books, Essays, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“This Will Be My Undoing” by Morgan Jerkins

          “White people think it is a compliment when they do not ‘see’ you as a black person. In their minds, black people embody the biggest clusterfuck of societal ills: out-of-wedlock pregnancies, single mothers, drug addicts, high school drop-outs. They are robbers, killers, rapists, convicts, degenerates, vagabonds, couch potatoes. Their pants are always sagging, they talk too loudly, they can barely speak English correctly, they dance too sexually. They cannot assimilate to white society, and if they seem perfectly okay with eschewing it then they are condemned to being black because in a white society, blackness only exists as a punishment. They do not understand that blackness doesn’t undermine but rather vivifies our humanity.
          In my experience, white people are the only ones who purport to advance equality through the erasure or rejection of marginalized people’s identities, which signals to me that they have fooled themselves into believing that they are ‘unraced’. This belief is false, because it is based on the idea that whiteness is the human standard and that furthermore, by virtue of them being white, they are the arbiters of humanity.”

Bold and revelatory, unashamed and unafraid, Morgan Jenkins writes with a confidence unnamed-14and clarity that is mostly admirable and impressive, although occasionally the middle-aged me can’t help but wonder at the surety and firmness of some opinions coming from someone in their mid-twenties, someone speaking of their career and past as though it weren’t concurrent with the writing. However, Jerkins’ insights, especially those which bring to bear her own experiences with misogyny and racism, are undeniably powerful and valid, her anger righteous, and her arguments just. Jerkins is thorough, persuasive, and unapologetic in her indictment of patriarchy and white supremacy, including the importance of recognizing that “black women are doubly disenfranchised in the throes of two spaces, race and gender, and there is no solace.” Jerkins argues forcefully for why white women, and even some other women of color, still have advantages in the current cultural system which are denied black women.

“Why would I call myself a black woman when I could just be a human? Why?
          Because when I walk out of my front door, I am not simply treated as a human being. I am treated as a black woman. I am both unconsciously and consciously aware of how others’ biases kick in when they see me, and how their subsequent treatment of me differs from the way they might treat someone else who is not black and female. The responses I get when I report my treatment to other black women let me know that these behaviors are patterns. My experience flattens if I believe that I can freely roam this earth without thinking about how my body impacts where I will and will not be tolerated. When a white person asks a black woman why she cannot just be a human, he or she is asking, Why can’t you be like me? Why can’t you partake in the humanity that I have as my birthright, even though I can rip that humanity away from you by casting you out of our society if you do anything that I don’t like? …
Physiologically, of course, we are all human. Socially, we dehumanize people of color daily. We judge their clothes, speech, hair, and education level as criteria for whether they have earned the right to be treated with common decency. We use these same criteria to judge if they deserve to die at the hands of law enforcement, or men like George Zimmerman. Because the question that white people are asking is not
Why can’t we all be human?, but Why can’t you be like us?

I was so excited for this book, this initial collection of essays from a young writer who has accomplished so much and shown such promise in a relatively short amount of time. The subtitle speaks volumes about what I had hoped for and about where Jerkins’ writing shines – “Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America.” This collection had many moments of true brilliance, but more often it left me eager for the future, more refined Morgan Jerkins. The collection’s organization was often muddled, Jerkins’ revelations and anecdotes sometimes meandering, and her voice occasionally teetering on the line between righteous and self-righteous. Make no mistake, this is a woman with a lot to say and the craft to say it. In time I expect that hers may be a powerful voice I will turn to, a name I will gladly seek out among other black women – like Jesmyn Ward, Roxane Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jacqueline Woodson – whose art and craft in taking on intersectionality leave me gasping in awe. Only time will tell.

Thank you to Harper Perennial for providing an Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “This Will Be My Undoing” is on sale in the U.S. January 30, 2018.

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books, Essays, Reading

“The Day Fidel Died: Cuba in the Age of Raúl, Obama, and the Rolling Stones” by Patrick Symmes

“Fidel himself always gambled that the long run would make him look good, whatever sins he needed to be absolved of in the short term. He remains a giant, but like any giant, the effect is to foreshorten his own surroundings. His longevity and verbosity, his achievements and his cult both have diminished a revolution that was basically over by 1962. All that followed since then looks increasingly puny and unjustified the longer he stands above it.”

The-Day-Fidel-DiedThe world is topsy turvy, politics are a murky, poisonous soup, and I find it nearly impossible to decipher whom my country considers friend or foe, nevermind how I myself should feel. I was intrigued, therefore, when the publishers of Patrick Symmes’ long form essay “The Day Fidel Died” reached out seeking more critical attention for his recent work on Cuba and its relationship with the United States.

Cuba, one of America’s nearest neighbors, the unpredictable ex-lover whose actions are often shared as morality plays and mythological tales. So much has changed (or has it?) in the past few years between the United States and Cuba with the death of Fidel Castro, the visit from President Obama, and the rise of Donald Trump and his fellow white nationalists.

Symmes frames his essay around this critical time period, looking at the historic Obama visit with anticipation and then hindsight.

“I thought maybe that was Obama’s real weapon – normality. Of all the attacks he could launch on Cuba, the most powerful was to treat the island as normal. Not as a feared enemy, but as a stopover. Not as a historic antagonist, but as an irrelevant nation, the crazy uncle of the neighborhood. Obama’s cool temperament was kryptonite to a revolution and a leadership that demanded the mantle of history. This was the Cuban nightmare: to be treated as just another island, unworthy of special scorn, their revolution ignored as a relic, their defining crusade bypassed, history locked away in the sick ward.”

“Events have a way of overshadowing intentions, and even the grandest gestures can look smaller in retrospect. Obama’s trip in March felt daring at the time; by November 25 it seemed both prescient and perhaps too little, too late. Fidel himself slipped away on that Friday night, bringing a calamitous era and an epic life to a close. In the face of death and a funeral redolent with historic forces, it was the American president’s turn to seem small, to remain unseen.”

Though many of Symmes’ insights were illuminating and thought-provoking, one passage in particular struck my ear with dissonance, though it, too, provoked thought.

“The Cuban economy became inverted. A waiter or chambermaid who had access to hard currency tips could put food on the table, but doctors and pilots went hungry. A prostitute could traipse about in jewelry and spandex, while a scientist wore out the soles of his shoes.”

Perhaps Symmes’ lifelong indoctrination in capitalism and patriarchy, just like so many of ours, made him see this as an inversion, when perhaps it was merely a subversion of what the world had come to expect. What would it look like, what would it mean to live in a world in which the menial jobs, the jobs few people want and which often fall upon women, immigrants, and other outcasts, became those jobs which were the most economically rewarding. Wouldn’t that, in some sense, be distributive justice? Was that, in fact, where the chaos in Cuba might have been heading, at least in part? Fascinating to ponder.

On the whole, Symmes’ writing is fluid, evocative, and vivid. He writes with journalistic detail and novelistic flair. This work hasn’t received the popular or critical attention it deserves, but I suspect if Symmes has a lengthier, more in-depth work in him that gives his readers a better, deeper understanding of his subject, his skills as a writer and a journalist will be met with wider readership and acclaim.

Thank you to Vintage & Anchor Books for providing a complimentary review copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Day Fidel Died” is a Vintage Shorts ebook original released in October 2017.