The Amazon Books editors picked Morgan Jerkins Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of The Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots as one of the Best Books of the Month in August 2020. This exclusive interview with Jerkins was originally published on Goodreads and written by Cybil Wallace and April Umminger.
The Great Migration was the movement of six million African Americans out of the South to urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1916 and 1970. African Americans left their Southern roots looking for deeper prosperity and opportunity but were met with the same violent and discriminatory behavior no matter where they landed.
In Wandering in Strange Lands, Morgan Jerkins takes a personal look at the Great Migration, and examines her family history as she visits the states where her own family settled, starting with the South. Part travel log, part memoir, and part ethnographic survey, Jerkins’ book examines stereotypical ideas of African American culture and all that was lost as a result of being uprooted.
She talked to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about her journey through South Carolina, New Orleans, Oklahoma, and California, and how her views of movement, Blackness, and America changed through tracing this migratory route.
Goodreads: Wandering in Strange Lands is your personal story tied to the Great Migration. To start, what inspired you to write this book?
Morgan Jerkins: I got inspired to write this book from a movie. It was actually Get Out, the smash hit by Jordan Peele.
In the climactic scene, the Black male protagonist has his hands over the white woman’s throat and the police car pulls up. I saw this in Harlem at the Magic Johnson Theater, and when this scene came, everybody gasped.
We all had the same response, and it got me to think that not all of us in the theater were native to Harlem. Yet all these Blacks in the theater, who probably came from all over the country, had the same reaction to state violence and how treacherous that can be for us.
I started to think about what connects us despite our distances—how do these different traumatic responses, these fear responses, unite us?
You know, we’re all connected, because many of our family members did originate from the South and then fled—because of racial terrorism—to many different parts of the country. What is often lost in this narrative of the Great Migration, which I argue is one of the biggest cultural shifts in American history, is a lot of the background stories of how our families came to be, the origins of our myths, our folklore, our lineages, our customs.
I decided to take a migratory route in the reverse, in order to connect the dots and forge these intergenerational, intercoastal dialogues between Black people who stayed on their ancestral land and those who fled.
What I found was that we are connected in spite of time and distance because our people took the same highways, they took the same railroads, and they took the same cars in order to have another kind of freedom in the American landscape.
One phenomenon I wanted you to unpack is how you came to understand at the end of your book—regardless of geography—that Blacks either lived “up South” or “down South.” Yet up until your journey to these four places, there were always shared roots tracing back to this Southern heritage.
This allows me to put on my pseudo-historian hat. America is vast, but we took the same railroads, we crossed the same rivers, we traversed the same highways.
So, for example, it’s very likely that if you meet Black people from Chicago and their families are generations deep in Chicago yet they come from the South, there’s a good, good chance that their family is from Mississippi.
If you are from the Philadelphia/New Jersey region, like my family is, and they tell you that their family is from the South, there’s a good chance that their relatives are from Georgia. If you meet Black people from New York who are from the South originally, there’s a good chance that their relatives are from North Carolina.
There are these overlaps where you can sort of guess—not all the time, obviously—where people are from. There is this overlap that in spite of how big America is, the routes are very easy to trace.
Building off that, what was your process writing this book? How many years did it take?
It was pretty much a little over a year that I got this all together.
Zora Neale Hurston obviously is an inspiration for this type of book. But the irony of that is I believe what she said about being an intimate auto-ethnographer and putting yourself into these communities and not having to have this scientific, cold, distant attitude.
In the beginning, it was basically me just thinking about what areas I wanted to go to. Then, first and foremost, I had to get in touch with some scholars who had been studying these communities and with people from the community.
I knew that even though these people are Black, I was not from their area. I wanted them to know who I was before I traveled there, so they could hopefully connect me with other people that I could talk to.
So it took on that dimension, where I did background research in New York, and then I realized I had to travel to these places to do research there.
I was writing about these different places and talking about fear, but I was forgetting the one anchor, which was me.
I realized that I had to be more intimate with not just my life, but with my family history that I never asked about before. Once I was able to use that anchor and had that intimate angle to all these places where I was traveling, places that might be foreign to a lot of readers, that was when the book started to really take shape.
How did you conduct your research?
I was reading a lot of folklore from different areas, and I was talking to people—sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, other authors, folklorists. I worked with secondary resources, first. I was looking at old academic articles, looking at documentaries, talking to scholars in a particular field that I was interested in incorporating in the text.
And then from there, I started reaching out to people who live in these particular areas. Then I traveled to these areas where I was able to collect more interviews, photos, recordings, videos of what they were talking about—so I could actually see the landscape and actually put myself there.
And then when I came back to New York, I was able to gather hundreds of pages of transcripts and see how, magically, some of these interviewees were in conversations with each other. I started to see certain themes emerge.
Once I started to feel brave enough to go deep into my own life, I went back and I interviewed my family—my father’s and my mother’s side of the family—and then that was another layer where I saw how what they were telling me could be the starting point and woven into the chapters.
I noticed a shift in the structure of the novel between South Carolina and your Gullah Geechee experience versus New Orleans, Oklahoma, and Los Angeles. In part one, you have these thematic arcs of Black life from your cultural relationship with food, water, roots, and land. How did you land on these subjects, thematically, and what does it mean to you and for your readers?
I was thinking of things that intrigued me that I never got a clear answer on. Why did we have this contested relationship with water? Why is it that we think of roots as demonic when the land, the essence of land, itself, is not? And those are the things that I really wanted to get into.
When I realized that a simple recipe our family does every year has roots in Low Country, the roots of Gullah Geechee, that’s when I knew I had to go to Low Country. I had to start there, and when I went there, that’s when I started to realize the ruptures that happen when you move away.
I realized that perhaps the roots aren’t demonic. Water was our friend at one point. The water isn’t always something to be feared, it is the system that conditioned us to be fearful of that. Why is land so important to African American life when so much of my African American life has been characterized by movement?
I started to learn about property and I started to learn about land theft. I started to learn about the desecration of African American graveyards.
That was when I realized that there’s so much at stake. I want to show how these are the sites of intrigue that I’ve had since I was a child and I wanted to get a clear understanding of what was changed, potentially, with this movement North.
I found that what I thought was truth or standard for African Americans was anything but that.
What surprised you the most on your travels? Is there anything that disarmed you or something specific that stood out?
The lady who was my liaison for the Louisiana part, I was distantly related to. I had no idea about that going in. If I trace it back to the 1700s or 1800s, our families were right there together.
Another thing that surprised me in that area was realizing that there were free people of color in my family. I thought that every Black person or person of color in my family pre-emancipation was enslaved. I didn’t know that part of my history.
You talk about being humbled during this process. Did that come from a particular event or discovery in your research?
I didn’t realize until I got out to Oklahoma, studying Black and Native people who are characterized as freedmen—and often mischaracterized—that there are Black people whose first language is Creek, and they have been on American soil longer than any of my family has. That was a type of humbling moment.
It was a type of humbling moment when I had to learn about plantation owners who were not white, who were Black people or people of color who participated in the plantation economy. That complicated my idea of Blackness, because what I was taught in school was a very narrow sense of Black identity.
Can you talk more about how writing this book broadened your sense of Black identity?
The way that I’ve been taught is Blackness means subjugation.
But what does it mean when you have a lineage of Black people who participated in this plantation economy?
What does it mean when you have a group of people who are the descendants of a once-enslaved Black woman and a white French merchant, and they tell the story as if it were a consensual relationship during the Antebellum era?
I’m very interested and nervous to see the conversations that happen, just on that part alone.
This is where history gets complicated. This is where when we speak about Black ancestors, we can’t flatten their interiority and the choices that they may or may not have made because it makes us uncomfortable.
That is something that I wrestled with the entire time I was working on my book. Even though I’m trying to know these people, I will never fully know them and that is okay. And it’s okay to be uncomfortable.
And what I can do is elaborate for the readers the intellectual duress that I was under, not just as a researcher and a writer, but as a person who has a very naughty and controversial lineage, like many other Black Americans.
Did you read any books that would help others to understand the Great Migration, or where should folks start if they want to learn more?
If you’re trying to learn about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is one. I would also look up Jacob Lawrence’s [art]work. I would say to read Ralph Ellison’s works, Jacqueline Woodson’s works, and Kevin Young’s works. And the reason why I say that is because their entire narratives may not be about the Great Migration, but they do talk about migration and migratory patterns.
In terms of other forms of art, Daughters of the Dust directed by Julie Dash is a Black classic that I think gives an important understanding of the toll that it takes when you separate from your ancestral land.
How did you approach writing this book versus your first, This Will Be My Undoing?
This book took so much out of me, and it stretched me more than any other project ever has. It’s one thing to write about yourself—This Will Be My Undoing was mainly personal. But it doesn’t even compare to the depth of research that I had to do for this book.
There was so much happening to me, on the inside, with this book—not just growing up as a millennial, but growing up as a Black woman, someone who is curious but has to constantly get inside herself and realize there is so much I don’t know about my own people.
And that’s okay. In a time period when everyone’s racing to be woke, to also tell myself that it’s okay to not know, and to be okay with listening and confronting your discomfort head-on and realizing where it’s coming from and taking the reader alongside that emotional, intellectual trajectory as well as the physical journey that’s happening in the midst of it.
There were constant overlaps of synthesis here, both with the material itself and how I was growing as a person, that I hope readers will be able to sense throughout the pages.
What message do you want people to come away with after reading this book?
I want people to realize that time is a circle. Everything we’re seeing right now—with regard to the rampant police brutality, with regard to the racial terrorism that Black people are facing—has these undercurrents with Black people having the ability to move and exist freely in this country.
So much of African American life has been characterized by movement, whether it was through the transatlantic slave trade, whether it was through the Trail of Tears, or whether it was through the Great Migration.
I want people to realize that in spite of the land displacement, the racial terrorism, the systemic state violence against us...in spite of that, Black people are inexplicably connected, coast-to-coast. Despite time and distance, we’re connected because of the physical movements that we took for a different kind of freedom.
Who do you hope reads this book?
My ideal reader is going to take on different forms. I want anyone to read this—[anyone who is asking], Why do these problems keep happening? Why can’t we just let Black people be?
When it comes to Black people, I want people to realize the preciousness of oral histories and storytelling throughout our families. I want readers to be inspired to research the background of their own family stories and wherever that may lead them.
I want people who are not Black to read this travel log, this memoir, this ethnographic survey, if you will. I want them to see how much we have endured as a people, and our resilience and our resistance in spite of it.
The Great Migration had an effect on so many of us and, to this day, we’re still trying to learn how to move freely and live autonomously.
What books are you reading now?
Right now, I am reading Culture Warlords by Talia Lavin, which is coming out later on this year. I’m about to read Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour, Fairest by Meredith Talusan, and This Is Major by Shayla Lawson.
Talia Lavin has written a lot about the alt-right and she takes it upon herself to travel to these alt-right fascist communities to write about white supremacy in this country, which appeals to me because I write about white supremacy, not just in my books, but in my shorter works online. Lavin decided to put herself in these communities and take on these different identities to find out about this problem.
I was interested in Fairest by Meredith Talusan because Meredith and I came up together in the digital media world. We were both freelance, women of color writers, and this is her first book. She’s writing about many different topics, but it’s a memoir, so she’s writing about her time in the Philippines, transitioning, dating, all of that.
Black Buck is a debut novel by Mateo Askaripour. What I like about Mateo, he also has wanderlust, just like me. He’s writing a lot about what it’s like being a Black man in the workplace, and how that plays out in corporate workspaces. He is someone who has been in these workspaces before, and I’m really intrigued to see how it takes a fictionalized account. Ambition and Blackness—I’m really interested in those topics.
This Is Major by Shayla Lawson is an essay collection where she writes about Black girls being dope. She writes about herself, she writes about Twitter, and she just has such an engaging voice. I’m so excited for her.
Are there any other things you want your future readers to know?
I don’t want people to underestimate the fear I had in writing the book, because for many different parts of the book I was by myself. When I was in Oklahoma, I was by myself traveling and driving around. When I was in the Low Country, I was by myself. You cannot underestimate the fear of driving as a Black woman in those sundown towns, in any state. Or driving in an open-carry state, a red state, the Deep South.
Even now, two years later, I’m still emotionally processing what could have happened to me. There was an instance that I brought up in Oklahoma when something almost did happen. There were so many ways that people in that community tried to protect me because of the type of work that I was doing.
I also want to make it clear to readers that even to this day, when you’re trying to write about the stuff that Black people go through as an outsider who’s not from the community, you can be in danger.
Beyond your journey through the states associated in the Great Migration, the issues that you address are ones that have come to the forefront of global dialogue now with Blacks and Black lives.
It’s so eerie, and I even say this in my book, I was speaking to a man and he took me to the intersection of Florence and Normandie [in Los Angeles] where the 1992 Rodney King riots happened, and he told me, “This is going to happen again.” It’s prophetic that he said this, because it happened.
I want people to understand that the riots, yes, they have to do with police brutality, but you also have to understand the reason why they keep happening in these different cities, these Northern cities, is because a lot of people’s ancestors migrated from the South to avoid what they actually found again in these new places.
Their descendants, like myself, are enraged and fed up and lighting things on fire because they realize that no matter where they move, that white people and their institutions are trying to constrict their movement.
When we think about these stories, we can’t look at them as isolated incidents. We need to think about where people came from and what they were moving away from, and how they come to these new areas and the same oppression greets them there.
If we think about it that way, then we can understand why these burnings are happening, this rage is happening, because we realize that the problems keep going on.
Do you have any insights on how we can move forward?
I was going to say, “Leave us alone.” [Laughs.]
If people would read how much Black people have been devastated, whether it was because of land theft; whether it was because of documentation or lack thereof; whether it was our homes that we lost; whether it was our family splintering off, maybe due to lynching, maybe due to being run off their land or just migrating and never coming back. If people understood how much Black people have endured and to understand that type of subjugation.
I want people to see from an intimate level, to visualize looking these people in the eyes, as I have done, to see that they are the manifestation of these movements. They are the manifestations of their families trying to be resilient under immense pressure to just become annihilated.
If they can understand that when they read these interviews, that it’s not in the past, it’s right now. Then maybe that will galvanize more people to fight; maybe that will galvanize more people to listen to us when we tell our stories and not think, “It’s not that bad” or “It’s not horrific.” It is bad and it is horrific and it’s happening right now.
For many African American communities, the past and the present converge into one, and that was what was happening when I went on this trip. That is what is happening now, and that is what is happening on a nationwide level when these same problems keep repeating themselves.
Many thanks to Goodreads for this interview. To see more News and Interviews from Goodreads, visit goodreads.com/news.
Author Morgan Jerkins talks about journeying across the country to retrace Black history.