“Check your circle”: A Conversation with Morgan Jerkins

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Her debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America (Harper Perennial 2018), was a New York Times bestseller and longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her second book, Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, is forthcoming in 2020 from Harper Books. Her other work has been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and ELLE, among many others.


Samhitha Saiba: So, if you’re alright I’m just going to jump right in. I loved your book.

Morgan Jerkins: Thank you!

SS: Your book had a lot of heavy emotional and also critical material, of course, so I just wanted to let you know that if at any point in the interview I make an incorrect assumption, or if I skip over something you want to talk more about, you can just stop me and we’ll discuss.

MJ: Okay, sounds good!

SS: To start off, a lot of your book’s discussion is centered around this realization that, as a Black woman, you’re considered subhuman in American society, whether it’s because of the patriarchy or white supremacy. Early in the book you talk about this experience of a non-Black girl of color calling you a monkey after a cheerleading tryout.

MJ: Yeah.

SS: Do you think that this girl knew the implications of her statement? Do you think she understood, even at that age, dehumanization, or anything like that?

MJ: You know it’s funny, you’re actually the first person that has asked me this question, and I think it’s so important, so thank you for asking it. I’m not sure, you know? I was ten years old when she said it, and at ten I didn’t really know much about racism in the way I know it now. I had a very fake understanding of it. I knew discrimination, but not of how systemic it was. And I think one of the things that is hard to talk about is that a lot of people don’t think they’re racist, but… they do certain things. They say certain things. And that’s because of the world in which we live in. It almost becomes like this subconsciously. So I’m not sure if she knew the implications of what she said. But I do know that she said it to a Black girl. And that Black girls and Black people generally have been compared to monkeys for hundreds of years. So I don’t know where she heard it from, or if she knew the gravity of the statement. But I know that she used it with an intent to hurt me and to show that I was not like the other girls in the cheerleading squad, and that’s all that I can go off of.

SS: Today, political correctness is a lot more relevant of a term than it was ten to fifteen years ago, or when you were a kid. Do you think that affects how other kids talk to each other, and how race is brought up at a young age?

MJ: Can you repeat the question for me?

SS: How do you think that the way that young people communicate with each other today is different than maybe ten, twenty years ago, because of how “political correctness” has been added to conversations about race, etc.?.

MJ: Yeah… Mhm. Oh man, I think that it’s harder because—well, let me just back up. We’re living in the age of Trump now. I mean, that’s not to say that he was the first racist president. I was born in ‘92. Clinton, then Bush, and then Obama. And then it’s Trump. In my lifetime, I got the general consensus that when Bush became president, things were bad, but they could be worse. With Obama there was a sense that “Oh, we’re a post-racial society!” And even though a lot of people knew that that wasn’t the case, it still, optic wise, was pretty great to see a Black president, even though there’s a lot of polarizing issues toward his presidency, no matter what the race of the person speaking about it is. And obviously people glorified him. I think now with Trump, now we’re in the age of “Oh, it’s worse.” Not knowing that—America has always been racist. America has always been white supremacist. I’m not exactly sure what kind of conversations people are having with their children now. But even when I was growing up, it’s not like my mother sat me down and said, this is how the world works, all in one go. It was through commonplace circumstances, like going to the pool and learning about the extensive hair care I had to do afterwards. The way I had to dress for an interview, the way I had to speak—it was never all in one go. It was kneaded out, maybe because it was so overwhelming.

SS: You mentioned that when Obama was president, there were thoughts of America becoming above race, in some way. Do you think that’s possible? To have a post-racial society?

MJ: Absolutely not. Not in my lifetime. A lot of people talk about how race is arbitrary, and it is a social construct. Like gender is a social construct. However, it affects so much of our lives. And so, how’re we gonna get to a post-racial society if breadline is still going on? If voter suppression is still going on? If gentrification is happening, and displacement is still going on? We can’t talk about a post-racial society or racial equality until all of these systemic inequalities stop happening and start being dismantled.

SS: Okay. That’s a great answer. Also, earlier in your book, you talk about your early childhood, how you felt like Black girls, at a young age, were raised to be pitted against each other. You felt like there was always competition.

MJ: Oh, yeah.

SS: Do you think that’s something that carries on into adulthood, or is it just like middle school politics?

MJ: Oh yes, it carries on into adulthood many a times. Because we’re in a white supremacist society, and there were some of us who were taught that in order to ascend, professionally or socially, we have to… how to I put this… we have to assimilate. The way that we talk, the way that we act, all of that. But also, sometimes—many a times, actually—Black women are in a space where often they don’t see many reflections of themselves. In fact, they often will be posited as “the token.” And so I can’t speak for all Black women, but I know from my experience that I’ve seen, even with myself, I can say that you always feel competitive with the person next to you. You feel like there’s not enough space for the both of you. And that is an individual crisis that is demonstrative of a systemic issue. If that makes sense.

SS: Yeah, that makes sense. Another part of your book that I find very interesting is when you dive into this concept of the Strong Black Woman. You talk about how it’s kind of a double sided coin because it’s supposed to be a compliment, as a word to your resilience and endurance through adversity, but it also kind of strips Black women of feeling pressure or pain or being able to have weaknesses.

MJ: Mhm.

SS: Do you think, after all these years, you still feel the pressure to live up to this stereotype?

MJ: No. And I think it’s because of therapy, for me personally. I grew up in a single-parent household, and my mother did everything. And I just didn’t grow up in an environment where I felt like I could rely on anyone, because I didn’t think that my mother relied on anyone. So for me, it was therapy that helped me see that, you know, it’s okay to say, “I’m tired.” It’s okay to say, “You know what, I’m going to take a break—” and not feel like I’m going to derail any projects that I’m going to work on. It was through professional help that I realized that I don’t have to be like this for anyone. I have to be who I have to be, for me, first.

SS: Do you think that Black women may have more or less agency in how they express themselves than just ten years ago? Across America, is this pressure to conform to stereotypes still as strong, maybe not for you, but just within the culture?

MJ: Say that one more time for me?

SS: Do you think that there is still as much pressure today as there was before to conform to stereotypes? Whether it’s Black women, or some general pressure to conform to stereotypes?

MJ: I think that the pressures of stereotypes exist, but what I will say, as someone who is a millennial, it’s also encouraging to the narratives of more Black women, more Black women speaking out, more things being changed. Just this year, I think it was the state of New York that said that you can’t discriminate against hair anymore. And I felt like that was great because Black women’s hair has been stigmatized, especially in the workplace, for a very long time. So I think that, you know, the pressure is definitely still there. But the needle is moving. If that makes sense.

SS: Okay. So in another part of your book, you talk about Harlem, right? You write that “Harlem is everything” was the realization you came to when you moved to your first predominantly Black space. I’m just curious, how do you think living in Harlem has changed you?

MJ: Man, you know I—first of all, I just love living in Harlem because you just see the diaspora on the street. You know, you have Black Americans, native Harlemites, Senegalese people, Nigerian people, those of other Francophone countries. And I just love that I see a melange of Black people everywhere I go. So I think it has changed me in the fact that I feel like I am living in a continuum. Because when I was at Princeton, yes there were definitely West Africans, West Indians, etc. etc., but there definitely seemed to be, like, a divide, and I would go so far as to say a hierarchy. The fact that, if you were African American, there was often talk of you being J.B., or just Black. You can imagine how hurtful that might feel. And so I think that being in a space like Harlem, I don’t have to worry about that. I can just be.

SS: Do you think that living in Harlem that changed the way you interact with other people? Black people, white people, anybody?

MJ: Well, I will just say that being in Harlem has made me realize I deserve to be acknowledged when I go in a store. Like, I will tell you, sometimes it’s jarring to go from Harlem to a neighborhood like Williamsburg or something like that, because it’s like, now I’m in a space that’s not predominantly Black. I think just what it does for me psychologically—being acknowledged on the street, someone saying “Your hair looks nice!” or “How are you doing today?”—being acknowledged like that in a space where I live, I don’t take it for granted.

SS: I’m just going to skip ahead a little bit. Later in the book you write about how you’re becoming somewhat tired of contemporary portrayals of slavery, maybe for focusing only on the cruelty and dehumanization [of slavery], but not necesarrily the strength and humanity of individual slaves. I especially liked that you talked about how the sense of humor [of slaves] is something that is often overlooked. I’m curious, would you ever consider exploring some kind of project that would delve into this subject, or do you think it would be too controversial, to change the way slavery is portrayed?

MJ: Oh, you know what? I’m actually writing a piece now, probably published around the time this will be published, about how we talk about trauma in filmmaking. You know it’s hard, because slavery is a part of American history. And the story still needs to be told. But at the same time it’s like, when is enough enough? It depends on who you ask, but I think it’s a matter of balance. People talk about the horrific moments in American history, but we can also talk about just how great the other parts of American history and Black history are, too. I think there just needs to be a bit more of a balance, perhaps.

SS: Could you talk more about the project that you’re working on?

MJ: Like the books, or the online pieces?

SS: Whatever is more relevant.

MJ: Right now, for my second book, I am writing a story, a book about my family history, and tying it to a great migration narrative. What I’ve done is I’ve traveled across the country interviewing those Black people who stayed on ancestral lands, and those who fled, like family, in hopes to show the connective tissue between all of us. Through our customs, through our superstitions, through our traditions… Those sorts of things.

SS: Sounds fascinating. Something I’d definitely like to talk about is one of the stories you’ve told about how your advisor’s uncle, many years ago, had a conversation with you wherein he was struggling to understand why you would want to be labeled a Black woman in America. He didn’t understand why [being a Black woman] was not mutually exclusive with being human. It surprised me because you described him as someone who has been Americanized and who has lived in America for decades and yet is still so ignorant. I’m wondering, what are your thoughts on people who claim not to see race, or don’t think that race is still a concept?

MJ: I kind of just shut down. I’m gonna be honest with you. When people say they don’t see race, I just cannot… I can’t entertain conversations like that anymore. Especially because of the political climate that we live in, I just don’t entertain it. I think that if people tell me that they don’t see race, or they don’t see color… It’s like, how would you identify me then? You wouldn’t just identify me as a human being, and even then, if you think that you and I both navigate the world the same way… That has nothing to do with individual judgement! We don’t navigate the world the same way. There’s too much literature out there to tell you that. So if people don’t even want to hear that, I shut down, to be honest with you.

SS: Do you think that people who still have this view—do you think that they’re harmless, or that they actually have a negative impact on America?

MJ: People who say that they don’t see race?

SS: Yeah.

MJ: That has an incredibly negative impact on people! I would personally argue that the same people who “don’t see race” are the same people who say, “Oh, this is not America” when migrants are being separated from one another, families are being pulled apart and children are being put in concentration camps. It’s all connected. It’s the collective cultural amnesia of this country and our nation’s founding and how it’s led us up today. It’s… It’s beyond me today. As an African American, I have not had the luxury to have this sort of positive dissonance.

SS: So, tying into that… Modern feminism, specifically in America: you mention in your book that you think it’s dominated by white women, how minority women, especially Black women, may not see their needs represented in what are considered “modern feminist problems.” Can you talk about what that means? What do you think people should change or improve in the way they conduct their feminism to better include the needs of all women?

MJ: I think that they gotta read more. I think it’s a matter of—you have to read more about feminist literature from people that are unlike yourselves. Allow other people to take the floor, if that makes sense. I think the main issue when it comes to feminism is white women are at the front. And oftentimes Black women feel like they have to choose between their Blackness and their womanhood, in both Black and white spaces. So to understand intersectionality, not just as this catch phrase, because it’s the zeitgeist. It’s an actual theory of how many systems of oppression overlap. They’re interconnected. So I think it’s a matter of just knowing that… That people who are marginalized cannot divorce one part of their identity from the other.

SS: Do you think it’s possible for intersectionality to become more of a conversation point today, or do you think that’s something that will always kind of be overlooked, you know, in terms of simplifing feminist goals?

MJ: I don’t think so. I don’t think it’ll always be overlooked. I think it depends on which spaces you’re looking at, though. If you think that it’s being overlooked, I would always tell people to check your circle. Because there are many feminist circles, many feminist spaces, and not all of them are the same. And they shouldn’t be. It’s a matter of knowing where to look, knowing where to read. That’s why I always tell people to read widely. I personally don’t think that intersectionality will become something that’s passé, because it’s something that became a part of the cultural zeitgeist and it was a theory created thirty years ago. I don’t think it has a chance of going away, but that’s also because I consider myself a Black feminist, I have many people in my circle who are Black feminists, and Black feminists are usually the people I read on a regular basis.

SS: Can you explain why you think you’re attracted more to Black feminist writers, as opposed to other Black writers, or other feminist writers?

MJ: Well, I mean, I’ll read both. It’s not like I just say to myself, “I read Black, feminist writers and that’s it.” I usually read people’s writings, and then I follow them on Twitter, where they usually say, like, “I’m a Black feminist,” or something like that. Or, “I’m a feminist.” I tend to read works by those who have somewhat of an understanding—it doesn’t have to be an expert, because I’m not one—of social justice. Or racial and gender equality, and what feminism might look like, and the nuances of feminism.

SS: Is there any specific pieces that you think capture this kind of nuance?

MJ: I mean I would say to read bell hooks, for example. I would say to read the Combahee River Collective statement. I would say to read Patricia Hill Collins. I would say to read Jamilah Lemieux. I would say to read Roxane Gay! You know, these people are out there, and some of them have been writing for decades.

SS: Is there anything else that you’d like readers to take away from this book that we didn’t go over?

MJ: I just hope that readers come through with the sense of empathy. And a sense of nuance. I don’t expect people—Black, white, other POC—to wholeheartedly agree with what I say. I would want them to at least understand where I was coming from, to understand even the loaded statements and the controversial moments of my life. They were coming from a bigger place, because I don’t live in a vacuum, I live in the same world you do, just from a different vantage point. That’s all that I can ask for, really.

SS: Do you think that when you wrote this book you had a specific audience in mind, or was it just for the general public?

MJ: I think it was just for the general public. Like, there were certain parts that, obviously, I knew that Black people or people not from the Black community might not get, so I wanted to elaborate as well. But I also wanted to make sure that… You know, I can say that I’m writing to Black people, but we’re all so different. You know what I mean? Black people aren’t this one big amorphous blob, if that makes sense. Because obviously I grew up middle class, I grew up in the North, I went to an Ivy League university, so if I say that I’m speaking to Black women, Black women could respond, “Which black women?” You see what I’m saying? Because our experiences are so different. And so I wanted to make sure I was writing to everyone, because I wanted to make sure that when I break things down, I want to break things down not only for people in my community, but also those who are outside of it.

SS: Would you say that this with this book you are trying to educate people?

MJ: Yeah!

SS: It’s been over a year since this book came out. What kind of impact do you hope this book had on others?

MJ: I just hope that people see themselves in the work, or that it enlightened them to some extent. I would really hope that.

SS: Was there any specific inspiration for this book, or was it just an amalgamation of your life experiences?

MJ: My life experience is reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, having an agent who thought I should try nonfiction first, to start my writing career in print… Because before, I thought my writing career would be in fiction, because that’s what I went to school for. But yeah. I think that was pretty much the impetus.

SS: And finally, is there anything else that you’d like to say about this book, about your experiences, or about your upcoming projects?

MJ: No, I think I’m good!



Samhitha Saiba

Samhitha Saiba is an aspiring writer and student at the University of Southern California. Her work has been recognized by Memoir Magazine, The Mystic Blue Review, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and others. When she isn't staring into the depressive depths of a blank word document, Samhitha enjoys eating spicy food, geeking out over movies, and making lists.

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