Constructing a Nervous System

Constructing a Nervous System coverConstructing a Nervous System: A Memoir
Margo Jefferson
Pantheon (April 12, 2022), 209 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $22.95

I added Constructing a Nervous System to my stack of Kindle samples when the book first came out in April. Its appearance on the 100 Notable Books of 2022 in The New York Times jogged my memory and I decided it was time to read it.

The book is called a memoir, but it really consists of a series of essays on various topics. The opening chapter is a stream of consciousness recollection about the author’s younger years, including memories of the end of her mother’s life. The rest of the book is a collection of essays on a variety of topics.

Jefferson is angry. Given that she is an African American woman she has every right to be. She writes, “The destiny of our people was tracked through the male line.” She goes on to say that although everyone knew about the lynching of Black men, Black women were lynched as well. She notes she was not aware of this until college.

The author devotes several essays to entertainers. She discusses Ella Fitzgerald and her struggles, saying, “You labored to be beautiful. You earned your diaphoresis, day by day, night by night, rehearsal by rehearsal, tour by tour.” She writes about Hattie McDaniel in her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, which won her an Oscar. (And Jefferson notes that her mother and friends flocked to their local theater to see the movie, while feeling guilty about doing so.) Jefferson engages in a detailed discussion of Josephine Baker about whom she seems to have mixed feelings. On one hand the author admires Baker’s joining Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. On the other, she seems disdainful of Baker’s deliberate strategy of making herself provocative.

Jefferson also writes with mixed feelings about the novelist Willa Cather. When she first encountered Cather the author appreciated her feminism, but Jefferson later understood how seriously racist Cather was. In the realm of politics, Jefferson does not look kindly on Condoleezza Rice and her admiration of the second President Bush.

I’m embarrassed that I was not aware of Margo Jefferson before finding this book. (She has won a Pulitzer, after all.) But I’m happy to have discovered her here, with her insights and superb writing skills.



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