Case Studies

A critic tracks herself

Margo Jefferson

I generally trust my reading self—and my writing self. I think well of both their capacities to imagine, associ­ate, discern; to respond instinctively and analytically.

Lately, though, I’ve been questioning my writing self more pointedly. I keep scanning my prose for glib discontinuities that I almost manage to disguise as artful transitions: overdone solem­nity, superficial brightness, placating charm. I’ve come to see these trick effects as signs that I’m avoiding something—an unruly doubt, a confounding thought. Or maybe I’m just settling into an approach (a tone, a structure) that has rewarded me in the past, even if it may no longer suffice.

In particular I’m considering how I write about race, gender, and class: my methods, choices, and intentions. And is about the best word? How I write through is more accurate: through the particu­lars of my race, my gender, and my social class. How do I present—interpret for myself, then persuade, delight, provoke readers with these particulars? Now I’m asking: how can I use these categories and identities to keep my thoughts supple and my feelings bold? Or the reverse: to keep my thoughts bold and my feelings supple?

In the interest of clarifying, for myself and my readers, this resolve to strengthen and refine the tools of trust and mistrust, I present two case studies from my reading and writing life.

case study #1: my need for elective affinities
i love bringing together culturally disparate writers—for lectures, for classes, for the pleasure of arranging notecards so that passages from various writers conjoin unexpectedly. But wait. I can’t settle for that nebulous label, “various”—call them writers to whom his­tory has assigned separate and unequal status. I want to bring such writers into a space where I can pursue affinities among them that critical tradition has ignored or dismissed. I find acute pleasure in trajectories of likeness and difference, symmetry and rupture.

What alternate critical world am I trying so hard to construct and why? What does it give me? How does it serve me? What does it give you, my readers?

Race and gender pride drove me to conjoin Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin. Along with ambition.

Here’s an example from a monologue I wrote in the early 2000s in a brief flight from criticism to solo performance. The kinship between an essay and a monologue has always pleased me. In my teens and twenties, I had an acute if intermittent longing to be an actress, to display and disguise myself simultaneously. To make myself both singular and plural.

I performed my monologue for a few weekends in two Off-Off-Broadway theaters. Each night, I walked downstage center, paused in the light, and looked out at the audience. I declared that I’d always loved sonnets about moments of ecstatic yet august emotion, son­nets that had titles like: “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair” or “Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte.” Then I said, “Here is a short prose piece that I call: ‘Feelings of An American Negro Girl Upon First Reading the Essays of James Baldwin’”:

It was a spring evening. Vanessa and I were sitting in the draw­ing room.

I was quoting Virginia Woolf, but my audience didn’t know that yet. I wanted to let them bask in dramatic uncertainty, ready them­selves for disruptions of logic.

Suddenly the door opened and the long and sinister figure of Mr. Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold. He pointed his fin­ger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.

“Semen?” he said.

Can one really say it? I thought and we burst out laugh­ing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. The word bugger was never far from our lips. We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good.

Then I switched to my own words.

Suddenly, the door opened, and the small, fine-boned figure of James Baldwin stood on America’s threshold, pointing his finger at the stains—bigotry, cruelty, injustice—on its white skin. There he was, a prophet, a pop-eyed bugger, invoking the forces of love and desire across barriers of race, gender, and sexuality, despite the punishments meted out to those who defy such barriers.

I got the coveted gasp from my audience. At the time, what I loved most was the power of inventing a narrative, a story, that none of them could have invented. Now I’m more interested in other motives that drove me. Now I ask myself: was I appropriating whiteness so as to critique its usual mise-en-scène limits? Was I showing that, in my adolescent mind, circa 1962, when I first read Baldwin, the fear of truth-telling about race was yoked to the fear of truth-telling about sex? And here’s another truth about my intent. Turning private feelings that felt beyond my control—shame, acute anger, unrequited love—to public language was still so excruciat­ing for me that I sought refuge—cover—in writers brave enough to speak their fears and desires. In this case, Woolf and Baldwin were my objective correlatives.

today, i see that my monologue was a power play, an effort at literary triangulation. Woolf was a (white) woman who wrote brilliantly about gender; Baldwin was a black (man) who wrote brilliantly about race. And there I was, insisting on my presence at the crossroads of their identities and their voices.

The righteous reconciliation of blackness and manhood was the great drama of Baldwin’s life. His queerness challenged and radicalized that drama but did not displace it. Now I was displac­ing manhood, taking Baldwin’s place in the drama. I was making myself the central narrator; making him a symbol of the eloquence I could now wield.

Woolf’s feminism was protean and passionate. Her feminism was also European. I’ve never forgotten this line from A Room of One’s Own: “It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.” The diction strains so as to achieve that fleeting release from the unreal loyalty of race.

I didn’t quote that sentence in my monologue. I didn’t recall it at the time, not consciously. But I knew, I had to know, that I was that negress, that very fine negress.

And I was using Woolf to my ends, as she has used me to hers.

Race and gender pride drove me to conjoin Woolf and Baldwin. Along with ambition. To couple them in my monologue was to imagine that I mattered to them. Because I couldn’t imagine becoming a better writer without them.

case study #2: zora neale hurston and my discontents
something different happens when you start to rebel against a writer with whom you share a race, a gender, and cultural legacies. A writer you’ve read for pleasure and knowledge, whose reach and grasp you’ve marveled at. A writer who helped make you possible.

When someone has helped make you possible, nothing galls more than discovering the ways in which the two of you aren’t at all alike. Differences start to feel like reproaches. You know she’s a major writer, but some part of you wants her to be a perfect one. So you’re angry when she’s not—she has no business vaulting over that knotty emotion, or thought made achingly visible with a brisk summa­tion. “There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rot­ting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave ships in shoes.” So she describes the years after her mother’s death in Dust Tracks on a Road. Then, with a new paragraph comes these distancing sentences: “That wordless feeling went with me from the time I was ten years old until I achieved a sort of competence around twenty. Naturally, the first five years were the worst. Things and cir­cumstances gave life a most depressing odor.” You want to honor her powers. But you don’t want to inherit or imitate her mistakes.

Thinking all this over, I still found myself saying: “Zora Neale Hurston, I can’t completely trust you.”

Take these words which I scribbled inside a book of hers some months ago. “I don’t trust you,” I wrote. “A part of me never has.”

I scrawled them inside a newly published collection of Zora Neale Hurston’s essays, You Don’t Know Us Negroes, which brought back all my years of reading her. Everyone read and everyone loved Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I’d always felt most excited by those pieces of hers that put linguistic flesh on the bones of cul­tural theory: essays published in her lifetime and after her death like “Folklore and Music,” “Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals,” “The Sanctified Church,” “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” And by her book, Mules and Men, with its audacious mingling of folklore, ethnography, and travel memoir. Her language moves through race, region, and class vernaculars; it draws on narrative and on lyric, individual and collective voicings. All of this to document, dramatize, and theorize black culture, in a world that has chosen to see it merely as an assortment of primeval habits and instincts.

And yet, thinking all this over, I still found myself saying: “Zora Neale Hurston, I can’t completely trust you.” Late one night, I decided to argue my case in a letter. A letter is private and public, both monologue and dialogue. It records a shared past and offers a shared future. Like Hurston’s work, it is spoken and written.

“Dear Zora Neale,” I began:

I’m awed by your multivalent intelligence. I’m awed by how you synthesize fact and myth, close observation and sumptu­ous imagery. By how you shaped—collected, codified, and cre­ated—Black American and black diasporic culture. By the voices and rhythms you call on, your scene-making powers, how you build characters through extended dialogue and sharp, diag­nostic perceptions.

But why do I mind that when you are your own subject—Zora the scholar-adventurer, Zora the first-person narrator—you refuse to show readers your vulnerability. To me, vulner­ability is the space where writers reveal emotions we haven’t yet mastered: the space where doubt and ambivalence dwell; where shame and grief dwell; where fear of defeat dwells.

Time and again you choose to minimize these spaces, turn away and usher us into an otherworldly sanctum where cos­mic mysteries disguise or elevate you. I’m thinking of the New Orleans section of Mules and Men, of Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamiaca, of your autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, and of your personal essays—one of which I’ll come back to. In Dust Tracks, you confide that as a child you had visions of the sufferings and struggles that awaited you. We catch our breath as we read. But the specifics blur into symbol and lam­entation. “Often I was in some lonesome wilderness,” you tell us, “suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care…I asked myself why? Why? Why? A cosmic loneliness was my shadow.”

The heroes you loved most as a child were Hercules and David; the hero of your third novel was Moses. You chose war­riors, rulers, artists, prophets, and visionaries to embody you. Human, but also godlike. All of them shadowed by cosmic loneliness.

“I will live and die by my own mind,” you told Countee Cullen. That mind—how it dazzled as you single-handedly explored black aesthetic, religious and social practices. You were determined to make your own discoveries. And to do this, you had to make yourself a singular and dauntless explorer-hero. Even in your fiction, your narrative voice invokes your otherworldly powers. Your first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, opens, “God was grumbling his thunder and playing the zigzag lightning thru his fingers.” And so too Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

You give your fictional characters all kinds of contrary emo­tions. But when you’re the leading character, yours get cloaked in fable, rhyme, and metaphor. You tease, charm, and declaim your way through contradictions, pun and signify, leap and swerve from abstraction to anecdote.

Here I stop my letter. I’ve gotten too pleased with my own obser­vations. Why do I insist that she air her doubts, probe her motives, confess her lapses and failures? The world had stern protocols for how an educated black woman with scholarly and literary ambi­tions should represent her race and gender. Her materials and her methods should be unimpeachable, showing respect for precedent and tradition.

Hurston took a daring hybrid approach to researching and writ­ing the folklore she gathered. Even though scholarly convention still decreed that she observe the line separating fiction writing from folklore collecting, she believed passionately that to give her best to either, she must use both. So she blurred, or ignored, the line between them. Reading Mules and Men today, her book about folklore and life in Florida and Louisiana, some questions still have no clear answer. When is Hurston the folklorist, collecting and repeating an informant’s story, and when is she the fiction writer, absorbing and recreating it? When and where has she added tales of her own invention, camouflaged in the style of her informants?

We grieve that race and gender denied her the power to make those violations public and win acclaim. Every space she sought out was a liminal space.

In the late twenties and thirties, when she was collecting and shaping folklore, some considered Hurston’s hybrid research and writing methods careless and reckless. Alain Locke, the impresario of the Harlem Renaissance, found Mules and Men apolitical and too focused on its own “art.” Franz Boas, the renowned anthropologist who had mentored her, did not want to write a full introduction to the book he had once encouraged. Such rebuffs taught her to be cautious, artfully evasive. Now, though, we delight in the evidence that she was bold enough to create new forms by honoring and violating old ones. And we grieve that race and gender denied her the power to make those violations public and win acclaim. Every space she sought out was a liminal space.

Maybe I should end on this valedictory note, but I can’t. Zora, I will finish this letter because I still want to imagine that that you’re listening as I probe and parse my relations with you.

And I still want to talk about that liminal trickster essay of yours, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” For years it has intrigued and exasperated me. It embodies everything I’ve been writing about. You wrote it in 1928—and here we are, almost 100 years later, still provoked by its content, still titillated by its form. It courts and flees autobiography; debates and sur­mounts race. It’s subtle and bold, elusive and declamatory.

I call it “Hurston’s Metamorphoses,” because in just four pages you do high-speed shapeshifting. You’re an ebullient, precocious child with no awareness of racial difference, a thirteen-year-old whom racial trauma turns into an anonymous and powerless “little colored girl.” Then—behold!—you’re a published writer, educated and opinionated. You defy the rhet­oric of racial abjection. “I am not tragically colored,” you exult, “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood.” You con­quer racial setbacks by turning them into cognitive triumphs. Does discrimination bother you? “It merely astonishes me,” is your response. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

You say you feel most “colored” when you’re thrown into a white majority. “Thrown against a sharp white background” is your fierce expression. Being human won’t suffice here: you must make yourself into a force of nature, a dark rock “surged upon, overswept by a creamy sea,” but ultimately unchanged. (Your language postures, but I’m struck by your will to endure.) When you and a white friend listen to the furious pulse of jazz in a Harlem club, you leave him stranded in his pallor and become an African warrior, hurling your spear with deadly pre­cision, dancing wildly, “living in the jungle way” and “wanting to slaughter something—give pain, give death to what, I do not know.” (Your language taunts and teases, but I’m struck by your will to prevail.)

Metamorphosis is an emergency power, compelled by great desires and great dangers.

You’re happiest, you tell us, when you “achieve the uncon­scious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira,” as if you’re always working toward a state of grace. That Hegira moves me: it is a migration, an exodus, an arduous journey away from oppres­sion and toward spiritual freedom. But then you settle for a generically grandiose cluster of phrases: “the cosmic Zora,” “a fragment of the Great Soul,” “the Eternal feminine with its string of beads.” You’re too smart not to recognize the risk of mystic faux-profundity. “Yes,” I can hear you answer, rearing back a bit, “I am too smart. Maybe you don’t know this Negro as well as you think. Go back to my essay, ‘Characteristics of Negro Expression’ and reread the passage about our people’s love of elaborate adornment and stylistic ornamentation. And heed its warning: ‘We each have our own standards of art, and thus are we all interested parties and so unfit to pass judgment upon the art concepts of others.’”

All right, I stand reproached. But then, you end with one last glorious metamorphosis, as if to reward me. “I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall,” you write. “Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red, and yel­low. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things, priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string; a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two, still a little fragrant.”

A collage of human vulnerabilities. That’s what you reveal yourself as here.

Tender, rueful, lyrically exact.

I think about your life. You were a solitary traveler, from the age of 13, when your adored mother died and your imperi­ous father sent you away from home. You made yourself into a major writer, scholar, and critical thinker. You had friends, col­leagues, patrons, mentors, lovers, and husbands in abundance. But you were a solitary traveler.

That’s enough vulnerability for a lifetime. Why have I so wanted to experience yours? Does that give me, the reader, more power? Justify my own temperamental drives and choices? Do I overvalue vulnerability because I know its registers so well? How, faced with your displays of strength, do I feel diminished?

Zora, I wanted you to bring your capacious mind and imagina­tion, your bravura prose to this internal battlefield.

I know that unchecked, unexamined vulnerability can make one timid and bitter. Defiantly sentimental. You knew this too, and for you, vulnerability was an enemy to be quelled over and over. It was victimhood—race victimhood, gender victimhood, and personal victimhood. Janey’s lament from Their Eyes Were Watching God, “I’ve been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots,” recurs in the last chapter of your autobiography. And this time it leads you into a defiant manifesto:

          What I had to swallow in the kitchen has not made me less glad to have lived, nor made me want to low-rate the human race, nor any whole sections of it. I take no refuge from myself in bitterness. To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgment of defeat. I have no urge to make any concessions like this to the world as yet…I am in the struggle with the sword in my hands, and I don’t intend to run until you run me.

Zora, I wanted you to bring your capacious mind and imagina­tion, your bravura prose to this internal battlefield. When there was no sword in sight; when you were sorely tempted by the refuge of bitterness; when you feared you would have to make concessions; find ways to live with defeat.

“But I’ve done my work,” I hear you saying. “Make sure you do yours as bravely.”

I will try. That’s how I end my letter. I will end this essay with a metamorphosis of my own.

1929, Virginia Woolf: “It is one of the great advantages of being a woman that one can pass even a very fine negress without wish­ing to make an Englishwoman of her.”

2022, Margo Jefferson: It is one of the great advantages of being a black woman that one can read very fine writing by another black woman, feel a need to remake her in one’s own image, but then feel a greater need to release her.

Margo Jefferson is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. For years she was a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, New York, and The New Republic. Her most recent book is Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir. She is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022


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