This Will Be My Undoing is a powerful blend of memoir, cultural critique, self-reflection, and celebration. Jerkins explores the experience of black girlhood and womanhood through a kaleidoscope of lenses. She writes frankly about sex, relationships, and dating, and the intersection of blackness and womanhood and sexuality. She writes eloquently about the various spaces she’s inhabited throughout her life–suburban New Jersey, Harlem, Japan, Russia–and how it has felt to be a black woman in each of those spaces. She writes about Beyonce and Michelle Obama, about books and film, but also about her own deeply personal journey of self-discovery. Always, she centers her specific experience living as a black woman in America.
This centering of black womanhood is what makes this book so brilliant. At its heart, it’s an examination of the black female body, and what it is like to move through the world (physically, spiritually, emotionally) in that body.
In these essays, Jerkins is both vulnerable and unapologetic. There is so much smart writing here about identity, culture, and appropriation, and especially about the experience of black women in America, both historically and currently. Part of what makes it so powerful, I think, is the way Jerkins is able to balance self-reflection and analysis with a kind of immutable knowledge of race and racism that comes from being a black woman in America. She willingly examines her own perspectives, she’s willing to be wrong, and though she explores the many experiences shared by black women in America, she never generalizes or reduces those experiences to something simple and monolithic. Her work is unyielding. I’m going to be unraveling this book for a long time to come.
Although there are occasional moments of transcendence, for the most part, Jerkins’ prose is conversational and familiar. I thought this worked extremely well. She tackles big topics, but she approaches them from personal experience, and from the vantage point of a young writer, still in the midst of discovering herself and the world. Her tone struck me as specifically millennial, although I cannot now pinpoint exactly what that means.
The essays meander; they make big circles, and this, too, suited the material. This book is wise and full of compelling ideas and arguments, but it is not poetic. Don’t get me wrong–the writing is lovely–but it’s Jerkins’ curiosity, conviction, and openness that really shines in these pages. I loved the audiobook. Jerkins narrates it, and hearing her tell her own story and articulate her thoughts heightened the impact for me.
Ultimately, this book got me thinking about black womanhood in ways I haven’t before. Like some of the most compelling works about race I’ve ever encountered, Jerkins’ strength lies in her refusal to cater to a white audience. She is not concerned with trying to explain, dilute, or simplify the experience of black womanhood for white people. The work speaks for itself, and it speaks loudly.
I am a white woman, and this book was not written for me. But it is my job to listen, and listening to this, though sometimes painful or uncomfortable, was a joy.