Morgan Jerkins On Feeling Validated, The Women’s March & Intersectional Feminism

Her debut essay collection, ‘This Will Be My Undoing,’ is out today

The cover of Morgan Jerkins’ debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, is a striking one. It shows Jerkins in profile, face turned up toward the sky, box braids cascading behind her. She’s wearing a black scoop tee, black-framed glasses, lipstick. Jerkins tells me she was inspired by one of the covers of Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It features a sketch of a woman whose eyes are cast downward. “You don’t know if she’s in pain or if she’s pensive,” Jerkins says. “I knew I wanted to do something like that.”

But Jerkins didn’t know if she could. Unless you’re a celebrity, whose image and likeness is already out there for public consumption, having an author photograph on the cover of their book is rare in the publishing space—especially for a debut. “Something inside me was like, Just ask them,” Jerkins says. Her father also gave her a little push: “The worst that they could say is no.”

They ended up saying yes, though, and the next steps were figuring out how to wear her hair. Jerkins has natural curly coils usually, and when we meet to chat in Harlem, not far from her apartment, she’s wearing them in a high bun with the same black-framed glasses as on the cover and a bare face. “Because hair is so politicized, I kept wondering, Do I straighten it? Do I keep it in a curly afro? Do I wear braids?” she recalls. She ended up going with braids because that’s the style she had at the time. “To this day, I'm actually surprised that they allowed me to be on my own cover,” she says. “I think it is very significant for a debut, particularly for a black female debut.”

It's significant, and it's also appropriate, as the essays are autobiographical, centering around Jerkins and her experiences, dating back to the first time she realized she’s black when she was 10 years old to her life today as a 25-year-old woman. It covers personal traumas and racist encounters. Jerkins' time at Princeton is explored, alongside a letter to Michelle Obama. She discusses why she calls herself a black woman and not just “human.” She touches on mental health and being an adult virgin. In it, Jerkins is far more open than most 20-somethings would dare to be, and that’s precisely what makes it so compelling. 

The collection serves as a coming-of-age story, but Jerkins feels like she is still evolving and learning. For Jerkins, the titular “undoing” is a reference to the fact that she’s still unpacking things. “My job is not to provide resolution. Because I'm still alive, I’m still going through certain things,” she says. “It’s irresolute… there’s no finality to it.” The "it" she refers to is her work, which we'll be seeing a lot more of in the coming months and years. Currently, Jerkins has two more novels in the works—one inspired by Jordan Peele’s film Get Out and the other about Harlem "caulbearers." Jerkins explains, "In African-American history, caulbearers are people who have a caul. They're born with an embryonic sack, they're born inside the embryonic sack, and it's said that they have second sight and a whole bunch of mystical things."

Ahead, we chat with Jerkins about her book, therapy, and her feelings about the Women's March.

Did you always know that you wanted to do a book of essays?

No! I started writing when I was 14, and it was fiction. It was a way for me to escape the harassment that I was receiving every single day in high school. In college, I was still mostly writing fiction. For my MFA, my focus was fiction. But I was also doing non-fiction online, and so my agent was like, "Why don't you try non-fiction?" I was like, "What am I gonna write about?" And she said, "What you're writing online." From there, I was like, "Okay!" It didn't take much—well, I won't say that, because it did take effort. It took effort to construct the book proposal, but, as soon as I said I'm gonna do this, the memories just started coming to the forefront.

One of the components of the proposal is "comp titles," when you have to find titles that have been produced that compare to your book. When I actually sat down and realized that I hadn't really read a lot of essays by black women, essays written by black women that were published in the last five years, I realized, Okay, this seems like it can be necessary. Hopefully, my words will prove just that.

This book feels very vulnerable. What's helped you be so open in your writing?

Having great editors who could tell when I was psychologically cutting corners. But, also, because I told myself, It's my debut. I didn't want to go into a bookstore, open up my book, and look at certain parts and think, I could've gone a lot harder than that. When I finished the final draft of my book, I literally sat upright in bed and was like, You did a good job, which was something I had never proclaimed for anything that I've written.

You're very active on Twitter, and you wrote a while ago that you feel like your writing voice started on Twitter. Do you think it has helped it evolve since then?

Yeah, I think it helped me because I'm very long-winded when it comes to writing. I think, back when it was 140 characters, I had to be very, very clear and direct. But I think Twitter also helped me develop my writing voice because it exposed me to so many things that I did not know otherwise. Like, "misogynoir," and the full conversation about uneven emotional labor between men and women—particularly in heterosexual relationships—also, the threats that people make on the artist, the threats that people make on just poverty and socio-economic differences in this country. It helped me establish my writing voice by just exposing me to so much more that supplemented what I'd learned and read in school and what I learned in college.

Like you, I grew up in New Jersey in a predominantly white neighborhood. I could relate to a lot of the topics you wrote about, and it was nice to feel seen and feel validated. But, like you said, you're not writing for all black women. Not everybody is going to relate to your experiences.

I don't want to say that I'm speaking for all of us for many different reasons. One of them is that you can’t, but, also, because I know I would get so much criticism for that because people would look at me and say, "Okay, she grew up middle class, she went to an Ivy League university, and she's light-skinned." Which influences so much in the ways we are perceived and how people talk to us and how comfortable they are with us. I make it clear that I can't speak for all of us, and also to say that's why you gotta get more stories. This is not the end right here, you have to go fetch other ones.

Do you remember the first piece of literature you read where you felt validated as a black woman?I think it was The Bluest Eye. Granted, I didn't read it until I was 22, and it was like an older white man who told me, "You should read Toni Morrison." Because my discipline in college was Japanese and Russian literature, so it was nowhere near the African diaspora.I think I loved reading it because it took that moment of when you're a child and you want to be different, not realizing that those things you want are markings of whiteness. We think about conditioning now, because we're adults and we catch it, but when you pay attention to what children say, especially what black girls, they're already marked. I mean, where do they get it from? You can't tell, because it's invisible, because it's all over the place. So, I liked the book because she was talking about something in a very unapologetic way and it was very visceral.

You mention in the interview you did with Roxane Gay for ELLE that you didn't think about white people until the editing process, when your editor brought up the fact that perms mean different things for white people than they do for black people. Did you feel resentful at all in that moment? Just in the sense that, you say from the beginning, you're writing for black women, and black women are going to understand what you’re talking about. 

I don't know if I felt resentful. I think when I first read the comment, I was like, "Oh, I didn't know." And then part of me was like, Why should I care? I have to remind myself that, as a writer, I have to level the passion with critical thinking. I can make sweeping generalizations a lot to black women, and they'll know exactly what I'm talking about. But, when I'm speaking to a larger audience, whatever I say has to be leveled with critical thinking. Because, if not, I'm gonna be more susceptible to attacks and not always the critical ones, it could be ad hominem ones. 

Therapy and mental illness are some themes in the book. I know that self-care is a very trendy word right now, but do you have other things that you do to take care of yourself? 

I work out five days a week, and it helps because I'm a freelancer and I will be in bed all day. So, to have that hour in the morning when I'm lifting weights or squatting or getting on the treadmill helps. 

But I think, also, it just me being more communicative. I pride myself on being a Gemini. If you know anything about astrology, Geminis are talkative. Someone really close said to me, "Just because you're talkative, doesn't mean you're open." I will carry that close to my heart all the time. I think, for me, self-care doesn't just come from, like, working out or treating myself to ramen, which I love, it also just means being open to people and letting people know I'm tired or I need someone to talk to. Which is hard, because, I mean, I grew up in a single-parent household, I’m used to seeing one person do everything. So, once again, that conditioning I'm talking about—if you see a woman do everything, you think you're supposed to do everything. So learning to lean sometimes and learning that I don't have to pick up everybody else's burdens, that sometimes people can help lift me, is a huge shift.

I think something that isn't talked about a lot when it comes to therapy is how hard it is to find a therapist. The search process alone is very intimidating. What's been your experience in finding one?

I'm on my third therapist. My first therapist, I don't know, something happened, she had to leave. The second therapist, I feel like she was giving a lot of conflicting advice. Then my third therapist happened to be a black woman. And, I liked it. I'm not saying that you have to find a black female therapist—my first therapist that I had at a low-cost place, she's actually a blonde white woman. It was great, going to her for an hour every Tuesday, but I think, with this black female therapist, what I need right now is someone who can help me realize that my psyche is shaped by how I’m conditioned as a black woman, not just as a human being. So, she'll say things like, "You know, black women, sometimes we're conditioned to love men that we can fix." Nobody could say that besides another black woman. So, things like that, I need to hear, and it's great because someone sees me, I'm not going to have to continue explaining myself.

I want to talk about the Women's March, which just happened. Did you attend?

I didn't, I was actually at the Schomburg Research Institute for my second book.

Did you attend last year?

I didn't attend last year. The reason is because I was just so angry about Trump winning the presidency. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for him. Also, I was kind of afraid for my safety. I was worried that, if a lot of black women show up, maybe the police were gonna go after us instead of the white women. I had just moved out of my old apartment because my roommate and I were combatting about political differences, so it was already a lot with that, and trying to get settled in, so I just wanted to be at home. And, like, meditate.

You write a lot about intersectional feminism in your book, which was a huge point of discussion surrounding the March. And reading that but also meeting you in Harlem made me think about that Harriet Tubman statue that someone put a pink pussy hat on the day of the March this year.

Yeah, and, see, things like that are why I'm glad I just went to the library because this is exactly what I'm talking about… We are at a very critical moment. And we have been for a very long time. When I think about the Alabama special election, again, it's one of those things where you're like, I'm so glad we won, but why was it so close? Why, again, white people—especially white women—why do you side with the child molester? We live in two different realities. That's the thing that I was trying a lot to expose in my book. Just, the underbelly of the reality that you see, because there’s so much that you're not seeing. It's almost like, are you forcefully not looking at me now? Or, where is your perception, you know? There are many different sides of seeing a certain issue. The problem is that one tends to eclipse the other. The other being, literally, the other, the black woman's perspective.  

I saw a sign on Twitter that read: "Feminism without intersectionality is white supremacy."It is. Because, if you take away class, race, gender, and then you add in able-bodied or not, yeah, it's white supremacy. But I think we have to always keep pushing the needle when we say, "This needs to be more intersectional." I'll say something needs to be intersectional, but in what way? Because, even if I say, "You need to have more black women over there." And it's like, okay, we do have more black women. But: Are they all able-bodied? Are they all cis? I think, just understanding that we all have blind spots, because sometimes when global things happen in the news, we're like, "Why are we talking about this, when we should be talking about this?" Well, it's hard to juggle! But when it comes to dealing with human beings and issues, we have to think about who, historically or presently, always gets prioritized? Part of me, as a black female writer, is like, "How many different ways am I gonna be able to say throughout the course of my career: Pay attention to black women?" It's like, man, pay attention!

It's exhausting.

It's exhausting! But it's also like, this is why I do the work that I do. This is exactly why, thankfully, this book is being published. Because we are still not paying attention. And Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider was published in, what, the '80s? Like, that's not to say that we haven't made strides, but the more we start having these hard conversations about consent, reproductive health, things like that, the more it's gonna get messy. And it's gonna get ugly. But what we don't need is for people to back out when it gets less sanitized. When it gets less easy to wrap up in a bow. Because, once we start getting to, again, the underbelly of those issues, that's when we're gonna start making progress. But we can't deal with somebody's fragility in the midst of that. Come back when you're ready, but we can't stop these dialogues because something inside of you is shaking. You feel undermined all of a sudden, whether it's because it undermines what you think of you being a women, or you being white, or both, come back when you're ready. But we can't paralyze what's going on because you're fragile.

Do you listen to anything when you write?

It changes. Lately, I've been listening to a lot of neo-soul. It's been helping me just for researching and interviewing people. But I think, as I was writing [this book], I loved Solange’s Seat at the Table. I love, like, Toto's Africa. I love David Bowie's voice. I love Sadé. It all depends, it changes a lot. I think what helped me a lot during writing was those afternoon or morning Spotify acoustic playlists. I love them. I don't want to pay attention to how lovely the melody is, but it helps me with a sense of rhythm when I'm listening to music.

What do you think writing the book gave you?

A sense of place and time. It let me know that—I feel like I'm quoting Beyoncé—but, like, I was here. I existed. And for 272 pages—'cause I've memorized the pages of my book—that’s me right there. I've had the pleasure and the financial backing to be unapologetically me. It was hard, and there were many emotional moments, but that signified my place in time. It gives me a sense of immortality in that sense. I hope that people will still read my book when I pass, but, for right now, I will never forget the experience of writing that proposal, writing this book, working with the people. The pleasure of just the buzz that's happening around it. When you pick up my book, you can't just erase me. When you're writing online, you'll be lucky if someone's talking about your article by the end of the day. But you picked up my book, you bought it, you had a little bit of an investment in me being able to do what I'm able to do. You sowed into me, and I'm sowing into you by giving you my stories. Hopefully, even if you don't agree with all that I'm saying, at least you understand that there's a different reality out there.

Morgan Jerkins' This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America is available for purchase now