Her first book may have been her “undoing,” but journalist and author Morgan Jerkins’ second offering, Wandering in Strange Lands (HarperCollins), is a homecoming. Taking a detour from the “hot-takes” upon which she built her career and the provocative personal essays that comprised her bestselling debut, This Will Be My Undoing, Jerkins retraced the steps of her ancestors from her native New Jersey back through the Great Migration, through Gullah-Geechee culture, and beyond. While fans of her first book may find Strange Lands an unexpected departure in both tone and scope, Jerkins nevertheless presents an equally intimate history—this time, not only for herself but the many Black and Indigenous readers who will see their own histories reflected in her journey.
“[W]ith this book, I was trying to document a mosaic of Black American experiences and how those experiences can transform, can fracture, and rupture depending on migration,” Jerkins tells me, along with my co-host, The Root’s Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton, on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! podcast. “And that was something that’s very interesting for me, is that when we speak about the Black American experience, the Black American identity, I realize that there are Black American identities and experiences,” she adds. “And it’s so great to not only talk about things that unify us but within that unity, talk about what distinguishes us, depending on which region we’re from. And I really wanted to be able to highlight that in the book.”
As any Black American who has attempted to trace their genealogy is well aware, those journeys through our lineage are rarely, if ever, linear. They are pocked with voids of readily-accessible knowledge and filled with uncomfortable truths. For Jerkins, excavating the past occasionally involved blurring the binaries that have historically existed between Black and white American identities, as well as clarifying the lesser-known facts that may contradict our beliefs and teachings of Black history.
“This is the work, right here...to talk about the truths that make us uncomfortable,” she said of her extensively researched migration story, one she felt compelled to write, “to just show that our ancestors cannot be flattened.”
“You know, we say in internet spaces, I’m not my ancestors.’ And we often say it with regards to like, we’re stronger than them, which—I completely I reject that, for many different reasons.” Jerkins continues. “But what I think when we say ‘I am not my ancestors,’ [is] you’re right. Because you can’t flatten your ancestors and what they did to survive, whether you like it or not...if we’re going to expose the totality and the multiplicity of Black American experiences, we have to be okay with wherever it may lead.”
Hear this and more in the third episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, featuring the ever-curious Morgan Jerkins, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public.
A transcript of The Root Presents: It’s Lit, Ep. 3: Morgan Jerkins is available below: