Her words are raw and direct. In the first essay, Monkeys Like You, Jerkins writes about the cultural norms that surrounded her at 10, and how they shaped her desire to join the all-white cheerleading squad. The experience was the catalyst for her understanding of what it means to grow up as a black woman in a predominantly white society. From there, she segways into memories of mean girls, and commentary about old-school feminism.
In one of the final paragraphs of the essay, she gives the disclaimer, “This book is not about all women, but it is meant for all women”. Jerkins, a Princeton University graduate based in Harlem, purposefully directs the bulk of her words to black women working to just be in a white world. However, that doesn’t mean her book isn’t of benefit for all readers, because it very much is.
Throughout the book, Jerkins clearly expresses her intention to educate through her work, and after reading it in its entirety, I fervently believe that it does. Each essay takes a multifaceted approach by not only examining the moments that shaped her, but the thoughts and feelings she had at that time, how they affected her then, and how they continue to affect her now. It’s a deeply psychological exploration of one woman’s identity. With some subjects such as labiaplasty, which I haven’t seen anyone else write about, her candor could not have come easily. But through it, she gives readers an opportunity to learn about something that no one ever speaks of.
Jerkins article work, which can be found in Vogue, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and many more, is delivered in much the same way. With female authors coming out as having changed their work to meet a male audience, the clear roar of a female voice is all the more important. As a black woman writer, Jerkins grapples with the pressures of conformity and has her resiliency tested, but she’s learned that being true to herself benefits her readers more. In A Black Girl Like Me she asks, “But if we don’t value and support our individual, disparate experiences, who will?”
Though it is a heavy read at certain points, This Will Be My Undoing wraps up on a high note with its last few essays. In Who Will Write Us? Jerkins talks about the impact of Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade and uses it to express her craving for more black women directing media. “Beyoncé awakened something in us all, something that we had consciously or unconsciously been hiding. Lemonade was not about uplifting black people in general, but rather black women specifically.”
"I want more black, female-centered stories to be written and directed by black women across the diaspora.” Though it’s complete, this essay feels like it’s part of a longer train-of-thought, and a clever way to set the framework for her last essay, A Black Girl Like Me, which winds the book down and gives readers a healthy dose of optimism. In it, she talks about a breakthrough she had with publishing, and her pledge to assist other black women in achieving their literary dreams. “The particular experience of the black woman in modern America needs to be addressed. But there isn’t just one; there are many. Millions, to be exact. I can only add one.” I hope more women read her book, and take her up on that. For everyone else, This Will Be My Undoing is an important, and thought-provoking book to pick up. Look for it at Square Books, Parnassus Books, or your local bookstore.
By Megan Wolfe
Originally published April 25, 2018 by The Same: An Online Literary Journal for Women