In her new book, “South to America,” Imani Perry dives into the heart of the “changing same” of the American South.
We talk a lot about the ways that the South has progressed in the last 60 years. But as politicians across the South – and across the country for that matter – are attacking voting rights, LGBT youth, especially trans children, and working to erase Black history from textbooks… It does feel like we may be stuck in a changing same.
Her work fits into a long tradition like W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place, VO Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation and WEB Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, as books that unlock a deeper understanding of America through an expansive analysis of the South.
Dr. Perry was born in Birmingham and most of her family remains in Alabama. But she spent most of her life living in Chicago and the Northeast. She’s currently a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. And in this book she approaches the South as both an insider and an outsider. An exile, she calls herself. And it’s a framing that allows her to upend so many assumptions about the South that we hold about ourselves or that the rest of the world holds about us.
Perry’s South is a big South – a place filled with multiple Souths – that stretches from West Virginia to the Bahamas and beyond. Something in this conversation and in this book, will change the way you think about Southern identity and culture.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
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Reckon: I am so excited to talk about your book South to America. It is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read on the South. But I actually want to start off with talking about something you wrote in your last book, “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.” It’s a line that’s stuck in my head, I think for the last three years, really. And you talk about wanting your children to understand that even though they’re raised in the Northeast, they have an ancestral home in Alabama and the South. And that’s an idea that you work through in this book “South to America,” also. Can you describe what you mean by the south as your ancestral home?
Imani Perry: One of the things that I often find myself talking about, because I’ve spent most of my life in the Northeast is that I don’t come from a Great Migration north family. My family is overwhelmingly in Alabama and that is where I was born and that’s home. And in a kind of organic way, as I raise my children, that in some ways is a home for them too. You know, they had been going there multiple times a year before COVID. And so it’s a place where we are rooted, where we feel like we belong, that is where the family home is, and it’s so much a part of our identity.
My younger son, when he was little, he came home from school one day and said, my teacher called her grandmother Meemaw too. That’s what they call my mother. My teacher calls her grandmother Meemaw too. And her Meemaw is from Alabama. And I said, oh, did you tell her that your family is also from Alabama? He said, I didn’t want to brag. That notion of like, it was important for me to share that with my children, a sense of pride.
Reckon: Your family has been in the South and in America since before the revolution. And there’s a very powerful part of your book early on when you’re in Maryland and you’re trying to trace the roots of, I guess, your earliest ancestor, earliest known ancestor in the United States– what would become the United States? You can’t even get her proper name. Talk about that experience looking for her legacy.
Perry: Right. So, you know, it’s so interesting because we talk about the Wall of 1870 in African-American genealogy, right? So before 1870, it’s very hard to find people. Although I have found some folks in the course, but through wills, right? So slave registries don’t have names, but wills often do. But I found this woman who in one document says she was born in 1769 and another 1780. And one document, it says that she was, her name was Easter, and another Esther. And then I found a record of a woman with the name of the man who I think owned her and listed her as a runaway, “they call her Easter, but her real name is “Stace.”
I’m so moved about the idea that she was a runaway and insisted upon her actual name as opposed to how she was called. It seems to me such a potent statement about what it meant to be Black in the early Republic.
There’s an indeterminacy. But I want to sit in the book with the meaning of that indeterminacy, right? To not sort of be focused on necessarily finding the information, but thinking about what does it mean? What did it mean for this woman to be a laborer who came of age as this nation was being born and not to be contemplated as part of its political community, but also part of the body of people who were essential to its development?
And that to me seems to be, like, that’s a kind of undercurrent through the book would need to be all the people that were not considered, whether, because of being enslaved or because of being poor laborers or because of being indigenous and pushed out. That those who weren’t considered are not just historically, in many ways, the backbone of the nation, but also a significant part of the South.
Reckon: And you talk about the Black Belt. It may be the longest chapter of your book. And your family as far as you know, never had any roots in the Black Belt. But so much of American culture has roots in the Black Belt. And what I thought was particularly interesting, even kind of the Northern urban civil rights movements and freedom rights movements, under Elijah Muhammad had roots in the Black Belt because he grew up in Georgia. And Stokely Carmichael’s work in Lowndes County before, you know, the Black Panther movement in Oakland. And so talk about that region and why you were so intent on exploring it despite not having necessarily the personal connection.
Perry: Yeah, because the Black Belt is in the lore of the nation what we mean when we say the South, right? And it is because it is this place of incredible abundance and wealth production and violent domination of people, Black people.
And that’s the core, you know, as the story is told over and over again about the Great Migration, that is primarily a story of the movement from the Black Belt to Northern cities. But it’s also actually, I think importantly, it was a movement of white southerners to Northern cities, in even greater numbers.
And I am interested in it because it is a place of so much imagination as well as suffering. And so, I mean, American music, right? The heartbeat of it is in the Black Belt. Blues and gospel its origin points, spirituals, blues. And so much of the imagination for freedom struggles come out of there. And so I really think that there’s something very profound about what came out of the suffering there. And part of what I wanted to do with the Black Belt chapter is think about how much people from other Souths, as it were, from other parts of the South might not understand it. And, you know, Richard Wright was the figure for me for this. But Elijah Muhammad is another one, too. Right? Both are people who are decried in different ways for their politics. I think there’s something about that origin point and what they witnessed. Witnessing all of these lynchings in his youth. But there’s something about that we have to understand, to understand how they got where they were politically.
For me as someone who’s a scholar of African-American studies it is an opportunity to rethink the official story– in our discipline even as young as it is– which often pushes aside, I think a lot of the wisdom, genius, beauty, but also the voices that came out of that region.
Reckon: Well and you have a very big tent for the South in your book. You start in West Virginia, you go to Maryland. And I love it. Cause I’m always one to go to bat for the South being much bigger than Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee. And it’s interesting the way that you frame the South as, I guess, the gateway to the Caribbean and the greater Black diaspora– not just Black Americans but the number of Black leaders in Africa who were trained in HBCUs. And the way that the music of the South kind of poured out and informed the rest of the world, whether it’s jazz in France or things like that.
And so how did you go about setting your parameters for what the South would be. And how did it change in the course of reporting this book?
Perry: I will be completely honest. I was such a Deep South bigot, frankly. Like I lived in Maryland and it never occurred to me to think of it as the South when I lived there. So one: it was my ancestor and finding out that she had been born in Maryland and being like, “oh.” And there was something about… I thought the genealogical journey was going to take me… you know, I thought I was going to find a document that said born in Africa. And instead, I find one “born in Maryland.” Her parents were born in Maryland. So goes back even further.
And I’m like, okay, of course I’m a student of history. I know that the Deep South was only settled at the beginning of the 19th century really. You know, this part of the Deep South that I think of, right? Of course, South Carolina and Georgia earlier. But it was an emotional challenge. Right? For me, it was a conversion of what I knew intellectually to an understanding that the South actually was something that was made over the course of history and took different iterations because of the different geographies.
So recently because of the power and beauty of the 1619 Project, there’s been a recentering of U.S. History in the South, but then I was also we could talk about 1520, because when the various European empires were trying to settle in the Caribbean South, it’s one region. And they’re all moving and the borders are shifting. And the borders are shifting and the movement is happening because people are trying to figure out how to harness this incredible abundance. This landscape that is so beautiful, but also they want to produce wealth out of it.
And so it was learning the geography, the economic development, the people moving in and out that actually guided where I went. I started out with these atlases. I got old-fashioned atlases, and I just looked at the land formations and cross-referenced them with histories and tried to sort of be expansive. I got to a much bigger South than where I began.
Reckon: You talked about the South being something that was created over time. It has also been a place where I guess primarily Northern white people have created the South as kind of a repository for America’s collective demons and a place where we can point to for all of the blame. Despite, you know, it being an American problem from the very beginning.
Perry: Yeah. Because The South did the dirty work because of the geography. The land could yield a lot. But if we tell the story of Wall Street, we tell the story of Lehman Brothers or JP Morgan, that’s about the exploitation of the unfree labor of Black people. If we tell the story of the Revolutionary War debt, why DC is in the South? That’s a complicated thing that I try to talk about, but the South was essential for paying off the Revolutionary War debt. We talk about what happened in the war of 1812. And to say, “oh, that’s where that bad stuff happened down there” is to not understand or not want to grapple with the fact that so much of the abundance of this nation required the violence of the South to function.
And so there’s a kind of hypocrisy there, to take advantage of this for the whole nation and then say but we’re dissociating from those people. And not only that. But that region is backwards, even though that’s been the vanguard of every development in U.S. history. From oil, coal, I mean, all of these industries.
And even now we think about the Walmartification of the world, right? It’s not incidental that Walmart starts in the South. It’s not incidental that Amazon was created by a Southerner. There are these traditions about how working people are treated that shape the landscape even today.
But I want to say something else which I didn’t say explicitly in the book, but it’s also the case that Black Northerners have a characterization of the South that’s quite disturbing or upsetting. I have friends who will say, well, I’d never go down South. And they forget, I think often, that the majority of Black people have always lived in the South in the history of this country. But also because the South is where HBCUs are, it has been the site of so much development and opportunity for Black Americans. So it’s almost as though this characterization also distorts very basic things about Black History.
Reckon: Yeah. You write about how freedom movement in the South was always rooted in deep study and learning and things like that. And the narrative that we like to tell is just, it was a tired seamstress who just stood up on a bus one day and there wasn’t just a legacy of education that was tied into that movement.
And it’s also interesting, you write about Princeton where you teach as an extension, I guess, of some of the South. And then I’m also thinking of Pennsylvania, the state where you now live, there’s that James Carville quote, that’s always, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” but even comments like that discount the Urban South, which you write about in the chapter about Baltimore and Annapolis and, of course, Atlanta. And Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were populated by Black Southerners moving north. And so I’m curious about your thoughts on that.
Perry: Oh, absolutely. I mean, part of the reason I like Philly is that you can get Jim Dandy grits at Walmart here. And you can actually go to a restaurant and get good grits.
There’s a way in which Southern culture is intact in certain aspects of the city that make it, for me, feel more livable than it would otherwise be.
But yeah, it’s interesting that “South” becomes a stand in for “rural,” becomes a stand in for “country,” so that then people don’t understand that there’s an Urban South.
They don’t understand that “country” doesn’t have a complete union with Southernness, right? As Midwesterners, I think know intuitively. But also that “country” being depicted as something that is naive as opposed to earnest, I think that that’s one of the dangers.
Even that formulation, right? And people up here will call it Pennsyltucky– Western Pennsylvania– is based upon the conservatism of Western Pennsylvania. And I feel like in some ways that connects to the stereotype that there’s a certain kind of conservatism around race that is characteristically Southern when, in fact, it’s national for white Americans. And sort of the fiction of the Red State Blue State stuff as though the whole country isn’t purple.
Reckon: Well and you talk about, and I think at this point you were drawing from Albert Murray, who I believe was kind of your template for this book, and he talks about how the “so-called Black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”
And you break that down in several really interesting ways, whether it’s kind of the messy origin of Southern music and figures like Elvis and the Swampers in Muscle Shoals. But also the way that Black southerners can be small C conservative and kind of tie it up in the religious conservative and wanting things to stay the same. Obviously not on a lot of racial issues, but even looking at the 2020 election, men of all races in the South and maybe across the country voted in larger than expected numbers for the Republican Party. And so it’s interesting the ways that they Black and white southerners kind of reflect each other.
Perry: And the conservatism around sex and sexuality, I think is really interesting and one of the things that is a theme in the book, because I want to be clear there that so much of the conservatism is not about eliminating people and practice, it’s about creating hierarchies. Of what’s respectable and what’s not. And that’s old, right? Whether it’s along the lines of race or sexuality or gender. And so to understand how at the same time as there’s a lot of conservatism around gender and gender expression, there’s also some of the most robust queer culture in the South that you could find. And that that does cross the lines of race.
And this is the other thing that I think is really important is because Southerners are poorer and more vulnerable than people in other parts of the country, there’s also the reality that there’s a reason that there’s distrust. There’s not an expectation that politicians will do much for you. And my formulation is sort of like there’s a reason people believe in prayer more than politicians.
And I think about this even with the vaccine and I am a strong supporter of COVID vaccination, but I also think, well, if we just look at the way meth and lean have devastated Southern communities and pharmaceutical companies have fueled addictions, you understand certain kinds of distrust because of a history of people being made vulnerable by these institutions that now they’re being told, “you just got to trust.”
So I’m just trying to get to both a recognition of the politics in some depth and complexity, but also a sensitivity even when it comes to things about which I may feel very differently.
Reckon: Yeah. There are moments where you place yourself in kind of the imagined mindset of white men that you’re interacting with, whether it’s a cab driver or a man stocking a vending machine. Tell me about that exercise. Obviously I’m a white man and I’m reading these chapters and I’m thinking is this what’s going through people’s head every time they meet me? And I don’t want to center myself in it, but I’m curious about that as an exercise.
Perry: I wanted to [think of their perspectives] as opposed to taking positions. So if we read surveys of like how white men in the South think about things.
I wanted to actually have encounters that try to move through that information with more delicacy than I certainly do in my sort of more conventional academic work. Like so to think about if I take a man who drove me in a Lyft to my auntie’s house who had been working, an elderly white man who had told me he worked in the mines for 30 years. And I was thinking, and knowing from people who I’m close to the physical impact of working in the mines. So there’s all this physical vulnerability and now he’s driving around doing ride sharing and our relative positions, and he is of a generation where the odds are good that there was an ideology, like a deep ideology of white supremacy, and he is in many ways in a position, more vulnerable than I am at the moment. Except when he’s not. Like sort of like economically. And trying to be in that moment fully and actually think about it. And think about it from the perspective also of working class and poor white Southerners who do have a legitimate bone to pick with the society about how hard working they have been and not actually reaping, in many ways what has been called the wages of whiteness. So whiteness is not actually producing the kind of security and the society. And feeling like I know that in many instances, the issue for me is not that there’s not a bone to pick. It’s just the bone to pick is not with me.
And then in the end of that interaction, after sort of going through all of this angst, engagement, the trained kind of defensive, protectiveness that I’ve had as a Black Southerner. To know to be sort of skeptical and on guard. The fact that he wants to make sure that I get into the house before he will drive away, it’s that intimacy that exists across the lines of race in the South that is so very true, even with all the other stuff.
Reckon: Well, and I think about the conversation we’re seeing right now about books being pulled from curriculum. And it almost feels inevitable that like your book is going to be pulled from schools in the South. And I think about the history that we were denied growing up in Alabama, you and I.
But you talk about Tony Horowitz’s book “Confederates in the Attic,” and that there are spaces that I can probably go, that I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable going, but there are places that I can go as a white Southerner, a white male Southerner, that you can not as a Black female southerner. But there’s also, I guess, that intimacy and that connection with the history of the movement that isn’t necessarily– I mean, you grew up in a movement household–it’s not that every Black person in Alabama knows those stories. I wish more did. But education is just completely denied to white and Black southerners these days. And you talk about how kind of limiting and insidious it is to not learn about the relatively few, but still existent white Southerners who were active in the movement at the time, including I think a friend of yours who was named Tom.
Perry: Yeah. I think for me, that’s important too, because that’s important for the South, but it’s also important for people in other parts of the country. Because on the one hand, yes, there is this sort of this backlash against Black history, that’s most intense in Southern cities. But it’s also the case that the other regions get bad education about the South.
I’m always worried about the convenience of just identifying it as –because I think my guess is that the general public has no idea that there were any white Southerners who were in the civil rights movement. And multiple generations of that. Like I think people know about John Brown and then sort of, it’s over. Maybe then Jimmy Carter.
To understand what that meant, to me, that’s a much more significant sign of courage than the person who comes down from the summer from New York. And so what does it mean that the only story of valor of white people in the movement, is that Northerner coming down story.
Reckon: Both of your parents were involved in the movement and your father is a white Jewish man that you write in Alabama, might’ve been more likely to be mistaken for a light-skinned Black man.
Perry: Yeah, he had very coily coarse hair. He did. Yeah. It’s so interesting because he passed away some years ago, but my goodness do I feel his presence over my shoulder every day right now. But yeah, he was inspired by the movement to move to Alabama and became my adoptive father, but really from birth. And was the first campaign manager when Richard Arrington, who was the first Black mayor of Birmingham, went when he ran for city council. And taught at an HBCU, Miles College, and then taught at Holy Family High School, which is a Black Catholic high school in Birmingham. Both of my parents taught at those places.
And so yes was an outside agitator, I think by many accounts and wound up being fired from multiple jobs as a result. But befriended many of his closest friends who were white Southerners who were also on the margins in different ways, sexuality, politics, and like he had a community even though he was an outsider.
Reckon: You dedicate more of this book to Alabama than any other state. And it’s your home state, it’s my home state. And you have this beautiful and very clear-eyed way of describing it as home where you say, ” we will tell you about the warmth and charm more easily, but you cannot understand what a remarkable grace they are without the other part, murderous home, sweet home, old home week, home.” So tell me about what home means to you. I know you split time between Alabama and Chicago and Massachusetts, but tell me about home.
Perry: It has always been the place where I feel safest. And I want to say it in that way, because, you know, I think I was six when Bonita Carter was killed in Birmingham, a Black teenager.
And my son told me this, “you can’t romanticize it.” And it was really important instruction because, you know, nine years after 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. And then when I’m a little girl to this other event and understanding that as part of this larger matrix of violence and exclusion that is a terrain that’s still being fought.
And yet I felt as though I belong to a community that had organized itself to nurture my development and to impart in me a sense of both a belief in the beloved community and a belief in my own community and myself. And that felt like that has always been a much more comfortable place for me to rest than whatever fancy schools I was in. That was the place.
Massachusetts was the place where the slurs were hurled at me and the bottles were hurled at the car. When I mention that, I’m not trying to say that I think Massachusetts was more racist, although certainly Boston could give any Southern city a run for its money as the most racist in the country. But more that something had been cultivated in Alabama where there was an understanding once this starts, you know, once this moment of violent confrontation starts, it’s not going to pass away easily. There had been enough legacy of fighting and resistance, such that there’s moments of detente or a protective zone.
So there’s that. But then there’s also just the comfort of home. There’s the traditions. There’s a deep sense of the importance of family. There’s what it means to have 30 people in a three-bedroom house and feel comfortable. With one bathroom. And what it means to sleep multiple children to a bed. Or to have a home you could always return to. Like my mother and her siblings, they would go out and they would come back home. There wasn’t a lot of money, but there was always home that you could come to and that sensibility is a very Southern. You know, that you can come on home.
Reckon: Maybe this is my ignorance and my misconceptions and latent prejudices coming out, but your grandmother was able to send 12 children to school, and that does not seem like that could have been a very common story for Black Southerners in that era. Tell me about your grandmother and how she was able to do that.
Perry: I mean, she was a brilliant woman. She was incredibly resourceful. She just would figure out how to get things done. So she sent these 12 children at college mostly on her own, though she was married, but she was really the person who facilitated opportunity. And she came from Huntsville. But when it was rural.
She came from a family that had financial resources. So they had a big house and lots of acres. My mother would talk about going there and seeing that there were even white sharecroppers who worked the land. She didn’t have a lot of formal education, but an incredible sense of dignity and self regard. And so she just put all of her energy and her resources to figuring out how to make things possible for her children and grandchildren. And she was my first primary caretaker. So we were very, very close. My mother once said a couple of years ago, she was like, how do you know so much about– we called her Mudea. How do you know so much about Mudea? And my auntie said, you don’t remember how Imani used to sit up under her all day everyday? Everything that I do as a scholar, as a writer, as an intellectual owes, a direct debt to her. Her perspective. Her clear-eyed sensibilities.
Reckon: You also describe at least the possibility that a lot of illnesses that you’ve dealt with throughout your life are a result of growing up in Birmingham. And the environmental pollution that’s endemic in the area, particularly in the area where Black Alabamians lived. Or you say Alabamans, I guess.
Perry: Yeah. You know, I was only coming really part-time by the time I was five, but those first couple of years, and the year I was born 1972, Birmingham was considered the most polluted city in the country. My family, I have done for years these family trees of illnesses. I’m the third-generation person who has had lupus. All kinds of autoimmune diseases, a great deal of breast cancer, lymphomas. There’s so much. And I do think that the industrial city with very few regulations. When I tell people from other states, because even I’ve said this to Mississippians, when I say “you don’t have to get your car inspected.” And they’re like, well, what?
It’s real. I carry it in body, you know.
Reckon: Your grandmother and your parents grew up in the age of the freedom movement. You talked about growing up in the age of the violent backlash to the movement. It feels like we’re right now in another period of advancement and backlash, and you kind of settle on this idea of the “changing same of society.”
And I was thinking about that last night when we learned that the University of Alabama is going to be attaching the name Autherine Lucy Foster, the first person to desegregate the school, to a building alongside the name of former governor and Klansman, I believe a grand cyclops of the KKK, Bibb Graves. And so maybe it’s just that word play that struck me. But you say “any monument is, in a sense, both an icon and a grave. A burial vault in which the messiness of history is often dispensed with for the sake of the imagined community.” So can you talk about how you reacted to learning about Autherine Lucy’s name going on that building and just the way that we are moving through this period of deciding who and who not to honor on our Southern landscapes.
Perry: This has happened now for decades. You know, whether we’re talking about King-Lee Day in various places are like this “compromise.” But it’s a compromise that represents the tension that has never left. In my earlier work, I talked a lot about progress and retrenchment, and now I think that that might not be the right language, and it’s sort of what I’m reaching for in the book. That there’s an essential tension that comes from the very beginning of the nation.? And even before, right? In the colonies. The tension between these ideals of freedom and liberty and the like and the reality of always being willing on this land since it was settled to move people about, to crush them in order to maintain dominance. That tension has never left. And so we find ourselves in these repeated moments when the tension gets heightened. Like, so you say, “okay, we’re going to sort of try to open things up.” “What? Wait a minute.”
What’s the cost of that opening things up? And it’s so easy– and this is not, it’s really important, it’s not exclusively Southern– but the South led the way in doing this because it was the place that settlement could first happen. But you know, so, okay “we believe in these principles, but, ahhh, you know, we do really want to make a lot of money or have a lot of power.” and I do think that continues to cycle. And it also shapes the way we tell the story, because if we say we claim these principles but then we don’t, then there’s this desire to not talk about the way we don’t. That’s what the keeping the books out, wanting a mythology rather than the truth of history is about, not having to confront the truth of what has happened.
And so the monuments do often cut off conversation. That said, of course I want, Autherine Lucy to be acknowledged. But I understand that it’s not going to correct that fundamental tension. And the only way –that see this is, for me, if there is a big point– the only way that we get ultimately to a different way of doing things is actually to be completely honest and then have a moral reckoning that isn’t just about naming or isn’t just about platitudes.
Reckon: Yeah. And along that line, you also talk about there’s this naive hope that if Black people and white people just live alongside each other and get to know each other and love each other, that it will solve everything. And you talk about how, you know, not always consensually, but Black people and white people have been loving each other since they arrived on the American shores, especially in the South.
Perry: Especially in the South, right? I mean, it’s absurd if you know anything about Southern history to say these things, “like if people love each other,” “they have children.” You know, one of the things I wind up saying in some African-American studies classes, when people talk about the one drop rule African-Americans are by definition a multi-racial people, because there has always been interracial intimacy. So like that definition actually tells you a lot about why intimacy isn’t actually the resolution to anything. And the same thing is true of Latin American history, frankly. So then the question is, how do we move from thinking like warm feelings?
And I think patriarchy is in some ways the best example, right? Like anybody who knows about the history of patriarchy and sexism shouldn’t think that love and intimacy resolves oppression. It doesn’t. I mean, it just doesn’t. Respect, a sense of recognition of everyone in your midst, that is what we have to get to. It’s much more challenging than just warm feelings.
Reckon: There’s a part of this book where you write about, Walter Benjamin puts forth this idea of two types of storytellers, the keeper of traditions and the ones who journey and kind of bring back stories of distant lands. And you offer up a third and that’s the storyteller of the exile. And that’s an interesting choice of words because you say exile and not expat. Do you see yourself in the form of exile from the South?
Perry: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny. I think I chose the word, I wasn’t cognizant of it but I have always carried a bit of maybe resentment isn’t the right word, but a home sickness about being taken out of the South as a child. And lived with a sense of homesickness through my coming of age, that is not easily resolved. And part of what I write about is that my dad, interestingly, was the one who was just always like, ” got to find a way to go home, to spend a significant amount of time every year, like you need to be there in the Summer.” Like he was very insistent and I think it was because he knew that I needed that kind of sustenance for what I was trying to do in my life. But yeah, it was important for me to name, in part, because there’s this assumption, I think, particularly in Black history that leaving the south is a kind of escape. Is a kind of fugitivity. As opposed to a condition of being out and longing for, which actually I think is quite true for many, many people. And that’s part of why the reverse migration is happening frankly.
Reckon: And we’ve talked a lot about a lot of the serious topics that you cover in this book. But you also make a lot of time to talk about the beauty of the Southern landscape. And certainly the ways that it’s been used to terrorize people or as places of refuge, whether it’s swamps and things like that. But also the joy. And not in kind of the Walt Disney Song of the South, you know, black mammy joy, but the genuine joy that has been cultivated by Black people living in the South. And also the interesting ways that that has intersected with white people in the South.
Perry: Yeah. I mean, I think American music is Southern music and it is a music of encounter. Often with people who were my like migratory in the sense of doing labor, kind of peripatetic, like walking, their movement through the Southern landscape and using the imagination to reach for something beautiful.
And it’s such stunning land in so many ways that I think is inspiring. And there are so many poems and stories that talk about the sky in Alabama, the particular blue. I mean, and that is not incidental. And so I think it’s important because when you have, a people and place that is so subject to stereotype or shorthand, you forget the fullness of humanity that exists everywhere. So I want to unfreeze the mythology because I want to tell a truer story about the country, but I also want the book to be a testament to the fullness of humanity in the South that I have felt, as an exile so often, is neglected. It’s as though it doesn’t exist even. There’s a way in which it’s infuriating, but it’s also devastating to me.
Reckon: You talk about watching Southern sitcoms growing up. I’m sure that I’m missing some, but there haven’t been many sitcoms that depict Black Southern life until, as far as I know, the new Wonder Years reboot which takes place in Montgomery, Alabama. And you talk about seeing, I guess, at least some form of yourself and culture even in shows like the Dukes of Hazzard. Tell us about that.
Perry: Dukes of Hazzard, He Haw, Beverly Hillbillies. There’s a sense of like the humor, the ease of like laughing at oneself, to that kind of like home-like, but also I think a kind of virtuosity in performance, right? Like with music and play acting and all those sorts of things. And so it offered something because all of the Black sitcoms as I came of age, were in Northern cities. They told stories of people migrating to a one. You know, I wasn’t cognizant of it then, but it’s just interesting in retrospect. So I had one window, but there was something that was also really meaningful in that depiction.
And now reality shows are where you get, I think, the most Southern culture on television. Southerners rule reality show culture. It’s because of the storytelling. It’s so interesting because people always say, okay, “Southerners are conservative and narrow,” but then also “Southerners are idiosyncratic.” And like in some states, those are in tension, but the reality is that both can be true. The kind of conservatism and the space for people to be unconventional, different. And the way that people can stay in community, in a wide range of ways, both creatively, but also in terms of living with mental illness and disability. There’s a lot of accommodation of difference in community. Yeah, so I watch reality shows, in part, to do the same thing, to hear the cadence of speech, to hear the good storytelling, to hear people talk about things that are familiar to me.
Reckon: You know, what is maybe the biggest thing that surprised you and changed the way that you view the South while putting together this book?
Perry: I mean, without question, the biggest thing was to really take seriously the Upper South. So that’s one piece.
And then the other piece was The Bahamas, because at first I was like– and actually, I was watching an episode of the Jeffersons, since we were just talking about TV, Roxie Roker, actress who played Helen, who’s Lenny Kravitz’s mom is telling a story in the episode about having fixed grits for breakfast. She was Bahamian and before I started writing, I’d have probably thought, oh, she was playing an African-American woman. But then now that I did this journey, I said, no, Bahamians eat grits because a third of their ancestry is in South Carolina.
And so there these moments where I could see the threads of connection were really just so exciting. Because it shaped the beginning to me of a different way of telling the story of the country, right? Like for me, the book is an opening with that regard, but there’s so much more to do to understand those threads of connection.
Reckon: And then we’ll end where we began on this idea of the ancestral home. I’m a new father of a four-month-old son. And I’ve been trying to wrestle with the idea of what it means to raise a white boy in the South, in Alabama, in the 21st century. And that legacy and the legacy that might not be taught to him in schools here. So what are some other resources that you would point our listeners to, that you would point me to, for better understanding the South as it is and the way that it’s kind of shaped the world, and ways that we can move towards that culture of truth and respect that you were talking about?
Perry: For books, like I have a discussion of Bob Zellner’s The Wrong Side of Murder Creek about being a white Alabaman who joined the movement. There’s works like that. But I also think for me, here’s the sort of big challenge or maybe way to reframe the way folks are talking about this. So, you know, there’s been bills introduced like in Florida worrying about white kids feeling uncomfortable in school, if there’s this discussion of race and so preventing them from it. But I also think there’s just this wonderful prospect of expanding the moral imagination of all of our children with an honest confrontation with history. That actually being deliberate about sharing stories of the past fully and also acknowledging that the tensions of the past are present today, gives them the prospect of imagining themselves as heroic figures and move into their futures, having really important work to do. You know, to correct history. I mean, I always think about this. This is when I’m teaching students and with my own children, be better than us.
Imani Perry’s book “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation” is available here or at your favorite local bookstore.