In this collection of 10 essays, Morgan Jerkins reflects on her life and how it represents the experiences of black women in America. Each essay tackles a different aspect of life, including her childhood impressions of beauty, to life in America versus overseas, sexual desire, cultural representations of black women, living in a black body, and moving to Harlem after spending her life in mostly white spaces. As a young writer, she doesn’t have many decades of life experience to draw on, but she mines her life with thoroughness and insight — enough so that her youth never poses a problem. (It would be interesting, to see how her reflections shift over time, but that doesn’t make her observations now any less valid.)
Many of the essays are long and have a meandering quality to them as she drifts from one subject to another. Although the essays might seem to wander too much, I think the effect was deliberate, as she generally steered back to her central point. But the wide range of topics explored in these long essays shows that whatever Jerkins is exploring touches many different pieces of life. For instance, the essay “Black Girl Magic” considers both the criticism of the concept and the empowerment it provides, as well as black women’s relationships with their bodies especially when they don’t feel magical, Jerkins’ own relationship with her body, the pressure to avoid mistakes and always be magically perfect, and the power of black spirituality. It all relates, even if, once in a while, the connections aren’t entirely clear.
Jerkins writes in great detail about her own life, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree. She’s vulnerable about herself, including times when she got things wrong or has questions. Overall, however, she appears confident in her beliefs, but most of her confidence is about belief that she has the right to say what she things — and that’s absolutely correct. She discusses times that she’s gotten criticized for her writing, but that doesn’t stop her from using her voice, from making her black womanhood visible.
One element of the book that interested me was her discussion of universality. The book’s first essay, “Monkeys Like You,” describes incidents of childhood bullying and rejection that will be familiar to many. But she wants to be very clear that she is writing about the experiences of a black woman and that her story is not meant to be appropriated by white women:
Someone may read these two anecdotes from my childhood and believe that this is what happens to all little girls. It’s true that we are all victims within a patriarchal society and we must fight. But the fight to empower all women under the veil of feminism has historically and presently centered white women. The word “all” switches to whiteness as the default—this is also why I write.
That paragraph brought me up short because I’d been thinking exactly what she said—that the incidents she describes happen to girls of all races. But, the thing is, for a black girl, there’s an additional burden. Any rejection I experienced as a little girl would not have had the layer of knowing that my hair and skin would never live up to the ideal established by society. So there’s that. Plus, as she states above, if we turn her story into simply a bullying story, without making it also about race, the picture in many people’s heads will default to a white one. And there are aspects of her experience that are particular to her as a black woman.
Plus, as becomes clear when she explores the subject of universality more clearly in a later essay, it’s not right to measure the validity and value of black voices according to how well white people can relate to them. That’s putting white voices at the center. Sure, I might be able to relate to bits and pieces of Jerkins’s story, but does that matter? Does it make her story more important because a white woman can see herself in pieces of it? Of course not.
But although this book is not meant to validate me and my experiences, Jerkins still invites me and other white readers to listen, writing that “This book is not about all women, but it is meant for all woman, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary. It is for you. You.”