HARPERCOLLINS – @HarperCollins
[This review was originally posted on Patreon.]
AUTHOR: Morgan Jerkins
ISBN: 978-0-06-287304-0; hardcover (August 4, 2020)
304pp, B&W, $27.99 U.S.
Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots is the new nonfiction book from Morgan Jerkins, magazine editor and writer, cultural critic, and bestselling author of the book, This Will Be My Undoing. In Wandering in Strange Lands, Jerkins journeys across the United States in order to understand her roots, the Great Migration, and the displacement of black people across America.
At the center of Wandering in Strange Lands is the fact that between 1916 and 1970, six million black Americans left their rural homes in the South for jobs in cities in the North, West, and Midwest. This movement is known as The Great Migration, and it was an event that transformed the complexion of America. The Great Migration brought black people to new economic opportunities, but Morgan Jerkins argues that this massive movement also left African-Americans disconnected from their roots, their land, and their sense of identity. Both sides of Jerkins family made the Great Migration, but to what extent? Who were the family members left behind? Who are the founders of her family lines?
Jerkins decided to fill in the gaps in her own personal story and in the gaps in the history of both her mother and her father's families. She decided to do this by recreating her ancestors’ journeys across America, following the migratory routes they took from Georgia and South Carolina to Louisiana, to Oklahoma, and to California.
Jerkins follows in her people's footsteps, backwards and forwards, as she seeks to understand not only her own past, but also the lineage of her family and of the entire group of black people who have been displaced, disenfranchised, and disrespected throughout our history as a nation. Jerkins conducts interviews with family, with friends, and with new friends who might be family. She takes photos and collects hundreds of pages of transcription – all of this to gather those loose threads of her family’s oral histories that she might make something whole and hopefully complete. Along the way, she is disabused of some of her notions, and she starts to wonder – who controls our stories?
THE LOWDOWN: My paternal grandmother supposedly had American Indian heritage. Her and her siblings were of so many different skin tones that when I met some of them, I did not realize that they were her siblings. Three of my grandmother's brothers were part of the Great Migration, heading to Detroit for jobs in the automobile industry a long, long time ago. I met them at my grandmother's funeral decades ago.
My maternal grandmother turned out to be the child of former slave, which means my mother was the grandchild of a former slave. Also “the old white man” who came to play with me whenever I visited my maternal grandmother was actually her wayward husband and my mother's father. My mother, who died a few years ago, was the keeper of detailed histories of both her and her husband's families. Mama always had a story. I never recorded them, and now, that she is passed, I feel helpless as I try to rediscover the stories from which I will regrow the family tree.
Wandering in Strange Lands is the story of someone, in this case, a young woman named Morgan Jerkins, who wants to braid the loose threads of the oral histories of both sides of her family. She backtracks across the Great Migration to learn about the Gullah Geechee. She plumbs the mystery of water, of root work, and of root doctors in the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina.
Jerkins heads to Louisiana and visits Natchitoches and Cane River to meet the “Creole” people she once dismissed. She travels south to the Louisiana cities of Lafayette and St. Martinville and discovers her connections to Voodoo. Then, it's on to Oklahoma where threads of her family lead back to North Carolina and Florida and to the stories of the “Freedmen,” “by-blood Indians,” and the “Dawes Roll.” Finally, Jerkins returns to California and to Los Angeles where the Great Migration took black people to a place where things were supposed to be much better than in rest of the racist United States... or so they believed. But it wasn't.
I have been steadily writing reviews for almost twenty years, yet I don't have the words to describe the epic scope of Morgan Jerkins deeply personal story. I can't describe the power this book has; sometimes, I thought it put some hoodoo on me. Jerkins' journey to connect the disparate parts of her family history and their origins is her own story. Somehow, she connects me with and into her story, and I think that she will do that to everyone who reads her book.
Morgan Jerkins makes Wandering in Strange Lands a nonfiction work of black history and of American history. It is a book of religion and of culture, and it is an indictment of America's systemic white racism and pernicious white privilege. The lens through which Jerkins tells this story is a microscope for her family's history and a telescope gathering in the star fields of black history.
In the awful year that is 2020, Wandering in Strange Lands might seem to be the book that was meant to be here. It is not a prophetic work, but the prophets wanted it to be here now. So...yeah... I'm saying it's a must-read.
I READS YOU RECOMMENDS: Readers interested in the stories and oral histories of African-American families will find an essential book in Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots.
10 out of 10
Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux a.k.a. "I Reads You"
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