I received an advance copy This Will Be My Undoing a couple of months ago, but then life happened and I didn’t get a chance to dive in until the week it went on sale. Unbeknownst to me, at the same time, there was a bit of a storm brewing on Twitter over some of the book’s excerpts.
The book is a collection of essays about the author’s experiences living as a black woman in America. The first chapter is the thing that seems to be getting everyone up in arms. Jerkins, seeing all the popular white cheerleaders around her and wanting to attain that status, admits to wanting to be white when she was growing up. Fine, but then she goes on a cringe-worthy confession of the — shall we say, uncharitable — thoughts she had towards an early bully of hers. In her mind back then, the bully was the wrong kind of black girl, whereas Jerkins was a light-skinned, smart, go-getting, educated, wannabe-white black girl:
I entertained the thought of calling the police on Jamirah, perhaps even lying and claiming she had put her hands on me or she was a threat to my safety. The officer would take one look at me and then at her and tackle her. … 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 went there. You can see why some of Twitter was not pleased.
I don’t think that the Twitter pile-on was entirely fair since that passage was taken out of context; she does end that essay with a mea culpa for her colorism and an attempt to tease out other aspects of her privilege, using that essay as a springboard for the interrogations of Blackness (and Whiteness) to come in future chapters.
And yet, that chapter is kind of what sets up all my problems with the book. In confessing to being that painfully clueless in childhood, some of the interrogations of her past just don’t ring true.
Jerkins is a verrrry well-educated, well-traveled woman who came from educated parents. She speaks six languages. Her work has appeared in major publications. She’s related to famed music producer Rodney Jerkins. She’s light-skinned. There’s just no way around it: she’s had (and still has) lots of privilege.
So when she writes about her mistrust of psychologists and tries to tie it into the ways that Black people have been historically mistreated by the medical community, it just does not ring true: her own father is a psychologist. When she writes of her mother warning her against becoming a “fast-tailed girl” and trying to tamp down her sexuality, it does not ring entirely true: she was apparently open enough with her mother to confess to feelings of sexual frustration, and her mother actually bought her a vibrator. And when she writes, “I have never talked to a black woman about the loss of her virginity and heard her describe it as anything other than traumatic,” I’m just like…WHAT?
Her experiences with racism are valid. Her trying to figure out a healthy relationship to her expressions of sexuality is valid. Her issues with white feminism are valid. Her life experiences are valid.
But often, I feel like she’s trying to apply way too much history and theory to account for her past behaviors — trying to be retroactively woke? — when her first essay firmly establishes that for a good chunk (I daresay most) of her life, she was out of touch with a lot. I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority here; most people seem to be raving about the book. It has its solid moments, but I just think there’s too much reaching.
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America was released on January 30, 2018 by Harper Perennial.