Monday, April 2, 2018

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

Paperback, 258 pgs, Pub Jan 30th 2018 by Harper Perennial

Morgan Jerkins is in a hurry to become a well known writer and she is trying to get our attention in any way she knows how—jump-starting her celebrity by being polarizing. She is young still, twenty-five now. I predict she will recognize her own sense of entitlement when she is a little older. But it is awfully hard to dislike someone so articulate and eager to participate in the big questions we face today. At least we know what she is thinking.

The more I read by and about black women’s experiences, the more I think this is a long time coming, a national therapy. As long as black women feel comfortable talking out loud about how they interpret the behaviors of the rest of us, we should be listening. Black men have been trying to tell us forever that black women are fierce. Well, white America is just about to find out how fierce.

This book of essays gives insight into the experience of a young woman growing up, discovering her sexuality, despairing of her beauty, seeking a path to enlightenment. What kills me, after I saw a picture of her online, is that she is gorgeous, radiant with youth and health, and all we hear in this book is how afraid she is that she is not beautiful enough. Yes, her figure is a handful—an armful, really—but for plenty of folks this is a good thing.

We get a perspective on black hair that I haven’t heard before. I have wondered about the fetishization of hair among black women. I could see they were traumatized about it, and made to feel as though their natural, soft, curly hair weren’t beautiful. Jerkins tells us black hair has always been a source of sexuality. That not only white people want to touch that corona of power—black men do, too. This makes enormous sense to me. Of course black hair is powerful and sexy…which is why it must always be corralled in braids, or straightened.

Even within these constraints, black women have managed to make an art of their hair. I won’t take that away from them. But I definitely think it is time to stop feeling badly about black hair. Natural hair makes a powerful statement, and it is a touch-magnet. Use it.

Jerkins was brave alright when she gives us chapter and verse on her sexual fantasies. All of a sudden I’m glad I don’t have long straight blond hair, when most of my youth I, like Jerkins, yearned for that unattainable source of beauty, privilege, and class. But these are distractions, youthful stumbling blocks we place in front of ourselves. Jerkins had much more than blond hair to worry about when she attended an IV-League school where most everyone tries to act as though everything is under control.

It is a privilege to attend Princeton; it has enormous resources. Fortunately Jerkins was able to take advantage of the access Princeton offers, but like many of her fellow students, she got confused by everyone’s seeming self-sufficiency. She didn’t feel self-sufficient—why does everyone look, act, sound so self-absorbed? This is the whitest thing Jerkins did…to take advantage of that bastion of privilege and not realize that it doesn’t automatically give one access to a job, or everyone else’s attention.

But I wish her well. She’s brave. Fierce. She is far more willing to expose herself than I would be, say, and more willing to lay claim to her right to other people’s contacts. She’ll surely find a place in the conversation. Good luck with that.

The final essays in the book felt exploratory, which is only right when the author is just getting started. Jerkins discusses a worthwhile French film, Girlhood, by a white filmmaker about young black girls in Paris. This is the third time in two months that I have read discussion about the appropriation of experience by someone only looking, not experiencing, certain events. I am not sure how I feel about this yet, so will just have to take onboard that this is a discussion which animates more and more people.

Jerkins raises Beyoncé’s Lemonade special, how it is not exploitative but inclusive even while recognizing that "black women are not one thing.” Further, Jerkins shares the criticism bell hooks has aimed at Beyoncé for a “simplified worldview…a false construction of power.” Jerkins merely says that not all of us have to be always fighting for something larger than ourselves.

This is a particularly hard position to argue in light of all she said about Beyoncé’s army of musicians, followers, admirers. Without a doubt Beyoncé is magnificently talented. With great gifts come great responsibility, no? hooks has a good point. Beyoncé works enormously hard to stay at the pinnacle of her field. But even she can learn concepts that may be new to her and important to that army she commands to generate real power.

Jerkins’ book did its intended work on me: I hadn’t seen the HBO video released when Beyoncé’s Lemonade album came out. I’m looking around for an opportunity to see it now. I want to read bell hooks’ essays discussing Beyoncé, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl again, to see what Jerkins calls “perhaps the finest example of satire by a black woman.” I’m interested.

Below, find a short video first published by The Guardian, about Jerkins in Harlem, and the gentrification happening there. She acknowledges some privilege here.