‘Wandering in Strange Lands’: Morgan Jerkins reclaims family roots in powerful pilgrimage

As a Black person in America, far too often there is a stopping point when attempting to uncover family history. There are blank spots and questions not easily answered, instead oftentimes filled with wounds and stories lost with our ancestors.

Morgan Jerkins embarks on a pilgrimage to discover more about her family’s roots in “Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots” (Harper, 289 pp.,★★★ 1/2 out of four). Jerkins recounts her journey to understand the reasoning behind the Black people who left the South – as well as those who stayed.

The text is timely, as people are increasingly looking to learn about race and the Black experience in the United States through books, amid calls for conversations on justice and equity sparked in part by protests about systemic racism.

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Jerkins weaves a vivid and painful backstory of Black people forced into enslavement in the American South. Her memories of her childhood and her family’s stories tie into her exploration of the Georgia low country, South Carolina, Louisiana, Oklahoma and California to “excavate the connective tissue that complicates but unites us as a people.”

Through familial experiences and interactions with local guides and historians, Jerkins chronicles her trips to the South and West to find answers to questions about food, religion, colorism, enslavement, ancestral ties to the land and her own relatives’ passages through time. 

Morgan Jerkins' book "Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots" looks at her journey to discover more about her family and the Black people who left the South, as well as those who stayed.

Jerkins, like many younger African Americans, is searching for explanations of how and why she came to be. Rather than accepting the “that’s how it’s always been” mindset passed on from her family members, she lets her curiosity guide her across the nation to confront uncomfortable truths and meet people whose experiences differ from her New Jersey upbringing.

The book is filled with poignant examples from across multiple centuries, including those retold in classrooms and those relegated to forgotten parts of our country’s consciousness.

Jerkins speaks truth to power. She writes of the atrocities committed against the enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Georgia low country, from brutal beatings to a modern lack of historical acknowledgment; the complicated past and present of being Creole in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana; and the disenfranchisement of Blacks and natives through unfair legal land allocation practices in Oklahoma.

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She also does the research, inputting all the relevant facts and figures to give some necessary numerical context to her musings on the migratory patterns. She relies on scholars, professors, family members and residents of the cities from her travels to provide the instructive mise-en-scène that accompanies her analysis.

The numbers are critical in connecting the dots, with both the hyperpersonal stories and the universal truths shared by many Black Americans over generations, though in a few instances the data can come off as pedantic.

It’s when Jerkins sews her familial threads with those poignant historical facts from deep in the archives of America that the book is most impactful. Equally heartbreaking and reaffirming are the trials and tribulations too many Black people in the United States have faced and somehow conquered, coming out more resilient on the other side.

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