Terrible, Thanks for Asking

The Milkman's Baby - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “The Milkman’s Baby.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.

This is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” and I’m Nora McInerny. And if this were “Game of Thrones,” I’d tell you I’m Nora McInerny, second of my name. Because the first Nora McInerny in my family is buried in Lake City, Minnesota. The home of waterskiing (allegedly!) even though it’s not a lake, it’s just a wide part of the Mississippi that looks lake-ish. It gets very calm. 

Lake City was where Nora McInerny and her husband, Patrick McInerny, ended up after emigrating from Ireland to Canada then POSSIBLY to Kentucky, but definitely to Minnesota. 

My brother’s name is Patrick — which is weird, kinda gross — but there’s a photo of us, Patrick and Nora McInerny, grinning on Nora and Patrick’s gravestones on a road trip our dad took us on in the ‘90s to Lake City, Minnesota.

Growing up, the fact that we were Irish, that we came from County Claire, Ireland, was a part of our lives. It was a part of our identity. It really meant something to my dad to be able to trace us back to somewhere, to something besides Minneapolis. He spent 10 years of his life tracing our family back, all the way back to the 1800s, where the records disappear and the trail goes cold. You can thank the English for that.

We laughed at my dad when he was doing this. We mocked him slightly. I regret that, because it is a privilege to know this much about my family. It is a privilege to have enough information accessible to us that we can sit at those gravestones and smile for a disposable camera. That we can know for certain where the ancestors who came before us lived and breathed. 

Not everybody has that kind of access to their family history. Not everybody can trace a line from where they came from to who they are.

Morgan: I mean, think about just the privilege of documentation. You know, at one point, you had a death wish if you were an enslaved Black person trying to learn how to read or write. So already there's a power imbalance with who gets to tell which stories, who gets to disperse a certain narrative. And also, think about institutions. A lot of institutions that can put out information and disseminate it widely are dominated by white people. And oftentimes, oral history is seen as secondary or tertiary to what is considered “fact,” quote unquote. “Proof,” quote unquote. Evidence. 

A lot of times in Black communities, things aren't documented. A lot of times in Black history you have, you know, grios who passed down history. You had the oral history. So that's what causes this collision course between what I am told and what is documented. At one point my dad's name was not on my birth certificate, but I knew who my father was. But at that time, someone might say, “She didn't have a father,” and I'm like, “I did.” So there's a difference between what I know to be true and what is documented. That is what causes these problems. It's like, OK, I know this because my family passed it down for generations, but the documents say otherwise.

Nora: What are some of the ramifications or the implications of that lack of documentation? 

Morgan: People don't believe Black people when they tell them things. [laughs]

That’s Morgan Jerkins, the author of Wandering In Strange Lands and a person who spent many months piecing together the patchwork of her own family history, and many weeks literally wandering in the lands they had been rooted to so many years before. Her book is filled with stories — and you need to go pick it up — but we’re going to talk about just a few of them in this episode, and about what it means to redefine yourself through your ancestors.

But long before the book, long before those trips, Morgan was a kid. A really curious kid, growing up in New Jersey with her mother and her big sister. 

Morgan’s parents weren’t together, and Morgan had her mother’s last name. But Morgan and her dad had a relationship. She lived with her mom, but her dad would visit regularly.

Morgan: When I was born, my father looked at me and was like, “That’s the milkman’s baby.” And he said that because I was so light. I was the lightest person on my mother's side of the family. And oftentimes people would take jabs at my light skin. 

People joked that Morgan was white, or that her dad must be white, because her skin burned in the sun.

Morgan: And it wasn't until I was a little bit older that I realized that people thought milkman's baby meant that mom was promiscuous, and I didn't know who my father was. And I always knew my father was. My father was present in my life. But it filled me with a deeply ingrained pain. And the reason being is because I grew up in a Pentecostal community, and marriage, children, family are everything. And especially when you are a Black girl, you know how important it is to have your father in your life. 

Your sense of self when you’re small and young is tied to who you belong to and where you live. Morgan’s identity at this point is that she is Black. She is Pentecostal. She’s from New Jersey! She is the daughter of Sybil and Jon. She is their only child. She has her father’s eyes. 

When Morgan is seven years old, the context of her place in the world shifts dramatically. She and her dad are hanging out. He’d often come visit her at her mom’s house and bring her presents, treats. This time, he tells Morgan that he has something to show her.

Morgan: My dad was sitting down, and he reached into his wallet and he showed me pictures of three girls. There were, like, pictures of them at dance recitals. And I was like, “OK, they're pretty. You know, they seem nice from their smiles.” But in my mind I was like why is he showing me this? And he said, “Well, these are your sisters.”

And that just threw me for a loop, because even though I was really young, I think I was like seven or eight at the time, I only thought I had one sister: my sister on my mother's side, who's eight years my senior. That's who I lived with. I conjured my father as just this bachelor who lives in the Jersey Shore. So when I found out that he actually had three other daughters, there were so many questions, those that I couldn't articulate at my young age.

It turns out one of those daughters is just 15 months older than Morgan. And they all live together with her dad — their dad — in a house with their mom and a dog. 

Morgan: It often filled me with insecurity. It made me think about, you know, where did I really fit in my father's line? Where did I really fit into my mother's line, despite the fact that I knew both of them existe. I didn't have that grounding. And that type of gap, if you will, persisted throughout adulthood. I grew up in a family where we had a lot of circumlocution. What I mean by that is we never address things head on. We always talk through the back doors of rhetoric. Very subtle, very much around the way, if that makes sense.

Morgan has always had questions… lots of questions. But not a lot of answers. She knows her parents’ relationship was over before she was born, but the story isn’t clear.  She knew her father grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. That he travelled back there often and felt connected to the land down there. 

But her mother’s story seemed to begin and end in New Jersey. Her mother was focused on moving forward, not looking back. Morgan had questions about why they believed things, why they sang certain songs, why they are certain foods on certain dates. And when she asked, her mom would say...

Morgan: “It's just something that we did.” Every time I asked my Mom, she would just say, “It's just something that we did.” And these weren’t questions I wasn't asked when I was like young, young. I was probably, you know, late teens, you know, or early adult. So I was asking this question, but it's just like, “This is something that we did.”So I knew she didn’t have the answers either. 

The years pass, but Morgan’s questions don’t go away. And neither does her curiosity. And she learns that her mother’s circumlocution isn’t solely about an unwillingness to answer questions but an inability to answer them. 

Morgan’s story, she writes, is not uncommon:

“From 1916 to 1970, six million African Americans made a grand exodus from the South to the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast in search of a better life. This exodus is commonly known as the Great Migration … Many families allowed their memories to evaporate along with the steam of the locomotives on which they arrived. Many didn’t want to talk about their traumatic experiences in the South. Folks like me are the result of these omissions.”

But these omissions are not just interpersonal.

Morgan: There was so much I wasn't taught, and I'm not saying because of my family, I'm just saying in terms of the public education system in America. With regards to Black history, it was very narrow and “clean,” quote unquote. It was, you know, your ancestors were captured on or near the coast of Western Africa. They were brought over via the transatlantic slave trade. You know, slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, Harlem Renaissance, civil rights and then Obama.

Nora: Solved it! Yeah.

Morgan: Yeah, it was. That's how I, you know, I was never taught, for example, that free Black people, free people of color existed prior to emancipation. I wasn't taught that, you know, how much land Black people owned prior to, you know, like in the early 20th century, how much they lost. I was not taught that there were Black slave owners — thousands of them that existed. 

Nora: When you were a kid, if somebody asked you about, you know what… how do you identify? What would you have said?

Morgan: I would've said I'm Black. I didn't know how else to identify because when I was growing up a child of the American public education system, I wasn't taught the complexities of Black American lives in an historical context. I was not taught that there were ethnic identities of, like, subcomponents of African-American identity. I just considered myself Black. 

And even when I went to college. I went to Princeton and, you know, Black people were a minority, but American Blacks were a minority of a minority. Most of the Black students there were of West Indian or African descent. And there were these different categorizations we had. And one of the categorizations for African-Americans was just Black, which I hated. It felt derogatory and also felt like a jab at those who are the descendants of enslaved Black people who don't know their origins on the African continent. So for the while, I just... I left it at Black. I didn't really know what else to say other than that.

We’ll be right back.

We’re back. When Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton, she began working in book publishing in New York City. And when people ask her about where she’s from, she’d say New Jersey — Southern New Jersey if they asked whereabouts. And if they pressed, she’d say Atlantic City. It was an answer with some shame in it, because Southern New Jersey doesn’t seem fashionable, and because she knew it isn’t the full story.

Morgan: I knew we were from the South somewhere in our line. But I never really got a clear answer as to why we left. And because the South is so expansive, because so many of our ancestors came there, I wondered, could some of the answers to questions that, you know, my mother didn't really have a basis for, could they be found in that region? So those were the two central questions that I had: Why did we leave? And could I also find the question, the roots to all of our customs and beliefs in this region?

If I talk about, you know, why is it that we eat collard greens for money and black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year's Day, then you get into superstition and you get into folklore. And that tied me to, for example, the low country in Georgia and South Carolina. Right? Or if I think about certain aversions we had, particularly to water, that also tied into that region. 

Morgan wanted the full story — as much of it as she could get. So she embarked on a quest to the American South. The plan was to go to Georgia Lowcountry, South Carolina and Louisiana. To piece together what she knew, what she’d heard, what she’d researched, and to create a history of her family. 

Morgan: I felt like a sleuth. There was so much circuitous motion in this sort of, like, detective story, I suppose, where I was like, oh, my God, I keep hitting this false start again. I keep hitting this road block. And it was like, I felt like my ancestors didn't want me to find them. It was so frustrating! It just felt like I had these stories, I had these scraps, and I was like, it may not be a lot, but it's something. And if I just keep doing the work, combining primary sources with secondary research, I'm going to find something. I'm going to return back to the East Coast, the Northeast, with more than what I set out with. 

From Georgia to South Carolina, the privilege of documentation was glaringly obvious in Morgan’s search. 

Morgan: It's revisionist history. I'm gonna give you an example. I went to a very well-known rice plantation in Darien, Georgia, called Butler Island Plantation. There's only one historical marker out there, when I went back in 2018. The historical marker was about a writer, a white woman writer who went there to document what she saw. There's no acknowledgment of the many Black people who lost their lives toiling on this plantation. You know, just to keep in mind that rice plantations… there was just a world of dangers there: malaria, yellow fever, crocodiles while you're trying to build levees and dikes. You know, the slave mortalities, especially for children, were through the roof. And there's no acknowledgment of that.

And the woman who showed me this plantation — on a non-institutional tour, mind you — she's a descendant of those who toiled on that land. Somebody could go to that plantation and just think, “Oh it's a nice plantation, rice was grown there,” without asking who grew the rice there? Who cultivated that? You could go there and you will have no idea that slavery actually happened there?

I was actually reading an essay by a white woman who was reckoning with the shame as she felt for getting married on a plantation, because she didn't even know that slavery was there. And this is a woman who was born in Louisiana, the Deep South. And she just this cognitive dissonance, it's this revisionist history. But it's also because we do not value Black lives and our histories as much as we do white lives and their histories. 

But Morgan values her history, and when the documentation fails her, the oral history of her family guides her through. 

Morgan: For example, everybody I know says, like, there's so many Black families I've met throughout my life that said they got, quote unquote, “a little Indian in them.” They always said that and, you know, I used to think people just saying that because their hair is down their back. It's a little curlier. But when I'd asked them, including my own family, they would say Cherokee. And I'm like, everybody says Cherokee. Why is that? You know, as I got older, people would say, “People say Indian because they're very, have not dealt with the trauma of, you know, trigger warning: white slave masters raping their enslaved female ancestors.” But I said, I don't wholly believe that. Not all of our grandparents are lying. 

I've even spoken to scholars in Black and indigenous studies and I'm like are all of our grandparents lying? They told me no, because I'll tell you why. The Cherokee tribe was once based in the South, and in 1831, Andrew Jackson made a forced removal of Cherokee Tribe, as well as the Choctaw, Chickasaw Creek and Seminole. They were forced to move across the Mississippi into Indian territory, which is now known as Oklahoma. Black people accompanied them on that journey. They were either fugitives that were, you know, escaping plantations and brought in. They were either enslaved by the tribes, or they were free Black people. And they were... I never was taught on the Trail of Tears, Black people accompanied Indigenous people on that journey. And also Cherokee was the largest holder of enslaved Black people out of those five tribes that I named. 

So if it is the case that the Cherokee tribe's migratory path overlapped with African-Americans migratory paths, how could there not be relations there? That just doesn't make sense otherwise. Now, maybe not 100 percent across the board, but there are ties there. 

There’s a story like that on her mother’s side of the family.

Morgan: One of the oral histories that passed out of my family is that one of my ancestors went and fetched a woman from the hills of Tennessee. And when I looked at that area where she was from, the Cherokee were in that area. And it was that moment I was like, OK, I can't 100 percent prove that this is true, but I can’t 100 percent prove that this is not true. And this is what I tried to do with the, you know, with the rest of the book. I can't definitively say yes or no. But what I can say is that oral history is powerful. Oral history lasts across generations for a reason. And there is a grain of truth, if not more, to these anecdotes, to these accounts. 

What Morgan has heard about her dad’s family is that her paternal grandfather was Creole. Her dad mentioned it casually over dinner at Applebee’s, but also facetiously referred to it as “Creole crap” — maybe because his father just identified as Black. Just like Morgan did growing up.

Morgan: We often exist in binaries. It's either or, not both/and. When you go to a place like Louisiana, where prior to becoming American territory, it was in the hands of the Spanish and the French, it wasn't like that. There were so many different classifications. And Creole, when I was living in New Jersey, mind you, New Jersey has a negligible, if any, type of population of Creole people. I just thought they were, you know, light-skinned, uppity Blacks that did not want to be categorized as Black and that's why they chose Creole. 

Before she left on her trip to Louisiana to dig further into her father’s lineage, Morgan’s dad called her. He wants to let her know that his side of the family had socioeconomic and educational privilege for generations. He told her that his mother’s family owned land, that HER mother’s house was a gift from the Rockefellers, that their family owned land in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The paternal side of her family, she knows, is not new to social status.

We’ll be right back.

We’re back. And Morgan was on her way to Louisiana.

Before she even booked flights or reserved rental cars or hotel rooms, Morgan had already done months of research. And she’d reached out to local researchers to make connections. These people are her liaisons into these new lands, guiding her through their own histories while Morgan searched for hers. 

In Louisiana, Morgan’s liaison was Tracy Colson Antee.

Morgan: She is the 17th descendant of a woman named Marie Coincoin and Pierre Thomas Metoyer. And she was an enslaved Black woman, he was a wealthy French merchant. Together, they had children and they were responsible for at one point the wealthiest free people of color community in the United States. 

And, you know, they have a rich history. And I remember I was speaking to her and she said, “You know, don't be surprised if you come down here and someone will be able to recognize, which parish you're from.” And, you know, I thought, OK, cool, but I didn't really believe in that, because I thought to myself, I'm multiple generations removed from Louisiana. My father himself has never been to the parish where our ancestors are from. So I didn't think that that was going to happen. And so that day I went to a festival. It's called the Festival Internationale de Louisiane, and it's in Lafayette. And I was walking around, enjoying the festivities, and a woman straight up asks me, “Are you from St. Landry Parish?”

Morgan told her no, she’s not. But her family is from St. Martin’s Parish about an hour away.

Morgan: And so I told her and she was like, “Yes, it’s those half moon eyes.”  And it was so emotional for me, because one of the ways that people have always recognized me to be my father's daughter is because of my eyes.

Morgan got a piece of herself, of being seen in a place where she never expected to be seen and recognized. She got a new connection to her dad, a new way to look at the eyes people were always telling her to OPEN WIDER! Her eyes aren’t small or squinty. They’re beautiful half moons.

Morgan: And it wasn't until I went to Louisiana, where someone put a name to those eyes, and I never was ashamed of them again.

Louisiana gives Morgan many new ways to see herself — new ways to see her family, new ways to see beyond the binary of Black and white.

Morgan’s research and travels, her interviews with Tracy and other people in Louisiana gives Morgan more nuance... more both/and. 

Morgan: I did not know that Creole actually was its own classification. And yes, privilege-wise, they did receive more privileges than those who were classified as Black at one point in history. And their culture is in need of preservation in many different ways. I wasn't taught that. You know, I did not expect that any part of my family was free prior to emancipation. I didn't know that, you know, parts of my family owned plantations themselves. I didn't know any of that. I didn't think that was in my history at all. So it definitely complicated my idea of Black identity that, you know, Black equals slave, white equals master. That wasn't always the case. It wasn't the case in my family. As much as it may be uncomfortable to reckon with, I didn't want to anesthetize that, because if I did, it will be counterproductive to the whole project you know, in general. 

The point of the project was to find out where they came from. To find out what she didn’t know about her family history. And she expected to learn hard things… just not these hard things. 

Morgan: So when I went down to Louisiana and found out that not only was I Creole, but I was a descendant of, you know, enslaved Black people, free people of color, free people of color who were slave owners, and white slave owners, that threw me for a loop, because what it did was showed me that when we're looking at Black American lives and thinking about our ancestors, especially with regards to the plantation economy and who had access to cultural and social and actual capital, it wasn't always strictly hard left and strictly hard right for my people. 

And that was something that I had to contend with. There was shame that I wasn't taught this. There was shame that, you know, thinking about, you know, why would my people participate in this, but it was also, like, thinking about survival and thinking about I don't know what their lives were like. 

So it was important for me to push past the shame and investigate that shame. Where's it coming from? Well, I didn't know. Why don't you know? Because of the failure of the public education system. Well, also you know, because my parents didn't tell me. Why didn't they know? Because their parents didn't tell them. Why did they talk about it? Because it's traumatic, you know? And that's what I had to keep telling myself, that it's just deeper than that, you know, and it helps me to keep my empathy and my grace intact for those who are the oppressed and disenfranchised and instead to punt kick that shame against oppressive institutions. You know? Like, the shame is not my own. I always tell people part of the reason that I got into professional writing is because I write from a place of shame and work my way out of it. 

Nora: For people who lack this connection to their family’s stories, to their information, what would you say to them or what do you say to them?

Morgan: As long as you have curiosity… you know, I'm a Christian. So we would always say this thing: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. And I believe the same thing about curiosity. If there is something that has lingered in your mind well beyond your work hours, something that you just can't shake, you have a question about... that is the impetus, because that's the same thing for me. I can tell people, you know, go on Ancestry.com, look up your churches for baptismal, marriage records. I can tell you to go to archives.com. I can tell you, look at cemeteries. I can give you all of these different things. Look at city halls, libraries. But the curiosity has to be there first, and the best way to start with that curiosity, I would say, is to talk to the oldest people in your family. Record them — with their consent, of course, but talk to them. Ask them what were their parents’ names. Ask them if they know where their parents grew up. Even if they don't know the city, if they know the state. Get something, because you can always find a census record. Ask them, you know, stories that their parents used to tell. What did they used to do for a living? Where were their parents from? As long as you have something, even if it's not a whole, you can expand it by just asking more questions and talking to other people. And as long as you keep in mind, I guess this is particularly with Black Americans, as long as you are okay with maybe not ever getting the hundred percent definitive proof, but having something to hold on to, then you're on your way. 

Before she embarked on this adventure, Morgan said that she knew that if she followed the research and the stories, she would return to the Northeast with more than she’d set out with. And while the full stories are in her book, she returned with so much more than she had before. With new ancestors, new evidence, a new sense of who she is.

Morgan: I felt whole when I came back. I felt my identity expand and complicate with each highway that I traveled. When I left, I just thought, you know, I'm an African-American born and raised in New Jersey. And I realized that's not the full story. There are many identities underneath that many different lineages. And so I definitely felt like I had something to hold on to. I had different pegs, if you will.

If someone were to ask me. “Where are you people from?” You know, I can really tell them. And I was able to trace 300 years worth of history. And that's a blessing to me as an African-American, as a person who's a part of a community that has been disenfranchised for hundreds of years. Because if I were ever to have a child, my child will be able to name the names of their ancestors. They'll be able to use this document as a talisman so that they will not feel as lost as I did when I started on this journey. So that makes me very proud. 

Nora: Now when you hear that nickname, The Milkman's Baby, what does it mean to you now?

Morgan: It makes me think of Louisiana. It makes me think of my father's line and the complicated lives they led, and the families that they gave life to. It doesn't fill me with a sense of shame. It makes me laugh. And it makes me a bit cocky, perhaps, because I've reclaimed that word. And I've done the work to go back to heal because of that word, and now I wield it.

This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. This show is produced by Marcel Malekebu, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Hannah Meacock Ross, Jordan Turgeon, and Phyllis Fletcher, our editor, who is so wonderful. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. 

We’ve linked to Morgan’s book in the show notes. It’s called Wandering in Strange Lands. I cannot recommend it higher… enough? Higher enough? Higher? Cannot more highly recommend — it’s so good. It’s such a beautiful story. Please go buy it. 

We are a production of American Public Media. If you have not yet, go to TTFAmerch.com, check out our cool new merch to support our show. My dog is barking! She’s barking. Wow. It’s not even a figure of speech. My dogs are barking. My dogs are literally barking as if they do not respect the work I do, which they do not. They do not. 

So, um, bye guys!