Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson; Pantheon, 208 pp., $26
In Negroland (2015), her National Book Critics Circle Award–winning memoir about her upbringing among the Black upper class in Chicago, Margo Jefferson blends a wry personal narrative with an expansive range of historical, critical, and self-critical perspectives. Now comes Constructing a Nervous System, another kind of memoir, one in which an exploration of the self becomes an act of inhabiting and examining various lives—writers, musicians, athletes, members of her family. If Negroland stretches and challenges the conventions of the genre, Constructing a Nervous System breaks those conventions apart: figuratively, in the frequent eclipse of the remembering “I” by a roving and interrogating eye, and literally, in the reliance on the fragment as the dominant form. The result is an engaging mixture of candid self-examination and brilliantly original criticism.
The literary device of the fragment well suits the theme introduced by the title. “This edifice was too fixed,” Jefferson writes diagnostically of her self. “I wanted it to become an apparatus of mobile parts. Parts that fuse, burst, fracture, hurtle and drift.” Her chosen tools come from her well-furnished mind, the bounty of a lifetime spent reading and paying attention. A critic by temperament and vocation, a magpie and a bricoleuse, she reveres the words and performances of others and knows how to revise and reimagine them for her own purposes. On her journey to construct another nervous system, then, the critic and the memoirist become inseparable co-creators.
Recalling a long obsession with Black male performers, she swerves from singers Billy Eckstine and Bobby Short to guitarist-producer Ike Turner, his wife Tina’s “Pygmalion tyrant” who “pushed and beat her till she fled.” Shifting perspective, Jefferson gives voice to Tina Turner by cobbling a blues verse out of Ma Rainey and Sylvia Plath: “My man beat me last night with five feet of copper coil / So daddy, I’m finally through.” But her sympathy for the victim is not absolute, and neither is her condemnation of the perpetrator. These are but a few of the figures she dissects, not to murder but to steal from: “Imitating, explicating—and yes, plundering—to access powers my upbringing denied me.”
Regret shading into bitterness and anger quietly informs both of Jefferson’s memoirs. The last chapter of Negroland contains a sentence difficult to parse, yet simple enough to grasp: “Being an Other, in America, teaches you to imagine what can’t imagine you.” An educated Black woman trying to carve her path in a society that offers precious few role models, or worse, that sees her (if at all) only through debilitating racial and gender stereotypes, will find ample reason for resentment. When versions of the same sentence return in Constructing a Nervous System, the words read more porously, underscoring the recuperative strategy at the heart of this ultimately freeing and generous memoir.
The sentence first appears in response to a complaint about the absence of Black writers, actors, or entertainers who might have satisfied the imaginative longings of a younger Margo Jefferson. “I like to claim there’s power in learning to imagine what hasn’t, can’t and won’t imagine you” (the emphasis is hers). “Maybe it’s like learning a language that’s simultaneously dead and living, that requires you to amend it even as you absorb it: You must never deny how much you wanted it. You must never deny what delights it gives you.”
To amend and absorb, in the service of delight: Sylvia Plath conjoined with Ma Rainey to comfort Tina Turner. A phrase from William James in which one letter of one word is changed, repurposed to describe Josephine Baker’s exquisitely shaped body. Jefferson relishes Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 Berlin recording of “How High the Moon,” in which the singer ebulliently quotes from composers in and beyond the Great American Songbook. Inverting the minstrel show, a blatantly racist form of entertainment that she has written about before, she makes Bing Crosby her “personal minstrel man.” Her most inventive conceit is imagining that W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of the “double consciousness” of the Black American was inspired by an obscure novella of George Eliot’s—in which “double consciousness” describes a supernatural power of mind experienced only by the white male narrator—and bringing the two oppressed souls together as lost lovers.
“Originality is the modification of ideas,” Jefferson steals from Zora Neale Hurston. Her modifications are often fanciful but never frivolous. She is staging her own performance of freedom: freedom both from and within a stifling culture. “So here I was,” she writes,
growing up just past the century’s midpoint. I belonged to a race ruled lesser. I belonged to a sex ruled lesser despite its much-touted compensations. And I belonged to a subgroup of that sex—black women—that was ruled lesser still. … I craved imaginative compensations. License. I wanted to play in private with styles and personae deemed beyond my range.
Like the soloists she admires, even when playing in private, she is not performing alone.
“Our entire existence, including our freedoms and our unfreedoms, is built upon a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I,’ ” writes Maggie Nelson in On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (2021). The challenge of living in freedom lies in honoring and engaging with our enmeshed identities despite our unequal circumstances. Jefferson practices what Nelson, drawing on Eve Sedgwick and other theorists of gender, sexuality, and race, calls the “reparative turn” in reading. Practicing an ethic of repair, Sedgwick asserted, “selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture … whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them.” Compare Jefferson: “The words of others,” she writes,
hold the past, and they open into a space where nothing disappears or remains just what it was. Am I a parasite? Yes, but a benign one. I feed on words I need. And I give them new forms of sustainability.
Reparative reading is revolutionary. It reflects a “defiant insistence on acting as if one were already free,” writes Nelson, quoting American anthropologist David Graeber. Compare Jefferson: “Performative pleasure was a way of taking what a culture had to offer and making it your own without asking for permission.”
Finally, Constructing a Nervous System is a grief memoir. Jefferson has lost her mother, the last of her immediate family, and “a final death in a family will make a nervous system go dystopian.” Despite an impulse to blame herself, her determination to “access powers my upbringing denied me” reads like a complaint against her mother’s insistence on flawlessly upright behavior. Perhaps such a book as this could not have been written while Irma Jefferson lived. In the end, though, Jefferson appreciates that her mother’s generation contended with class-based and time-bound expectations. Staring down Jim Crow, these wives of first-generation doctors and lawyers were to excel in their own spheres and instill in their children exemplary character and lofty ambition, all while participating in “a Negro life and history that moved forward and upward toward justice and victory.”
Behind the mother are the grandmothers, each (like Josephine Baker) with “natures made for victory.” Concluding with a wise story about her mother’s mother, Jefferson writes herself into an unbroken succession of Black women who transformed their worlds by reshaping the tools at hand: “Look, there she is. Defining legacies. Interpreting, if need be inventing, traditions.”
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