This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins (Harper Perennial 2018)
Reviewed by Janyce Wardlaw
Morgan Jerkins has put her crafty finger on everything it is to be a black woman in her collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America. Each essay is a raw anecdote revealing to the untrained heart what the world has infused into a black girl to make her want to be white, question all she knows to be true, or doubt her worth. All the hot buttons are pushed for us in these pages, as Jerkins pulls back the curtain on sexuality, men, hair, Black Girl Magic, and much more.
This Will Be My Undoing is as much a self-examination as it is an indictment of how black women are treated. As a 10-year-old, all Jerkins wanted to be was a white cheerleader, with all the mainstream accoutrement: “bone-straight hair. Thin nose. Saccharine voice. Slender body.” What black girls are shown is that “powerful and pure” are qualities reserved for white girls. Jerkins tells us how white people readily conflate black girlhood with black womanhood. Black females are so sexualized, that black girls can never be innocent. Pop culture, history, and even families reinforce this stigma.
An essay dedicated to Michelle Obama holds up the former first lady both as role model and victim. As a freshman entering Princeton, Jerkins and other black female students revered Michelle Obama, who made the Ivy League school almost hallowed ground for black women. Yet neither Princeton nor Harvard Law was suitable armor for what white people would hurl at Michelle Obama. Bearing out her excellence and rising to such a pinnacle was not enough. Jerkins waxes poetic on what it must have been like for Michelle Robinson at Princeton and for Michelle Obama in the White House.
“We do not need to be subjected to the lie that is the American dream. You are the beacon that reminds black women the they can be anything they want to be in this country.“
At many points in the collection, black women assuredly are nodding their heads in tacit understanding while others, white women and white men, are scratching theirs. Like the time she declined an invitation to jump in the swimming pool at a private gathering during a national writing conference. No big deal? Overthinking? Consider, Jerkins writes, that a black woman is not afforded the regenerative power to overcome misguided decisions – doing drugs at a party, having spontaneous sex, donning a bikini and jumping into a swimming pool with people you work with. “Only in my imagination could I do any of these things and remain unscathed both professionally and personally.” Overthinking these situations is the norm for black women who find themselves in an “overwhelmingly white space.”
Some pop culture rhetoric would have us believe black women and girls are rock stars, wielding the power to overcome and achieve greatness without struggle, pain, or obstacles. Jerkins unpacks the Black Girl Magic phenomenon, giving rise to its vulnerabilities as well as its empowering properties. Black women are held up in this sphere as flawless, peerless, indefectible, even otherworldly – as if they could not be real. And there’s the rub. Behind these paragons of perfection – the Beyonces, the Simone Biles, the Viola Davises – often lies great struggle, self-doubt, and debilitating outside influences. This heralding has become a “safe space” for black women who are marginalized in a white patriarchal society, shouting to the world their accomplishments and their greatness. Jerkins suggests we should recognize the real magic behind Black Girl Magic and encompass those black women who are in conflict with themselves physically and psychologically, living with disabilities. The reclamatory movement that is Black Girl Magic is indeed for all black girls.
This Will Be My Undoing, is at times unflinching. Jerkins lays bare her personal journey to the black woman she has come to be and to the black womanhood she has come to know. She shares the intimate details of moving through white spaces and confronting the covert racism and willful ignorance of “well-meaning” white people who live by the insulting and hurtful practice of “color blindness” – not recognizing or respecting the culture and homogenizing it with their whiteness. White people tell black women to just be human despite how society tells them they’re not,
or as if the two were are mutually exclusive.
In this collection, we see how blackness is shaped to a great degree by the important people in life – parents, family, and friends. Jerkins even turns the critical eye on herself – wanting to be a white cheerleader, going to Princeton, living with a white person in gentrified Harlem. She harnesses the lessons learned, and creates an empowering narrative that puts readers on notice.
– Black women are all up in this space and “you should have known I was coming.”