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  1. Ralph Ellison’s essays were models for me when I began my life as a critic. Slipping cultural yokes and violating aesthetic boundaries, he made criticism high-stakes work, especially for a black critic.
  2. New Yorkers know how to borrow wildly. You know, Louis Armstrong was not a New York musician. He went from New Orleans to Chicago to New York, and when he arrived here, he taught those New Yorkers. New York needs that infusion.
  3. Since pre-Emancipation, black ‘females’ have had to fight for the whites-only privilege of being deemed ‘ladies’: cultured, educated, sexually desirable in a socially respected way. Michelle Obama has managed to get all this without yielding her right to be smart and strong-willed.
  4. Clever of me to become a critic. We critics scrutinize and show off to a higher end. For a greater good. Our manners, our tastes, our declarations are welcomed. Superior for life. Except when we’re not. Except when we’re dismissed or denounced as envious or petty, as derivatives and dependents by nature. Second class for life.
  5. Noir was a brainchild of the United States. And most of the creators of classic noir — novelists and screenwriters, directors and cameramen — were men. Women were their mysterious, sometimes villainous, always seductive objects of desire.
  6. As the years pass, I find that writers who were once central to me aren’t anymore. I revered Yeats’s poetry in college. I respect it now and am still ravished by certain lines, but I don’t go back to him again and again. I do go back to Emily Dickinson again and again.
  7. Who, adult or child, is Michael Jackson truly close to? What and who is he trying to flee? What’s the nature of the psychic damage he has so clearly sustained? I suspect his racial identity is more a byproduct of that damage than the primal cause.
  8. I’m always aware of various audiences, as a part of my training as a journalist and as part of my training as a citizen of Negroland.
  9. The burden of being a constant symbol, of having to live up to a symbol of advancement, of progress, of being perfect in some way and always representing the destiny of an entire people — that is supposed to be invincibility. That’s enormous.
  10. Self-examination — when the whole world around you is pressuring that and challenging you — is very, very hard. Looking at a whole structure — in my case, let us say of snobbery, basking in certain privileges, marks of what appear to be superiority — that’s ugly to look at.
  11. ‘Melancholy’ is prettier than ‘depression’; it connotes a kind of nocturnal grace. Makes one feel more innocently beleaguered.
  12. I first wrote about Michael Jackson in the 1980s. His skin was growing paler, his features thinner, and his aura more feminine. Some called him a traitor to his race. Some fussed about his gender fluidity. I saw him as a post-modern shape-shifter. But the shifts grew more extreme and mysterious.
  13. Privilege is provisional. It can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly, and summarily withdrawn.
  14. There are still Negro elites. Many of them are obviously much richer, and perhaps a little more integrated into what remains a white power structure. But those old rituals from the social clubs, to the broadly segregated white and black schools, to an obsessive interest in ancestry, all of that does still exist. Look: we are a class-bound society.
  15. Many say that no real avant-garde — which I’ll define as a combative group of free-thinking artists — can exist anymore. The media’s reach is too vast. New artists and movements get snatched up too quickly.
  16. In many ways, everything about my upbringing decreed that I wouldn’t write a memoir because in the world where I grew up, in Chicago in the Fifties and Sixties, one key way of protesting ourselves — ‘we’ meaning black people — against racism, against its stereotypes and its insults, was to curate and narrate very carefully the story of the people.
  17. A Negro girl could never be purely innocent. The vengeful Race Fairy always lurked nearby; your parents’ best hope was that the fairy would show up at someone else’s feast and punish their child. Parents had to protect themselves, too, and protect you from knowing how much danger you all were in.
  18. My mother was not happy with the Afros that my friends and I emerged with — there’s that crack in the book of ‘Why, if a fly landed in there, he’d break his little wings trying to get out.’ I was not pure dashiki, though — I was a combination of African dresses, miniskirts, tank tops, shawls, ethnic-looking earrings, sandals.
  19. For me, depression is very much tied to my feeling that so much is being asked of me. I have to ‘perform’ rather than necessarily be myself. I have to perform a perfect Margo Jefferson, at an impossibly high level.
  20. You’re supported by everything in New York if you want to be a performing artist. You come here, you can change your name. You leave home, you come here, you’re severed from family obligations — the old identity drops away as soon as you come to New York because you’re coming to New York, if you’re an artist, to be someone else.

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