BLACK VOICES

Morgan Jerkins On Her New Book, Writing Through Fear, And The Power Of Black Memory

In “Wandering in Strange Lands" the author reveals uncomfortable and enlightening truths about the history of black migration in the U.S.
In her book that's out on Aug. 4, Morgan Jerkins traces her family's history back 300 years.
In her book that's out on Aug. 4, Morgan Jerkins traces her family's history back 300 years.

Writer Morgan Jerkins was just 25 years old when her first book, a collection of essays titled “This Will Be My Undoing,” made a splashy debut on The New York Times bestseller list. The essay collection was a deeply confessional exploration of her experiences as a Black woman in America, a journey inward exploring her thoughts and feelings on pop culture, race, sex and feminism. 

In her new book, Jerkins is looking outward. “Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots” traces the history of her family and of the Black experience in America from the South Carolina Lowcountry to Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and California. Through her travels, research, and conversations with Black communities throughout the country, Jerkins unveils powerful and at times uncomfortable truths about her own identity. 

In this conversation, the author opens up about family secrets, the pressures and joys of writing her second book, and what she found while she was wandering. 

 

There are so many revelations in this book — about the history of the collective African American experience, and about your own personal family history. I’m wondering what was the most surprising revelation to you? Is there anything that you’re still kind of processing?

I think one of the most surprising things that I learned was that I had family members who were not white, who were free people of color, and also participated in the plantation economy. That they were slave owners. And that was hard for me, because the way that I was educated, both in my household and also in school, was that your ancestors were captured probably near the coast of Western Africa. They were brought over the Atlantic Ocean via the slave trade and landed in the docks of colonies. Then they were emancipated. Then the civil rights movement and then Barack Obama.

I did not know that there were Black people who were free pre-emancipation. And I did not know that there were Black slave owners. When I think about power in this country, I used to look at it as a very dichotomized spectrum. On the one side, it’s whiteness with so much of the cultural capital, and then on the far other side is Black people. And then there was a part of time and history, particularly in Louisiana, where there were people who existed somewhere in the middle, not only in their identification but within their social and actual capital. And that is something that is very hard and I’m not exactly sure it’s reconcilable, even though it is a part of my damn history. But it undermined, or rather subverted, everything I thought about my Black identity, for sure.

 

There’s the process of learning this information obviously, and the process of writing through it. How do you feel about the process of now actually bringing it out into the world on a wider stage?

I mean, I was scared. Because you and I both, we’re on the internet, a lot. And we know how quickly things can be taken out of context, and we know that sometimes things can be hyperbolized and it was uncomfortable for me. And I said, “Okay, if this is uncomfortable for me as a writer and researcher, imagine what it might be for a reader?” Or imagine if, for example, someone takes a paragraph from it and then just posts it on the internet. Right?

 

Which is what happened with your first book.

Right, exactly. So I was afraid that ... I spent so many hours and so much research on this, talking to scholars, talking to people in those communities. And I wanted readers to understand the discomfort that I felt while writing it, but also that history might make us uncomfortable. Family history might make us uncomfortable. Because when people say we are not our ancestors, it’s often been interpreted as, “Oh, we resisted differently.” I have an issue with that statement.

Because if it wasn’t for our ancestors’ survival tactics, we wouldn’t be here. So we also have to be mindful of the fact that perhaps some of the ways our ancestors did survive, we would not agree with in a modern context. But we can’t allow that disagreement to flatten our understanding of who they might have been. So that is something that I had to put out there. I can’t obscure it because the whole point of doing this book was to go back, to recover whatever I could and to remain open. That’s how the book was able to get finished in the first place.

 

There’s a part of the book where you wrote, “When Beyoncé, a fellow Creole, an African American woman wrote an essay in Vogue, stating that her family line began when a white slave owner fell in love with a slave and married her I watched as the internet attempted to correct her on her own oral history, but no one can say for sure what happened. Rape of enslaved Black women was rampant, but we cannot assume that every relation between a white slave owner and Black female slave was non-consensual.” And then you go on to say, “All I can ask is, did I tell the truth? Did I tell my truth? And I did.”

It made me think about the Beyoncé tweet thread that you posted [in May]. I saw some people being like, “She’s doing too much. What is this?” But I don’t understand what’s doing too much about forcing us to actually think about these things in ways that are far more expansive than we’ve been taught to do, if that makes sense? So, what are your feelings on that? What was it like writing that paragraph and having that in there?

 It was hard. As a matter of fact, the whole Louisiana section was hard. Because I didn’t even know until a few years ago that my father was Creole. In New Jersey, there were no Creole people, and if we heard of Creole people they were light skin uppity Black people who didn’t want to be Black. They conjured this identification from yesteryear that has no significance right now. But it does, and there are Creole people whose history is in danger of being erased. In fact, one of the women who I interviewed, who had been gathering archival materials that have been a part of a research center in Northeast University, in Akers, Louisiana, she passed away a few months ago. Her name is Janet Ravare Colson

 And so for me, the reason why I made that thread is because I wanted to show the different splits between our history and official documentation. I wasn’t trying to prove that a slave master can fall in love with his slave. What I was trying to do was show that there were relations there. That these relations led to her ancestors being entitled to land, and how that complicates what we think of these... I don’t want to say entanglements, I hate that word now, but that’s what it is because it’s complicated. So when people say, “I was doing too much,” that’s what genealogical work is. You have to turn over every stone and question everything.

 What Beyoncé said makes us uncomfortable, but that’s what she’s been told. That’s what her mother’s been told. That’s what her grandmother has been told. And if we want to talk about the preciousness of old history, we can’t reject it because of our emotional reaction to it, we have to take it into account. It’s complicated by looking at other records.

 So I didn’t want it to be the definitive thread, what I wanted to show is that it’s so complicated and it’s going to arouse different reactions, and strong reactions. And I felt like I was successful because not only did it arouse strong reactions with people on the internet, when I was doing my own genealogical studies, it was arousing strong reactions in me. And I had to get myself together, in my intimate moments and say, “Girl, you got to stay open. You have to stay open or else you are going to shut out some type of discovery that you’ve been working toward this entire time.”

 

Right. Because you’re talking about looking at history, understanding the nuances and the uncomfortable elements of our collective history. I’m an immigrant; I’m from Ghana, and I found myself reading your words and being so struck and moved by how similarly I felt to you, and thinking about just how crazy that is. In working on this and in finding all you found out about your Creole side, did you consider a deeper dive into those similarities and distinctions between Black people in America and Black people elsewhere?

 

I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it because the diaspora is so vast. And I will say that there are things I learned about our people in the diaspora, that I’m still so sad about. I’m like, “Why didn’t anybody tell me this? Why didn’t the schools tell me this?” And when I was doing this book, I wanted to make sure I focused on America specifically, because my family has been here for several generations. A lot of times, I’m not going to say we, I’m going to be emphasizing it in my life and my experiences. The people I know, we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re not going to be able to recover a lot from West Africa. There’s going to be some things that are just always going to be lost.

And so, but I thought to myself, I was like, “If we’ve been here for several generations, what could be recovered right here on this American soil?” But it’s just what you were saying about food, because food connects us to West Africa. 

 

So strongly.

The yam, the rice, all this stuff. When I spoke about the Gullah Geechee of the Lowcountry ― why they brought over to those areas was because where they were from in Africa they knew how to cultivate, they already knew about levees and dikes and all those sorts of things. So that was brought over. And I make jokes all the time about how when I’m dieting, when people say, “Oh, your portion of rice should only be as big as your fist.” I am like, “That is just anti-Black!” You know what I’m saying? Part of my people were brought over here for this rice, so I want to indulge in it as much as I feel like it!

 

And I guess that’s what struck me was so much has been lost and yet so much is innate. And there’s a beauty in that, right? Because I’ve eaten red beans and rice, or I’ve eaten gumbos that taste like my mother’s Ghanaian cooking. So much has been retained. I think the spirit of Blackness is just, it’s impossible to snuff out completely, and seeing those connections was really fascinating. 

When I did this book, I thought to myself, “There’s been so much to annihilate us as a people and we are still here.” And I wanted to show that in spite of time and distance, we are connected. We’re always going to be connected. And I love what you said about how just cosmically through our dance, through our dialects, through our food, we are connected still. There’s this pulse, even in the pandemic where I’m isolated, that I could feel with other black people. And even though I bring up so much devastation in the book, that’s inspiring to me because I’m alive, you know what I’m saying? You’re alive. And there were so many things put in place for us not to be.

 

Exactly. When I’m reading something or watching something, I usually just write down words that come up to me. And some of the words that came up to me in reading your book were “food, water, magic, earth, trauma.” And also “inheritance” because really the story that you’re outlining in this book is an inheritance of separation, an inheritance of being separated from yourself and having to come back to yourself, and realizing that you can’t. And realizing that you’re the person who’s going to have to do that work, who’s going to have to provide that record. Did you have that realization and if you did, what was it like? What was the process of doing the work?

Well, I will say this, it’s funny because I think sometimes when people read my book, they assumed that I started with my family and then went traveling when it was actually the opposite. I started traveling and then had those conversations. And what happened was I was not hitting the mark in my drafts. And my editor kept saying to me, “You have to, you have to bring yourself in,” because I was almost acting as if I was a distant observer. And the reason that it was hard for me, I did want it to come together, but it was hard for me to become intimate again, because my first book was so vulnerable. So I think psychologically, I just closed up like a clam and I couldn’t. And so when I started having these conversations with my family, it was weird because when we spoke earlier about the connection between Black people, when I started recording my mother and my aunts and my grandparents, I could just see, I could see the synapses clicking in my head of my mother, my family being in dialogue with the people I met on my journey.

And so for me, as an African American woman, it fills me with pride that if I ever have children, that they’re able to trace their family back some 300 years now, and I knew that I thought of Zora Neale Hurston as my guiding light. She knew a century ago that you cannot be a distant observer when talking about Black people, especially if you’re Black yourself. Why would I go into these communities and not be subjective? I am connected to these people. I have a stake with these people. 

And so I had to tell myself that, just that you got the book deal, and you live in New York and you’re in that life, still you’re a part of a bigger life than you can even imagine, and that’s why you’re doing this traveling. So, when someone says, “Do the work,” that doesn’t just mean to me, take your notes, synthesize them, make arguments, categorize. That’s also like, you need to get out of your own way because you may be Black, but you don’t know how big, how expansive American blackness is on its own, and you’ve got to hone yourself. That’s what I had to do.

 

Writing is in and of itself a very humbling experience because you really have to face and accept the fact that you know nothing, in a sense. And the whole act of writing is about getting to a place where you feel like you know a little bit. Now that you’ve written two books, and you’ve done the deep introspective personal essays, and you’ve done the deeply reported traveling all over the country, collecting stories, what have you taken away from it as a writer, first, and then also just as a human being?

Oh, man. Okay. I would say that first, I know this is a little bit of a tangent, but I’m just thankful that I’ve been given the space, and the opportunity, and the money to mature as a writer. When my first book came out, I was 25. I’m 28 now. Granted, that’s not a long stretch of the time, but I have done so much growing and healing.

 

You become an entirely different person. Like, 25 and 28 are two different people.

Well, I mean, yeah. If you believe in the stars, then I got through my Saturn Return so...

 

Yep. I just came out of mine, and shit was awful.

Oh, girl. So listen. Between my first book and my second book, I have done so much growing, humbling, hurting, and healing, and I’m still on that journey. And what I will say is, is that what I have learned from my first book to my second book is, there’s always a root there. There’s always a layer to peel. There’s always another side to consider when talking about your experiences, objective experience, and how that connects to other people, especially people whose lives, whose histories, whose narratives have been desecrated for so long. And I think that that is something that has followed me. 

And I also have told myself, you know, “Do not smite your own curiosity.” I have always been a curious person, and I think I’ve been thankful enough to always ... say like, “Find out where this leads, even if you’re scared, even if you don’t know what’s going on. Just keep excavating, keep digging.” The pun intended, you will find something. And I also, what I think I learned from both books, but especially with this one, I don’t have all the answers. Some things will just be left indefinite, or undefined. Some things will not be 100% confirmed. But what I can do is show you the different elements of how these potential realities could exist, so that you can see humanely Black people existed and moved freely in spite of oppression.

 

Right.

For as long as I write publicly, I never want to calcify the definitions on Black subjective experiences. I don’t think it’s fair, and I think that it should be incredibly nuanced and it should also allow us to react in many different ways. You know what I mean? Agree and disagree. That’s okay. And I think that that is something that I want to continue to do as an author.

 

Is that something that in the past you’ve struggled to do?

Yeah. I mean, I will say that again, being on the internet, it’s hard because you’re afraid of being humiliated. You’re afraid of sometimes questioning things publicly, because if you don’t say it right, or if you are not there in terms of your political consciousness as a Black American, or Black person, then there’s this you know ... I’m afraid of taking chances, of testing these theories, and I have to tell myself, like, “You know what? Listen to people. Of course. Find what’s helpful to you, but also understand this is the work.”

 

Yeah.

And writers that came before me had to operate under far more oppressive circumstances. So I have to take that into account, but also to tell myself, like how I said in my book, like, “Am I telling the truth? Am I telling my truth? Am I showing these different portraits of Black people, whether or not I agree with them or not?” And I did. So I consider myself successful in that way.

 

Right. Something that your book also made me think a lot about was memory and monuments. The book feels like a monument to Black migration. It feels like it’s holding space in a really intentional way. There’s a part in the Lowcountry section, where you talk about Igbo Landing [the site in Georgia where in 1803 captive Igbo people died by suicide rather than submit to slavery] and how there was nothing there to sort of mark this deeply weighted space of Black death. And I’ve been thinking about everything going on with people taking down monuments. Tina Fey is removing blackface episodes of “30 Rock.” I want to get your take on the necessity of remembering and how we remember. I think the issue is not so much that you have a monument up; you have a statue up of Robert E. Lee, but it’s that you’re presenting him as a hero, and you’re not giving the full totality of who this person was and what they represent. Is that something that you were thinking about in your travels? And have you been thinking about it lately?

Honestly, when I was writing about Igbo Landing, for example, I was just thinking about how I hadn’t heard about it before. I mean, other African American public figures, like for example, Alex Haley and Toni Morrison have referenced it, but I thought to myself, like, yes, it’s precious in our oral history, but where is it in the public landscape? I had written before about, Sugarland, Texas, where the bones of incarcerated Black people from years and years ago were found. I wrote about Black cemetery loss, literally, a couple of days ago. So it’s like, I’m thinking about it and I’m like, “But where is it in the public landscape? And what are the consequences of when we do not see our stories glorified with a plaque near plantations to honor those, our ancestors who tilled those rice plantations? Why is it that when we talk about Igbo Landing, there is nothing there to talk about what is so precious to our community, when it was our community that built that place up to begin with.

It’s interesting now when you’re talking about monuments and whatnot, because I wasn’t thinking about that when doing my research. Because all that wasn’t happening back in 2018 when I visited these areas, and now it just feels like it’s adding more vitality, or perhaps urgency for what I’ve been writing about in my book, strangely enough. And I think when it comes to African American memory ― I did talk about this in the prologue of my book ― so much has been lost, especially with movement. So much of Black life, African American life is characterized by movement. When we move to other places we are often greeted with the same violence that we tried to flee from, from our original ancestral lands. And violence doesn’t just have to be lynching.

 

Wandering In Strange Lands chronicles the author's travels throughout Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and California.
Wandering In Strange Lands chronicles the author's travels throughout Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and California.

Exactly.

Violence could be land theft. It could be a lack of documentation, that your descendants have to fight to claim certain things, because there are no documents. We didn’t always have documents, but that doesn’t mean our stories aren’t true. So the reason why memory is so important, and I think with regard to our public landscaping and honoring our ancestors, is because they existed and not only did they exist, they labored to make all of these landscapes that we see today be what they were. They sacrificed involuntarily their bodies for that capital.

And it’s important because not all of us are going to go into the deep archives and have conversations with scholars to find this work. It shouldn’t always be this hard. When we see these figures that represent such brutality in our African-American memory, that creates cognitive dissonance. It’s like, how do I value myself when so much of my existence and those who came before me has completely disappeared? It becomes, I think I would argue, another violence in and of itself.

 

I really want to read back to you this last little piece of the epilogue: “The terrains of our bodies, the weary or broken are not ruined. They’re alive and fertile with dreams and possibilities and beauty. If we are the Promised Land, then that means that you, yes you, exist on a plane larger than your eyes can see. Home is wherever we decide to settle, but our truest base is each other.” That’s beautiful.

Thank you so much for reading that. I will say when you were reading it, I was like, “Did I actually write that?” It comes from another dimension when someone reads your work, and especially in that way. So thank you.

 

It conjures up for me a question of, now that you’ve gone through this process, where is home for you? What does home feel like for you? What does home look like for you?

Right now, home for me is Harlem. I live in one of the greatest historically Black [neighborhoods] in the country, and I love it here and I’m inspired every time I walk out the door, with my mask on, of course. But home to me is my mother’s voice. My best friend. Home to me is listening to Earth, Wind & Fire at night. Home to me is, reading the works of Kevin Young, and Saidiya Hartman, and Toni Morrison. Home to me is seeing Black women laugh on screen. Home to me is listening to a podcast and Black people making references and they don’t explain it and I know exactly what they’re talking about.

I think right now the reason why I’m thinking in these less rooted ways is because I sort of feel rudderless because of the pandemic. I’m connecting so much more with my community by thinking of it without limits, without particular places, because I usually can’t visit them. I’ve been doing something on the internet, I call it Black people roll call, asking questions to Black people on the internet.

For example, I had seen these videos and images of Black people in Texas on their horses during the protests. So I asked Black people, “How many of y’all know how to ride a horse?” And so many people responded. When I post questions like that, it fills me, it reminds me of home, even though I don’t know these people. I find home in each other because we’re all going to be moving. We’re all going to be searching for that freedom because that’s just endowed in our spirit. That’s what our ancestors endowed us with. That community is so invigorating for me, especially during these unprecedented times.

 

The book is about a scattering, and we are of a generation that’s really interesting because, as terrible and traumatizing as the internet can be, it’s also a place to build community and especially community with other Black people. I’m wondering how much being online for you is work? And how much of it is a part of your process as a writer? And how much of it is just, kicking it on social media? How do you approach it? 

So I will say this: a lot of why I’m online is for work. I’m a senior editor at Zora, so I’m trying to go online to pay attention to what’s happening in the news, to pay attention to those who I think have really cogent arguments, and seeing if they’ll want to write for the site. I’m also online, obviously, to promote my book. And so that’s work for me, but also because of the pandemic, it’s like, “How y’all doing?” I think about the Versuz battles [Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s music battle series]. That was so much fun for me, even in my home, because we were together. These are the songs that even if we don’t have the same memories attached, those songs are our songs.

During the first waves of protest, I was revising my third book and I had to actually download Self Control on my phone, on my computer, which allows you to block sites for a certain amount of time. I’m an early riser, so I usually start writing at 6:30, 7:00 in the morning and then I realized that because the protests are going on and also because we’re indoors, things were popping off at that time.

I have to get work done. So it’s a matter of, I’m so much online now because of the pandemic, but also I have work to do. I also have to cut away because if I’m doing this work that we talked about, where it’s going to lead me to uncomfortable places, I can’t think about the impending doom that might happen because I’m going into these places and I’m bringing up very controversial spots. I have to be able to shut that out and do what I have to do and then come back later.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

 

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