How Travel Helped One Writer Understand Her Roots and What It Means to Be a Black American
In Morgan Jerkins’ new book, "Wandering in Strange Lands" (Harper Collins, 2020), she takes readers along with her as she retraces the steps of her family’s migration from the South to their eventual settling place in New Jersey. The book opens with Jerkins ruminating on her father’s declaration that she was the “milk man’s baby” because of her light complexion. This early feeling of unbelonging stays with Jerkins and later serves as the impetus in the odyssey to find her roots. The book is split into four parts: Lowcountry, Georgia, South Carolina; Louisiana Creole; Oklahoma; and Los Angeles. Jerkins researches and travels to each region.
Jerkin’s journey is not only geographical. She explores the collective culinary and spiritual heritage of African Americans and their connection to the land. Jerkin’s second novel is reminiscent of her debut, "This May Be My Undoing" (Harper Collins, 2018) in that Jerkins isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Through her masterful storytelling, she shares her personal revelations along with the pain and triumphs of Black American life. I sat down with Jerkins, and we talked about identity, the impact of the South on Black culture, and why the stories of Black migration in America matter.
Travel + Leisure: What was the time frame for your research, and how much time did you spend in each region?
Morgan Jerkins: "The amount of time I spent in each place varied. When I was in the Lowcountry, in Georgia and South Carolina, I would say I was there for two weeks — a week in one place and a week in another. Louisiana was probably four to five days, Oklahoma it was a week, and California was a week. But prior to me even going out there, I had spent many hours researching the communities before I’d gone there. It was definitely a multi-layered thing, where it was not just the traveling itself; it was preliminary research, it was the conversation with scholars and people from those areas. Then after I went there, it was the post-research where I had to contextualize what I had observed."
I love that you spent so much time in the South, and you wrote that for Black people there’s only two regions in America: up South and down South. Can you explain that statement?
"If you think about it, for many African Americans, their families originated in the South because of slavery. The South is the jewel; it’s the crown of so much of African American culture. For the vast majority of us, that is home. We can’t talk about African American culture without talking about Mississippi, the Blackest state of the country. We can’t talk about African American culture without talking about Gullah Geechee traditions and the impact on our burial grounds and the food that we eat."
If you could return to one of the places you visited to dig deeper into the history, where would you go?
"I think I would go back to St. Helena [in South Carolina]. St. Helena was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. I mean just the Lowcountry in general — everything from the landscape and just the fields, it was so palpable in a way that even as a writer it’s hard to describe. I miss the Lowcountry, period. I miss the seafood. I miss the spirituality of the Black people there. Sometimes I even miss the heat. You definitely feel like you’re on a different plane."
What do you want readers to take from this very specific examination of Black migration?
"I want people to take away how persistent Black people were to continue to move in order to find freedom, but how so much devastation has been brought to our communities even when we fled. I want people to consider the devastation on cultural levels, economic levels, and just on a national scale. Our country has not really reckoned with what has been done to Black people, and what is still being done to Black people, for centuries. I want people to see the intergenerational loss that has happened but also understand that recovery is possible by following me on this journey and understanding that our oral histories are so precious in spite of everything that has been done to erase us."
You wrote in the beginning of the book that you knew what it was like to carry blank spaces and missing pieces. After this journey, what were the missing pieces that you found?
"I think one of the missing pieces was finding the background of my father’s family. I also found out the context for the folklore that has persisted in my family for generations. I found out the reason why we have these superstitious traditions on New Year’s Day regarding food. But going to California and realizing what gave rise to gangs, what gave rise to these riots — these were missing pieces too. These were not things I could find through watching Hollywood films. That was helpful for me — not just in regards to my identity, but in regard to the misguided assumptions that I had made about other Black people across the country. And that’s why traveling to these places was so important. There was a lot that I didn’t know about being Black American even as a Black American. I believe I would not have been able to have this insight or have this transformation without traveling."
When you described your parents, you wrote that your dad was a first-generation migrant, and your mom was a second generation migrant from the South. And that impacted how they moved. Your dad was more rooted, he went back to the South a lot, and your mom was more forward-thinking, more interested in creating a new identity. Did this journey help you to understand your parents more?
"Yes, I would say that my relationship with my father healed so much by writing this book. When I was younger I had a lot of insecurities about my place in my father’s family because I had a blended family, because I lived with my mother. To be able to start from the beginning of my father’s line in this country and then to go back in order to move forward, it definitely helped. It was like a balm to my relationship with my father and my standing in his family. And to be able to name the names of my ancestors and name places, to see things that my own father hadn’t seen before. Or to tell him something about our family that he was never taught. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience."