‘I Wasn’t Taught Certain Things About My Ancestors’

ZORA’s own Morgan Jerkins in conversation with novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge

Photo illustration; Image source: Sylvie Rosokoff, Wikimedia Commons

Morgan Jerkins is a prophet who deals with the past. Whether it’s the uncomfortable stories of a Black suburban childhood and adolescence she describes in her debut essay collection This Will Be My Undoing, or the pieces of Black history she works to uncover in her journalism, or the forgotten stories she highlights as an editor for ZORA magazine, the throughline in Jerkins’ work is finding ways to reckon with past events and amplify their echoes in the present.

Nowhere is that clearer than in her new book Wandering in Strange Lands, which traces her family’s journeys across America before, during, and after the Great Migration. These travels took her to Creole country in Louisiana, the Gullah Islands in South Carolina, and the Black settlements in Oklahoma, among other places. Along the way, she uncovered testimonies that complicate our understanding of Blackness, the lives of enslaved people, and the places we call home. I spoke with Jerkins ahead of her book’s publication to talk about these issues and more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kaitlyn Greenidge: Right now, there’s a lot of conversations happening around our ancestries as Black people. Yet there is also a disconnect for many people, around the question of, what does it mean to actually learn about your ancestors with all of their complications? Especially when we’re talking about older Black people and the compromises and choices open to them in the world that they lived in? How can we talk about those people, be honest about their choices, and find strength there while also realizing that they were people, not superheroes?

Morgan Jerkins: (The question is) what are our responsibilities and our limits as writers and researchers? We say a lot — especially in the internet communities — like, “I’m not my ancestors,” and it’s often used in the context of “I’m stronger than them” or “I’m going to be more resistant.” I’m against that aspect (of the phrase). I think that we as Black people have to be careful of not flattening the interiorities of our ancestors because they’re still people we don’t know.

As a Black American growing up in New Jersey and public school systems, I wasn’t taught certain things. But just because I’m uncomfortable doesn’t mean I’m going to just anesthetize because that’s not the point of the journey. It’s going to be uncomfortable a lot of times, and it’s a lot of reckoning on both ends, white and Black.

How do you write about problematic elders? People who do things that maybe in the light of 2020 don’t look kosher, people who are willing to be candid with you around certain ideas around culture or race that we don’t usually say out loud? How do you navigate those moments?

Being honest. For the Louisiana chapter, I visited an entire community of Creole people who are descendants of Marie Coincoin [who was Black] and Thomas Pierre Metoyer [who was white]. They never said “rape” [when describing that relationship], never. The entire time that I was there, not a single descendant said he raped her, not a single person said he took advantage of her. And that didn’t sit right with me, because I was taught when we’re thinking about enslaved Black women and sex, it wasn’t sex. It was always rape, always.

I was afraid of writing the Louisiana part because I know what it’s like for someone to take snippets of work that I had really invested in [and quote out of context], paragraphs out of thousands words long chapters without reading the whole thing. But I told myself, I can’t be scared of that. This is the work. This is the discomfort.

The way that I can write about problematic people is to say, “Okay, you’re going to hear from them.” I’m going to give you dialogue as much as I can and I’m going to show you the discomfort that I had as I documented this. Because there were moments throughout my journey where I was alone. I was alone and I was doing this work and it was hard for me. I want people to understand that intimate feel, too. That it wasn’t just that I recorded it and then went to upload it on my Google Drive and that was that. It was heavy on my spirit. I’m still emotionally processing things that I had experienced when I was on my trip.

I [ask myself] did I tell my truth? Did I tell the truth as best as I could find it? And guess what? Sometimes the truth hurts. It hurt me but that doesn’t mean I have to obscure it again. To the benefit of who?

You mention Creoles in Louisiana. A few months back you posted a Twitter thread about Beyoncé’s heritage. She had done an interview with Vogue, discussing how her family was descended from a marriage between an enslaved African woman and a white slaveholder in Louisiana. Many commenters were troubled by this — particularly Beyoncé’s insistence on using the word “marriage” to describe that relationship. You did a brilliant thread about the complications of genealogy, memory, and legal distinctions when talking about Black American ancestry. But it was still controversial! Why do you think that is?

Because it doesn’t fit the narrative. I’m not going to speak for everybody. I’m going to speak for me. When I was growing up, this was the narrative of Black history: Our ancestors were captured somewhere near the coast of West Africa. They were brought over the Atlantic to the docks of southern Colonies and then they were emancipated — reconstruction, Harlem Renaissance, civil rights era, Obama. That’s it. I was not taught at any time in my life that there were Black slave owners. I was not taught that anyone other than white people participated in the plantation economy. I was not taught that there were free Black people, free people of color prior to Lincoln.

I think it bothered people for that reason because Beyoncé’s Creole. When people say Creole people only think, Oh they light-skinned bougie people. They don’t want to be Black, they think they better than Black people. And it’s like yeah, that’s true. I’m sure that’s true, but at the same time, according to Louisiana history prior to them even becoming a part of the United States, Creole was a particular distinction and it was a particular status aside from Black people. That’s just the truth.

On the one hand, I think other people were upset because she’s hinging her ancestry on whiteness, and I get that. That’s very valid. I think another part of it is we’re not comfortable talking about the sexual lives of enslaved Black women. There are scholars that do it. I’m going to shout them out because I used them in the book: Treva B. Lindsey, Jessica Marie Johnson, wonderful scholars. But we are not comfortable as a whole discussing enslaved Black women’s sexual lives, because automatically we think if sex happened it was rape. My question is — and granted I’m not there yet because again, I’m uncomfortable — but is that always so?

I understand the risk because if you start talking about enslaved Black women having the ability sometimes to choose — and I’m going to take it a step further, having the ability to pleasure and mixing that with survival — you might have some bad faith white people that are like, Okay so it wasn’t all that bad.

I understand the risk of that. But for me, in my research after going to Louisiana and talking to these people, I’m like, Did they ever get to choose? And is it wrong for me to ask that question? It was complicated. I’m never going to know, but I feel like it would be wrong for us as curious Black people to just be like, No, no she was a rape victim.

I don’t want to believe that enslaved Black women never experienced pleasure. I don’t want to believe that.

Another thing that comes up with the Beyoncé conversation is colorism. Which is something that Twitter loves to talk about but fundamentally does not understand.

See, if I say that… I have to think of optics right? I’m a light-skinned Black woman. I understand that a lot of times when we have this discussion that even if I don’t intend, people (think) Oh, she was trying to center herself. So that’s why I take a back seat sometimes. I get it. I understand y’all feelings. I had them too. But we have to be okay with being uncomfortable because when we’re uncomfortable then we can have the real conversation to get that pain out. If we just keep talking in circles and using these binaries with our own people and sometimes even purposely misunderstanding certain parts because they don’t fit [a narrative] and we’re afraid of the backlash and all that, then how do we even gauge our own Blackness then? How do we even gauge multiple Black identities then? Multiple realities that exist at once.

Yes! We need to be able to hold all those multiple realities at once because that is one of the keys to really getting free, to getting some sort of other version of what we can be.

We always think Black/or, very rarely Black/and. When I went to Oklahoma, it’s Black and indigenous there, not Black/or. When people say we could be both at once… I hear that a lot of times in Black conversation. What’s the responsibility of that as people who are in these conversations and investigating? Because it’s not just about saying it, it’s about feeling it. It’s about reading it and getting uncomfortable with the both. That don’t mean it’s always reconcilable to our feelings. It may not be always reconcilable to the present day tools that we have. So then what do we do?

This brings me to the rise of the ADOS (American Descendants of Slaves) movement, some strains of which seem to be really invested in rigid binaries, rigid definitions of Blackness, no room for the “and.” How does your work fit into conversations with that?

I’m going to take a roundabout way. When I was studying at Princeton, I remember there were categories, and African Americans were the minorities of Black people. You were West Indian, you were of African descent or you were JB, just Black. And that used to piss me off, because it made me just feel like, Oh we’re just Black because we don’t know where in Africa we came from, we don’t know our dialects, we don’t know our ethnic groups. And it just hurt.

I have not submerged myself in the ADOS pool on Twitter, but what I’ll say is the diaspora wars are exhausting. What I think about it is “somebody had it worse.” What’s the end goal? By comparing the sugar plantations in Louisiana to Haiti, by comparing the rice plantations in the low country — what does that solve? What exactly are we centering? How badly white people treated our ancestors? And because of the pain inflicted, that’s more valuable, or more Black? What is the end goal? Because for me it’s like, it was a global system unlike the world has ever seen and that’s what’s interesting. The slave traders that were in Saint Lucia, where some of my family was from, they were in Virginia. The slave traders there were in Haiti, they were in Louisiana. This is what I’m talking about with migratory patterns. It ain’t just about Black people moving to escape racial terrorism.

However, I think [the diaspora wars] are played in order to make it a competition among who’s Blacker or who has more of an enriched sense of Black identity. It’s painful. And I think it’s a very tricky way to do things, and I think it can turn irresponsible very quickly. It just seems divisive.

One of the things that I have noticed about online Blackness, in particular, is people love to do these threads. I post them, you post them too. I love reading them, these threads that are like, You’re really Black if x. Like Black people love x. When we’re talking about Blackness, how do we differentiate between what is true for our family and what is true for Blackness as a whole? Because sometimes I’ll see those threads and I’ll be like, I don’t know if that’s Blackness or that’s just you and your people.

A wise man once told me this: “We don’t understand, we’re working with a small sample size. We think that we know Black people but do we really?” I was humbled when I heard that because the fact of the matter is that yes, I’ve traveled, but when I went to Oklahoma and Louisiana in the low country, I ain’t ever been there [before]. That’s a whole different context. Now granted, do we know what it’s like to be under systemic violence and erasure? Yes, those are unifying forces.

But I personally don’t like to make the statements where it’s like, You’re Black if this. Instead what I’ve been doing during the pandemic — which has actually been nourishing for me because I live alone. The pandemic was hard for me in the beginning because I just wanted to connect to people and the internet was all I had a lot of times so for example, I call it Black people roll call. I’ll ask questions instead. “Black people, what are some names of your ancestors?” When I saw Black people ride on horses during the protest in late May, early June, I said, “Black people, which of y’all know how to ride a horse?” Or I might just say, “Black people, where are your people from, and where are you at now?” Certain things — instead of making these declaratory statements, ask a question instead.

More from Morgan on her writing process and discovering her family history:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store