by Margo Jefferson
It’s true -- we tell ourselves stories in order to live, But what about queries, quandaries, chains of thought and feeling that thwart a conventional story? Endings that are midpoints or alternate beginnings? “Diaphoreisis” began with my puzzling over sounds, and sensations, even beliefs that would not leave me and would not cohere.
A young novelist asked me: Why did you choose to write criticism?
I wanted to make my way to the center of American culture, and find ways to de-center it, I told her.
Why did you choose to write memoir? she asked.
I wanted to make my way to my own American center and find language for the fractures there, I answered.
I stare at the album cover: BUD POWELL: JAZZ ORIGINAL.
When I’m alone I take it out of the record cabinet and stare, whether or not I intend to play it. Sometimes I put it back unplayed. And think on that face, that dark, sweating face.
The camera presumes to walk up and stare. He’s closed his eyes. His face is shadow and smoky light against a gray & muted- black night expanse. His hair and mustache are black. There’s a patch of white shirt and striped tie, a patch of suit. He could be floating alone in a cosmos of his own design. His lips are parted. (Humming, breathing, as he sweats). He’s possessed by his music. In a state of ecstatic — let us use the Greek word for sweat — diaphoresis.
Black people with ambitions need to be wary about their relationship to sweat. Sweat is a word for hard physical labor, sweat is for workers who have no choice but to labor by the sweat of their brows, the sweat in their armpits, the sweat that soaks through their clothing, making it stained and smelly. “Sweat Sweat Sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo The Great, dares to sweat before multitudes. He knows many of his white fans think it’s happy sweat. Smile and sweat, laugh and sweat, play music, sweat! Onstage and on television he’s never without his white handkerchief, wiping the sweat from his face, wiping the spit and sweat from his trumpet valve. His African mask of a face (the beaming-grimace smile, the fixed popped eyes) makes this a ritual though, not a necessity. His ritual of artistic diaphoresis.
I play Ella Fitzgerald’s records but I do not enjoy looking at her album covers. I am a teenage girl, I am a black teenage girl and I long to be physically impeccable. Even when she is posing sweat-free for a photographer, Ella Fitzgerald is without the sumptuous glamour of Billie Holiday, without the meticulous beauty of Lena Horne. And she sweats -- in concert halls, in nightclubs, on national television shows. Sweat dots her brow and drips, even pours down her cheeks. Sweat dampens her pressed and curled hair. Sweat runs into the stones of her dangling earrings. Like Louis Armstrong, she uses a white handkerchief. But he wipes his sweat vigorously, proudly; she dabs at hers quickly, almost daintily. If one dabs at sweat it becomes more refined. It gentrifies into euphemism; it becomes “perspiration.” White women, even white ladies are permitted to perspire. But on television white women singers do not perspire. Which means that, even as she swings, scats and soars, Ella Fitzgerald’s sweat threatens, to drag her back into the maw of working class black female labor.
Does she perspire this much because of her size, her heft? Do her fans, white and black and other, call her “big” or do they just go ahead and call her “fat”? Did she start to sweat like this when she entered menopause? Do her male musicians, black and white, joke about menopause behind her back — offstage, where she can’t control them with her ravishing diaphoretic musicianship?
Ella Fitzgerald, you worked hard for your sweat.
You earned your sweat like real musicians do. Like artists who must labor, to be beautiful.
You sweated commes des garcons.
And those garcons should have begged for the elixir of your sweat.
I beg for it.
It’s true -- we tell ourselves stories in order to live, But what about queries, quandaries, chains of thought and feeling that thwart a conventional story? Endings that are midpoints or alternate beginnings? “Diaphoreisis” began with my puzzling over sounds, and sensations, even beliefs that would not leave me and would not cohere. It began with memories that I craved, even – especially -- when they troubled and confused me. Troubled and excited me after years of stern critical thinking about my aesthetic passions and principles. Troubled me because they still had the old taints of shame, of guilt, of longing to be what I was not and could not be. I found that I needed the word “diaphoreisis” – a lofty Latin word – to work with and against those taints, embodied in the words “sweat” and “perspiration.” Embodied and transformed in the labor of. Bud Powell, Louis Amrstrong and Ella Fitzgerald; Embodied and longed for in this brief, fragmented record of my own emotional and intellectual labor.
Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of Negroland and On Michael Jackson. Negroland won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, The Bridge Prize, The Heartland Prize and was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize. Her essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Bookforum, The Believer, Guernica, O, The Oprah Magazine, VOGUE, The Best American Essays of 2015; The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death; Best African-American Essays, 2010; The Mrs. Dalloway Reader and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture. She lives in New York and teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University.