Feb 2018 My Book Box Non-fiction pick.
Disclaimer: I am a white woman. Additionally, I teach my students that come from the same places in New Jersey that Jerkins cites in this book. I am trying not to center myself in the narrative, but the first paragraph of the review is in part a gut reaction, so please bear with me.
I am conflicted about this book. The thing that Jerkins does and does is generalize. These sweeping generalizations are off putting. I’m not even talking about the whole voting for Trump thing. A high percentage of white woman voted for Trump, and these are the women she speaks about there (the grammar backs this up). No, I’m talking about like in her discussion of the French film Girlhood. I remember the discussion and reaction to that movie. While Jerkins take on the film is overall interesting, she makes it sound like Black women all across the global are exactly alike. Look, I’m not a black woman, so maybe, for all I know, this is true. But I would imagine that recent immigrants to France who come from Africa also have a whole set of issues that are not related to being slaves in America – connected to the slave trade and colonialism, yes. She does the same when she talks about white girls at her school, and how they never had to deal with being assaulted, harassed or molested sexually because their whiteness protected them. In fact, the one time she does mention harassment towards a woman who at the very least presents as white, she is almost dismissive of it. I’m not disregarding or ignorant to misogynoir that exists, and it is far easier to be female and white. However, I teach students (white, black, Asian, and Native American, some of whom present white, so I doubt another sweeping generalization Jenkins makes), and I know that the number of all-female students who have been sexually molested or harassed (or raped) by their lower and secondary school’s peers is great. In fact, it is a rarity to have a class where a female student hasn’t been (and the classes have far more ladies than gentlemen). I found the dismissal and generalization hard, perhaps cruel.
But that’s the point isn’t it? The world has been belittling or simply out right ignoring the pain of black women and girls for hundreds of years. This is what Jerkins is talking about. She’s showing the reader here a bit of little, whether Jerkins intended to do so or not.
What’s the term? Checking my privilege? Humbling?
It’s why I am conflicted about this book. Feminism should be intersectional. To be so, we need to listen to everyone, talk, and listen without judgement or hackle raising. We need to listen and need to have voices like Jerkins’. In many ways, I think Twitter and Facebook have made the knee jerk reaction easier and far more dangerous. True conversation means listening to unpleasant and hard truths (whether an individual’s truth or the truth – is there even THE Truth?). Whatever I think about what Jerkins is saying, I have no doubt that she is speaking her truth and should be listened to because her experience is just as valuable and important as mine, as yours, as Clinton’s, as even Ivanka’s (yeah, I know me too).
This doesn’t mean that I blind to the book’s faults. Jerkins does go off on some strange digressions. She wonders at points, and her progression in some of the essays could be far, far tighter. I’m also reading Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine, and Union does consistently what I wish Jenkins had done more – introspection. For instance, when Jerkins is relating about her watching of porn, there are so many other themes that could have been touched on – to porn actors connection to abuse, to a society that is designed to make one group of women take joy in the degradation of another (I doubt that they are nonblack women who watch/watched the same material that Jenkins did, just different races). I found myself thinking how Union, Gay, or Robinson might have done better. In some of the essays, this lack of connection or whatever, makes the essay weaker and digressions more annoying.
Yet, at least half the essays are stand outs. Her “How to Be Docile” and “How to Survive” should be in every composition and woman’s studies class. Period. They are not that good furthermore. Furthermore, her “The Stranger at the Carnival” is just, quite frankly, a masterpiece. Two sections of Malcolm X’s Autobiography tend to appear in composition readers – his learning to read in prison and his first conk. Usually the conk selection is paired with Gates’ essay about his mother’s kitchen and the importance of the kitchen in the family. But after reading Jerkins’, her essay should be paired with it because not only is hers a more recent presentation of the issue, but because she is a woman and raises other points. Quite frankly, it is even better than Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair.
Conflicted about this book I might be, but I am glad I read it. You should read it too. You need to read it.