Morgan Jerkins Is Putting In the Work
The bestselling debut writer on how women of color are expected to excel—and sometimes still can’t get ahead
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You may already know Morgan Jerkins’ name, especially now that her debut, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersections of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, has made the New York Times bestseller list in its first week. Morgan writes about issues affecting her personally, but also issues that affect Black woman as a demographic, and it’s encouraging to see her tenacity lauded when our voices have been, and still are, traditionally beckoned to be quiet. Morgan isn’t one to be quiet or deterred. From interviewing literary icons such as Claudia Rankine and starmakers like Issa Rae to researching lost legends of the Harlem Renaissance to exploring her own bouts with privilege and her experiences as a Black woman, Morgan’s portfolio has grown to show her versatility as well as her interests. These are often are tied to explorations of identity, history, and breaking down assumptions, while also showing vulnerability when reflecting on herself. I was happy to speak with Morgan prior to the publication of This Will Be My Undoing. The rest of this interview can be heard on the Minorities in Publishing podcast, where transcription of the full episode is also available.
Jennifer Baker: You’ve talked a lot about the barriers of entry into publishing — also touched upon in your book — especially being someone who went to an Ivy League.
Morgan Jerkins: I started commuting to New York multiple times throughout my senior year to interview for positions, entry-level positions. Mind you, when I would go on websites, it would say, “Ideally someone with a literature background, a four year college degree, list your favorite books.” Very standard. I thought to myself, I must have it in the bag, because I have an Ivy League college degree, I’ve had three unpaid literary internships — a couple of them. I spoke five foreign languages in addition to English, and I had a comparative literature background. I went to these meetings expecting something, and I got nothing. I went to New York for these day-long trips for 15-minute interviews and I wouldn’t even get a call back. It devastated me emotionally. I remember even getting rejected from a job on the day of my baccalaureate because the editor told me that my literary interests didn’t match hers, and this was after I was supposed to critique a manuscript, and they gave it me a day late.
JB: I’ve been there. I remember those.
MJ: I was working on it in the midst of graduation practices, and I still got rejected, and so I went back home to my mother’s house in New Jersey. And on top of that, I thought I was falling in love with this guy. I talk about it in my book. That went to crap as well, in a horrendous way. The only thing that was keeping me sane in a sense, that made me realize that I still had some talent, was that I was accepted into an MFA program at Bennington, and that’s what helped me.
I saw so much content being exchanged, and I thought, “Oh, people can write online, or people can get paid online. I think I want to do this!” Now mind you, about a couple of weeks before I graduated, I did write a piece for Ebony about privilege at Princeton and all that. It was a response to a white student there that talked about privilege and whatnot. So, I thought, maybe I should just do this more. I should flex this muscle. So I just jumped into the deep end, so to speak. I didn’t have any mentors at the time who said, “Here are your contacts and here’s how to write a pitch.” I learned through rejection.
I had a mantra in my head. I said, I may not be the best writer out there, but I’m going to work harder than the best writer. I’m going to be the writer who editors know can produce a 1000-word essay in under 45 minutes. I’m going to be the one who’s reliable, who can turn in quick copy, and be that person that they can rely on. That’s what I did. I wanted my name to be any and everywhere. So that’s what happened. In the beginning it was like, okay, if I can publish one piece a month, I’ll be great. Then it started becoming two pieces a month, or maybe two pieces one month, one piece the next one, then three pieces the month after that. Then editors started to contact me.
I had a mantra in my head. I said, I may not be the best writer out there, but I’m going to work harder than the best writer.
JB: And then there’s the whole “you’re overqualified,” right? So the assumption for some jobs is, well, you have so much experience, you’ll get bored, so therefore you won’t want this job. They’re making this decision for you, rather than accepting that you’re there for a reason.
MJ: At that time I never thought I was overqualified. I thought I had to be the best. I had to be over and above because I was Black. I never shook hands with another editorial assistant who was not a white woman. So I knew that I had to have an Ivy League degree. I had to be multilingual, because what Black people, I think, will consider “over,” I thought that was just the minimum for the white publishing world. My sense of measurement was completely skewed. Or completely right on the ball, depending on who you ask.
JB: That’s true. Because it’s not shocking, but it’s mind-boggling in the sense that even when you excel, you cannot get that job.
MJ: I think it’s a lesson that every person of color and Black woman learns sooner or later in her life. That you could be above and beyond, and you could know you could do the job well, but sometimes you’re just not what they’re looking for, for certain reasons that are not necessarily tied to your experience. It might be tied to your race or aesthetic or whatever have you. And so, that was just a lesson I learned early on. Granted — I guess I can say this now with an optimistic viewpoint because I am where I am — I know that in retrospect those jobs weren’t for me. Maybe I would not have flourished.
JB: Getting to your book. I feel like it’s a very specific rendition of a Black woman’s life, and an analysis of that life, especially being very, very aware of being in a Black body, and being in a Black woman’s body. It’s necessary to recognize that you don’t necessarily want to pull these things apart when you’re talking about labiaplasty, when you’re talking about relationships, and sex, and going to Russia, going overseas, being in an Ivy League, what Michelle Obama means to us as a representative, as a human being, wanting to be white and reconciling with that too.
MJ: I wanted to make it specifically clear in the book — I cannot speak for every Black woman’s experience, so I had to make that clear. I’m speaking from one experience. It’s one. I hope that it will illuminate certain things, but it cannot illuminate all things. I don’t know everybody’s experience. Yeah. I think it was just a matter of, what are the key moments of my life when I knew I was a Black girl, or Black woman? Just talk about it and try to not make it so much in a bubble, because we don’t live in a bubble, and to try to tie it back to something bigger.
I wanted to make it specifically clear in the book — I cannot speak for every Black woman’s experience, so I had to make that clear.
JB: There’s also an intuitiveness to these essays, I think. You made yourself the focus, but people can make themselves the focus of the wrong things.
MJ: Absolutely. So, I think it’s just…when I was writing about dating… I never really really worried “what if” because I didn’t want to guess myself. When I was writing these experiences, it was so vivid in my mind. Almost like I was reliving it all over again. That’s how I realized how much it affected me.
JB: And how is that to write, when you’re reliving it?
MJ: It was hard. I remember when I finished the last draft, final draft, I cried. Not because I regretting anything, but I remember when I was talking to my friend about it, she told me, she said, “It’s because you’re mourning your former selves. You’re mourning your former selves.” When she said that, I said to myself, “You’re right.” I’m mourning those women, those multiple girls and women that I used to be.
JB: I was talking to Vashti Harrison about her book Little Leaders. And how it’s a book about women, Bold Women in Black History, that’s the subtitle. People are like, “This is a great book for girls! This is a great book for girls!” Because it is, it’s for the girls, to encourage the girls, but also, these are good books for men. It is good for men to read feminist work.
JB: Maybe it’s not for them, in the vein of “Lemonade” is not for white people…
MJ: Because something is not for you doesn’t mean that you can’t watch it. I feel like people of color have watched things that were not intended for them since the beginning of time. So that’s why when I think about…this book is written by a Black woman, it’s for Black women, I don’t know if it’s for me. No, you still need to read it. Because, guaranteed that people of your same identity have done something to affect the way that we as Black women perceive ourselves in the world. So, yes, you do need to read it, just like I read Joan Didion. There’s so many others.
JB: I do encourage men to read this because maybe it’ll gain some empathy. Maybe it’ll just piss you off because you’re all in your feelings. I don’t know.
MJ: Whenever you’re in your feelings about something that is not directed to you specifically, that is a great place to investigate why. That is a place to investigate. Because why? Because I’m talking about misogyny? Or misogynoir? Or sexism? That you’re not on the short end of? Why does that bother you? I was going to say that a hit dog will holler, but no, I won’t go there, because I don’t know y’all like that. I don’t know y’all, but I will just say that if you feel hurt by a man by reading what I say, that’s a good way to investigate that, that’s a good way to discuss that, rather than, “Oh, she’s bitter.” Something dismissive. Because I’m not dismissing you all.
Whenever you’re in your feelings about something that is not directed to you specifically, that is a great place to investigate why.
JB: I wanted to ask, do you think bitter is also on par with the word “sensitive”? When people say, “You’re being too sensitive.”
MJ: No. I don’t. I think “bitter,” from my experience — let me make sure I just say that — “bitter” is so tied to bitter Black women, strong Black women, bitter Black women. When it’s, “You’re so sensitive,” I feel like, for me, the way I interpret it, and I could be wrong, it’s rather tied to women, period. Not Black women. But being bitter is so loaded towards Black women. It is loaded. It’s just like, strong. It’s so loaded when you’re talking about Black women. “Sensitive,” it’s more for…it feels like it just collapses under women in general. But that’s just the way I interpret it.
JB: I hear you. Because I look at those words and how much we experience them, and sometimes it feels as though anger is always valid, and then I wonder, well, we have a right to be upset or angry, and maybe that is bitter, or maybe it’s not bitter. Maybe that’s just anger and frustration.
MJ: And why not?
JB: It’s synonymous, and that’s totally valid. That’s a totally valid feeling, and I wonder why that word is the one that is always used, just like the word “sensitive,” because they’re both used to brush us off in a way.
MJ: Because I think it’s a discursive tactic in order to alleviate the responsibilities of other people, because if you start asking, “Why is this woman feeling this way? Where did she learn that? Who did this?” Then it takes less of the burden off her and puts more of the responsibly on other people to do better. But we don’t ask other people to do better. It’s always the Black woman’s burden to look after herself and other Black women. But who looks out for us if we don’t look out for us?