interrogation. What’s left is something awe-inspiring, but more fractious, more prone to false starts and massive leaps. Its power demands such criticism, such insistent questioning. Otherwise we might be left with just one, sitting in the back of the mind, unutterable in polite company: when black becomes a proper noun—who capitalizes?

Blair McClendon is a writer and filmmaker living in New York City.