The story of displacement is the story of Black lives in America. Between 1916 and 1970, six million African Americans left the South and headed elsewhere—to the North, West, Midwest—in search of a better life. But while many did find new places to settle and rebuild their lives, it wasn’t without sacrifice: In the wake of the Great Migration, author Morgan Jerkins claims, many Blacks have been left with gaps in their family history.
In Jerkins’ new book, Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, she takes a deeply personal look at the effects of the Great Migration. Where did she, and so many others, come from? And what are the connections between African Americans in the North and their Southern relatives and ancestors?
These questions about her own identity and history drove Jerkins to visit the South in search of answers. She emerged with a deeper understanding of her own story—one that came with uncomfortable revelations—and a broader view of what it means to be Black in America.
Jerkins is the author of This Will Be My Undoing and is currently senior Editor at ZORA and a visiting assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. I spoke with her by telephone and we discussed the way that pieces of history were missing from “official” records during her journey to the South, and the way that using physical attributes to characterize race can be damaging, among other subjects.
Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: You wanted to travel South to unearth your family’s history, which neither you nor your parents knew much about. Did your family—and other families that came North during the Great Migration—avoid talking about your roots?
Morgan Jerkins: Yes. Whether that could be because of trauma, legal issues, or just not wanting to look back and to only look forward. In my family, we didn’t really talk about what happened in the past. Well, why should we? What was the purpose of that?
But there are also larger implications as well, because back during slavery, having literacy would also be a matter of life and death. You’re risking your life to read and write. What happens is, Black communities would have storytelling, but we didn’t always have the documents. And when you have researchers and writers, like myself, who are trying to recover a lot of this history, there’s this rupture between what is documented and what is being said—what’s passed down generation to generation.
Oftentimes, those who make these documents and have access to distribute these documents to wider people are not those who are in those communities that are being written about. So there is this power imbalance, power differential that’s at work. That was really difficult in terms of my research. Also, records of particular parts of Black history are sometimes destroyed—for reasons I don’t know.
My grandfather was a first-generation migrant. He went to Springfield, Massachusetts, as a teenager, after stopping in Philadelphia as a baby. And Springfield, Massachusetts, had abolitionists for the underground railroad. It was a safe haven for refugees—but a lot of those records of those fugitives have been destroyed. We don’t know why. A lot of things of Black history have been destroyed. And so it’s hard to recover, because our history isn’t as valued. So not only do you have to fight those institutions—you also have to try to figure out a way in which to get the elders to talk about the past, which is oftentimes painful.
What’s being lost when these histories aren’t passed on—when you have a generation that’s grown up without knowing exactly where you came from, or what your identity is?
What’s lost is an origin story, an origin point. I’m a descendant of enslaved Africans, so I’ve always known that there was a history of mine that would never be recovered. I may never know which country in Africa that I came from conclusively. I may never know the ethnic group, the languages that they spoke. But I thought: If my people have been in America for several generations, there has to be a way to recover something on this soil.
When I was growing up, there were a lot of things that we just did. But there had to be a reason why. So I think what’s lost is knowing the reason for why we do the things we do. Why are certain things just second nature now? Why were we conditioned this way? When we don’t have these stories to pass down, we always have this instinctual feeling that there’s a deeper root there—but how far the root extends is often questionable.
What were your observations, when you traveled South, about how those who had stayed were living? Or interpreting their history?
It was humbling for me in many different ways. There are people who have been on their land for generations, and they’re fighting for their land, because they know that they’re being heavily taxed now. They know that the areas around them are becoming more of a vacation resort for White people and not them, and they feel like they have to dig in their heels and fight.
And so I’ve seen that happen in the low country of Georgia and South Carolina. And I did wonder: what would happen if more of us would have stayed? Would we have been able to form a much stronger coalition so that these people won’t get displaced?
But I also realized as I traveled that there are multitudes within American Blackness. And it’s very easy to say Black people are not a monolith, but when you actually see it, and when you actually submerge yourself into these communities, you have to start to unlearn.
For example, the Black people I grew up around, we had an aversion to water. And then I realized that’s not always true, particularly when you go down to the South. So what were the forces that created or gave rise to this aversion?
I realized that I had to get out of my own way—that the Black people that I knew about, they were just the Black people I knew. And depending on which river I crossed, which highway I drove down, it could be a completely different scenario with obviously overlapping influences of systemic violence and displacement, but very distinct and distinguishable.
History often only tells one side of the story. How did you see this in the plantation tours you took? How was history skewed?
Absolutely. I went to Butler Island Plantation, a rice plantation in McIntosh County, Georgia. There is a plaque there that talks about a writer named Fanny Kemble who wrote about her life on the plantation. But it says nothing about the enslaved people that toiled there, that perished there—nothing.
I went to that plantation with a non-institutional historian, Tiffany Young, who was also a Gullah Geechee woman whose ancestors worked on that plantation, as well as the plantation on St. Simon’s Island. And she had told me that she’d been trying to get a plaque to honor the enslaved Africans that worked that land, and she’s still trying to this day.
How could you have a plantation and not talk about the people who labored on that land? I went to the Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches in Louisiana with a professor named Antoine Hardy and Tracey Colson Antee. She is the descendant of Marie Coincoin and Thomas Pierre Metoyer. Marie Coincoin gave birth to several children, and they were the creation of a prominent Creole community in Cane River, Louisiana. She was born and raised in Natchitoches, and her people were very prominent, free people of color. And I think actually the wealthiest free people of color community in the country at one point.
Tracey went on this tour, and the tour guide, God bless her, young woman basically said that Marie Coincoin got her nickname because she talked too much—like, “Quack, quack.” She said nothing about her wealth. It was just like she was sort of pushed to the margins of her own story, and the whole time as we were walking in and out of the rooms to the houses outside, I felt so bad for Tracy. People who are descendants of this woman, they don’t go to the plantation because they realize it’s not for them, and I thought, “That is so crazy.”
The “official” narrative is not what it means to people who are the descendants of those who worked that land, who owned that land died, who died on that land. There’s just such a huge gap.
Is it because the tours are geared towards a white audience, who would feel uncomfortable hearing the actual truth?
Oh, of course. When I went to Noah’s Plantation, we purposely went on an official tour for the reason that you said. White people don’t want to hear about that. White people don’t want to hear about the torture. They don’t want to hear about the desolation. They don’t want to hear about the mortality rate.
There was a viral piece that I think went live on Vox years ago, where it was like, “White people don’t want to hear about that.” It was talking about what it is like to be a plantation guide, the type of question that white people ask. It’s the same thing with why white people still get married on plantations. They want to deal with the aesthetic. They don’t want to deal with the material reality of why that aesthetic exists in the first place.
So, because there’s this cognitive dissonance, it fuels white ignorance and white innocence, in a sense, because what they see is not what I see, and what they’re experiencing is not what I’m experiencing, and that became even intensified because I was with the descendants of people who worked on that plantation.
One of the most difficult things about this experience was your discovery that there were Black slave owners in your own family. How did you come to terms with that?
When I was growing up, I didn’t know anything. I was taught, “Your people were captured from the coast of Western Africa. They were brought over in the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, civil rights, Barack Obama.” I was not taught that there were free people of color prior to emancipation. I did not know that there were Black people who participated in the plantation economy.
When I learned that that was also a part of my history, that complicated what I thought of my American Blackness––because my American Blackness, I always thought, was the direct opposite of American whiteness, or whiteness in general, in terms of power, in terms of social capital, in terms of networking, all of that. To discover that your ancestors, with their black, brown, tan skin, existed somewhere in the middle of that power—it almost made me feel undone a bit, because if I thought that my Blackness in American context is not immediately or 100% linked to complete and utter subjugation, then what does that mean? What does that mean for my legacy? What does that mean for the legacy of many different Black people in this country?
That smashed everything I thought about my own Black identity, and that’s why it was so important for me that, as I was collecting this research and conducting these interviews, I allowed the reader to be pulled into those intimate moments where I was in shambles, intellectually. I felt emotionally torn—that’s where you know you’re getting to the root of your research, where stuff starts hitting close to home and it starts making you feel uncomfortable, and I wanted readers to know that.
I had to make sure that I didn’t sanitize it, but I also wanted to let people know that this doesn’t feel good for me, either. It’s deconditioning. I felt like I was being stripped mentally, and that’s not always comfortable.
In 1830, in 24 States, there were 3,775 Black owners. Was this reflective of how people needed to survive in an unequal system, trying to do their best? How do you view it?
Exactly what you said. We have to realize that we’re never going to know our ancestors entirely. And that’s okay because they’re human beings, regardless. They can’t be reduced to statistics or algorithms or articles. We have to also remind ourselves that people will do whatever they have to do to survive, and that may not be “right” in a modern day context, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less of the truth.
I can’t speak for all 3,775 Black people, but some did it as a means of survival. And there were also those who owned family members in order to manage them. These were two factors I uncovered.
We often judge and categorize each other based on looks. You sat down with a woman named Kelly, who appeared, “white,” but had dreadlocks. You write that, you initially thought that she was “performing Blackness.”
I felt so bad. I thought: “Why am I being taken to this white woman’s house?” And then, “Wait a minute.” It’s because we judge so much by looks, it’s the same thing with Native Americans, “Oh. You don’t look like this person, well, then how can you say that you’re so-and-so?” Seeing those ties, and family history, don’t always align. How do we contend with that? It’s the thing about when you’re in this country, because of the ghost of the one drop rule, you’re either this, or that. There are oftentimes no discourse, not room for both ends, especially with regards to American Blackness.
We make so many judgements on people’s looks, and that can get in the way when we talk about family history, parentage, blood lineages—however controversial that they may be.
You wrote about going to LA, where you used to live—about the rise of gangs, the police brutality, Rodney King. What were your big takeaways about what happened with the LA riots, and what does it say about police brutality today?
I was traveling with an underground rapper named James “NoCanDo” McCall. We were at the intersection of Florence and Normandy, which is the start of the ’92 riots. He witnessed it. He was young at the time, but he witnessed it. I asked him: “Do you think it’s going to happen again?” He said, “Yes. If we don’t reckon what this country has done to Black people, it will happen again.”
Literally, two years from that date, that’s when the George Floyd protest happened. What we have to understand as Americans is that every time Black people try to exert their autonomy, especially, through movements, especially, with migration patterns—the Great Migration, for example—or even something as little as walking down the street, and exerting your autonomy that way, white people have tried to curtail our movement through extreme force. Whether it’s a knee, on the neck, whether it’s redlining, segregation, physical intimidation—of where we move, whether it’s Lance and robbery, it’s outright murder.
These things keep happening. The reason why they keep happening is because we are not reckoning with the devastation that white people brought onto Black people for trying to move, for trying to exist freely in this large landscape. That is what I wanted to be able to elucidate—the devastation that is happening to Black people, on large and micro levels, not just in slavery, not just the early and mid 20th century of the Great Migration, but the consequence of that now.
No matter where we go with this country, no matter how we move, there’s always a white backlash, trying to find a different kind of beauty in another area code.
With the recent and ongoing protests, it’s clear that we have a long way to come in understanding structural racism. What would you say that you’ve learned, or what kind of insight would you have, to move the conversation in the right direction?
I want people to realize that these are not isolated incidents. I do think that people are coming around, that people are realizing that this is isolated, it’s happening too much for it to be isolated, it isn’t just one bad apple. We need to bridge the gap between the past and the present. Because, a lot of times for Black people who exist today, the past, and the present converge.
When we see violence and exploitations like this happen, we have to realize that knee—he officer’s knee on George Floyd—is connected to, and appeals to lynching. It’s connected to the number of nameless Black people who have been victims of state violence with impunity.
We have to see that, that’s the centuries-old legacy, for people who were once considered property themselves. It’s nothing new—and it’s continuing to happen, because the States, and Black people have been at odds with each other since we’ve been here.
Everything, from our histories, and our narratives, and our documents, to our land, to our lives, has been violated by the States, and white institutions. It’s happening right now. If we can create a Venn diagram that keeps overlapping, and overlapping, and overlapping, and we can talk about the history, and the present with the interrelated dialogue, we could see that until we get free, no one else is free.
I am proud of being a Black American—we don’t give up. There were many different moments in history where we should have been annihilated, 100%. We should have been wiped off the face of the earth, but we haven’t, because we keep resisting. And, still in spite of what we see, and hear in other places, we still keep moving. Even if we’re lost, and we keep getting stuck in place, we are holding each other.