Morgan Jerkins Heads Down South in Search of Her Black Identity


A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots
By Morgan Jerkins

At times I have wondered how helpful introspection is when it comes to defining Black identity. As minorities in highly racialized societies, we have never had the luxury of not thinking about our Blackness.

It’s whiteness that has enjoyed the toxic combination of being both weaponized and yet invisible. This — the obvious reasoning goes — is the identity that should command our attention now.

But Morgan Jerkins’s latest book, “Wandering in Strange Lands,” is a mesmerizing reminder that this divide between Black and white is a false binary. On the premise of reconnecting her Northern identity to its Southern roots, Jerkins embarks on a journey that is anything but direct, or simple. Instead the story of her personal heritage, and its erasure within her own family, reveals the reductive power of the white gaze to flatten the complexities of Black lineage. “I existed in that Black-white binary,” Jerkins writes, “because it was easier.”

[ Read an excerpt from “Wandering in Strange Lands.” ]

Jerkins divides her heritage up geographically: the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina, Creole Louisiana, Oklahoma and finally Los Angeles, revealing their distinct but overlapping phenomena of enslavement, emancipation, multiculturalism and migration. In each corner of the country she seeks to unveil her ancestors’ secrets with the help of local historians and activists, who in turn share their own.

Hers is a journey that exists at the crossroads of so much contemporary analysis of the African-American experience. A backward trail through Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns”; the story of white passing in Brit Bennett’s novel “The Vanishing Half”; the pain and power of water as it carries Black people both toward and away from slavery in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Water Dancer”; the ingenuity of traditional African rootwork and healing practices in Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing.”

Like these other masterly recent works, “Wandering in Strange Lands” is in many ways a quintessentially American story, one that posits the South as a motherland where, as Beyoncé recently declared, one’s “roots ain’t watered down.”

Yet it’s the African continent — whose presence is woven subtly throughout her prose — that becomes Jerkins’s unmistakable ancestral hinterland. From the cultural and spiritual practices of the Lowcountry’s Gullah Geechee communities, to Creole superstitions whose traces Jerkins detects even in her New Jersey upbringing, the question that hovers over this work is an ancient one: How much Africa is there still in African-American identity?

It’s a question Black Americans have and will continue to ask themselves, but as Jerkins reminds us, the parallels between American and other Black diasporic experiences are unmistakable. She could have drawn them out more, though: how the systematic degrading of oral traditions dislocates memory; the uneasy juxtaposition of non-Western spirituality and Christianity; the abandonment of local foods according to Eurocentric notions of nutrition. All of the above have harmed Black people wherever white colonization took place.

As has the glamorization of plantations, across the American South and the Caribbean, as synonymous with luxury white housing and tourism, rather than as sites of crimes against humanity. This is one of the many profound injustices Jerkins describes powerfully yet accessibly. Her writing has a light touch as it takes on subjects like land dispossession, punitive taxation, a lack of public services, and environmental contamination, blending them seamlessly with the tastes of couche-couche, chitlins and crawfish étouffée.

The tone of the book feels as meandering as its subject matter, verging on repetitive at times; but Jerkins herself confesses her task is Sisyphean. She has a gift for turning circular stories of identity into something conclusive: a “disentanglement of Black ethnic identity as it twists and turns under the powers and laws of white supremacy.”

Her task is also courageous. Jerkins approaches territory that is taboo even in Black circles: the complexities of caste and colorism within Creole culture, the denial of Black claims to citizenship in Native nations, even the fraught question of whether it was possible for sex between master and slave to be consensual.

Jerkins makes plain that denying space for Black identities in history is itself a legacy as American as its original sins of racism and enslavement. By exploring the truth of that past with such integrity, this memoir enriches our future.


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