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.
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.
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.