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Part cultural history, part travelogue, part memoir, Jerkins’ journey to discover her ancestral lineage takes readers to the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, Louisiana, and, eventually, Los Angeles, tracing 300 years of Black culture in the U.S. Her warm storytelling style makes Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims her Roots as page-turning as it is educational. The titles below take a similar approach, examining racial, ethnic, and cultural identity and complicated histories through a personal lens.
The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family. By Gail Lumet Buckley. 2016. Atlantic Monthly, $17 (9780802126276).
Buckley’s great-great-grandfather learned to read while enslaved, and, upon emancipation, became a highly successful Atlanta businessman. This superbly realized family portrait—which includes Buckley’s mother, Lena Horne—is set within the tragic persistence of racism.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. By Michael W. Twitty. 2017. Amistad, $16.99 (9780062379276).
Twitty chronicles his “Southern Discomfort Tour” that took him from Civil War battlefields to Black-owned organic farms, reviving recipes and cooking methods while uncovering his own family history and celebrating heretofore unsung great Black American cooks.
Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity. By Paolo Ramos. 2020. Vintage, $16.95 (9781984899095).
Journalist Ramos reveals a wide-ranging array of people not easily categorized (including herself) from all corners of the country, visiting people who are queer or trans, farm workers, reformed gangbangers, climate crusaders, Muslim Latinx, and Blaxicans (African Mexicans).
Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem. By Paula Williams Madison. 2015. Amistad, $25.99 (97800062331632).
While she searches for information on her grandfather, Samuel Lowe, Madison begins to uncover dramatic stories of ambition and heartache spun from a web of imperialism, slavery, and immigration that link together China, Jamaica, and the U.S., culminating in a visit to Lowe’s village in China to redraw 3,000 years of her family tree.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. By Cathy Park Hong. 2020. Random/One World, $27 (9781984820365).
In this collection of essays, award-winning poet Hong explores collective Asian American history through careful memoir, radical history, sociopolitical treatise, and revolutionary call-out. Though it is more outwardly political than Jerkins’ work, it is no less affecting and illuminating.
The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family. By Bettye Kearse. 2020. HMH, $26. (9781328604392).
Like Jerkins, Kearse’s saga is infused with spirituality, this time that of West African griots who used the power of storytelling to pass down family tales. Kearse also looks for solid evidence of the family lore stating that they are descended from a slave named Coreen and President James Madison, a journey that takes her from Lagos to Virginia to Ghana to New York.
The Turquoise Ledge. By Leslie Marmon Silko. 2010. Viking, $18 (9780143120100).
The turquoise stones Silko finds in the Tucson Mountains near her home embody the story of the land and her own complex Laguna Pueblo, Cherokee, Mexican, and European heritage, and here she presents vivid portraits of grandmothers and animal members of her extended family alongside mesmerizing descriptions of desert and drought.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. By Isabel Wilkerson. 2010. Random, $17.95 (9780679763888).
Jerkins grew up in New Jersey, a direct result of her ancestors’ post-Civil War Great Migration. Wilkerson dives deep into that period, focusing on three individual stories to paint the larger picture of the changing dynamics of race, class, politics, and economics during this watershed event in U.S. history. Readers will also want to read Wilkerson’s latest, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020).
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