I had a hard time with this book of essays, and I know this is an unpopular view. I held off on mentioning anything because my viewpoint seemed so different, but I finally got together with my Black Women Read group - an in person one - and we all had very similar reactions. We are black women living in Baltimore who are all over 45. Many of us are well over 45.
We decided, as a group, once someone finally broke the ice, that this book bothered us because it worried us about younger black women and women in general. Where, we wondered, did all the work my generation, the generations preceding and following mine, go? Why is this young woman so scared, confused and unprepared for real life? Why is she so ready to feel victimized and unable to express much beyond anger? Where is her agency? We were - to a person - astonished at Jerkins' unpreparedness, and we all felt like our own struggles (and classes, and groups, and sit-ins and marches) were rather worthless if this is the state of young black women in 2018.
I don't usually share my kindle notes and highlights with anyone because I tend to be blunt and I type even worse on a kindle "keyboard" than I do a real one. When reading them, though, I noticed how often my reaction was "really? still? in 2018?"
Even more, I want to go back and reread Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist because I kept thinking of it while reading this. I wanted this book to have a conversation with Roxane Gay's book. The women are different in many ways, but the way they handle life in their essays seems almost at direct odds sometimes, and well, I guess I feel more inclined to see the gray areas, like Gay so perfectly navigates in Bad Feminist. Instead this book is very right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad, evil/perfect. Everyone feels that way sometimes, but this is supposed to be a book of thoughtful essays, which seems like it should be different from when I have a bad day and call up my girls to bitch.
While I would never say anyone's pain is not warranted or allowed, some of Jerkins' pain seems to be a direct result of fanciful dreams and unrealistic expectations combined with a strict religious upbringing and parents who say things like speaking to an older man is how you get raped and addicted to heroin (seriously - it's not a joke.) So, she's angry - and she has a right to be. But perhaps some of her anger might be pointed at the people who underprepared her for everything from her sexuality to dating to her clear intellect rather than racial or gender animus. She's perfectly free and easy writing about her vagina in painstaking detail, but she doesn't take any of her preconceptions to task as much as she does her physical self.
There is a scene early on where she gets verbally abused by a man in a deli. Instead of walking out, clapping back or a variety of other reactions, Jerkins stays quiet and terrified. I, too, was a light-skinned woman living alone in Harlem once, during the 1980s. New York as a whole wasn't as gentrified back then, and crossing 110th was something my white friends didn't do often. I rented a room, lived on like $25 a week after rent/subway tokens and lost a lot of weight from all the walking I did - no matter the time of day or night. Needless to say, similar events happened frequently to every woman of every race I knew, and they still do (though hopefully a tad less often.)
I, too, stayed quiet at first. Though eventually I came around to the realization that "this has got to change." I knew women should be safer riding the subway or walking the city. I worked hard to impart that knowledge to younger women, to take - then teach - self-defense, to roleplay situations exactly like this one so younger women would have tools other than fear and acquiescence. I certainly don't think this should be something we're all just satisfied with, but I also don't think staying quiet and sweet while being abused (instead of, say, walking the F out of there - sandwich or no) then coming home to call friends and play the victim is the "right" answer either.
There is an assumption between many lines that Jerkins (with her dreams of marriage by 22, college as husband-finding-factory, strong intellect, individual voice and humanness of many facets - like everyone) has nothing to do with the outcomes she receives. That is, perhaps, the blindness of youth. But if youth is blind, then maybe it shouldn't assume that everyone's situation is exactly the same or that everyone else is the problem.