Born in 1947 into elite black society in Chicago, Margo Jefferson spent most of her life among the black aristocracy. In her memoir, Negroland, Jefferson gives us an inside look into this distinctive culture. Since the nineteenth century, inhabitants of Negroland have stood apart, “sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Jefferson vividly describes the origins of that culture, taking us along on her journey as she grows up in Negroland, lives through the civil rights era, and eventually arrives at today’s so-called post-racial America.
Described as “a national treasure” by Vanity Fair, Margo Jefferson imbues her writing with incredible feeling and clarity. In the exclusive essay below she shares a little about what has allowed her to do that—mainly the authors and books that have influenced her craft over the years.
I resist lists. It must be all those “Most Important” and “Best of the Year” ones I compiled in my years as a beat critic. I often felt guilty about what I left out. One’s relations with books are full of subtext.
The same resistance surfaces when I consider writers who’ve influenced me. I have so many craft considerations—description, argument, rhythm, and syntax—how could a mere handful of writers meet them all?
As the years pass, I find that writers who were once central to me aren’t anymore. I revered Yeats’s poetry in college. I respect it now and am still ravished by certain lines, but I don’t go back to him again and again. I do go back to Emily Dickinson again and again. In my salad days I didn’t yet see that her art is preternatural and that her craft of kinetic condensation liberates.
Some writers stay mentors because they guided you to your vocation. Ralph Ellison’s essays were models for me when I began my life as a critic. Slipping cultural yokes and violating aesthetic boundaries, he made criticism high-stakes work, especially for a black critic. (And he led me to other books that I learned from too: Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans and Constance Rourke’s American Humor).
He’s a fact of my writer’s life, though I don’t read him constantly, as I once did. The same is true of Virginia Woolf, who threaded history, lyric, and feminism into each essay and caught the dynamism of the form when she called it “the theater of the brain.”
When I began studying, teaching, and yearning to write personal essays of my own, I went back to James Baldwin. The architecture of those sentences; their spiritual interiors! I discovered Richard Rodriguez—and I teach him too. Both explore that wilderness where the self meets the world, and refuses censorship or confinement.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold multiple voices in your mind and continue to function without silencing any of them. I’ve appropriated and amended F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s words here. My mind is stuffed with quotes. Lines, couplets, paragraphs, stanzas; Bessie Smith, Stevie Smith, Tin Pan Alley, rock and roll. They tease or lead or hurl me into a dream space of jostling languages that I need to bask in each day, in order to write.