With the exception of the South, American regions are often characterized as forward-leaning: The West and Midwest are wild frontiers of gritty innovation and expansionism; the East and Northeast are fast-paced centers of culture, commerce, industry, and opportunity. That leaves the South as the “backward other,” observes Imani Perry in her provocative, perspective-shifting South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (Ecco), which won the 2022 National Book Award for nonfiction. In it, Perry reexamines that characterization, complicating it and calling it into question by reminding us that good, bad, and indifferent, the South is the birthplace of much of what makes America America. “[The South] is really the core of what the nation is,” she writes, “often the vanguard of where we are going as a country.”
“Tell about the South,” Faulkner famously enjoined in Absalom, Absalom! “What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” With portraits of previously unheralded events and people rendered in exquisite detail, Perry answers Faulkner’s challenge. She ingeniously structures her exploration of the South as a travel itinerary, moving state by state, city by city, interweaving tales of the American Experiment. Her trips to lecture and to interview notables as well as regular folk traverse a broad swath, from Louisville to Atlanta to Washington, D.C. It was the places like these, Perry writes, that gave us the dollar-store business model, Coca-Cola, FedEx, and HBCUs.
Perry also observes that the South gets short shrift when it comes to progressive political movements: “For some reason,” she writes, “folks want to act as though Black power started in New York and Oakland, even though the Black Panther logo came from the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, even though Huey P. Newton was born in Louisiana, Eldridge Cleaver in Arkansas.” She points out: “Black nationalism and Black secession and Black armed self-defense has always been a part of the political imagination of the Black South, from Martin Delany through Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey.”
Born in Birmingham and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago, Perry is most adept at shifting our narrow misconceptions about the South through her penchant for research and attention to the nuances of histories in obscure areas. She writes about the Lowcountry—the Sea Islands embodied in the Gullah Geechee culture, where enslaved Ibo Africans conjured stories about escaping slavery by soaring away (later immortalized in Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly). Intermingling stories from her past with theirs, Perry relates how these coastal communities defied the expectations of the slave owners who left them to languish there by learning to fish and “become water people,” painting their ceilings “haint blue,” a combination of indigo, lime, and milk meant to ward off ghosts by “the tint of water and sky.”
Perry’s exploration—based on interviews with Southerners, from taxi drivers to renowned authors and esteemed art collectors—dismantles tropes and stereotypes, revealing the South’s hard-won wisdom and generosity of spirit. And Perry challenges our often simplistic geographic understanding of the American South by extending its borders to Cuba, the Bahamas, and Haiti for comparison and contrast. She asks us to revisit our preconceived notions of the region, not to forget its flaws, but to remind us that the South gave birth to much of the music, art, food, literature, and commerce that nourishes our souls and supports our way of life.
Perry writes, “Critical theorist Walter Benjamin once distinguished between two types of storytellers: One is a keeper of the traditions, another is the one who has journeyed afar and tells stories of other places. But there is a third, and that is the exile.” In this vibrant, revelatory book, Perry proves herself to be a radiant storyteller in all three modes, like Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Nina Simone before her.
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