Why you should care
Writing about race and gender for this best-selling author means having a conversation about her experience.
The blank page has never intimidated Morgan Jerkins. She can churn out 1,000 words in three hours, as ideas flow easily from her head to her fingertips. A few years ago, that’s how you would find Jerkins most hours of the day: hunched over her computer, clacking away on the keyboard, more than likely hungry and exhausted. She would often force herself to wait for meals and sleep until she’d finished an essay. At the first sign of fatigue, she’d ask herself: “How bad do you want this?”
Fortunately, since her collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times best-seller list in February, Jerkins, 26, has been able to eat and sleep more regularly, while still kicking ass at her writing career. In a country frequently in conflict over whose lives really matter, Jerkins’ take on race in America is nuanced and accessible. When you’re writing, they can see only your words, Jerkins says. “I’m trying to have a discussion.”
And she’s uniquely equipped to do so. Jerkins earned an undergraduate degree in Russian and Japanese literature from Princeton University and a master’s in creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont, all while learning to speak six languages. Studying abroad in both Japan and Russia, she was often the only Black person in the classroom, on the subway or at the cafe. In her book, she addresses these experiences, and a laundry list of others, as she discusses everything from hair and Beyoncé’s Lemonade to the systemic silencing and objectification of Black women.
Just because these Black males are entertaining you, it’s disrespectful for them to remind you that racism exists?
Morgan Jerkins, on the NFL protests
A Times best-seller at 26 is impressive, but Jerkins has been writing novels since she was 14. The youngest of five girls, Jerkins grew up in southern New Jersey. As she was entering high school, her family moved to Philadelphia, and Jerkins was mercilessly teased by her new classmates. Writing saved her. “I didn’t care about character development or anything like that,” Jerkins says. “I just needed to write.”
At Princeton, Jerkins applied for the creative writing program but was rejected twice, certain it meant her career would fail. Instead, she concentrated on her literature and language degrees and continued to write in spite of her uncertainty. During her senior year, she applied for jobs at publishing houses but couldn’t get hired anywhere. She quickly noticed something: “I never shook hands with an editorial assistant who wasn’t White.” Feeling like an outsider in the literary world, she instead applied for grad school at the behest of her mother.
In 2014, while earning her MFA, Jerkins was again one of few Black people in the classroom. But it was a pivotal year for young Black writers, and Jerkins found that people suddenly wanted to publish her work. “The Black Lives Matter movement began, and I was writing all these hot takes and personal essays,” she says, admitting she didn’t feel like the best writer at the time but knew she worked harder at the craft than most.
The effort paid off. Jerkins began expanding her repertoire, writing literary criticism and profiles. By 2015, she had an agent. By 2016, she had a master’s and a book deal. And she was ridiculously overworked. At one point she was attending classes, working as an assistant editor for publisher Catapult and teaching Japanese classes several times a week. But it’s all she knew how to do. “I was raised by a single mother,” Jerkins says. “I saw her do everything on her own.”
Meanwhile, each career win came served with a whopping side of self-doubt. “Did I peak? Was it all a farce?” she’d ask herself. The skepticism came in part from the bleak reality for Black authors. In 2011, Roxane Gay, a writer whom Jerkins admires (and who once praised Jerkins as “a writer to be reckoned with”), found that close to 90 percent of all books reviewed by The New York Times are written by White authors, in an analysis for The Rumpus. In 2017, not a single Black author appeared on Amazon’s list of the top 20 best books of the year. Jerkins doesn’t have many critics in her young career, but those who have offered adverse words tend to fall back on the angry Black woman trope — she doesn’t offer specifics but says she’s been called “intimidating” by the media before, which hurts.
But Jerkins has always been propelled forward by her raw talent. “The amount of ideas turned fleshed-out articles that come to Morgan is staggering,” says Jenn Baker, a fellow writer who connected with Jerkins online when she first began publishing personal essays. “She notices what may seem like minutiae but also speaks to issues of class, misogyny and race.”
As Jerkins continues to write essays on hot-button issues, such as Colin Kaepernick and the NFL national anthem protests — “Just because these Black males are entertaining you, it’s disrespectful for them to remind you that racism exists?” — she also hopes to start writing for TV and film. Jerkins, who lives in Harlem, New York, manages to make time for love too. “I can’t date multiple men at once; I have to date one at a time,” she says. “But I’m very happy and balanced.”
Though Jerkins has been praised for avoiding heated attacks when writing about race, that doesn’t mean she’s not pissed off. “I get angry just like every other Black woman who has to explain why police brutality is wrong,” she says. But Jerkins is in this for the long haul. “The path to wokeness,” she says, “is incredibly jagged with lots of pit stops.”