By Morgan Jerkins. Harper Perennial, 2018. 272 pages. $15.99/paperback; $10.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
I was drawn to Morgan Jerkins’s writing because I feel a kinship with her. Jerkins and I are around the same age; we have many of the same interests. We have both studied literature. Her writing has been published in the magazines and websites I read: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Book Riot, BuzzFeed. I follow her on Twitter, where she is an impressive presence. I admire her, and have always mused that as women in our 20s, we have much in common.
I think because of this, when I sat down with her essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, I expected the contents to feel familiar. I expected it to check boxes of what I believed I knew about the intersection Jerkins is writing from. But in this book, Jerkins, through a sharply honest, crystal clear account of her personal experiences, illuminates for me the narrow rut of my own—and the ways that language, media, and politics cater to it.
I am white, and I have proudly called myself a feminist for as long as I’ve known the word. Jerkins is a feminist too, and that is an important part of her identity. But she makes it clear from the very start of the book that This Will Be My Undoing rejects feminism that centers the experience of white women: “This book is not about all women,” Jerkins writes in the introduction, “but it is for all women . . . I will force you to keep your eyes on me and, in turn, [black women], and see the seams of everyday life that you have been privileged to ignore but that have wrecked us.”
To break free of a white-centric feminism takes more than an abstract commitment to equality, which can all too often manifest as “colorblindness”: a willful determination to be, yes, blind to the complex knot of injustices and privileges and cruelties and pride that make up racial identities in the United States.
In the essay “Human, Not Black” Jerkins goes to have lunch with an academic supporter from her time at Princeton. At the table, her friend’s uncle, who is white, tells her he read her articles, and was confused by her focus on race: “Why do you not just call yourself a human?” he asked. “Now, it is obvious that you are a woman. But do you have to be a black woman? Why can’t you be a human?”
When articulated by those in positions of racial privilege—like Jerkins’s friend’s uncle, or like me—the question “can’t you just stop talking about race?” reiterates a conversation where the terms are dictated by the people who are already in power.
Jerkins’s writing is fearless. She does not let anyone tell her what her stories should be about. This Will Be My Undoing doesn’t shy away from simultaneity; it embraces complexity by laying truths about what it means to exist as a black woman in the modern-day United States next to each other and seeing how they fit together, or don’t.
She writes about her time in Japan, the relief of being in a country without the United States’ history of slavery existing alongside the desire to acknowledge, honor, and live her racial identity—which doesn’t go away just because it’s not being talked about.
She writes about burgeoning, intense physical desires developing alongside the constant caution to be careful around men and sex, to never be promiscuous or easy.
She writes about white artists co-opting black stories for their films and writing, a “representation” that lacks integrity and turns the experience into something for consumption, while black artists and writers don’t receive the same level of acknowledgement for their work.
But even as she so openly shares her black–female experience, Jerkins is quick to remind the reader that there is no one black–female experience as such. “The particular experience of the black woman in modern America needs to be addressed,” Jerkins writes. “But there isn’t just one; there are many. Millions, to be exact. I can only add one.”
In This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins asks the reader to listen. She asks that we stop trying to force the stories she tells into a particular mold, one we recognize or already understand. She shares vulnerability and intimate truths of her experience: her physical experience in her body, her emotional experience in engaging with the injustices of our world, her spiritual experience reckoning with the many competing messages she’s given about how to be.
When I sat with this book—when I let Jerkins’s voice flood over me without trying to map her experiences to mine—my world got bigger. Her stories emphasize that the world does not always fit together neatly. It is messy and many-faceted, full of contradictions. I thank her for being willing to share them. I am grateful and humbled for the opportunity to be broken open by Morgan Jerkins’s voice and stories. I urge Friends to read this book, and be broken open by it as well.