Book/Author: This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins (2018)
Age/Genre: Adult Nonfiction/Memoir/Essays
Content Notes: This book explores racism, sexism, and all the prejudice and systemic crap that black women in America have to deal with daily.
It’s official. My friend Deana has mastered the art of finding me the perfect books.For Christmas this year, she gifted me with Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I reviewed a few months ago, and This Will Be My Undoing, which has left me in awe. With the subtitle “Living at the intersection of black, female, and feminist in (white) America,” I knew this wasn’t going to be a “fun” read. I waited until I was mentally ready to dig into some hard truths.
Jerkins paints a vivid picture of her experiences growing up as a black girl in white-centric America. She then shows us different settings in her life and how being black has affected her life as a student, writer, and human being. This is a collection of essays, but it reads like a cohesive memoir. The pieces move us somewhat linearly through Jerkins’ life so far, each focusing on specific realities of living while black.
“Monkeys Like You” introduces us to 10-year old Morgan Jerkins, who wanted nothing more than to be a cheerleader like all the popular white girls. Jerkins recounts the tryouts, her motivations, and her relationships with other kids of color. She shows us how whiteness was associated with goodness, and how she subconsciously tried to stifle her blackness in order to be successful. We also see how comfortable people are saying racist things, even to children.
Occasionally, Jerkins speaks directly to the reader, guiding through the text. At the end of this first piece, she clarifies that this book is not a one-size-fits-all description of “the black experience.” She writes,“This is not your resolution, but the continuation of your education, or perhaps the beginning.” These are the author’s stories that she refuses to modify to make people more comfortable. In all of these pieces, Jerkins is blunt and honest. She doesn’t soften her views to make herself more “relatable” and she calls out harmful behavior regardless of where it happens to come from.
I liked how Jerkins specified that this book is for everyone, but it is about black women. Black women are often pushed to the background, even in social justice spaces. People like to advocate for universality, which most often ends up centering white people. This may not be intentional, but it is unavoidable, because universality is a myth. Individuals are shaped by how they experience the world, and there is no universal or default existence. By focusing on solutions “for everyone,” specific realities are erased. This collection shows us some of those would-be erased stories.
“How to Be Docile” is a checklist of how black girls are told to act “acceptably.” A lot of focus is on trying to keep them safe by enforcing specific behaviors. This puts the onus on the oppressed to avoid oppression and involves participating in patriarchy to try to escape the consequences of not doing so. This one is really sad, because it brings to mind all the little girls who spend their childhoods learning that they exist to cater to others, and that their value lies in how other people see them.
In “Stranger at the Carnival,” Jerkins explores her relationship with her hair. She had her first perm treatment at three years old, and she continued to straighten her hair for many years. She talks about the pressures that inform womens’ decisions about their appearance and how society both commodifies and vilifies black women’s bodies, particularly their hair.
“A Hunger for Men’s Eyes” illustrates how women are taught to value themselves based on whether men find them attractive. We see young girls figuring out how to avoid or deal with sexual assault by their peers. Some try to turn the attention into power, but this is easier for some girls than others, specifically those with lighter complexions and privileged family backgrounds. Jerkins then accounts some of her dating life, including her efforts to avoid the equally horrendous fates of being single forever and being labelled a “fast tailed girl.”
“A Lotus for Michelle” is a letter to Michelle Obama, who attended Princeton years before Jerkins did. Jerkins uses this connection to relay how inspiring Obama was to many black women who feared that they could not have everything that she obtained: a top-tier education, a successful career, and a supportive partner who didn’t minimize her or try to hold her back. We also get in-depth analysis on how criticism of Michelle Obama often weaponized black stereotypes to dehumanize her.
In “Black Girl Magic,” Jerkins shows us where she finds empowerment, while also illustrating why those strategies and locations don’t work for everyone. Overall, the message I got in this piece (and also throughout the collection) is that black women should not be expected to be a monolith; they have different opinions on issues based on their life experiences, and it’s possible for multiple opinions to be valid. Black women can find their empowerment in different ways, and it’s important to acknowledge that no one’s experience is identical and therefore, empowerment can not be one-size-fits-all. I got a strong “be careful how you criticize” message here, with a focus on how quickly black women can be written off for having “the wrong opinion,” while others with more privilege are given more opportunities to clarify their points. This piece raises a ton of questions without easy answers. Does the idea of “black girl magic” perpetuate the “strong black woman” stereotype in harmful ways? How do we keep disabled black women from being excluded from this movement?
“Human, Not Black” should be required reading for anyone who “doesn’t see race” and wishes we could all eschew labels and just get along as humans. Jerkins juxtaposes a summer in Russia against living in Harlem after never living in a majority black space before. She then relates two trips to Japan, where she was treated with respect as a visitor in a way she never experienced in America. We also see Jerkins’ need for black company in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin trial. This piece really highlighted the exhaustion of constantly navigating a world in which people treat you differently based on your appearance.
“Who Will Write Us” explores whose voices get amplified regarding art by and about black women. We see how Beyonce’s Lemonade was received by different black women, and learn about a french film by a white director centering black girls. We also see the harm of framing slaves only as victims, and not showing them as humans who persevered despite their agency being ripped away. I think this might have been the piece where I learned the most. Jerkins cites historical facts about slavery that aren’t part of the common American History narrative.
“How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace” explicitly highlights the mental strain of being a black woman in the United States. Formatting the piece as a list allows Jerkins to use repetition and word placement to emphasize her points. We see multiple ways that black women are constantly interrogated or put upon to meet the expectations of others, as well as how their instincts are often negated with “you’re paranoid” and other dismissals.
“A Black Girl Like Me” perfectly concludes this collection, calling for black women to support each other and giving us concrete details about Jerkins’ career as a writer.
There was not a single piece here that didn’t educate and resonate. Jerkins uses her personal experiences to illustrate systemic problems, weaving topics together to address large issues in multi-faceted ways. She shows us her growth, her beliefs, and how she sees the world. We see the pressures black women face from every direction. Jerkins cites her sources when relevant, which leaves us with a great reading list of articles and books that go deeper into specific points.
“This will be My Undoing” is a powerful must-read in my eyes. It’s going on my lending shelf, and it’s a collection I will most certainly be returning to in the future. Deana is officially batting 1000 in book gifting (she only lends me the ridiculous reads) and I can’t wait to dive into deep discussions on these pieces with others who have read these essays.
Have you read any of Jerkins’ work? Let us know your favorite piece of hers in the comments!