“When I was ten,” Morgan Jerkins writes in the essay that opens This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, “the only thing I wanted to be was a white cheerleader.” She has trained for this. Her mother taught her to mind her blackness, to keep it under wraps unless she is in all-black company: at church, or a family cook-out. In the “wider white world,” her mother warns, she must mind her dialect, keep her voice down, tame her hair, fasten up her clothes. “If I wanted to achieve any kind of success,” she was schooled, “I first had to recognize that success was a white domain.” While she is friends with both black and white girls, at school she maintains a difficult rapport with the girls who “act” black, segrjaegatejd not only by her class placement (in college-prep rather than remedial courses), but by the preppy clothes her mother insists on dressing her in: plaid skirts, argyle socks.
When the day of the cheerleading tryouts arrives, Jerkins watches in horror as the only other black contestant, an Afro-Latina girl, stumbles on one of her jumps. She knows immediately that, grave as the mistake is, it is not the technical error that matters. Rather, it is the girl’s failure to maintain the emotional and physical language of whiteness in front of the all-white panel of judges that dooms her. As she “jutted her right hip and began to roll her tongue in her mouth,” Jerkins recognizes with a sinking feeling, “she was returning to being a girl of color.”
Fueled by the need to show the judges that “I wasn’t like her,” Jerkins goes on to execute her jumps and dance routines like “a programmed machine.” And yet all of her studied suppression of blackness comes to naught when she learns she, too, has failed to make the team. She runs over in her head what she might have done differently, where her performance fell short, until a classmate she is in a fight with stuns her with the vicious retort: “Cheerleading squads don’t accept monkeys like you.” The scales fall from her eyes for the first time.
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved pivots around what Morrison calls—with breathtaking understatement—the “rough choice” faced by its protagonist: between allowing her daughter to be taken back into bondage, and killing her with her own hands, the escaped enslaved woman Sethe opts for the latter. Sethe’s choice is understandable, and it is monstrous; she would do it again, and she wishes it undone with every fiber of her being.
At first glance, Morgan Jerkins’s debut essay collection would seem a distant relation to Morrison’s harrowing tale. Jerkins, raised in suburban New Jersey, educated at Princeton University, and a recent transplant to Harlem and the New York literary scene, faces an entirely different set of choices than those presented in Morrison’s story of black women trying to survive 19th-century America. And yet, reading her essays, I found myself repeatedly drawn back to Beloved’s portrait of intergenerational haunting. Drawing on a rich history of tropes within African-American literature chronicling the black experience in white America, Jerkins’s collection offers a fresh look at the myriad ways black women today continue to be presented with the “rough choices,” albeit in altered form, that faced their ancestors.
Here then, is one kind of rough choice: Jerkins learns early that her success in white institutions—whether cheerleading squads or high school classrooms, universities or job markets—will be purchased through the ritual exclusion and policing of blackness. The deal she makes with whiteness is seductive, and it is stomach-turning; it promises empowerment, and demands, in return, genuflection to whiteness and its idols.
One of Jerkins’s black classmates, Jamirah, begins to bully her in junior high, poking merciless fun at her style, her speech, her choice of dress. “What the fuck you got on? The fuck is that shit?” she taunts across the lunchroom table. And yet, even though she is still reeling from the cheerleading ordeal, Jerkins responds by retreating further into the very codes of whiteness by which she has been so brutally excluded. She dreams of humiliating her rival, imagines calling the police and watching as an officer tackles her to the ground. “It would not have mattered to me that this officer was protecting me not because I was afraid, but rather because, out of the two of us, I was the closest approximation to whiteness and its rules,” she writes with chilling self-awareness. She was playing the long game, and the long game, she understood, was white. If she could not humiliate her rival on her own, she would “rely on the institutions to do the job for me.” Jamirah will be crushed, punished; and so too, in effigy, will those elements of Jerkins’s own identity that she finds so troublesome.
Jamirah’s presence remains with Jerkins long after she’s left the torment of high school lunch rooms, a doppelgänger in which she catches glimpses of a black self she long sought to subdue. “As an adult woman, I can feel Jamirah in my voice whenever I get mad,” Jerkins observes. “That agile cadence, that unparalleled wit which renders my profanity as poetic as lines from a Shakespearean sonnet.” Jerkins references the pain this recollection causes her, and how difficult it was to write about it. But, “this is what black femaleness is, or at least part of it; this is the violence we hurl at one another.”
Having abandoned the pursuit of whiteness, Jerkins searches for an authentic identity as a young black woman coming of age, but runs up against another dilemma: the black female body has already been expropriated and defined by others. In the white imaginary it is open for grabs, public property: always-already sexed, lewd, and seductive. “I’ve never been asked what I am in my own imagination. What is a black woman to herself out from under the shadow of the white woman?” Jerkins queries. “Our bodies find a way to come back to us distorted like images in fun house mirrors. We know something is wrong with the distortions, but we cannot say what.”
Black girls are not only imprisoned in the fun house mirrors that the white imagination holds up to them, but by older women within the black community as well. Jerkins grew up hearing from her mother about the dangers of “fast-tailed girls,” short-hand for a girl who ranged anywhere on the spectrum from showing too much interest in boys, to dressing provocatively, to getting pregnant. The black mother who preemptively shames her daughter for evincing any signs of sexuality is, Jerkins suggests, acting out the transgenerational trauma of the rape of black women by their masters. To reclaim and, indeed, hoard the consent denied one’s ancestors, to withhold sex from all comers, is a kind of historical reaction-formation black women developed to regain a measure of control over their bodies. “Our visible bodies may already be sexualized without our consent,” she reasons. “But if we can withhold sex or rob a man of the prospect of having sex, then somehow we will be saved.” The conundrum of black female sexuality, after the intergenerational trauma of systemic rape: “Why can’t we be wild? Because we are already wild. Why can’t we enjoy sex? Because we are already sexed…Why can’t we be free? Because we were never free.”
Several essays in the collection focus on mainstream culture’s call for “universalism” and color-blindness, whether in the fight for feminism or the fight for more broadly conceived “human rights.” Jerkins eviscerates the ideology of color-blindness which, rather than being color-neutral, simply assumes that “humans” or “women” are white by default. The Women’s March on Washington on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration was widely portrayed as a movement of feminist solidarity, thousands of women joined arm in arm in pink knit “pussy” hats. Jerkins is more clear-eyed. “Our pussies do not unite us,” she writes with compact dryness. How could they—in any simple, straightforward way—when the history of American sexuality is so inseparable from race and its phantasms? Jerkins writes of a viral 2014 YouTube video, in which 24-year-old Shoshana Robinson records herself walking through a series of New York neighborhoods, capturing 108 instances of male catcalling and harassment. As a woman frequently subjected to street harassment, Jerkins sympathizes. But then she notices that the majority of the catcallers in the video are Latino or black, where Shoshana presents as white. As well-intentioned a feminist manifesto as the clip may have been, only a white woman could afford to ignore the sinister family resemblance between this footage of black men catcalling an outraged white woman and the primal American scene of black male predation, from the rape scene in The Birth of a Nation, to Emmett Till’s alleged wolf whistle, to George W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads. In short: only a white woman could afford to believe simple anatomical alignment is enough to eclipse the racing of black bodies. In one of the most chilling testimonials by a black woman who attended the 2017 Women’s March, Lakeshia Robinson reported in a Facebook post of being physically barred from entering a crowded metro car by a phalanx of pussy hat-clad white women. The experience reminded her, “exactly why being black around lots of white bodies is dangerous for black flesh.” “I am afraid of white women,” she confesses. “And for good reason. White women’s tears get people that look like me killed.”
Another time, Jerkins is harassed by a man seeking to sell her concert tickets at a corner store in Harlem. She considers going to the policeman stationed across the street, reporting she fears for her safety. But her harasser is black—and she knows too well how quickly these encounters with the state can turn deadly for black men. Does she defend herself, report her sexual harassment—or does she defend a fellow person of color from possible police brutality? Either way, she loses and this, then, is yet another rough choice. Failure—damned if you do, damned if you don’t—is built into the double bind of black womanhood.
If the complexities of feminist response on the part of black women are lost on many white women, Jerkins is met with similar incomprehension from white men who wonder why, as a successful, Ivy-educated person, she insists on “harping” on her blackness. A white man she matches with on OkCupid confides to her with a note of unmistakable self-congratulation that, when he looked at her dating profile, he “didn’t see a black woman.” Invited to lunch at a friend’s house, Jerkins is introduced to an older Polish immigrant who asks why she writes about her experiences specifically as a black woman. “I don’t understand why you would want to call yourself black,” he presses. “Why not just call yourself a human?” He then adds the spectacularly revealing non sequitur that, had he met her when he was younger, “he might have married her.”
Jerkins’s essays are not all a catalog of pain. In a chapter entitled “Black Girl Magic,” Jerkins is interested in exploring the prophetic “second sight” that she believes black women harbor as a result of their history. West African conjure, carried over into the Christianity many enslaved people adopted, functioned as a survival mechanism in the New World: a secret, magical sphere that promised protection, at least occasionally, from the rational relentlessness of white violence. Raised in a Pentecostal Church, Jerkins is well-versed in the denomination’s tradition of female “prayer-warriors,” women who have the gift of prophecy or healing through touch, prayer, and anointing oil. For Jerkins, magic, whether Christian or otherwise, remains a source of strength for black women. As one spiritualist she interviews commented, her magic is “this core, this form of resilience” that allows her to navigate the violence of living in a black body in a white world: “My magic.” Jerkins echoes, “is where no one outside of me can touch.”