Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson ’68 spoke to the Brandeis community about her journey as a writer in a recent Zoom webinar hosted by the Brandeis Women’s Network. The conversation was moderated by Brandeis alumni Trustee Barbara A. Dortch-Okara ’71, a retired Massachusetts Superior Court Judge. Both members are recipients of the Brandeis Alumni Achievement Award. The webinar sought to provide a “thought-provoking conversation” about growth, mentorship and scholarship, according to the Brandeis alumni webpage.
Jefferson has held positions in various professions, including news and media, journalism, academia and published writing. In her position at The New York Times, Jefferson worked as a book reviewer, earning her the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in criticism. In addition to the Times, Jefferson has written for other publications such as Vogue, New York Magazine, The Nation and The Washington Post. She is the author of acclaimed novels and autobiographies “On Michael Jackson” and “Negroland: A Memoir.”
“Negroland” won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Jefferson explained the reason why she chose the title of her memoir to be “Negroland” in the Zoom webinar, saying, “I chose it because I wanted the word Negro to stand for a particular historical period that I had very much been a product of … I wanted the word to symbolize [the history].” She described witnessing divisiveness across the lines of race during her upbringing, saying, “I grew up in a world that was largely segregated.” She described how Chicago demonstrated segregation across class and race.
While Jefferson’s upbringing took place in an “affluent Black enclave on the South Side of Chicago,” according to the alumni webpage, she moved to the East Coast in order to study at Brandeis. She found the co-ed, intellectual characteristics of Brandeis to align with her own interests. Additionally, Brandeis was a central location for activism, including the Black Power Movement, the Anti-War Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. Due to these characteristics, Jefferson found Brandeis an attractive place to attend college. “I looked up to those traditions,” Jefferson remarked about her decision to attend Brandeis.
During her time at Brandeis, Jefferson described how she was very much immersed in the culture of activism and liberal political discourse at Brandeis. She noted that at the time, the dorms of Brandeis welcomed the presence of all genders, which was uncommon of universities at the time. Her academic highlights include attending a large introductory lecture class in political science and an English class with a professor who was also a poet. She described these intellectual experiences as “profoundly thrilling.”
While Jefferson noted how her most fulfilling mentorship occurred later on in her writing career, Dortch-Okara noted that Jefferson herself has been called upon to mentor a plethora of aspiring students in the arts and humanities. Jefferson described how mentorship requires self-examination and can be difficult; however it is very rewarding. “When you’re working with students of another generation, they are bringing questions, challenges, perspectives that aren’t necessarily the ones … you were taught … Adapting to the needs of each particular mentee requires a lot of discipline,” Jefferson said.
During the audience question and answer session, Jefferson left the audience with a piece of advice she would give to herself: “Be braver. Don’t second guess yourself … Keep looking for ways to challenge yourself to be brave.”
The Brandeis Women’s Alumni Network was founded during the summer of 2019. The network seeks to “foster and build connections between Brandeis women,” as described in the webinar.