Books

Poetic Profanity

Morgan Jerkins’ debut essay collection is a powerful exploration of the cruelties black women can inflict on each other.

Morgan Jerkins.
Morgan Jerkins.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sylvie Rosokoff.

There’s a moment in Morgan Jerkins’ debut essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America where she describes an assignment she received from Elle.com to write about Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She describes the despair she felt at the task ahead. “I was beside myself,” she writes.

[I] had no idea how I was going to form a cogent argument, let alone open an essay. The experience [of watching Lemonade] was similar to watching something in a foreign language that you understand, and yet as soon as you feel these words with your entire body you are no longer able to translate because in that process, something will be filtered and therefore lost.

That feeling is viscerally familiar not just to cultural critics writ large but specifically to black writers who are often tasked with dissecting films or movies or books that directly pertain to their identity. Trying to cannibalize your own instinctive reaction to a work of art and regurgitate it in deft sentences that offer something new seems at times singularly fruitless—something is always lost in translation. Doreen St. Félix once wrote, “Engaging in criticism can feel like engaging in essentially pointless elective surgery.” That feeling was the one that I had when I sat down (and got up and sat down again, rinse and repeat) to write this review.

This Will Be My Undoing is a uniquely disarming collection of essays. In their own way and in their own style, each of the 10 essays explores a single concept: that to be a black woman in America is, to borrow a phrase from James Baldwin, to be in a constant state of rage. In essays that gracefully connect the personal and the political, Jerkins demonstrates that to live at the intersection of black and female and feminist is to be both too loud and continually silenced, twice as good and still not enough, “both invisible and hypervisible, stripped of humanity.” Her own reconciliation with that fact, which is beat into her head over and over again not only by her white peers but by black men and women, too, forms the backbone of this collection.

There’s a moment in most black people’s lives when they realize they’re black—and that to be black is to be undesirable. Sometimes it’s the moment when slavery is discussed in class and you realize the other kids are looking at you. Sometimes it’s when your childhood crush tells you that he doesn’t think black girls are pretty. For Jerkins, it was when she tried out for her elementary school cheerleading team. At 10 years old, her only dream was to be a white cheerleader. By joining the team, she hoped that the white cheerleaders’ “desirability could lather me like soapsuds to the skin, polishing me off until I was just as white as them.” She intuitively understands both the boundaries placed upon her black girl body and her own attempts to flee to whiteness for freedom. As she describes the ways in which she contorts both physically and mentally to fit into the “pristine, white, and coveted space” of white girlhood, she touches on a running theme of the collection.

From its first sentence, This Will Be My Undoing is singularly preoccupied with whiteness. The parenthetical white in the subtitle dominates the narrative: It is the beginning and end of Jerkins’ self-examination, the yardstick that she measures herself against and eventually falls short of. To be young, gifted, and black in a predominately white setting is to fight constantly between capitulating to institutions that were never meant for you or saying, “Fuck respectability politics,” and proving yourself a stereotype.

With her “honors and advanced placement courses, preppy clothes, and clean hair” Jerkins represented one kind of black girl. One of her childhood bullies, Jamirah, represented another: Boisterous and brash in her “graphic design T-shirts and hip-hugger jeans,” this black girl makes no attempt at appeasing whiteness. The tension between them is achingly familiar—Jerkins wants to see her rival destroyed for the pain that she’s caused her by mocking her clothes and mannerisms with “a profanity as poetic as lines from a Shakespearean sonnet.” One of the more chilling moments comes when Jerkins describes a fantasy she has of calling the police on her tormentor: “It would not have mattered to me that this officer was protecting me not because I was afraid, but rather because, out of the two of us, I was the closest approximation to whiteness and its rules.” The incident is reflected in a later essay when Jerkins considers calling the police on a black man who harasses her—in both instances she chooses to avoid confrontation, holding the trauma close to her heart as if it were something precious. Her reluctance touches on a fraught particularity of black womanhood: the experiences we bury to protect someone else at our own expense.

Jerkins is at her strongest when she focuses on “the violence [black women] hurl at one another” and the ways in which we try to heal ourselves from that violence. She makes clear that though she never retaliated, the ways in which she herself looked down on Jamirah and black girls like her is a form of violence as well. In particular there are two essays that stand out from the collection in this vein. Both written as manifestos, they are mirror images of each other: The first, titled “How to Be Docile,” begins with a kick to the chest and never lets up. “When your black girl child exits the womb and you hear her loud wailing, savor and remember it for as long as you can,” Jerkins writes. “That’s the loudest the world will ever allow her to be in a room where multiple people are present.” “How to Be Docile” is a drumbeat of sorrow, of repression and heartbreak. It powerfully engages with both the question of how black women police black girls in an attempt to protect them and the way success and sexuality threaten black girlhood and womanhood: too much of either can doom you to a lonely life. Its inverse and complement is “How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace,” in which Jerkins counsels black women and girls on the art of black girl joy, on building an impermeable wall of self-adulation whose foundation rests on the bonds of black sisterhood and the acknowledgment that you’re not paranoid for bristling when a white child points at you on the train.

In her final essay, “A Black Girl Like Me,” Jerkins is all grown up. She’s survived online harassment as an opinion columnist at Princeton, her stepfather’s dementia decline, neo-Nazi encounters in Russia, and a labiaplasty. She is coming into her own as a writer and trying to break into the seemingly impenetrable world of New York media. She takes a chance and reaches out to an influential black female writer who was in the circles Jerkins “could only bounce around but never infiltrate.” At this point, the writer had already commissioned an essay from Jerkins and written her an “extremely adulatory email,” so when she reaches out asking for a contact at the New Yorker, Jerkins is “gobsmacked” when the writer replies that it would be better if she let editors there reach out directly to her. “I thought that if she didn’t feel comfortable sharing contacts, then she could have let me know and I would have understood,” Jerkins says. “But then again, what would it benefit her to withhold contacts from me? The act of withholding is a part of the crabs-in-a-barrel theory that stymies black people in general and, in this case, black women specifically.”

Thus she opens up a conversation about the responsibility black women have to each other.
Jerkins expected to be helped as she had been in the past—she writes that, had she been approached by “another young black female writer who had many bylines to her name,” she would’ve given up the contact without any hesitation because it would be cruel for her “to climb up a ladder and pull that ladder up as I go.” The expectation that, as a black woman in a lofty position, you have a “cultural duty” to pull others up with you is a relatively common one—and for good reason. According to the annual American Society of News Editors survey, in 2017, minorities made up only 16.55 percent of employees reported by all newsrooms, and nepotism does indeed run deep through New York media.

But Jerkins’ characteristic adeptness at recognizing the violences we impose on each other is strangely lacking in her analysis of this particular situation. What burden are we placing on other black women by demanding that their Rolodexes be open once we amass a certain amount of bylines? At what point does “cultural duty” become just another way that black women are required to give and give of themselves with no expectation for recompense? In what ways are we asking other black women to make their already precarious positions in predominantly white media scenes more treacherous? I don’t have the answer to these questions. But as we move forward, as black women become less rare in the media world, hopefully we can begin to answer them.

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins. Harper Perennial.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.