Story by Emily Toman
Photography by Harriet Dedman
As a secretary in the back offices of Planned Parenthood, Margo Jefferson had a front-row seat to the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Amid historic decisions over reproductive rights and workplace inequality, women realized they could do more, she says. Jefferson wanted to write, and she would be more than just a secretary. While earning her master’s degree in journalism in the early 1970s at Columbia University, she published her first paid story. It was a critique on rock ’n’ roll for Harper’s Magazine. After a few years of freelancing, she landed a job as associate editor at Newsweek in 1973 and became the first black female staff writer at the mainstream news publication.
She began teaching writing at New York University and then spent five years as a contributing editor at Vogue. In 1995, she received journalism’s highest honor for her cultural criticism at The New York Times.
Then she started writing less.
“I was feeling the pressure,” Jefferson says. “When you win something, even people who have admired you before, they don’t take their admiration for granted anymore. I felt very visible.”
Jefferson observes and critiques others for a living, but she has spent much of her own life under the microscope, which she chronicled in her 2015 memoir Negroland. In the opening pages, Jefferson writes about what it was like to grow up among the black Chicago elite. “Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.”
That paradox pervaded her life well into adulthood, resulting in depression, even as she accomplished great success.
Jefferson is at her desk by 9:30 a.m., a schedule that she has stuck to since her time at Newsweek. She doesn’t write every day, but “that’s the goal,” she says over lunch at French Roast, a bustling West Village bistro in Manhattan. She wears a multi-colored scarf over a black turtleneck. Her tight blonde curls highlight her warm smile and bright eyes. She indulges, ordering a chocolate croissant. “I had a healthy breakfast,” she says, with a smile.
Jefferson now teaches writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts but took a sabbatical for the spring 2016 semester to work on freelance assignments, speak at book readings and travel. While she does most of her writing at home, Jefferson often escapes to a neighborhood café to break through mental blocks and “wake the muscles up.” If she’s stuck on one particular paragraph, she brings a printout and hand-writes her edits.
“When you’re just starting your work, there’s this nervousness,” she says. “You think, ‘I don’t feel that smart this morning.’ Something about going to a nice-looking public space eases that. It feels nice, collegial without being intrusive.”
Judging by her impressive résumé, Jefferson has no obvious reason for self-doubt. She blazed a path for women and minority journalists at Newsweek and The New York Times and groomed some of today’s best writers at Columbia University, such as Dan Barry. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Vogue, Guernica and The Best American Essays of 2015, just to name a few. Negroland was named one of the best books of 2015 by The Washington Post, The New York Times and Time Magazine.
Jefferson’s Pulitzer Prize proves she’s good. And yet, she keeps the award in her bedroom.
“I felt like it was a more intimate space,” she says. “I don’t know that I’d be comfortable displaying it.”
She explains her guarded approach to success in Negroland. The title refers to the name she gives to a tiny section of black America in which families enjoyed the same wealth and privileges of whites. Her father was a prominent pediatrician in Chicago at one of the country’s oldest black hospitals, and her mother was a socialite. Jefferson attended private school, took piano lessons and went to summer camp. And she had the high-society appearance to go along with it. “Gloves, handkerchiefs and pocketbooks for each occasion,” she says. Any failure to uphold that hard-won status reflected poorly on not just her but her entire family.
Jefferson’s choice not to flaunt her achievements is perhaps only a remnant of her rigid upbringing. “I was taught to avoid showing off,” she writes in the opening pages of her memoir. “I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off. But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?”
So is her career as a critic. When she speaks, people listen.
“I wanted to talk about things,” Jefferson says, cutting into her chocolate croissant. She wanted go beyond the traditional thumbs-up, thumbs-down, consumer-driven reviews and consider what a book, play or television show says about our culture. “You think about, ‘What’s the cultural buzz? What are people obsessed with?’”
In a 1994 piece for the Times titled, “Seducified by a Minstrel Show,” she writes about comedy — from “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and “Beavis and Butthead” to stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy — and examines the question, “Who is laughing at whom and why?”
Jefferson is a keen observer. She wrote an entire book on Michael Jackson without ever speaking to him. Last year in Vogue, she profiled Beyoncé, who did not utter a single word for the story. Jefferson preferred neither circumstance. But, Jackson was on trial, and Beyoncé had stopped granting interviews. “You read everything you can get your hands on,” she says. “And you watch and watch and watch the videos, and take notes.”
Even Negroland is as much a cultural memoir as it is a personal one. Jefferson calls herself a “participant-observer,” both admiring and criticizing her own story. She often shifts into third person, telling the story of a woman who is part of a larger world. “The single self represents more,” she says.
Such self-examination was a long time coming, and the pressures she writes about in Negroland shaped her trajectory.
When her editors at the Times took her out to lunch to tell her she had won the Pulitzer Prize, she was stunned.
“Probably, my jaw dropped,” she says.
Then came the burden to continue performing at the same, or even higher level.
“You do feel, ‘OK, I have to keep up,’ she says. I kept trying to produce good work. I started writing every couple of weeks instead of every day. That caused some concern for my editors.”
The solution was to move from daily reviewing to a monthly column, working under veteran journalist Chip McGrath, who is now a writer-at-large for the Times. He says the daily newspaper grind was hard on a thoughtful, intellectual writer like Jefferson.
“Papers really value volume more than quality,” McGrath says. “So, it was an inspired idea to have her do [the column]. It was a kind of bridge from a daily reviewer to the books she wrote. She became a cultural essayist.” To wit, he says working with Jefferson couldn’t have been easier.
“I used to tease her and say that she was a self-cleaning oven,” McGrath says. “All I had to do was push a button and she took care of herself. She was so bright and so brainy and cultured. She was interested in everything.”
She wrote the column for about a year before moving on to theater reviews, which, she says, allowed her to prove herself in a new area. In fact, her lifelong love for the stage led to her memoir, which she first wrote and performed as a one-woman play, 60 Minutes in Negroland, in 2001 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City. “It clearly loosened things up to say things out loud, to get a response,” she recalls.
She released her memoir 15 years later, going against the advice she was raised with and documented in Negroland. She revealed her own vulnerability. Perhaps the most taboo subject? Depression.
“Particularly for blacks, it’s a story that’s not talked about,” Jefferson says.
Blacks had overcome too much to enjoy the privilege of being depressed, she says. But the pressure to uphold the image of a successful black woman, and to hide her struggle, overcame Jefferson. In her mid-20s, as she embarked on her journalism career, she routinely contemplated killing herself. She drafted suicide notes and practiced putting her head in the oven. Acknowledging the condition is what helped her heal. She manages her depression today with therapy and medication.
“You find ways to address it,” she says, “to make sense of it, to recognize it for what it is.”
Writing about it was difficult, but she says she is glad that she did. Had her parents been alive to see her book, the story might have been different, maybe not told at all. Jefferson lost her mother about a year and a half ago. She avoided revealing details to her mother of her own depression for fear that her mother’s hard work, which was forced upon them due to social injustices, would have been in vain.
“I was interpreting a world that was in part hers,” Jefferson says. “There were things I’m glad she didn’t read. I wanted to protect her.”
Jefferson spent decades reviewing artists, some she praised, others she panned. Before Negroland, she released her first book in 2006, On Michael Jackson, a collection of essays examining the pop icon’s rise and fall.
“This was the first time that I was exposed as the writer of a book,” Jefferson says. “What that meant was, I was exposed to that exact same discomforting, unsettling milieu of the public.”
She felt the sting of a negative review. Reception of the book was generally positive, except one piece in The New York Times Sunday Book Review by a freelancer who wrote that the “Kate Moss-thin book” failed to chart any new territory. “It was blistering,” Jefferson says. “I was furious and mortified. I was rattled I got this lousy review.”
A few years later she appeared on a panel of artists that gathered to reflect on Jackson’s life following his sudden death. Jefferson found herself sitting right next to the writer who blasted her book. She read from a prepared piece, after which he leaned over and quietly said, “That was beautiful.”
“We’re professional,” Jefferson says. “My job is to be very, very good on this panel. Being excellent at your job is the best revenge. It’s part of the writer’s trade from both ends.”
Jefferson extends some secrets of that trade to the aspiring writers who take her seminar classes at Columbia University. Most of her students are developing their ideas for nonfiction books.
Nina Sharma had Jefferson in the fall of 2015 for her master of fine arts thesis workshop. Jefferson got them talking about their projects on the first day.
“Margo knows how to pull a room together,” Sharma says. “This was no mere welcoming, but purposeful community building.” That community also yields to the writer’s need for solitude, a balance that Jefferson strikes well, Sharma says.
“She understood and empathized with this paradox of the writer’s life and I think that made our class come together in deeply productive and moving ways.”
Sharma is writing about identity and the challenges she has faced in her multicultural marriage to conform to white America’s definitions of minorities as either models or problems, not unlike the themes Jefferson addresses in her own memoir.
“I keep looking over her notes and I think, ‘here is Margo telling me to just say it, without apology, without shame, without concession.’ It’s like I can hear her pen saying, ‘just be yourself, don’t worry about the rest.’ It’s like that Miles Davis quote, ‘Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.’”