Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoingby Deena ElGenaidi
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America
(Harper Perennial, 2018)
In her debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing, twenty-five-year old Morgan Jerkins explores a number of topics that are essential to today’s political climate. She describes the complexities of growing up and living as a black woman in America, delving into cultural and social criticism while remaining true to her own personal experiences.
In her first essay, “Monkeys Like You,” Jerkins explores the racism she experienced as a child in suburban New Jersey. She opens the essay by saying, “When I was ten, the only thing I wanted was to be a white cheerleader,” later adding, “When I was ten, I realized that I was black.” From there, Jerkins delves into the experiences of black girlhood, childhood bullying, and the social circles of black and white children.
In later essays, Jerkins discusses her relationship with sex and sexuality, having been raised in a Christian household and warned against the dangers of becoming a “fast-tailed girl,” as she says. Jerkins connects her ideas on sex to femininity, blackness, and the nature of her own upbringing.
Throughout the book, the theme of intersectionality remains present as Jerkins emphasizes the importance of looking at all aspects of identity. She is not simply a woman, but a black woman. In her essay “Human, Not Black,” Jerkins describes the experience of once being asked why she identifies as black at all when an older man says, “I don’t understand why you would want to call yourself black. Why not just call yourself a human?” Jerkins, unable to immediately respond in the way she would have liked, tells her readers: “White people think it is a compliment when they do not ‘see’ you as a black person.” Through moments like this, Jerkins attempts to convey the experiences of a black woman in America.
However, at no point does the author claim to speak for all black women. She is careful not to generalize and to make clear that these are her own personal experiences. In many ways, the reader can see that she comes from a place of privilege. She grew up in a loving home in suburban New Jersey and went to Princeton University for college. Though she worked hard to get to where she is, she did have a number of advantages that many do not. For this reason, she even describes the misgivings she feels about being a gentrifier in her Harlem neighborhood. However, this does not take away from her experiences in any way. Jerkins writes:
…when I walk out of my front door, I am not simply treated as a human being. I am treated as a black woman. I am both unconsciously and consciously aware of how others’ biases kick in when they see me, and how their subsequent treatment of me differs from the way they might treat someone who is not black and female.
Jerkins discusses the fact that she is unable to pretend that we live in an “unraced” society because despite her personal advantages, she will always be seen and treated as a black woman.
Jerkins also moves away from her personal experiences at many moments in her essays, delving deep into cultural criticism. For instance, she describes some of her conflicted feelings towards the “Black Girl Magic” movement, describing the history and controversy surrounding it.
In some of the other essays in this collection, Jerkins experiments with form as well. Two essays, “How to be Docile” and “How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace” are written in a list format. “How to be Docile” is the second essay of the book, and it provides a tongue-in-cheek set of instructions to mothers of black girls, ending with, “This is how a black girl becomes docile.” The essay as a whole is meant as a distressing look at how society attempts to break black girls from a young age. The list begins powerfully, as Jerkins writes, “When your black girl child exits the womb and you hear her loud wailing, savor and remember it for as long as you can. This is the loudest the world will ever allow her to be in a room where multiple people are present.” The next numbered essay is the second-to-last of the book, and in it, Jerkins writes to black girls and women as a whole, telling them to embrace life, affirm their experiences, and remember that they are not alone. Jerkins also includes an essay that serves as a letter to Michelle Obama, titled, “A Lotus for Michelle,” in which she writes, “You are the beacon that reminds us that the ascendance of a black woman like yourself is possible, and what a blessing it was to see you shine.”
Jerkins’s essay collection, while not speaking to the experiences of all black women, is nevertheless significant, especially in our current political climate. The topics she covers are extremely relevant and poignant, and she is able to illuminate the many nuances and ambiguities of, as she says, “living at the intersection of black, female, and feminist in (white) America.” This is an important book for both people of color as well as white people because it is absolutely necessary for us all to understand women’s and black women’s experiences if we are to work towards any kind of equality and justice in America.
DEENA ELGENAIDI is a Brooklyn-based writer.