Reckoning with Complexity: Imani Perry on “South to America”

In South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, Imani Perry revisits history. She tells stories of the American South that readers from outside the region might not know, and gives fresh perspectives to Southerners on the area’s culture, landscape, divisions, and commonalities. “Often, Southerners accept the idea that other regions are more sophisticated, and have done more, and it’s simply not true, and it’s certainly not true in terms of building the country,” she states, arguing that the South serves as a bellwether for the rest of the United States.

Perry, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and is the author of six other books. In the interview below, she discusses how she came to her conclusions about the South, and what that means for the conversations we have about it.

To what degree is the South still, as you write in your intro, “the path to bounty?”

It depends on the angle. It certainly is still abundant. There was this shift to start talking about the Midwest as the heartland, and I argue that in some ways, the South has a better case for that because of the land. Everything in this country is, in some sense, shaped by the relationship to the land. But the way Americans relate to the use of land and labor is so shaped by the South. It continues to be at the cutting edge, in some ways for worse more than better, and when you think about things like what it means to not be able to get forty hours of work a week, or if you think about the Wal-Martification of the world, the South still is the cutting edge of how we operate. As a result, part of the reason it’s so exciting when there are working people who organize together in Southern cities and towns and imagine different ways of living in relation to each other, part of the reason that’s so exciting is because it’s on the cutting edge. It’s the same thing with climate. The coming climate crisis — the South is the cutting edge of that for the country. There was a historic, geographic reality that had to do with the climate and the fact that it was the best place for growing. Even if that has muted somewhat, it’s still the case that the South is the cutting edge of where we’re going in terms of how we relate to the land and each other.

There was a line in “An Errand into the Wilderness” that said your goal was to “get inside the Confederate’s head.” How well do we have to know these social ills directly in order to solve them?

I think we have to know them intimately. In some ways, we have to stop pretending that’s not us, and I mean that collectively. It’s very easy for those of us who reject Lost Cause mythology to just say, ‘We don’t know what’s going on with those folks.’ But we do very easily have these romantic narratives of history that avoid all kinds of human harm and cruelty. We talk about the Founding Fathers so often as though they weren’t largely Southerners. That way of being is not wholly unfamiliar, so maybe, if we can start to acknowledge it, not in a way that excuses it, but also, doesn’t point fingers, then what would it mean to actually be able to tell the story true, and to develop a historic and political maturity, where we don’t need to romanticize the history in order to imagine the country as something potentially good and beautiful? For me, trying to get into [the Confederate’s] head is about trying to get into our collective head to develop a kind of national maturity.

Do you think activities like Civil War re-enactments create a sense of unease because we don’t know the performance artists’ motivation for creating them?

It’s motivation, and it’s also a kind of theater that’s not a part of the national consensus. We do have these rituals, these performances. We have marches, we have ceremonial performances, we have saying the Pledge of Allegiance, we have the singing of the national anthem at athletic games. We have these rituals. And some of them are built into the national fabric, and then others feel as though they betray the consensus story we’ve told of the nation. The question is, ‘Why is it so resilient as a form? Why is it so compelling?’ And I do think we’re made uncomfortable because it feels like part of the reason they’re compelling is because of this desire for a slaveholding past. That’s the big part of why it feels uncomfortable. But it’s also uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit the national story easily. People in other regions try to avoid it by pretending that the South is just this weird, different, other place. But culturally, the Civil War hasn’t ended. I think we do better by just acknowledging that. And it’s no longer a regional civil war. It’s actually a national one, about what do we take this nation to be at its best?

In “Mother Country,” you write about Southerners who “are used to thinking of family as a sprawl.” What are the pros and cons of this lifestyle, both for individual families and the larger society?

It’s only recently that I really started to think about the cons. It’s one of the ways that the South is actually connected to the rest of the world. Most traditional cultures don’t think of a domestic nuclear family as the unit. People think intergenerationally — cousins and aunts and uncles. And there’s something very beautiful about that. But I’ve also thought about when you have ideologies that exclude, that dominate ways of thinking, what is the impact of that sprawl when there’s someone who is doing harm in the family? What is the meaning of that sprawl when there’s someone who’s different in the family who is told that the ways in which they’re different are shameful or inferior? There’s a tension there between the beauty of a broad sense of connection and the costs when the values associated with that connection do harm. I think it’s important to hold on to both. Because Southerners, on average, are more likely to be poor and working-class, having large family connections is part of how you can be resourceful without a lot of wealth and economic resources. Everybody can come stay at the house.

What does it mean for Southerners when “your knowing self and your emotional self don’t always match up?”

I think there are various iterations of that. It was in the salt-and-sugar grits debate. I never heard of anybody putting sugar in grits, then I talked to people from Texas, and they were like, ‘We put sugar in grits.’ But I thought, ‘That must be some up North stuff!’ There are funny examples, but places give you a deep sense of feeling, and that’s important, but to understand, you also have to challenge your feelings, and for me, challenging my feelings included understanding that there are, in many ways, Souths, plural, and it has everything to do with the different geographies for parts of the South. Land, and environment, and how work developed around them, shaped the way people relate to each other and the way urbanization happened. Atlanta feels very different than other parts of the South, but early in the twentieth century, Atlanta and Birmingham were basically the same size. Atlanta exploded, in part because of the airline industry, because of Delta. It becomes this other thing. It’s no less a part of the South, but the industry shapes what it has become. In some ways, it’s a sign that those of us who are deeply, intimately connected to the South also have to self-examine. Not through the standard, external lens, which is, ‘What’s wrong with y’all?’ Instead, through a reckoning with the complexity of what the region actually is.

You write in “Mary’s Land” that “the land provides another place for recounting. Even without formal archives, one can mine it.” Was that your goal in writing this book?

I think so. I’ve thought a lot about the question of genealogy. The part of me that is a historian and a storyteller also thinks that there’s a choice to decide that the documentation is the thing that’s significant. We can also say that the ways of passing things on that are not that form of documentation are also significant. An analogy, for me, is the way my grandmother taught me to cook. She would say, ‘Put some of this in,’ and I would say, ‘How much, though, Mudeah?’ and she’d be like, ‘Some.’ I don’t cook with recipes, unless I’m baking, because the science is so important. But the rhythm of speech, the language that you might not know the origin point for, the sound of certain nicknames, and, of course, land. These are forms of relation and knowledge. Those things are important, too. There’s a kind of story that’s very important: the long, genealogy story, but there are other ways to tell these stories that have fragments, that become part of a common weave.

One of the things that struck me when I reached the chapter about Nashville, my hometown, is the contrast between local and national knowledge. Why is it important for national audiences to study history that is local to people in other places?

This is part of why the introduction is the way that it is. To be a daughter of the South who has been departing and returning my whole life, there are things that, because it has this extraordinary, wild, wonderful, deep landscape, there will be points of disagreement. I always try to write as an invitation. I haven’t yet written a book where I don’t go to some event after I’ve written the book, and someone says, ‘Well, let me tell you what’s really behind that story.’ Those become the most beautiful moments. I don’t believe in writing a final word. I believe in writing a door opening. Then, something becomes opened up about the places that we don’t know. Nashville was completely unfamiliar territory. To go there and realize it’s important for my story was so extraordinary. High schools like Pearl, which were so critical, are not told as part of the story of the development of Black studies. I could hear in my head my grandmother’s voice. (note: Perry’s grandmother attended Pearl High School when she lived in Nashville with her aunt.) The way that she said the name, I knew it meant something. But we didn’t have a collective family knowledge of it at all. It felt like a way to recuperate a part of her story. All these generations of my family had a connection to Vanderbilt, with only my generation having someone who graduated from there. There’s this narrative that there’s a very simplistic story of all Southern cities that becomes an impediment to understanding.

What other art forms besides visual art inspire the kind of echo between truth and life about which you write in “Pearls Before Swine?”

I hope that writing can do that. There’s something very collaborative about it, because you rely on the imagination of the reader, but you try to bring the reader into the lived moment as a participant. That’s aspirational; it’s not for me to asses whether or not I succeed at it, but it’s part of what I’m reaching for, and what I love about being a reader. It brings me this multisensory experience and allows me to move through time.

Also in “Pearls Before Swine,” you write about “the dashed possibilities, the extra work, the work-arounds” that you’ve often witnessed in your family’s educational journey. How do you cope with that frustration?

It’s hard to answer, because it’s never been any other way. It is life. I know there are people who are resistant to this phrase, but I grew up with the old, Black, Southern saying: ‘You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.’ That’s just the assumption. That’s the experience of life; things are not fair. My mother used to say, ‘We raise children to behave as though the world is fair, and also, to know that it’s not.’ To have a sense of freedom, and a sense that you ought to be able to do whatever you want, and to dream big, but not to be completely defeated when the roadblocks are in your way. I think it becomes an ethos. I think the other side of it, that to me, is the most important part, is that often does produce a sense of purpose with respect to the world. We have a responsibility to move toward a kinder, more loving, more just world.

At the end of the interview, Perry asked, rhetorically, “What does adversity call us to do?”

She has found her calling in writing, and thankfully, she uses it here to show readers a way of thinking towards that more just country for which she hopes.

South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation
By Imani Perry
Ecco Press
Published January 25, 2022