Morgan Jerkins’ Essays on Higher Education, Feminism, and Coming of Age While Black in America

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, by Morgan Jerkins (2018)

This book is not about all women, but it is meant for all women, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary. It is for you. You. Our blackness doesn’t distance us from other women; however, it does distinguish us, and this requires further understanding. At the same time, my story is not a one-size-fits-all tale about black womanhood. This book is not your resolution but the continuation of your education, or maybe the beginning. We deserve to be the center; our expansive stories are worthy of being magnified for all their ugliness, beauty, mundaneness, and grandeur.

Morgan Jerkins is a young Black writer and editor, a graduate of Princeton, multilingual and widely accomplished. This Will Be My Undoing is her first essay collection. I couldn’t read it fast enough after reading her contribution to Lolita in the Afterlife (which is fantastic and I’ll eventually get around to reviewing). In that essay, she wrote a little about her experiences in Russia and learning the Russian language, and I hoped there might be more of that in her own collection. She showed such rich introspection and a well-structured interplay of topics, blending feminism with a cross-cultural story that I don’t think we hear often, of people in color in Russia.

There is one essay around her time in Russia, a good but disturbing one, but this is more coming-of-age-themed, as Jerkins navigates her position as a Black woman in America, particularly in the elite, exclusive, and white world of Ivy League academia.

I thought about this book while and after reading it nonstop. I liked it a lot, and there were many strong ideas and absolutely fearless stories told here – her labiaplasty being the one that hit the hardest, and I don’t want to say that I “enjoyed” most because that sounds terrible, but I appreciated and admired that piece the most. She also wrote so bluntly about masturbation — about her first time, no less! — and frankly about such deeply personal, vulnerable subjects. I was in awe. Something about the way she frames and delves into these intimate topics is extraordinary, and in these areas she aims perfectly and makes it clear what these stories mean and why they matter, massively, not only on a personal level but to women in general and Black women specifically.

On the other hand, these could be disjointed. I love a good meandering essay, but some have a stitched-together Frankenstein feel. Topics often didn’t belong together in one piece — the themes weren’t there or didn’t come across as the author and/or editors thought they did.

I also felt there were a lot of generalizations that didn’t necessarily ring true. I get that this was not a book to explain Black women’s lives to white people, but there is something more universal to a lot of these experiences than Jerkins acknowledges, and that’s disappointing because it doesn’t mean these topics – the oversexualization of young women, boys’ sexual aggression towards female classmates, street harassment, a lack of emphasis on women’s experience and enjoyment during heterosexual sex — don’t take on a very different tone and significance to Black women. But I certainly identified with plenty of them, so just on an anecdotal level there’s more going on here than she acknowledges.

There was also so much self-contradiction; in one essay I almost couldn’t believe it: she describes a man bothering her about buying concert tickets at a Harlem bodega and is left very shaken up by the incident. I know these interactions can switch in an instant from benign to menacing, and it’s often tough to convey the perceived threat to someone who didn’t feel the atmosphere and tone of the situation, but I had trouble grasping why exactly this specific incident was so upsetting, beyond being irritating, exhausting, and rude. I reread it multiple times to see if I missed something. It seemed so mild. A few pages later, she argues that some catcalls in the infamous video of a woman walking NYC streets for hours under constant verbal harassment weren’t that bad, like that men saying “Have a nice day” or calling her beautiful didn’t seem like harassment.

Sure, they’re not the worst harassment you can attract, but Jerkins lived in NYC too – any woman who has can tell you how irritating and invasive that gets, and how quickly those calls can turn on a dime too: ignore the wrong guy or let him think you made a face and see how quickly he turns from telling you you’re beautiful to telling you you’re an “ugly stuck-up bitch [who] can go fuck [her]self”. Now how’s your day going? Because that’s exactly how this stuff goes — I’m direct quoting!

This particularly bothered me because I know she knows better. I got her point that the video skewed towards Black and Latino men doing the catcalling and that’s damaging and stereotype-reinforcing, but I don’t think her point about which harassment is bad was well made, and that failure to always effectively make a point happened often. I think it was more a case of choosing the wrong topics, because when she really mines her own experiences without trying to make universal statements — like of studying abroad in Russia, or her stepfather’s illness and passing, or someone commenting on an article she wrote that she doesn’t belong at Princeton as a “whiny Black woman” — she makes these points effortlessly, and her writing shines.

Some of the universal statements are made without any justification, which is curious. She writes that she doesn’t know any Black woman who doesn’t describe the loss of her virginity as “traumatic.” No explanation, no data, no elaboration, nothing. This is a massive blanket statement to make and then abandon.

It can also be flat-out disturbing, like describing a fantasy of police violence against a Black classmate who bullied her, or admitting that the porn she enjoys most is blonde white women being brutally gangbanged. Oh boy. There are just some very troubling things at play here. Although it also reminded me of Anne Lamott’s encouragement to write about things even if they’re dark and disturbing because if you’ve thought it or felt it, someone else has too. This did seem an example of that in many ways.

And, something I kept thinking while reading is that she’s simultaneously very young and very talented. I can only imagine what her output is going to be like later. The talent and fearlessness are certainly there.

8 thoughts on “Morgan Jerkins’ Essays on Higher Education, Feminism, and Coming of Age While Black in America

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  1. I have been thinking a bit lately about personal writing like this, when it’s written by very young people – some of the stuff in here sounds like things that she might have benefited from writing about once she was older and had had some time to analyse and reflect, though it also sounds like some of the essays are also very powerful in themselves.

    Just to let you know that (at least on my computer) there’s a formatting problem that seems to have eaten one of your paragraphs, the one that comes just after “Ivy League academia” and before “on the other hand these could be disjointed”. It may just be my computer but I thought I’d let you know!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, there are definitely certain topics that take some time to marinate in before you can really say something meaningful about it. I get that it feels very significant at the time it happens to you, but the connection and storytelling as a whole just didn’t quite convey that in each case. I did find it really powerful as a whole though.

      Thanks for the heads up! I’ve had so many formatting issues since the block editor switch, it drives me crazy. Somehow certain blocks switch to code and I’ve no clue why. I think I got it fixed though, thank you!!

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      1. I think reading Lolita before the essays is the best way…a few of the authors writing for the collection only read the book when they were asked to contribute and I think it’s one of those books that’s better to have some time to think over.

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  2. This sounds like a very fair review of a book with flaws by a talented writer, commentator and thinker who will do better work in the future. I will look out for your review of her next book: I’m sure there will be one and I’m sure you will read and review it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I wonder if the frustration you openly express after reading her work stems from your inability to 100% relate, or if the frustration comes from as you mentioned her repetitive universal statements being made without any justification. As a writer myself, I feel like even though I write with the intentions of other people getting the opportunity to read my work, I feel I should still be able to make a plain (or not so plain) statement, without having to explain it any further.

    A lot of that reflects the experience, depth, and mystery of being a young black woman, who writes. There are things that you feel & think just because, and that *could* be written better but a lot of the time, how bluntly it may be written mirrors how finite the author really feels about it.

    Your review was insightful and it got me very interested in reading her works for myself! I think I’ll resonate a lot more with of what she had to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not relating to material isn’t automatically a problem for me, a lot of what I read is to learn about experiences and perspectives that are totally foreign to me so I would expect that I wouldn’t necessarily relate to them. I wasn’t bothered at all by not being able to relate to what she went through, more the opposite: often I DID relate and the author restricted these things with very limiting statements, whereas I found much more about them to be universal.

      When she wrote about things I’ve never experienced: a labiaplasty, racial discrimination abroad, being told she doesn’t belong at an Ivy League school for being a complaining minority – I was blown away by her writing and the way she made the effects of these events on her felt, although I have no connection to any of them whatsoever. It was really powerful and intelligent writing.

      Elsewhere I was mainly troubled by her fantasies of violence and abuse, which I also don’t think have anything to do with relating.

      But this was definitely not a book written to explain Black experience to white people, so it was very clear that it was not a book intended for me, either. I do hope you find it meaningful and enjoy reading it!

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