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.