Library of America’s series of guest posts by contemporary writers continues today with the following piece by Morgan Jerkins, whose essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, out this week from Harper Perennial, is among the more widely anticipated nonfiction debuts of 2018.
Provocative and searching, the essays in This Will Be My Undoing blend personal memoir and shrewd cultural analysis to address tough questions about being a black woman in early twenty-first century America. Novelist Alexander Chee has praised the book’s “radical honesty and warmth,” while Publishers Weekly called it a “gorgeous and powerful collection.”
Below, Jerkins pays homage to a critical touchstone for her own work.
I know this sounds extremely trite but I remember holding a copy of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist in my hand as if it were yesterday, although the book was published almost four years ago. I was on my way to Montclair, New Jersey, to meet my soon-to-be agent. My Bolt Bus from Southern New Jersey was late arriving to Penn Station and I had to catch a train to Montclair, fearing that the agent would grow impatient and leave me, my tardiness being taken as me not being serious about my career.
I had a copy of Bad Feminist in my purse. It was the first essay collection that I’d read by a black woman in a very long time, if ever, at that point. What interested me about the collection beyond the interesting essays was that a black woman was so vocal about her imperfections, especially as they pertained to her politics. So you mean I could be black, woman, feminist, AND bad? I never knew that such a gray area existed for black women on the public stage.
I don’t know if Roxane Gay was the first but she made it so for me. At a moment when most essay collection book deals were happening to white women, I thought about what it would be like to write an essay collection about black women and all of our intricacies, both the good and the taboo, the proclamations and the contradictions, the actions and the hypocrisies. I’m not sure I wanted to be “bad” but I wanted to be, and if the aforementioned label came about at certain points in my book, so be it.
Bad Feminist made me believe that I could be honest by saying that I do not have all the answers but I am still going to challenge myself and others with my questions and my hypotheses. The book allowed me to be comfortable in the mindset of the unknown, demonstrating how, despite what society might force upon me as a black woman, I as well as my work can be irresolute and dazzling all at once.
Morgan Jerkins has published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, ELLE, Lenny Letter, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic, among other outlets, and is also a contributing editor for Catapult magazine. A New Jersey native, she graduated from Princeton University with an AB in Comparative Literature, specializing in nineteenth-century Russian literature and postwar modern Japanese literature, and received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.