When Morgan Jerkins traveled the United States in search of her roots, she didn’t just look up the official records, useful as they sometimes were. She talked to relatives and knowledgeable strangers to explore what she calls the “whisper” stories: the ones African Americans and Native Americans quietly pass on through generations, because they are afraid to speak them too loudly.
In the sensitive, insightful Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots, Jerkins, an African American in her 20s raised mostly in New Jersey, recounts her journey to uncover the meaning of those stories for her own relatives, as well as for the millions of others who moved north during the Great Migration. Seemingly unimportant traditions like eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day and half-serious references to “roots” hexes turn out to be important clues to the culture of kidnapped Africans in Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana.
Jerkins finds the hard truths of racism in her research: a great-grandfather who fled a lynching threat; Gullah landowners forced off their property by whites; relatives who “passed” as white and cut family ties. But she also struggles emotionally with the discovery that her background is more diverse than she had understood. Among her ancestors are whites, free Creole people of color who owned slaves, and, possibly, Native Americans.
After her illuminating visits to Louisiana, Oklahoma and the Georgia-South Carolina low country, Jerkins ends in Los Angeles, where she spent part of her childhood. California, she says, was the last Promised Land for black people, but it turned out to be as disappointing as everywhere else. Now many African Americans are leaving in a reverse migration to the South.
As Jerkins finishes her moving chronicle, she says she is “exhausted” by the constant racial violence she finds, most recently in the massacres in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, where a high proportion of the victims were people of color. One way forward, she writes, is for black people to “regain their narrative and contextualize the shame.” The answer, Jerkins says, is not flight but true community informed by deep knowledge of the past.