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Author Morgan Jerkins Reconnects With Her Southern African-American Roots In New Book

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Between 1916 and 1970, some 6 million Black Americans left their homes in the rural South to find opportunity in the North. But that Great Migration also cut many of them off from their families and land and muddled their sense of identity.

MORGAN JERKINS: I hated the fact that I didn't know much about land. I didn't know about harvest, high tide, low tide, the levees, the dikes. I didn't know about herbal remedies. I didn't know anything.

FADEL: In her new book "Wandering In Strange Lands," Morgan Jerkins goes on a journey to the South to uncover her family history and reconnect herself to those roots. Among the places she visited, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, where she wanted to find out why she and Black Americans she knew had always avoided swimming.

JERKINS: I made a mistake. I assumed I knew a whole lot about Black people. And I realized I really didn't.

(LAUGHTER)

JERKINS: Working with a small sample size here. I was born and raised in New Jersey. For the Gullah Geechee people of Lowcountry, S.C. and Ga., the water is their bloodline. That's where they get their food. That's their culture. That's their biggest natural resource. And so I said, if that's the case, then we all derive something from them. They are the ethnic group that has the highest amount of West African cultural retention. So what were the forces that caused this aversion?

And if you look through our African American history, I mean, think about even the transatlantic slave trade. The Atlantic Ocean is somewhat of a floating graveyard, as I talked about in my book. And then when you come to the colonies and then later the states, it was because of so many different factors. I mean, segregated pools, the fact that, you know, the water that we have is often poisoned. And that's when I realized that the water - it is a source of death and destruction and disappearance.

FADEL: You know, a couple times in the book, you go on these tours. And then you look at the other tourists, and all of them are white people.

JERKINS: Oh, yes.

FADEL: And I just was wondering, in those moments, when you're going to a place to figure out, really, the history of your Black family, seeing that and the goal of the tour, could you talk about what you were feeling in those moments?

JERKINS: Disoriented. When I went to Butler Island Plantation, which was a huge rice plantation, I actually went with Tiffany Young. She's a descendent of the enslaved that worked on that plantation. And she showed me the historical marker in front of it. It says nothing about the enslaved people that lived there and that died there. And she told me that she had been trying to get a historical marker for years, and it hasn't happened yet.

And, you know, someone asked me, why is it that we get these sanitized versions? I said, because white people - they don't want to hear about the brutality. They want to hear about the lush gardens. They want to hear about the magnolia trees. They want to hear about the Italianate architecture. So there was this disorientation between what I was told in the intimate spaces of these Black people who opened up their lives to me versus what was officially told.

FADEL: Right. You know, a lot of the book was really about you unpacking and also confronting your own history and your ancestors - and who your ancestors were and finding that it wasn't as straightforward...

JERKINS: No.

FADEL: ...As you thought it was.

JERKINS: Not at all.

FADEL: There's a paragraph I was hoping you might be able to read for us.

JERKINS: Oh, yes. (Reading) I entered into Louisiana as Morgan Jerkins. I returned to New York City as Morgan Simone Regis Jerkins. I am a Black and Creole woman, a descendant of slaves, slave owners and free people of color. I need to say this not only for myself, but for those fighting for Creole preservation and for my numerous family lines out there, those whom I may never meet due to racial boundaries or lack of time or travel opportunities. I know my father, my father's father and the fathers before him.

FADEL: Can you talk to me about writing this paragraph? It's a part of the book where you're really starting to put the pieces together.

JERKINS: Before I started writing this book, my father used to be an enigma to me. And especially learning that we were Creole, I was like, Creole? I'm from New Jersey (laughter). And so when I went to Louisiana, it was so healing for me. And I remember my liaison there. She told me that when you go down there, people are going to look at you, and they're probably going to guess which parish you're from. And I didn't think that that was going to happen to me because, you know, I'm several generations removed. And somebody looked at me. They were like, are you from St. Landry Parish? And I was like, no, my people are from St. Martin Parish, which is - it's like a neighboring parish. It's not too far at all. And I was like, whoa. And then someone said, yeah, because she's got those half-moon eyes.

FADEL: Yeah.

JERKINS: And I say in my book, I hated my eyes before. I hated how every time I take a picture, I would be beaming so strongly that you only see my eyes like slits. And it was only in Louisiana where I realized they have a name. They're half-moons. And it was only going there and people recognizing something in my face that I really started to feel whole.

FADEL: What do you hope people will take away from this book, this journey that you took?

JERKINS: I want people to really gauge and assess the devastation of what has happened to Black communities, how much loss we have endured, and yet we still kept moving in spite of that, in spite of so many different ways in which we were meant to be wiped off the face of this country. I want people to understand that so that we can move forward and have the really tough conversations about what we have survived and what is owed to us.

But I hope with this book, that it's one document that some other person can hold on to and say, maybe my ancestors weren't lying about X, Y and Z. Maybe I need to listen to this elder a little bit more because they might be telling me something that I can, in turn, pass on to my children so that we can heal some familial wounds.

FADEL: Morgan Jerkins - her new book is called "Wandering In Strange Lands" - thanks so much for speaking with us.

JERKINS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.