The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.
In her debut essay collection, Morgan Jerkins taps into feminism, black history, pop culture movements like “Black Girl Magic,” and personal experiences to explain the sociohistorical oppression of black women and challenges facing the community today. Themes include body image, the “trap” of black female sexuality, and the harm in people who “don’t see color.” Jerkins’ Atlantic City and Williamstown upbringing features prominently throughout the essays. Jerkins, 25, lives in New York City.
When I was ten, the only thing I wanted was to be a white cheerleader. Bone-straight hair. Thin nose. Saccharine voice. Slender body.
When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.
I grew up in Atlantic County, New Jersey, just twenty minutes from Atlantic City, depending on how fast you drive down the expressway or Black Horse Pike. There are not many places in Atlantic County you can go where the last name Jerkins is not known—my uncles Rodney and Freddie have achieved incredible success in the music industry, producing hits for artists like Jennifer Lopez and Brandy. Maybe this was why I was generally popular with the black and Latinx students in my school. Teachers asked if my uncles could pop in to the class to supplement their math lessons, and aspiring producers wanted to know how they could get in touch with them. There might have been incidents when I was called ugly, or rejected by some guy whom I basically didn’t know but was infatuated with nevertheless, but that was all they were: incidents, moments. They were not experiences that defined my childhood, or me. As a kid, I loved TV. I religiously watched shows like Saved by the Bell and Lizzie McGuire and slept through the weekday nights while The Facts of Life played in the back-ground. And there she was, always: the cheerleader. She wasn’t always blonde, but she was always white, skinny, and desirable. She was equally powerful and pure.
When I was ten, the only thing I wanted to be was a white cheerleader.
Cheerleading tryouts for elementary school were under way, and I knew that this was my chance. If I made the squad, it would be easier for me to make the team again and again from middle through high school. All prospective squad members were mandated to attend nightly sessions in our elementary school’s cafeteria in order to learn a dance routine, gain tips on how to impress the judges with our energy and attitude, and practice our jumps. I was one of only four black girls in a room of about thirty white girls. The others were Tanya, a second- generation Jamaican-American; Ruby, whose name matched her beauty; and an Afro-Latina whose name eludes me now. There were no Asians, no Pacific Islanders, no Native Americans. If you blinked, you might not have noticed us four black girls there. The cafeteria was large, and the whiteness was blinding.
Although I could not stir up the strength to lift my pudgy body (with 34C breasts, to boot) into the air to perfect a pike or tuck, I made up for it with my enthusiasm. I wasn’t as popular with my black and brown classmates as I was with the white ones, although I was one of only a few black girls who regularly mingled with them. To this day, I’m not sure if it was due to circumstance or colorism, my light skin often associated with whiteness, my identity regularly mistaken for biracial. Nevertheless, I wanted equal social standing in both spaces. Just to be in the presence of white girls—mainly those who had been cheerleaders for years, those whom all the boys, both white and of color, wanted—I felt privileged. I hoped that if I were adjacent to them, then some of their desirability could lather me like soapsuds to the skin, polishing me off until I was just as white as them. I scrutinized how easy it was for them to make their bodies fly through the air, how graceful their movements were. Every gesture seemed like a dance. I might have noticed these talents when they sat beside me in class or brushed past me in the lunchroom line, but these sessions isolated them so I could study them a little bit more closely. Spatial boundaries did not apply to their bodies. They could move anywhere they pleased. Their bodies knew this even if their prepubescent minds didn’t. There was no place that they could not go without being acknowledged: not the playground, not the classroom, not the lunchroom, and most certainly not cheerleading practice. I had only a faint awareness then that being born in white skin, they had been groomed for this kind of dominance.
Unlike the cheerleaders in sitcoms and cartoons, these white girls weren’t stuck-up and rude. On the contrary, they were quite helpful, giving me tips on how to smile when I appeared in front of the judges and how to stretch so that I could improve my momentum for the jumps. Were they nice to me because of my uncles, perhaps? Because I was light- skinned? I wasn’t entirely sure. I was ten; I didn’t know myself. I exhausted so much of my mental energy hoping that a nonblack girl would swallow me into her identity that I never spent much time alone with me and only me. Looking back, they seemed to talk to me more than they did Tanya and Ruby, and both of them were darker than a brown paper bag. But could it have been because I made more of an effort to grovel? All of my closest friends were older girls of color who weren’t trying out or interested in cheerleading at all. The more I invested myself into becoming like those white cheerleaders, the less mental space I devoted to my actual friends. If I could not be a white girl, then I could mimic one until anyone who saw me would think that my skin was a costume. I thought myself very ugly. I had ill-fitting glasses, a large overbite, plaited hair that made me look like a kindergartner, and an adult woman’s body. I felt caught between two worlds, that of children and that of grown-up folks. I dreamed that cheerleading would provide a middle ground where I could be popular, envied by children and adults alike for my youth, fortitude, and beauty. These white girls were well aware of their beauty and how much power it yielded. They wore their hair in high ponytails that swung whenever they moved. They discussed who had the most tubes of lip gloss, whose butt looked the biggest in Limited Too jeans, who shopped where for bras. There were of course factions, and enemies swung the word “slut” around because there was no worse insult to direct towards another girl. Unlike with white girls, whose repeated mudslinging seemed quite boring and nonchalant, black girls’ conflicts were more directed and violent. If you were talking behind someone else’s back, that person confronted you. If that person was bigger or more popular than you, you either surrendered through crying (i.e., self-abnegation) or apologizing. But even then, a fight was still a possibility. In our world, the most immediate solution to silencing someone was through physical force. Many black girls, including myself, thought of our strength through physical force as a way of protecting ourselves. White girls weren’t expected to be strong; they didn’t need to be. They were already supported, cared for, and coddled enough. Fighting, for them, would have been extravagant—what did they have to prove?
The night of tryouts arrived. I had been practicing in my room every night; my mother encouraged me, told me that I “had it in the bag,” that they would be a fool not to let me in. When she was a child, she didn’t make her cheerleading squad, but then one girl fell ill and she was accepted into the elite. I felt like I was a legacy, that I was destined to follow in her footsteps by becoming a cheerleader and, in the process, I would become beautiful through whiteness. I don’t know what fueled my mother’s desire to become a cheerleader. I never asked because I was afraid that in turn she would ask me the same.
Families lined the elementary school hallways with beach chairs, blankets, and picnic baskets full of food because they knew that tryouts and decisions would all happen in one night. The judges were the cheerleading coaches, those who also taught us all the vocabulary, jumps, and dance routines. My mother and I held hands to pray that God would hold my fear at bay. I knew the dance steps. I’d practiced them while walking downstairs for breakfast and dinner. I’d practiced them on the way to the bus stop. My smile was congealed on my face; I was excited before my moment began. My confidence was so overwhelming, so filling, that I refused to touch any food or drink before it was my turn.
Every white girl walked out of the cafeteria where the tryouts were held with a smile on her face. She hugged her mother, high-fived her, or simply walked over to her spot by some wall in the hallway to relax until the moment of truth. When my name was called, I walked in with two other white girls and the Afro-Latina. The judges, all white women, smiled and welcomed us. Their hands gripped their pens, ink bleeding onto their evaluation sheets. I don’t recall breathing. Once the music began, I danced our routine almost like I was a programmed machine. I just went, my body moving and cutting through the air. I made eye contact to let them know that I was there, and they watched me. When it was time to judge our jumps, the Afro-Latina was the first to go. We were standing on opposite sides of the cafeteria, with the white girls couched in between us. Our order was not intentional, but nevertheless it was significant to me; we stood as poles for the white girls to remain at the center.
The Afro-Latina faltered on her jumps. She forgot what one of them was and stood there with a surly look on her face. She jutted her right hip and began to roll her tongue in her mouth. Oh no, I thought. I knew those gestures well. I’d seen them in my mother and aunt when they were fed up. She was returning to being a girl of color. When she forgot her steps, she remembered who she was in that room full of white women. She was paralyzed.
“Do you want to try again?” one judge asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. She was not upset. In fact, her expression spoke of exhaustion. There was nothing left for her to do, so she stood there and we moved on.
I knew that I had to be better, not only because I wanted to be a cheerleader, but also to signal to the judges that I wasn’t like her. We might both have had light brown skin and the same wooly-textured hair, but we were not the same. As I’d expected, I did my jumps without so much as wobbling when my feet returned to the ground. I walked out of that cafeteria feeling as airy and euphoric as the white girls. I couldn’t feel my actual body whatsoever. I imagined, I almost believed, that my body had no restrictions. I was limitless, white.
Author photo: © Sylvie Rosokoff
Cover: © HarperCollins Publishers
From the book: This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins. Copyright © 2018 by Morgan Jerkins. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
from the 2018 Summer Reading Series.