Following Black Generational Trauma Across the Country
In "Wandering in Strange Lands," Morgan Jerkins investigates her roots
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Morgan Jerkins’s debut collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing, shot directly to the NYT bestseller list, gaining wide acclaim for its visceral and vulnerable personal explorations.
Her second book, Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, includes more and deeper questions about her familial origins. The book follows Jerkins as she travels across the South and to the West Coast, following a migration trail that extends to various generations in her family line. Jerkins’s trek across rural lands, low country, sundown towns, and retained plantations brings readers in close proximity to how generational trauma is never forgotten but often unknown or erased. She witnesses this instantly in tours and seeks to eschew the colonized narrative that reduces Black people to mere snippets of a larger history that built not only residential communities, but a nation. Through the spaces visited or not yet seen, the diaspora’s generational footprint remains as does the evidence, in Jerkins’ words, of much theft.
I had a chance to talk with Jerkins about her new book, reflecting on her pursuits as an author and reporter, as well as the tender and analytical ways she sought to not only reclaim her roots but highlight the omissions of Black history, and the importance to continually reclaim our stories.
Jennifer Baker: It’s an interesting parallel to go from your first book that was kind of isolated in a way at the level of personal introspection. Wandering in Strange Lands is about traveling and unraveling more of your ancestry, learning so much more about roots and trauma. That segue is different in the ways you tackle exploration.
Morgan Jerkins: This one is so granular in terms of my experience. It was at certain times claustrophobic depending on who you ask. And I remember when my [first] book came out my father was hurt because I didn’t talk about him as much as my mother. And I didn’t have the courage to say to him at the time, “I don’t know how.” Because so much of his lineage, his family history was a mystery to me. And I knew that I wasn’t ready yet. I wanted my second book to be an exploration of not just myself, but my family history, and my stake in this country as a Black American connecting to other Black American communities.
When the pandemic was going I was doing everything online to not lose my connection with people of the diaspora. Whether it’s about asking Black people about their cultural traditions, whether asking about their ancestors’ names. I was trying so hard to not forget that, yes, you do have a book coming out, but to also know our people have endured far worse and that we are super connected in spite of time and distance and other types of systemic forces. I think this is coming at a prescient time. Between This Is My Undoing to Wandering in Strange Lands, I’ve grown so much. I’ve matured a lot. Not just as a writer but as a person, and I really wanted that to be reflected in this book.
JB: I want to tap into that because you’re a very generous person as well as a generous writer. And there’s a vulnerability that is required in art that you dug into immediately with your first book and do again in this book. When you say you’ve grown as a writer, is it fair to ask if that fear goes away of what you’re tapping into? Was there a bit more fearlessness?
MJ: My book went through many different drafts, as most books do. But one of the reasons why Wandering in Strange Lands went through many different drafts is because I felt like psychologically and emotionally I was slapped shut like a Venus fly trap. And the reason was I was so vulnerable from my first book. I saw the praise from it and I saw the backlash from it and a part of me didn’t want to go there again. I thought it was just easier to just go to these communities and travel as a distant observer. And I realized that I couldn’t do that. Zora Neale Hurston already taught us that, but also because I’m a Black American too. How could I write about the movement of African Americans in this country and be distant? My editors were constantly pushing me “you have to put yourself out there.” And I was scared because, as you know, I’m active online just like I am active offline. And I know what happens when you are vulnerable, when you’re not being taken in good faith. When your writing is taken out of context. And I was afraid. But I realized that if I tried to silence myself after what my ancestors have gone through, what’s the point in me even writing a book in the first place? What’s the point? And so, vulnerability was required. It was required for me to say “Guess what? I don’t know everything about my family’s history.” This is why I’m traveling. It was vulnerable for me to say, “Hey, these historical facts about my family kind of makes me feel a type of way” because this is what I thought my Blackness was until I traveled. I just had to do it. And I had to bring the reader in. Because just like the reader I’m traveling to places they’ve never been to and I wanted it to be informative at the same time be intimate. Because there were so many moments, quiet moments.
To answer your second question, the part about the fearlessness, to this day I’m still emotionally processing the places I went to. The rural places I went to. The sundown towns I crossed by myself with no weapon on me, just my recorder, my phone, and my purse. And I think about those moments and I’m like, “How in the hell did I do that?” Because I had a deadline, I had a goal to reach. In many of these places people were risking their lives to show me certain parts of their history, to show me certain lands that were robbed from them. They risked their lives to let an outsider come into their community that way. The least I could do was start typing, start recording, start saving it.
JB: You’re saying you were walking in these similar pathways of our ancestors, you even include the documentation and the photos. I think a lot about the presumption of knowing that struggle even now as observers.
MJ: Here’s the thing that I want people to understand: When you say Black people are not monolith, do you know what that means? That means the same thing for the living as it does the dead. What I wanted to demonstrate with this book is that we cannot flatten the interiorities of our ancestors even if we knew what they looked like, knew where they were born, knew they were married and had children. We do not know them. And it’s okay to not know them that intimately. It’s okay to be uncomfortable when you find out certain things because guess what? Black people are complicated. We’re human. And we make certain choices based on the time and space that we’re in and because we had to survive. That’s why I sometimes take issue when people say, “I’m not my ancestors.” And they don’t say as a way to be like, “Oh we’re different” obviously we’re different. But your ancestors had to survive for us to be here. And whatever way they had to survive is their business but they did survive. And it needs to be documented and written about in that way of not just complication, but also delicacy at the same time. That’s what I believe. That’s what I always try to carry with me as I’m doing this type of research.
JB: I think about a lot of that because one of the moments that sticks out to me the most is when you were on the tour in Natchitoches in Louisiana, with Tracey. And you’re looking at Tracey to how she is reacting to what’s being said about her ancestors who helped build a community that’s now overrun.
MJ: This book is the first time I’ve been to a plantation before. So prior to me traveling with Tracey in Louisiana I’ve been to rice plantations in the low country. As a writer I can’t even discuss the magnitude of actually being in these places.
JB: That are still left to look as they were.
MJ: Yeah! But I’m so thankful when I went to the low country in Georgia and then I went to Louisiana. I was with two women, they’re descendants of people who worked that plantation and those who owned. And with regards to Tracey it took on a different turn. Imagine you go to a plantation that your family owned and you hear somebody tell the story and your family is just a footnote. What does this do to you? This woman had lived in this community her entire life and she purposely never went there. Her family said don’t go there because it’s not for us. So I went to this tour and there is this rift between official tours/official “narratives” and what Black people say, oral history, there’s this rift there. And it isn’t always because they’re cannibalizing our stories. It’s also because we don’t want to be part of their exoticism. We don’t want to be part of their show. And we don’t want to be part of that whole tourism thing. And so it was intense.
JB: And you don’t necessarily want to give them that intel either?
MJ: Nope. And it felt weird because I’m like this community isn’t that big. Her family has been here for hundreds of years! How does the tour guide not even know who she was? It was surprising to me. And I was balancing it in real time, balancing it in terms of understanding officially what was going on and understanding what I was hearing in her parents’ home and they’re not there. It’s like these different prisms of knowledge when it comes to Black history that don’t always reconcile with each other. As a writer I had to tell myself it’s okay there’s no reconciliation. It’s not your fault. It’s not a flaw of yours. It’s because of the powers that be. It’s because of the theft that has happened before you were even born. And I had to be mindful of what I was showing the readers what was going on, there was this collision course. And that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be peace at the end.
JB: And it all relates to the same thing we continually talk about. In this sense I’ll say “white” and colonial like the occupants who become the owners. And the erasure of Black voices, which is a cycle that continues and continues.
MJ: Right. And that’s the thing about this book is that, what I like about it and what I hope readers will get from it is we’re in a cycle. It’s continuing to happen because we are not addressing the issues. Any time Black people try to exert their self autonomy, whether it’s self-governed towns, whether it was the histories that they had, whether it was their own identities, whether it was their land, it was taken from them. Any time we exert movement to try to find a different type of freedom there has always been something to try to curtail it. This is why we have these protests. This is why we have this Black rage that keeps happening because our ancestors fought for better, they fled for better. And I think that that is the thing I just wanted to convey is that we have been robbed so much. It wasn’t just because of the transatlantic slave trade with the loss of our names and our tribes and the ways we did our hair on american soil. Even to this day, we are being robbed. And there are still people in those communities they are seeing it in the present. And that’s something I want people to notice. It’s not just continual Black rage, continual racial terrorism. It’s continual robbery and theft. And so much is at stake. Even if we don’t know these Black people. That’s why I trailed them, even if I didn’t know you so much of what I know about Black people is because of that robbery. It is because of that narrative that is not in this community’s hands. So how do we reclaim that?
What I hope this book is, because it can’t be the end all be all, but there’s some kind of documentation there that lets black people that the oral history you heard as a kid, they can’t all be lies. There has to be a root there. And that root connection is to somebody else, some place else.
JB: You just tapped into something else I was thinking about. I believe books are necessary and at the same time I wonder about the damage that books have done. What books like Wandering in Strange Lands are trying to make us do a really firm compare-contrast. Do you think when we read books and absorb their content that there’s a level of discussion that unpacks this in a way that really needs to be unpacked?
MJ: I notice this is kind of tangential with the blackface [discussion] that is going on right now. Everyone wants to get rid of the blackface episodes [in which white actors portray Black characters]. And I think “no, we need to keep them and contextualize them and understand why these decisions were made in the first place.” So when I think of Wandering, I don’t necessarily think of it as an overthrow of the stuff that came before, even if they were erroneous. I want to know why these things were asserted in the first place. Who benefited from them? Who had the short end of the stick, for lack of a better phrase? I think there needs to be an unpacking of the books that have done harm and the books that contextualize and challenge what’s going on. Who gave this person the right to write this book? Who was affected by it? I don’t think we should necessarily discard it because that’s our legacy. They still have to remain. We still have to discuss them.