There’s A New MJ in Town: Review of This Will Be My Undoing

Reading is highly subjective. We all know this. So for me, the stories that I love most are those that allow the ordinary, everyday experiences of human life to commune with the divine. Writers whose stories oscillate easily between micro and macro, and who center their characters, real or fictional, with feet firmly rooted in history and the present-day are the ones I return to again and again. In her first essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins intricately unfolds formative moments in her life and grapples with the decidedly non-monolithic concept of a “black woman,” and is the most extraordinary voice I’ve come across in a long time.

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An Education for EVERYONE

Near the end of her first piece titled “Monkeys Like You,” Jerkins tells us that this collection of ten personal essays is for everyone. “It is meant for all women, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary.”

I know what you’re thinking. A lot of authors say this. Every modern artist creating today wants their work to be consumed and appreciated by as many people as possible. They try and craft an experience that is marketable to every audience.  But from what I’ve read and seen, very few artists are actually able to do this, because the artists want to be marketable, they also want to be unique, and their endeavors to be unique often box their art into niches that can only be accessed and enjoyed by a select few. But like I told you in the title, there’s a new virtuoso in town, because Morgan Jerkins is one of those artists.

This collection is obviously about an experience of being black and female in America. Jerkins says so in the title. Each essay is a personal endeavor into deeply intimate moments of Jerkins’ life, from being called a monkey after trying out for her elementary school cheerleading team to her stepfather’s death, and each one incorporates Jerkins’ black and female identities and their shaping of those experiences. But her prose is so elegantly consumable that she transcends any barriers of understanding that might exist between her words and the reader.

There are no throwaway sentences in this book. Each word is precisely chosen and weaved into a narrative that is both a history lesson as well as a portrait of an artist as a young woman. Jerkins is a writer reminiscent of bell hooks, whose intellect shines on the page. She pores over and pours into her ideas with a depth of a woman three times her age (she graduated from Princeton in 2014), but her stories remain accessible and grounded in a language that anyone can read and enjoy.

A Journey through Time and Space

It’s challenging to write about this essay collection without giving away all of the interesting bits of Jerkins’ work (which is honestly all of it). She writes a beautiful letter to Michelle Obama in “A Lotus for Michelle” and thanks her for giving her an “actual image of black ascendancy,” all while enduring years of ridicule rooted in racism against black female bodies. She unapologetically embraces her own body and hair in “The Stranger at the Carnival,” and delves into the historical implications of language surrounding black hair, with loaded words like “kinky” and “nappy.” She exquisitely navigates the black identity politics of inhabiting the physical space of Harlem after growing up in white-centric New Jersey in “Human, Not Black.” And while these are all topically fascinating, it’s Jerkins’ abilities as a true artisan of language that makes her stories extraordinary.

Jerkins’ writing undulates inward and outward constantly, from her own microcosmic existence as a black woman just trying to emotionally and physically survive to the macrocosmic, centuries-long trajectory that led her mind, body, and spirit to this time. The historical oppression of her ancestors and the modern-day ramifications of that oppression exist side by side on the page, but it’s never burdensome for the reader, because Jerkins doesn’t allow it to be. She dexterously moves between time and space in her storytelling, and conveys a wisdom that is both educational and inspiring.

In “How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace,” Morgan Jerkins creates a step-by-step guide for black women on how to maneuver through this world while preserving their mind and spirit. At one point, she reminds them that they are not alone, and that there is always someone out there rooting for them. She says, “There is a cosmic wavelength of our universal spirit” that binds black women together. Jerkins taps into that wavelength with every word of her outstanding essays.

My Verdict:

Every great genius has her beginning, that moment of introduction when everyone else looks up and says, “Whoa. We’ve never seen this before.” This Will Be My Undoing is Morgan Jerkins’ beginning, and you owe it to yourself as a citizen of this world to read her words.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

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Black Readers Matter: Review of The Hate U Give

Some books don’t need an introduction, an engrossing connection to “my life” as a reader/blogger and what I’ve been doing with it. The Hate U Give is one of those books.

(very mild spoilers ahead)

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Written by first-time novelist Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give opens with protagonist Starr Carter at a party in her Garden Heights neighborhood. What begins as your average high school party quickly devolves into the worst situation imaginable: Starr screaming in a car as she watches a police officer shoot her childhood friend Khalil three times in the chest. Khalil dies of his wounds, and Starr and their community are left reeling. The rest of the novel follows Starr as she tries to grieve for and do justice by her friend and navigate a world that has just gotten a lot bigger.

Thomas started writing this story following the shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009, whose final day was chronicled in Ryan Coogler’s film Fruitvale Station. And while many writers, politicians, activists, and global citizens have written in response to and because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was formally established four years later after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Thomas’s direct and powerful appeal to the black youth of this country sets her words apart from the rest.

 

Confronting Friends When They’re Being Shitty Offensive

Most of the young and older people I know, including myself, have little to no idea how to confront their friends about things that bother them. Most of us are not trained to have constructive and direct conversations with our peers, and we tend to hide behind our screens and rely on passivity to convey our frustrations, even if our frustrations are minor. So I was mesmerized and impressed when Starr, whose prep school friends have no idea that she was the witness to Khalil’s shooting, decides to assert herself and ask her white friend Hailey about her offensive behavior and language about people of color.

The resulting conversations are fraught and painful, but are so incredibly essential to the message of The Hate U Give: the only thing that will move this world forward is speaking up and out about injustice. Starr very easily could have ignored her friend and cut her toxicity out of her life altogether, but Angie Thomas instead creates a protagonist that chooses to reflect on her friendship and faces everything that is uncomfortable and painful head-on, which gives younger readers everywhere a character who is both relatable and inspiring.

 

Choosing Languages

Starr Carter belongs to two very different worlds in The Hate U Give. One is her neighborhood, Garden Heights, which encompasses the majority of her family and their predominantly African-American community. The other is her mostly-white, affluent prep school, where she fits in by suppressing any part of herself that makes her seem like a stereotypical black girl. For Starr, this means speaking one language in Garden Heights, and a completely different language at school. Starr says early in the novel “Slang makes them [her non-black classmates] cool. Slang makes [me] hood.” Starr “holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the angry black girl.”

As someone who grew up hearing and attempting to speak Bengali at home and switching to English at school, this internal rift created by language really resonated with me as a reader. There are some ideas, to this day, which I feel can only be expressed accurately with Bengali words, and I find myself stuttering to reorient my brain to explain myself in English. But while Starr’s struggle resonates with my bilingual brain, her conflict is much more rooted in racism and the way we as a country determine what is “appropriate” and “acceptable” for public consumption.

As a teacher who worked for primarily Hispanic and black kids, I can’t tell you how many times I was instructed or encouraged to make sure that they expressed themselves “professionally” at school. I learned quickly that “professional” didn’t just mean no cursing or demeaning language, it meant no cultural slang. I disregarded this for the most part, and stuck to ensuring that my students felt safe and comfortable being themselves in my classroom. While these instructions might sound well-intended, because of course we want students to be successful in school and in the real world, asking them to change the way they speak when their words aren’t harmful is just another way of ostracizing them.

Starr censors herself because she’s already not like most of the kids in her school, in terms of her race, cultural background, and financial means. But Angie Thomas is hitting on something here that is prevalent across the United States: we are telling kids, both through implicit and explicit messaging, who aren’t white that their language isn’t normal or acceptable, even when it’s still English. This is mind-boggling, because how can we expect students to actually attain success and feel that success when they’re not being themselves?

 

Non-Black People, This Book is Not FOR You (and That’s Okay)

They say that once you write a book, the work is no longer yours. It belongs to whoever is reading it, and those readers will shape what the book becomes in this world. I love The Hate U Give it for its humor, for its completely raw emotion, for its insights into a community that isn’t mine but is American. I love everything about this book, but it’s not mine. Angie Thomas didn’t write it for me. She didn’t write it for the mostly white publishing industry who gave it rave reviews. Angie Thomas wrote it to validate and uplift the black kids living in fear in America today.

Starr Carter tells us in the second chapter of the book that she had two big milestone conversations with her parents when she was twelve. One was about sex, and the other was about what you should do if a cop stops you. When I read this, I knew this book doesn’t belong to every reader, it belongs to black readers. My parents never had to sit me down and tell me, “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.” This conversation, like the one about sex, is one given out necessity. But I would bet everything that I own that this conversation isn’t a rite of passage in every American household.

The Hate U Give literally gives space to African-American readers to exist and breathe without fear. Thomas validates the complexity of this community with every word that Starr speaks or shouts, and each chapter of this book reminds her young, black audience that they are worthy of being seen and listened to. Simply put, Thomas is telling her readers that she sees them, she hears them, and that they matter.

My Verdict:

Anyone, regardless of race, creed, or origin can read this book and find something to love about it. Thomas draws a brilliant protagonist that we can all learn from in Starr Carter and makes you think about what we define as acceptable language in this country. And while I hope you all take the time to read this book, don’t forget what Thomas is trying to tell us: black readers matter, and so do black lives.

 

Photo by Sticker You on Unsplash