“No one spoke about the past—the goal was to move forward and never look back,” Morgan Jerkins says of her family in the prologue to her latest book Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots. Growing up in New Jersey primarily with her mother, Jerkins knew her family moved north during the Great Migration—the period spanning 1916 to 1970, when six million Black Americans fled the South. But neither Jerkins nor her mother ever traveled to visit family in the South. While her father regularly talked about his origins, her mother was more focused on originality and set in her thinking that people can create their own identities if they keep moving.
But what is the cost of forgetting the past? For Jerkins, not having a full narrative of either side of her family’s history meant she was less confident in her own identity and culture, and ashamed, too, at not knowing the full story of her origins. But she wasn’t alone in forgetting the past. In conversation after conversation with African Americans whose families have lived in the North for generations, she found a similar story: many did not know where their families originated, the circumstances that prompted their flight north, or whether family remained on ancestral land in the South.
To build out her own family’s story and reconnect with her roots, Jerkins traced the pattern of the Great Migration in reverse, traveling from her home in New York to the Georgia Lowcountry, South Carolina and Louisiana, and on to Oklahoma and California. What she learned through this journey and documents in her book is more than family history. It is a chronicle of the movement of American Africans across America, what they left behind and gained in the process of moving, and the effects of migration on cultural memory and Black identity.
I spoke with Morgan Jerkins recently about what she uncovered about her family and her identity, how intricate and tangled our histories are, and what it means to be a Black American.
The Rumpus: Generally, family stories shape us and our views of the world. And in your case, once you set out to gather your family stories, you found that so much was missing from the stories your family tells. Did the book grow out of a desire to fill in the gaps in your family story or was it driven by something else?
Morgan Jerkins: It was something else. It’s really funny how this book got started. In fact there were many iterations of the book. One of the things that inspired me was the movie Get Out. In the movie, when the police car pulled up, everybody in the theater I was in gasped. I was watching it in a Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem and I thought it was so fascinating that all of us had this collective moment of panic. Thinking about that, I wanted to find out, what are the other connections that unite us as Black people?
In the beginning, I was going to write this book as a researcher. I tried so much to divorce myself and my personal history from the work. I had already been extremely personal in my debut [This Will Be My Undoing] and I don’t think I was ready at first to go back there again, but I had to. When I started talking to my family members, I realized they had all these omissions. That’s when I knew this was so much bigger than me and I had to go back for them as well.
Rumpus: What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?
Jerkins: Oh man. One of the most surprising things was that my family was not all enslaved before emancipation. That was incredibly shattering because I grew up in New Jersey and I was taught that there was a strict Black-white binary in the United States before emancipation. If you were Black, you were a slave. If you were white, you weren’t a slave. When I found that that wasn’t the case, that there was an area in the United States before emancipation—speaking of Louisiana, specifically—where this binary was not so, it really complicated my understanding of what it means to be a Black American.
Rumpus: Knowing that, how has that changed how you view yourself and how you view other people?
Jerkins: It made me realize that being uncomfortable with my own family history is important. There were many things—especially when I was talking about free people of color and that type of privilege when you aren’t white—that I was uncomfortable with disclosing in the book. I thought, Who wants to hear that, especially with the political climate that we’re in?
But just because something makes you uncomfortable doesn’t make it any less true. It changed me as a person because I realized that our history is much deeper and much more complicated than what history books tell you. And you don’t have to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to the African continent to find it. It’s right here, on American soil. That changed me as a person and made me realize there are a lot of uncomfortable and oftentimes controversial things about my past. But that’s what family is, right? When I listen to my stories and I listen to the stories of other Black people, if something stirs me emotionally, whether it makes me uncomfortable or it moves me, I realize there’s something bigger there. It’s best to lean into it even if you are afraid of where it will take you.
Rumpus: Your book is about the dispersal of Black families across the United States and the bonds and connections that we lose when families move. It’s also about erasure of our history. I was so disturbed by the concerted effort to take land away from Black families. But what else have we lost because of the migration? And can you talk a little bit too about the loss of land?
Jerkins: When you just brought that up, it definitely made me feel emotional. It’s one thing to read about land displacement in The Nation, in the Atlantic, written by a historian. It’s another thing to go to the Deep South, in the Lowcountry, for example, where you can see for yourself the devastation. It’s pure erasure. It’s underneath the veneer of tourism, of vacationing. The land displacement was a factor in people migrating to begin with. There were a couple factors of the migration—racial terrorism, land displacement, ecological disasters, unemployment… These things were interrelated.
When we migrated we lost other family members. Sometimes people migrated to different places and they didn’t keep in contact with each other. And oftentimes along with migration there is this dissemination of memory. Why we do the things we do, why we say the things we say, why we uphold certain customs isn’t always clear, depending on how far removed you are from your ancestral land and depending on how close you keep in contact with people. And we also have to think how much trauma influences this dissemination of oral histories. You often have people who migrated who didn’t want to talk about the past because they experienced horrific things wherever they originated from. When we think about the Great Migration, what is lost are concepts of self, identity, and community.
Rumpus: In the middle of the book, Kelly, one of the persons you interview, says, “I have to make a statement. Otherwise I disappear.” It’s such a powerful line. She was talking about her Creole identity but it feels to me that is also the embodiment of the book; you are making your own statement and a statement in general for all of us.
Jerkins: Yes. I don’t want to disappear. One thing I found moving is that the vast majority of people I interviewed did not want to have a pseudonym. I was shocked. Some of them were living in horrible communities; I didn’t want anything to happen to them. But they were so tired of being erased, and of not having the ability to claim their narratives. They said, “No, I want my real name stated.”
For me, it’s more than just the book. It’s a document. If I’m ever blessed to become a mother someday, or for my cousins or my great grandparents, I can always say, “Now you have a document where you can trace three hundred years of family history.” What I want it to be for other African Americans, or people who are interested in African American history, is to see how intricate and tangled our histories are, how much has been taken away from us and yet still in spite of that we are connected.
There were many times I thought the book wasn’t going to come together. And then somehow magically, when I looked over my transcripts, I started seeing my interviewees were in conversation with each other, even if they were on two different sides of the country. And that goes to show how much we are a part of one another.
Rumpus: This is also about the encroachment on Black-owned land in the Carolinas, and Blacks seeking acceptance of their Native American heritage. Each of us is making a statement so our history and our culture are not erased.
Jerkins: I was so worried about the part where I talk about Black and Native American identity because it is incredibly contested. There’s one group of people who believe anti-Blackness is real and oftentimes our ancestors tried to include Native American lore in order to mitigate the trauma of slavery, which is one side. Now, for me, I can’t prove that everybody is telling the truth. But I also am not going to say everybody is lying either. I can’t just say that everybody’s grandma and older aunty are lying. And when I looked at the migratory routes of the Cherokee, the Seminoles, the Chocktaw and Chickasaw, and the Creek, and the migratory routes of Black Americans I was like, there is overlap here and it deserves to be investigated. I’m really interested in what conversations come out of it. But I will admit that was one of the sections that was so difficult to write.
Rumpus: When you were in Louisiana someone described your eyes as “half-moons.” You wrote that it was the first time you had a word to describe your eyes. The first time you felt like your father’s daughter without having to explain who or what you are. How did this part of your journey influence your sense of identity?
Jerkins: I always felt insecure in my father’s lineage. My father had never even been to that part of Louisiana where his family originated from. For me to go down there and, in the short amount of days that I was there, for someone to almost correctly guess the parish where my family originated from, but to also name something so poetically—cosmic, I would say—it got me emotional. I used to think of my eyes as being closed when I smile. My dad and I do the same thing. There’s a name for it; it binds me to my father. Whether the person knew it or not, it made me feel so whole and seen in a way that I would not have felt had I not gone there.
Rumpus: In the epilogue you say, “Home is wherever we decide to settle, but our truest base is each other.” Tell me about that.
Jerkins: When I think about home, I think of it from a diasporic lens. Where is home? Is it where I grew up? Is it where my mother grew up? But thinking about the Transatlantic slave trade, what exactly is home? And I think when it comes to African Americans, home is where we plant our feet. We are masters of movement. In fact, movement characterizes so much of the African American experience. But no matter how much we move, we’re still taking something ancient, something older, with us. What cannot be understated is not just the flexibility of African Americans but the versatility of us as well.
Rumpus: Where should someone start, in terms of searching for their roots or figuring out where they come from?
Jerkins: Start with the oldest relatives in your family. Get where they were from, their birth dates. Ask them about their parents and where they migrated from and in which decade they migrated. From there, you can get a couple of places in mind, then you can start researching those places from which they migrated and the decade to find some cultural context. But always start with the oldest members in your family.
Rumpus: You mentioned how different it was being in the South, and being there by yourself. How was that experience for you?
Jerkins: To this day, I am shocked that I was able to do that, to actually go to places in the Deep South, to gun-carrying states, by myself, where I didn’t know anybody. In my head I was like, You have a book to write so you can’t be worried about your fear right now. But to be a woman traveling alone to places that were sundown towns, places where you heard of people disappearing, to this day, I’m not sure what I was thinking, or how in the world I did that. But as I mentioned in the book, as weird as it may sound, I felt protected. I definitely felt watched over. The people I met, they were making sure that I got back to my hotel. They wanted to know which hotel I was staying in. They wanted to know what I was doing the next day just so they could keep an eye on me.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the business of putting together a book like this. When you started out, did you have a sense of how you would structure the book, where you wanted your story to begin?
Jerkins: I knew I wanted my story to begin in the direction of the route that I took from the South, then the Midwest and the West. But in terms of figuring how I, as not only the researcher but also the narrator, was going to fit in, that took so much restructuring. It was so much of my editor saying, “No, we need more from you. You have such a stake in this.”
One of my editors, Amber Oliver, worked on Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon. If you know anything about Zora Neale Hurston’s work, you know she didn’t believe in objectivity in research. And I was trying to do that; I was trying to be objective. But you can’t talk about one of the greatest periods of American history, and not think that you have a role in it. So when it came to structuring the draft, I knew from the research and the topics how to structure it. But how do I insert myself in it and to be the anchor of all these places I was traveling to? That was the hard part. So with each draft my editor had to keep trying to pull me out from behind the curtain.
Rumpus: I had Zora Neale Hurston in mind when reading your book. It reminded me in some ways of her work. Was she an influence?
Jerkins: Thank you. That’s a huge compliment. She was an influence. There was no way that a book of this particular measure could have happened if it weren’t for Zora Neale Hurston. Writing this, I was thinking of Barracoon. To actually put yourself in someone’s environment, and to just talk to them, hear their conversation, and see how much they open up to you over the course of an extended time, that really helped. It was so intimate but gave so much background knowledge.
I was also influenced by certain scholars: Tiya Miles, Arica Coleman. I was thinking about the work of Jacqueline Woodson and Kevin Young, who write about the Great Migration. And Langston Hughes’s poetry and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.
Rumpus: How do you see your book contributing to the conversation happening in America about immigration, who belongs here, who should be let in and who should be sent back?
Jerkins: We have to think about privilege when we talk about who deserves to be here. My ancestors didn’t have a choice. And we had to move because oftentimes it was stay here and die. If people don’t know what it’s like to be in that position then they need to have more empathy and compassion. When I think about Black people, since the beginning of being on this soil they have wanted to be left alone. They have had to uproot and repack and search for a better place to land all the time. To rebuild. When we have these discussions about immigration and migration, many people don’t know what it’s like to be in a position where they have no choice but to flee. That’s why I think this book is so timely. Even though you and I are talking mainly about internal migration, when it comes to external migration, particularly with those that are coming from Central America, the root cause is the same: where can I live and plant my feet and be safer and be happier? This conversation is going to go on for a very long time. And I hope my book will help these conversations happen.
Photograph of Morgan Jerkins by Sylvie Rosokoff.