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Margo Jefferson, “From ‘I’ to ‘We’: The Role of the Citizen-Critic”

The Oregon Humanities Center is honored to host Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, cultural critic, journalist, and professor Margo Jefferson, who will give the final lecture in the OHC’s “We the People” series.

Jefferson asks, “how do we teach ourselves to go beyond the limits of our own experience?” stating, “I think we all need to be citizen-critics. I think our task is to bring all the traditions that have shaped us—intellectual, political, aesthetic—to complex questions of identity and community.”

The daughter of a prominent physician and social worker-turned-socialite mother, Jefferson grew up in an upper-middle class black neighborhood of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. She writes about her experiences growing up in post-war America as a member of a privileged African American family in her memoir, Negroland, which won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, The International Bridge Prize, and The Heartland Prize.

She writes, “‘We the People’ is an affirmation, but it’s a provocation too. It provokes each of us as individuals, as ‘I’s who cherish our particular identities, to think about how those identities can join forces in a community. And by ‘forces’ I mean beliefs, achievements and dreams, but also uncertainties and conflicts: histories and traditions that often clash. ‘We the People’ are a nation of communities and cultures struggling hard to make sense of one another. What kind of ‘we’ is worth dreaming of and working for?”

Jefferson currently teaches writing at Columbia University School of the Arts. Her previous book was On Michael Jackson. She has been a staff writer for The New York Times and Newsweek, and has published in New York Magazine, The Nation, The Washington Post, The Believer, and Guernica. Her essays have been anthologized in: The Best American Essays, 2015; The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death; What My Mother Gave Me; The Best African-American Essays, 2014; The Mrs. Dalloway Reader; Black Cool; and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. She also wrote and performed a theater piece, Sixty Minutes in Negroland, at The Cherry Lane Theatre and The Culture Project.