Author Imani Perry explores the South to reveal the soul of America


It is not a neutral term for most Americans. But love it or hate it, a new book says you have to appreciate its good, bad and bad sides to understand the country.

The book is From the South to America: A Journey Under the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.

Its author, Imani Perry, says, “We cannot deny parts of who we are, especially when those parts are the ones that set the stage for what the nation would become.

Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and author of other books, including the award-winning book, In Search of Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.

Weaving historical events with personal anecdotes in his new book, Perry takes readers on a journey through the region’s past and present – from the Deep South and the Black Belt, to the Gulf Coast and the Maritime Islands.

Sign up for daily news!

Stay informed with WPR’s email newsletter.

She joined All things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly to talk about what it meant to write the book about her own home and why the region is so important to understanding the rest of the nation.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On describing his book not as a story, but as a true story

The discipline of history is based on argument. This book is much more an effort to make people inhabit a place, a space and a time, and reconsider their relationship to this place. And that’s all, I think, as truthful as it gets about it, which means I’ve had to let go of some of my romantic ideas about the place I call home and really look at it in a way austere, but also still loving.

Of having to give up his own romantic ideas

The reality of being born in Birmingham, I was born in a place that has been transformed from what was known as the most segregated and violent city in the country, to a place of black possibility. I wore that everywhere I went like this incredible pride, and it was a motivation. But it is also the case that people in my house are still suffering. It is also the case that it is still a place of deep inequality. And so, overcoming romanticism was for me both to cling to what I consider to be such incredibly noble parts of the Southern tradition, and also to struggle with the fact that it remains the poorest region; it remains a region where many, many people are disenfranchised; remains a region where people are exploited.

Why understanding the soul of the South means turning to the black belt

This is where King Cotton made the United States one of the wealthiest nations in the world. One of the people I have turned to to reflect on the black belt and what it has produced is Richard Wright – in particular, his two books black boy and 12 million black voices – partly because I’m trying to understand something that I don’t know per se. And so I turn to Wright and the way he describes growing up in black belt, in this place with so much incredible beauty and abundance, and being hungry, to really understand what it was like in recent history for people to live primarily in a plantation economy. And confront the violence of that, but also what it meant that it’s also America’s music police; incredible creativity emerges, imagination, but also cruelty.

South as the heart of the United States

There is something about the way we portray the South, in the nation at large, as somewhat backward. Other. Different. It is in fact a denial of the very essence of what the country is. And that self-denial allows for a story that doesn’t address the essential tension between freedom and subjugation, democracy and domination, that sort of thing. And so, I almost find myself thinking that we’re in a time where the myths that nations tell about themselves – and all nations do – are too naive now. We are facing a climate catastrophe, we are facing this pandemic and there will probably be others. We face growing inequalities. We have to tell the true story, as best we can, and to tell the true story, we cannot deny parts of who we are; especially when those parts are the ones setting the stage for what the nation would become. So, you know, for me, that’s part of why we have to look south to understand the country.

Lola R. McClure