It’s no accident the cover of Morgan Jerkins book has her looking up with eyes closed as though she’s imagining the positive impact of her work as an important counter to intentionally distracting declarations like “Slavery was a choice”. Her memoir, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Being Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, is unusual for a Big Five trade publisher since it’s a collection of essays by a young woman of color who’s neither a celebrity nor an individual victim of horrific trauma or the center of an incident of gross injustice.
This Will be My Undoing is chronological and begins with the humiliation Jerkins suffers as a child growing up in a white neighborhood, struggling with her blackness. At first her writing seems unremarkable in citing heartless schoolgirl anecdotes until she reveals that gendered pain isn’t equivalently shared: “White girls stare at Barbies and see potential. Black girls stare at white dolls and see impossibility…Our pussies do not unite us.” In response to her own observations, the author ably argues that these distinctions, though true, don’t necessarily have to have the power to distance us. “One sided feminism is dead,” she concludes, and then makes it perfectly clear how we can all move on.
Jerkins builds a sense of growing solidarity, by asserting that though her book is “not about all women, it is meant for all women, men, and those who don’t adhere to the gender binary.” She insists, “I will not baby you. I will force you to keep your eyes on me.” Her tone is increasingly confident in revealing the impositions and limitations that have wreaked havoc on generations of black women, the kind of wrecking impositions and limitations many of her readers have been privileged to ignore. She wants her readers to understand, “some of us are still wrecked… but in many other ways, our (black) community is strengthened and that’s why I’m here. Welcome. Let’s begin.”
Historical control over and appropriation of black women’s body parts, is a major theme. Jerkins offers proof in highlighting how an early 19th century Dutch colonist famously capitalized on his house servant’s massively sized buttocks by exhibiting her remarkable body and dubbing her “the Hottentot Venus.” In response, Victorian white women all over the world imitated the Hottentot silhouette to lasso the white male gaze with excessively padding the backside of their dresses.
This idea of blackness as a significant yet removable costume couldn’t be more relevant in Nkechi Amare Diallo’s (aka Rachel Dolezal) recent claim to being African American. Ms. Dolezal’s offense goes deeper than her African styled hair since her racial appropriation comes without the legacy that black school children, black women in the workplace, and up until 2014, in the U.S. military, have endured by being banned from wearing “extremely distracting and attention getting” afros, twisted braids, dreadlocks, weaves or cornrows. Jerkins argument that blackness is no plaything, is re-iterated again and again, in a number of ways. For instance, she takes exception to the exception of a Kardashian who casually adopts strictly African American styles and is praised for her boldness.
Jerkins reveals how deeply torn she is about the centuries-long fetish with black women’s hair. Ever since the Colonial era, laws required black women to cover their “kinky” hair with a knotted headdress to avoid attracting white men’s’ inappropriate attraction to them. A corresponding modern belief is that straightened African hair offers a path to a more acceptable sexiness that will lead to finding wedded bliss. To this end, Jerkins endures punishing perms, hair relaxers and flat irons from the age of three. In this painful and destructive ritual, she is both Samson and Delilah with power displayed by way of power lost. She realizes stretching her crown to its limits in order to balance her emotional need for some kind of attainable perfection is actually an “undoing” of the self – jeopardizing health and bank account — and ironically, also causes denial of intimate affection since radically straightened hair requires excessive preservation from any kind of “undoing” touch.
In Jerkins’ case, undoing takes on unexpected aspects in ways that are even more intimate, such as when she shares very frank details about her body’s “second tongue,” her ultra-long, furled labia, she forges an unusual level of trust with her reader. She learns she may have inherited this anatomical feature common to West African women and yearns to keep this connection to her ancestors, but, it’s physical pain, in the end, that leads her to a labiaplasty.
She writes about staying very close with her mother, who has told her as a young child, “The masters raped the black women and that’s why you’re so light now. It’s in our blood.” Mother and daughter even watch “Lemonade” for the first time, together.
Jerkins also recounts her decision to move to Harlem since she’d never lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, and her discovery of a totally black self. She’s invited to the Schomburg Center to learn more about the black diaspora. She begins to more deeply explore her blackness through writing the essays that comprise this book, riffing on the social influence of Beyoncé and Michelle Obama, the White Supremacists she narrowly escapes in Russia along with the traditions of respecting African American visitors, in Japan. She speaks truth to powerfully cultural archetypes: the Strong Black Woman, Black Girl Magic.
Jerkins arguments are so compelling, I couldn’t put the book down. Then, in June, when the press was saturated with captions praising “African American” Doria Ragland, for “the quiet symbolism of her dreadlocks” as her daughter, Meghan, the newly minted Duchess of Sussex, was exclusively termed “bi-racial,” it occurred to me that I’ve received the promise of This Will be My Undoing. Going forward, I know Jerkins testimony has given me some deeper and more dimensional awareness than I had before reading it.
Nancy Nigrosh is a former Hollywood Literary agent. Her writer and director clients, including Kathryn Bigelow and John Cameron Mitchell, earned Academy Awards or nominations, wins and nominations for Golden Globes, WGA Awards, Emmys, DGA Awards, SAG Awards, BAFTA Awards, The Peabody Award, Independent Spirit Awards, and countless festival honors, including Cannes’ Palm D’Or, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Sundance. Since 2013, she’s a frequent contributor to Indiewire and serves as a judge and panelist for multiple writing competitions and conferences, addressing the issue of diversity in the entertainment industry. She teaches a workshop at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Neutralizing the Mathilda Effect, a term coined by sociologists to reflect inequity when it comes to women getting or taking credit.