Pulitzer Prize writer speaks about her academic and professional experiences
Margo Jefferson ’68 answered questions about her time at Brandeis as well as her journalism career.
On Wednesday, Oct. 6, Brandeis Women’s Network hosted a conversation with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Margo Jefferson ’68. The event was held over Zoom and was moderated by Trustee Barbara Dortch-Okara ’71. Over the course of the event, Jefferson discussed her time at Brandeis, the trajectory of her career and answered some questions from the community.
Jefferson is known for her work as a critic at Newsweek and The New York Times, and for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1995. She wrote a biography about Michael Jackson titled “On Michael Jackson,” and her book “Negroland: A Memoir” won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award.
The event began with Dortch-Okara asking Jefferson about her memoir, “Negroland.” The book was published in 2015 and details her childhood in a privileged Black community in Chicago during the 1950s and '60s. When asked how she decided on the title, Jefferson explained that while she had doubts about it, she ultimately wanted the title to “stand for the historical period that [she] had been very much a product of.” The term “negro,” she explained, was once a respectable term, and had a tone of “stalwart uplift” and “keeping your shoulders high.” She tied it in with land to represent where she grew up, which was “largely segregated, though with a little integration.” Neighborhoods in Chicago were and are largely separated by race, and this segregation, or “even cruel divisions,” shaped her life for many years.
Jefferson then discussed how she, a Chicagoan, had ended up at Brandeis in the first place, saying, “There’s a long line of Midwesterners, you know, all generations, who, if they think of themselves as artistic, they [sic] have always wanted to go east.” Jefferson was one of those herself, and had aspired to go to college on the east coast since before she started high school. Her family stumbled upon Brandeis when her elder sister, who also aspired to study in the east, was touring colleges. Jefferson shared that while on a train, “my parents got talking to someone who was a graduate student at Brandeis, and he said, you know, maybe not this daughter, maybe another, think about Brandeis.” She ended up enrolling in 1964.
What stuck out about Brandeis to Jefferson was its “feverish co-ed intellectualism.” In the '60s, the University was a hotbed of activism. The anti-war movement was revving up, and Jefferson said that she and her classmates were “very involved in civil rights.” When she enrolled, the women's movement had not quite begun, and she explained that the Black Power movement was not quite there yet either. “There were always exciting speakers around, too,” Jefferson added. “And there was so much talk going on, you know, in class, in dorms. But the thing that was so interesting was to be on that, that shift [to the civil rights movement].”
The events of the late '60s shaped her experience at Brandeis. The Black Panthers’ emergence in 1966 prompted Black student organizations to form, and the March on the Pentagon in 1967 was another formative event for that generation. Laughing, Jefferson also recalled that the birth control pill became available when she was a first-yearr, which was very significant for women at the time.
Jefferson also shared her most memorable times at Brandeis. She reminisced about going to Cholmondeley’s, the coffee house in Usen Castle, “sitting around all closely packed together,” listening to what she described as “to us then, groundbreaking folk singers.” Student bohemian life was very big at the time, and she laughed as she commented that there was “a lot of grass around.”
In addition to student life, Jefferson also talked about courses she remembered. While not particularly focused on political science, she enjoyed a politics lecture in a course she took her first-year, and she recalled an English professor who was a poet named Allan Grossman. Her junior year, Jefferson took a course “we would call a Black studies course'' taught by Sociology Prof. Lawerence Fuchs. “That was the same year that the Black student organization was starting, so, you know, that was significant,” she said, adding, “Everything that mattered wasn’t at Brandeis, but it started there.”
Next, Dortch-Okara asked Jefferson if she had had any mentors that she had looked up to at Brandeis or early in her career, and if so, if any of them were women. Jefferson said that she had been talking about this with some very close writer friends, and their shared experience was surprising: none of them had any true mentors early on. “We all went to college, you know, in these years, and it seemed we are all writers. But it seems very few of us were consistently mentored,” Jefferson said. There were very few women in journalism at the time, which had limited her options.
Jefferson then talked in depth about her professional journey, starting as a writer for Newsweek to becoming an acclaimed journalist, critic and writer. She described it as a “linear” trajectory. After five years, she said she was getting “stale,” doing the same thing every week, and that she needed something more. She wanted to have a more varied voice. She tried to earn her Ph.D. at Yale University, but dropped out after one semester. “You weren’t afraid to walk away,” Dortch-Okara observed, to which Jefferson agreed. She taught journalism and began to freelance, and “work[ed] with [her] voice in different ways.”
Her career continued to change when she joined the Times as a critic. “I wasn’t free, I wasn’t writing enough, I realized,” Jefferson said, explaining that she had been too nervous to venture back. When she did, though, she was incredibly successful. She began as a “beat” critic and was promoted to the Sunday theater critic. After winning her Pulitzer, she began her own column, “where [she] could write about anything.” After a while, however, she left the Times and began to write books. “On Michael Jackson” was published in 2006 and “Negroland” followed it in 2015. She also touched on her current project. “I would call it a collage,” she said, explaining that it is an “intermingling of lessons and thoughts and fantasies” about the jazz musicians that she listened to as a child.
When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, both personal and professional, Jefferson quickly said, “Be braver.” She added, “don’t second guess yourself.” If she had been braver, she explained, it wouldn’t have taken her so long to write her first book, and she may have found more mentors. She told the audience, “Keep looking for ways to challenge yourself.”
Next, Dortch-Okara asked Jefferson questions from the audience. The first one addressed what extracurriculars she was involved in at Brandeis; in particular, if she had written for the Justice. Jefferson said that surprisingly, she had not. “I was very interested in writing and literature, but I wasn’t thinking of myself as a writer yet, and I wasn’t thinking of myself as a journalist,” she answered, explaining that she “hadn’t yet made that link between loving literature and reading and writing and writing about music.”
A significant question from an audience member was whether she felt comfortable on campus as an African American student. There were about 10 in her year, she said, and that in a “daily way,” they felt secure on campus. “In general terms, I was comfortable,” she continued, but said that she felt “angry or more alienated” in 1967 and 1968.
Similarly, Jefferson was also asked if the movement for change on campus made her uncomfortable, and if she saw a disconnect “between the liberal rhetoric and real substantive change” while at Brandeis. She explained that she had white friends, but throughout the tumultuous years of 1967 to 1968, “[she] lived this life as, you know, a Black student at Brandeis who was a young Black person.” The final question was similar, asking if her being uncomfortable was specific to Brandeis or if it was the events happening outside. Jefferson answered that the “cataclysms” were definitely due to the world outside, and that those events “came caving in” on her life at Brandeis.