“Deeply political and intensely personal” – Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson

IMG_2022-5-20-211041Writer and critic Margo Jefferson is, in the UK at least, best known for Negroland, a memoir considering her own growing up in light of her experiences of race and class in twentieth-century Chicago; Constructing a Nervous System advances this project of self-examination, but, as with the earlier book, the real focus isn’t Jefferson herself, but the point of intersection whereby a self, a ‘nervous system’, emerges from a tangle of categories: woman/Black/middle-class. ‘My sensibility’, she tells us, ‘is a structure of recombinant thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and words.’ In Constructing a Nervous System, she sets out to break down this sensibility and make it anew; to work out when and where her ‘fluencies’ as a critic and a memoirist ‘become clever distractions from what needs writing’. As a result, the book is as much textual analysis of her own literary formulations as it is cultural criticism and recalled experience; in terms of cultural criticism, too, Jefferson studies here how the central nervous system of the USA, as a historical-material shaping force, has positioned and subjugated its Black citizenry—in this instance, through the control and narrativisation of the art and lives of Black performers.

Bud Powell, Ella Fitzgerald, Hattie McDaniel, Ike Turner, Tina Turner, Martha Graham, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker: Constructing a Nervous System is an exhilarating rollcall of twentieth century Black stars, from jazz and blues icons, to major figures in dance and film, to Snoop from The Wire. What Jefferson does in this book is examine her own reactions to these (and other) celebrities, and use them as a jumping-off point for analysing the reception, co-opting, dismissal and summation of Black bodies, talent and basic existence in (mostly) post-1900 America. ‘Cautious participation; ongoing denigration: these were the tracks laid down for the Negro by the glittering machinery of American entertainment.’ The project she’s taken on is, then, both deeply political and intensely personal: she’s analysing what happens to ‘a viewer, spectator, reader’ (to her, to you) whose avatars, if they can indeed be found at all, are ceaselessly problematised by white supremacist culture. Perhaps, she suggests, the way one has, then, of figuring out one’s own relationship to one’s own self is like ‘learning a language that’s simultaneously dead and living, that requires you to amend it, even as you absorb it’. Of course, she’s not the only person to have recognised the contortions demanded of a subject striving to become in a society deeming it lesser, and here Jefferson turns to W. E. B. Du Bois (and, interestingly, George Eliot) and his theory of double consciousness to contextualise her experience of this kind of endless re-assessing, revising, reconsidering. And, as far as avatars go, she’s alert to those crafted by white writers—Willa Cather, Harrier Beecher Stowe, Margaret Mitchell—and elevated and reified by white readers. As a critic, but also as a Black woman from a particular class background, she is, she notes, ‘locked in conflict with a work of art that enchants and erases her’.

What’s particularly compelling throughout this book is the way in which Jefferson describes this playing out of double consciousness through her own youth, her own rushing to see Gone With the Wind, her troubled relationship with Cather, her obsession with Ike Turner (her problematic faves, as my students might put it). She’s analysing how her ‘nervous system’ has been constructed by and for her, and the ongoing project of de/reconstructing it; she’s attentive to her instinctual turn towards particular literary constructions, ways of framing and summarising experiences. ‘Move on, Narrator,’ she orders herself. ‘Stretch your range.’ She challenges herself to push the limits of memory, metaphor and interpretation, and, in doing so, challenges the form of memoir itself. As with Jenn Ashworth’s recent Notes Made While Falling, Jefferson’s readers are not allowed to forget the facticity of the text: like the self, it too is a construct, and as a construct that is itself (re)constructing the self, it must be subject to severe scrutiny at all times: ‘I considered leaving this passage […] out. I thought that in pointing up these class and style distinctions I was using irony more for self-regard than self-awareness. It feels necessary, though.’

Any Cop?: This is a rigorously intellectual book that’s dealing with some very tough material in terms of its racialised subjects, but it’s also a celebratory and joyous account of a child’s and young woman’s passion for those subjects, and a reclamation of a set of lives from the (white) hegemonic account(s) of them many readers might typically encounter. As a memoir, it’s audacious; as a read, it’s captivating.

Valerie O’Riordan

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