Who Do You Think You Are?


MORGAN JERKINS’ new book Wandering in Strange Lands her family history and the roots of African-American culture


How did you come to write the book?

In the beginning I didn’t want to write about myself. I wanted this broad stroke of talking about African-American customs and traditions through the lens of intergener­ational trauma and fear. That was something that was really interestin­g to me, especially in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement and learning about police surveillan­ce and violence, land displaceme­nt, dispossess­ion, and so on and so forth. So I started writing the book, but my editors realised just how distant I was vocally and tonally. You need to have that personal element in there, so that part about my family actually came later.

Has the book brought you closer to your roots? When it comes to African-American genealogic­al research, the work is never done. There’re still things that I’m learning about my family’s history that I didn’t know when I was writing and revising the book. I think what was important about me writing about my family’s history and also trying to trace their migratory paths was that I realised that my affinity was much larger than I thought it was. And it was very healing for me to go back, for example, to Louisiana, which is where my father’s family is originally from, and to be recognised there. It was like a whole-circle moment. The type of conversati­ons I’m having with family and friends and even strangers about them finding distant family members in my book, or them starting out on doing research of their own, that is what I wanted, and that’s what makes me feel like this work is meant to be done.

Why is so much African-American history lost? A lot of our ancestors couldn’t read or write – it was often a death sentence to do that – and so we take our oral history very seriously. But the problem in the mainstream is that written documentat­ion is seen as more veritable than oral history. So what is the truth, the stated or the oral fact? There were some things I knew I could have uncovered if perhaps slavery hadn’t happened, if families weren’t separated all the time, if my people were actually treated as human beings rather than commoditie­s. There were many different parts of my research where I felt like I was going in circles, because I couldn’t find things. I thought it was due to my incapabili­ty as a researcher and writer, until I realised that it’s a larger infrastruc­tural problem.

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