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

The book <em>South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation</em>.
The book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.

"The South."

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

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

Its author, Imani Perry, says, "We can't deny parts of who we are, particularly 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 the author of other books including the award-winning, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.

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

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 comprehend the rest of the nation.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On describing her book not as a history, but a true story

The discipline of history is based upon argument. This book is much more an effort to have people dwell in place, space and time, and reconsider their relationships to this place. And all of it is, I think, as much as truthful as I can be about it, which means that I had to get rid of some of my romantic ideas of the place I call home and really look at it in a stark way, but also still loving.

On having to let go of her own romantic ideas

The reality of being born in Birmingham, I'm born into a place that has been transformed from what was known as the most segregated, most violent city in the nation, into a place of Black possibility. I carried that everywhere I went as this incredible pride, and it was a motivator. But it's also the case that people in my home are still suffering. It's also the case that it is still a place of profound inequality. And so, to get over the romanticism was for me to both hold on to what I think of as these sort of incredibly noble parts of Southern tradition, and also grapple 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.

On why understanding the soul of the South means looking to the Black Belt

That's the place where King Cotton made the United States one of the most wealthy nations in the world. One of the people I turned to to think about the Black Belt and what it yielded is Richard Wright – in particular, both his books Black Boy and 12 Million Black Voices – in part because I'm trying to understand something that I don't know inherently. And so I turn to Wright and the way that he describes growing up in the Black Belt, in this place with so much incredible beauty, and abundance, and being hungry, to really get what it was like in recent history for people to essentially live in a plantation economy. And confront the violence of that, but also what it meant that that's the font of American music too; incredible creativity emerges, imagination, and also cruelty.

On the South as the heart of the United States

There's something about the way that we describe the South, in the nation in general, as somehow backwards. Other. Different. That is actually a denial of the core of what the country is. And that self denial allows for a story that doesn't get to the essential tension between freedom and subjugation, democracy and domination, those kinds of things. And so, I almost find myself thinking we're in an era where the myths that nations tell about themselves – and all nations do this – are too naïve now. We're facing climate disaster, we're facing this pandemic and there will likely be more. We're facing growing inequality. We have to tell the story true, as best we can, and in order to tell the story true, we can't deny parts of who we are; particularly when those parts are the ones that set the stage for what the nation would become. So, you know, for me, that is part of why we have to look to the South to understand the country.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.