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Margo Jefferson

Professor and arts critic Margo L. Jefferson was born on October 17, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois, to Ronald and Irma Jefferson. Jefferson graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory School in 1964. She earned her B.A. degree in English and American literature from Brandeis University in 1968, and went on to earn her M.S. degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1971.

In 1973, Jefferson was hired as an associate editor for Newsweek magazine, where she worked until 1978. In 1979, she joined the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University as an assistant professor. Jefferson was hired as a contributing editor by Vogue magazine in 1984, where she wrote arts reviews and essays until 1989. She also served as a contributing editor to 7 Days magazine in 1988 and 1989. Jefferson returned to New York University as an assistant professor in 1989, where she taught critical writing and features until 1991, when she was hired as a lecturer of American literature, performing arts criticism, writing, and English at Columbia University. In 1993, Jefferson accepted a position at The New York Times as a book and arts critic. She was then promoted to Sunday theater critic in 1995, and became critic-at-large in 1996. She is a professor of writing at Columbia University, and has also served as a visiting associate professor at Eugene Lang College and The New School for Liberal Arts in New York City.

Throughout her career, Jefferson has been a contributing critic to many other publications, including Grand Street, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The Village Voice, Ms., The Soho Weekly News, Dance Ink, Lear’s, Harper’s, Alt, Denmark, and NRC Handelsblad. She has written and performed two theater pieces at The Cherry Lane Theatre and The Culture Project. Jefferson is also the author of On Michael Jackson, which was published in 2006. Her memoir Negroland, was published in 2015 and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography in 2016, the Bridge Prize, the Heartland Prize and was short-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize.

Jefferson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995, and has received the Alumni Achievement Award from Brandeis University and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Columbia University School of Journalism. In addition, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation /Theater Communications Group grant, and has served as a senior fellow for the National Arts Journalism Program.

Margo Jefferson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on January 20, 2017.

Accession Number

A2017.007

Sex

Female

Interview Date

01/20/2017

Last Name

Jefferson

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

Brandeis University

Columbia University

First Name

Margo

Birth City, State, Country

Chicago

HM ID

JEF05

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Illinois

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

One Never Knows, Do One?

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

10/17/1947

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Chocolate

Short Description

Professor and arts critic Margo Jefferson (1947 - ) won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995 while working as a culture critic at The New York Times. She was the author of 'On Michael Jackson,' and the National Book Critics Circle Award winning memoir, 'Negroland.'

Employment

Columbia University

Eugene Lang College

The New York Times

New York University

Vogue Magazine

Newsweek Magazine

Favorite Color

Shades of green

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Margo Jefferson's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Margo Jefferson lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Margo Jefferson describes her mother's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Margo Jefferson talks about her maternal grandmother's education

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Margo Jefferson describes her mother's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Margo Jefferson talks about her mother's upbringing and education

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Margo Jefferson describes her maternal grandmother's career

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Margo Jefferson remembers her maternal grandmother's personality and appearance

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Margo Jefferson describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Margo Jefferson talks about her paternal family members who passed for white

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Margo Jefferson describes her paternal family's decision to leave Mississippi

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Margo Jefferson talks about her paternal family's move to the West

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Margo Jefferson describes her father's and grandparents' employment in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Margo Jefferson talks about her paternal family's lifestyle in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Margo Jefferson describes her father's siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Margo Jefferson talks about her father's move to Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Margo Jefferson describes how her parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Margo Jefferson describes her earliest childhood memories

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Margo Jefferson remembers the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Margo Jefferson describes her early neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Margo Jefferson recalls her start at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Margo Jefferson recalls her start at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Margo Jefferson describes her early hair care regimen

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Margo Jefferson remembers her early educational interests

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Margo Jefferson describes her early challenges with eyesight

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Margo Jefferson talks about societal beauty standards

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Margo Jefferson describes her sister's dance background

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Margo Jefferson talks about her sister's career at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Margo Jefferson remembers her early piano lessons

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Margo Jefferson describes the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Margo Jefferson recalls her decision to attend Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Margo Jefferson remembers the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Margo Jefferson describes her and her sister's organizational involvement

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Margo Jefferson remembers her theater experiences

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Margo Jefferson describes her interest in cultural criticism

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Margo Jefferson recalls joining the writing staff at Newsweek

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Margo Jefferson remembers her career at Newsweek, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Margo Jefferson remembers her career at Newsweek, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Margo Jefferson describes her early freelance and teaching engagements

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Margo Jefferson describes her career at The New York Times

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Margo Jefferson talks about her challenges with depression

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Margo Jefferson remembers the impetus for her book, 'On Michael Jackson'

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Margo Jefferson describes the reception of her book, 'On Michael Jackson'

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Margo Jefferson talks about her one-woman show, 'Sixty Minutes in Negroland,' pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Margo Jefferson talks about her one-woman show, 'Sixty Minutes in Negroland,' pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Margo Jefferson describes her teaching career after leaving The New York Times

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Margo Jefferson talks about the Guggenheim fellowship

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Margo Jefferson describes the narrative voice of 'Negroland: A Memoir'

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Margo Jefferson reflects upon writing about the performance of race

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Margo Jefferson talks about challenges faced by the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Margo Jefferson describes her hopes for the readership of 'Negroland: A Memoir'

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Margo Jefferson describes the responses to 'Negroland: A Memoir'

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Margo Jefferson talks about her interest in the story of Mary McLeod Bethune

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - Margo Jefferson talks about the women's movement

Tape: 5 Story: 13 - Margo Jefferson recalls the female cultural figures she reviewed

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Margo Jefferson describes the concept of Negroland

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Margo Jefferson talks about First Lady Michelle Obama

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Margo Jefferson talks about the Women's March in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Margo Jefferson reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Margo Jefferson reflects upon her life

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Margo Jefferson describes her advice to young African American women, pt. 1

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Margo Jefferson shares her advice to aspiring writers

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Margo Jefferson describes her advice to young African American women, pt. 2

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$6

DAStory

5$1

DATitle
Margo Jefferson describes her sister's dance background
Margo Jefferson describes the concept of Negroland
Transcript
(Simultaneous) And at this point, was your sister already dancing?$$Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.$$When did that begin for her?$$She began, she began dance really as a, as a young girl.$$Uh-huh.$$She started with one teacher when she was probably about five or six, and then, she really liked it. And she said to my mother [Irma Armstrong Jefferson], "I want to be serious about this." So, my mother went to some friends of hers to find out who, you know, the top teachers in Chicago [Illinois] were. And a black friend of hers had studied with a woman named Edna McRae, who was the first top white teacher to accept black students. And so, Denise [Denise Jefferson] went and danced for her. And Edna McRae said, "You're very--your daughter is very talented." Denise was sitting right there. "I'm happy to have her, you know, in my school. If she wants to be a ballet dancer, you know, you all have to understand that that's, there are no compan- it doesn't happen, you know, she will--it's not, it's not happening in the world. She will, she will most likely have to dance with either Inter Modern [ph.], or she'll have to dance with Pearl Lang [Pearl Lang Dance Theater], or another modern company." Now, as it turned out, my sister, in her own way, eventually fell in love with modern dance, but really to the end of her life, she remembered how devastating that was. She liked this teacher very much, but she was sitting in the room, you know, when that pronouncement about, you know, racism in ballet was being handed down, even at the same time as she was being offered it because she was talented (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) And was this a black teacher telling her this?$$This was a white teacher, yep.$$Saying, you can study if you want, but basically you're--$$She was saying, you are really talented. You know, she didn't say it even nastily. She said, "What you need to understand is that there are no opportunities for a well--very, or very few for a well trained ballet dancer. If you really want to pursue a dance, you know, your best options are going to be Katherine Dunham [Katherine Dunham Company], you know, or another black modern company."$$And what did your sister do, what?$$She kept dancing (laughter) because she did love it. But it, you know, it stayed with her and, luckily for her, when she went to college, she joined the dance club. She was at an all-girls school, Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and they asked her to improvise. You know, they were interested in modern dance; and she went into shock, but something started--$$During this classical program?$$During the--this classically trained person, you know, suddenly is supposed to improvise. But something spoke to her, and then she got a scholarship to--Connecticut College [New London, Connecticut] had a summer dance program, and she encountered Martha Graham's choreography and [HistoryMaker] Donald McKayle's. And that changed her life. And she was a modern dancer; and, ultimately, became the director for over twe- well, certainly for twenty years of the Alvin Ailey school [Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater], so happy ending. But, you know, it's interesting that that's, that's how she fulfilled and th- and thwarted it. That's how she fulfilled what could have been a limitation and turned it into a kind of triumph.$The title of your book is 'Negroland' ['Negroland: A Memoir,' Margo Jefferson].$$(Nods head).$$How did you come to that and what does it mean?$$(Laughter) Negroland is--I made this name up myself some time ago. And when I decided to use it, here's what I was thinking. The book is really focused on the first, you know, half, two thirds of the 20th century, but it goes back into the 19th--and those were the years when Negro capitalized was the honored and chosen term. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], early 20th century; and then, we shift over into Negro. So, you know, this was the sanctioned and powerful word I knew until black in the mid-'60s [1960s]. So, I wanted that word, the fact of it, the memory of it to evoke, and kind of represent a whole kind of history of racial struggle, civil rights, integration, propriety if you will, advancement. That's, so it, yeah, it stood in for a lot of historical, social, and tonal realities. The land, to me, a land is literally geographic. And I was thinking, of course, of a city like Chicago [Illinois], many others, where, you know, segregation, racial segregation actually divides groups and sometimes classes, into neighborhoods that function like neighboring but separate lands. I think black people have always operated and been forced to--sometimes we've made gorgeous things out of it, but it was originally imposed. We've operated and, as a separate people within, you know, the United States of America. So, that's, that's a land, you know, a kind of homeland mythologically. And, you know, the cultural, black culture, a culture is also, you know, people also think that, that is part of their, part of what their homeland has to offer them. So, I wanted all those ideas, and associations, and myths, and facts to be caught up in that.