Imani Perry, 49, is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and the author of “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.” Perry is a native of Birmingham, Ala., and lives with her two sons outside Philadelphia.
It was more emotional than intellectual. I felt like the book called to me, and it was born of my own experience of feeling as though the place of my birth was not only misunderstood but mischaracterized. As a child, being born in Alabama and then moving up to Massachusetts, I was aware of an external view of the place that was home for me. And then as I became an adult and a scholar, it was interesting to feel this disjuncture between the way people talk about the South as this backward, different place and the reality of its centrality in the history and the culture of the country.
What do you think we gain as a nation by reframing the South?
I think we gain a more honest rendering of the country. We want to tell this story of an ever more perfect union — a kind of liberty-and-justice-for-all narrative, a noble narrative. And the reality is we are a country that was built on settler colonialism. Genocidal behavior toward Indigenous people. Enslaving people of African descent. And that foundation really shaped so much of how we do things. And to sort of marginalize where it happened, and to tell the story of the beginning of the country with Plymouth Rock as opposed to Jamestown — we forget how we came to be. I think that story has to not only include, but centralize, the South. All of the industries that made the country a global power — cotton, coal, tobacco, sugar — all of these industries were essential to building the wealth of the nation, and they wound up being centered in the South because of the climate and because that’s where the bulk of enslavement took place.
You talk about the art and the culture that comes out of the South.
Yeah, it’s the home of American music. It’s the intersection between multiple African origins, Scots-Irish and incredible music coming out of the South from people who lived on the land, who had encounters across experiences, who gave voice to their freedom dreams, to their yearnings, to their longings and made art of it in an everyday way. I also talk a lot about yard art in Alabama, which I think is a direct consequence of industry in Alabama. So you get incredible artists who build from the scraps of the industries — coal and steel — and live with art. It’s also even in more mundane ways, in cross-stitch, in crotchet and quilting, creating beauty literally from the scraps on the margins. [It’s] such a deeply Southern way of living. And it has inspired art across the country, but also across the globe.
Your book talks about how Black folks appreciate the difference between honest racism and liberal subterfuge. However, there is something about not having to suppress [racism] that makes people more fearful. Do you understand the fear that some have about the Deep South?
I think that it’s really miscast. The same prospect of racial violence and terror exists in pockets all over the country. I think one of the things that fuels some of the fear is the red-state, blue-state maps, when in reality, it’s really red and blue counties. I’ll give you an example: We live in Philly and my son played a team out west in Pennsylvania and on one occasion, all the kids had on Trump socks. What do they call the area between Philly and Pittsburgh? Pennsyl-tucky — for a reason. I do understand the power of historical imagery, but I think that it’s important that we sort of name what exists everywhere. Growing up, Massachusetts was a place where I experienced more racial hostility than in Alabama. There have been Southern White people who have said to me, “Do you think you are letting us off the hook?” And I said, “No, I just think you have a lot of companions in other parts of the country.”
This is also a travelogue.
I’m always sort of traveling somewhere in the South. It’s just a habit in my life. But I wanted to avoid the major historic sites, and instead I wanted to touch the land and people. And the benefit of doing that in the South is that people will talk to you. I was sort of trying to dig underneath, trying to find out: What’s behind this person? Where are we physically? What roads are we traveling? You’re encountering these people with me, but you are also encountering a space. And everywhere you travel, everywhere you go, there is a story underneath the street where you are. I was hoping it would encourage people to think that way overall. I had so many great conversations that took me on these wonderful, side journeys which is also facilitated by my love of Toni Morrison because one of the gifts of her writing is she is always taking in these sort of arterial journeys. I thought, okay, I’ll try that too.
You discuss the idea of intimacy across the color lines, implying that there is a different kind of understanding that exists between Blacks and Whites in the South, and there may be implications there for integration for the rest of the country.
Thank you for raising that because I think particularly in the Northeast often people say some version of “Oh, if we just knew each other better.” We have this history of this incredible intimacy across the color line in the South, but that intimacy doesn’t mean decency or fairness. And the history of sexism should teach us this. You can be close and still not fully respect those who are in a disfavored position. And so, integration, closeness is not nearly sufficient to getting to racial justice.
There is also something to learn about what happens to human beings when you can laugh together and play together and have deeply intimate associations and also participate in horrific racial violence. That says something about human beings that’s very unsettling, and it should teach us something about being attentive to how we are socializing young people. How do we raise people to think about their responsibility to other human beings? It is not enough to feel warmly. Respect and dignity and integrity are really important. For me that has to be part of the story, a better story, that we tell.
Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.