The magnificent dance of Margo Jefferson's Constructing a Nervous System

The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic returns with a brilliant memoir on race, criticism, and self

Margo Jefferson.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Don't let the title of Margo Jefferson's new book, Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir, fool you. By "nervous system," the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic has in mind not just the brute facts of embodied existence — the medulla oblongata and spinal cord — but something more metaphysical. "My nervous system is my structure of recombinant thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations, and words," she writes in the memoir, a follow-up to Negroland, her 2016 memoir about growing up as part of the Black bourgeoisie in Chicago, and making a path for herself as a writer.

The memoir's subtitle also carries an invisible asterisk; as much as it is a memoir, Constructing a Nervous System is equally a "them-oir," to borrow a coinage from the literary critic Alexandra Jacobs. It is as intimately preoccupied with others as it is with the self. There are childhood reminiscences of classmates being casually racist as well as nuanced considerations of works by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kara Walker. Cultural criticism and autobiography, then, are the two strands of Jefferson's literary double helix.

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