Title: This Will Be My Undoing
Author: Morgan Jerkins
Genre: Nonfiction — essays
Publication date: January 30th 2018; published by Harper Perennial
Rate: 5 stars
I was given an advanced reader’s copy (ARC) of this book by the publisher Harper Perennial in exchange for an honest review. All views expressed are my own.
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This Will Be My Undoing is a collection of essays written by acclaimed author Morgan Jerkins. These essays center around three things: being a woman, being African American, and how those two intersect and define her role and the way she’s seen by others in America.
Although being an African-American woman is the center of the book, it is not the only thing that Jerkins discusses in her essays. The author writes about growing up black in a predominantly white academic community, studying at Yale as a person of color, starting a career as a writer, being religious, and dealing with mental health issues.
These essays are a study on American society, history, and culture of the twenty-first century.
This book is mind blowingly good. It offers a deep, thorough, and careful analysis of American culture, society and history like no other book I have ever read — and I have read quite a few! Morgan Jerkins is an incredibly talented author who is able to unpack important and relevant symbols that are quite tricky to look at and judge objectively. She is able to look at a social setting and infer what everyone’s underlying interest and private thought is.
From the first to the last essays, she is able to draw in the reader as if she were a witch casting a spell on a helpless victim. Because of her first-hand experience growing up as a black girl in overwhelmingly white environments, she is able to expose clearly what the consequences (both positive and negative) of such an upbringing are. One essay in particular, titled “Monkeys Like You” which serves as an opening for the book, explores the differences of being a young white girl and a young black girl. The writer emphasises her desire to be like the pretty blue-eyed girls in the cheerleading team, her desire to be their friend, and her desire to be absorbed by their ways as a means to be accepted as a cool girl — in an effort to achieve high status in school dynamics.
Some essays, two that I can distinctly remember, are ironic and sarcastic pieces of advice. The second essay, titled “How to Be Docile,” profoundly mocks the traditional advice that has been given out to women throughout history, asserting their place in society as passive beings. I found these lists to be incredibly entertaining and outright hilarious. In my opinion, Jerkin’s voice really transpires here and takes the book into a completely different level.
One of the topics addressed in the book that fascinated me the most was the writer’s rise from a high-school student, to the accomplished writer she is today — published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Elle, The Atlantic, and more. It was heart-warming to follow her journey as she struggled with a lot of identity obstacles that stood between her and success as a writer. As someone who is conscious of the glass ceiling that still exists, it was curious to see how my experience as a white woman differs from Jerkin’s. Although we are women, the barriers we must transpose are not the same. And it is here that intersectionality comes into play.
Intersectional feminism is, in my opinion, a widely misunderstood concept. I know from personal experience (gained at debates and general ‘cafe talk’) that some people don’t believe that discrimination is not one-dimensional. A white woman and a black woman will face completely different challenges, and one of them will get the bad end of the deal when it comes to opportunity and representation — and we all know, even if only deep down, who that person will be. Jerkins explains this issue of intersectionality particularly well, especially when she describes her trip to Saint Petersburg, Russia.
My favorite essay in this collection has to be, without a doubt, “Black Girl Magic.” It is in this essay that I think Jerkin’s writing and genius stands out the most. In this essay, she unpacks what the concept of “strong black woman” is, how it is both damaging and positive for a black girl or woman, and what some empowering alternatives might be. She goes back in history to explain where this trope came from and she digs in our present-day pop-culture society to find embodiments of the trope. Because of this, we the readers are left with a deep and well-defined idea of what a “strong black woman” is and where it came from, and being exposed to media it will soon be clear that it is much-used stereotype.
Other incredibly important and relevant issues worked by the writer are police brutality, especially right after Trayvon Martin’s death; reformatting your way of thinking to discard from your brain racial-based assessment tools (judging ethnic minorities in light of white American society); and the twisted “color blind” mentality that has become close to mainstream.
Jerkins puts down her pen after writing a powerful paragraph that could not have been phrased any better. When looking back at her ten-year-old self, and accessing where she is now, she writes:
“Back then, I wasn’t opinionated; I was whiny. I wasn’t smart; I was foolish. I wasn’t accepted; I was taken in out of pity. I grinned. I grinned and I grinned and I grinned some more. What the experience taught me was that I had, in a sense, made it to a place where I was never supposed to be. Someone tried to put me in my place, but it was too late. I was already all up in the space, reading the same books, taking the same classes, studying with the same professors, and eating alongside them at the same dining halls. […] They might have had the privilege not to conceptualize black women in their spaces, but now they saw them in the flesh, moving and navigating just like them. This was their nightmare and my joy.
You should’ve known I was coming.”
There are many more things to be addressed in this review, but I can’t get around to writing about all of them. You should totally read this book. It will leave you thinking, especially if you don’t support intersactionality, feminism, or believe that the African American experience differs greatly from that of the whites. I recommend this book with all my heart, and I am eager to read more articles and essays written by Morgan Jerkins.