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An ‘exile’ from the American South finds the nation’s soul there

Review of ‘South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation’ by Imani Perry

A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Ala., where author Imani Perry was born. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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SOUTH TO AMERICA: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation

By Imani Perry. Ecco. 432 pp. $28.99

The soul of America has endured much searching lately.

“We are in a battle for the soul of America,” President Biden declared on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, reiterating a theme of his 2020 campaign. Here the president drew upon the work of historian — and occasional Biden wordsmith — Jon Meacham, author of the book “The Soul of America,” which in 2020 became an HBO documentary of the same name. And in a posthumous New York Times op-ed in the summer of 2020, Rep. John Lewis reminded the country that “ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America.”

But before we can fight for it, save it or redeem it — let alone adapt it for cable television — we must attempt to find and know it. According to Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, the place to look is down South. In “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” Perry gazes from West Virginia to Florida, stops in Kentucky and the Carolinas, visits Mississippi and Georgia, and lingers in Louisiana and her native Alabama to contemplate a nation and a people fractured over history, race and justice. Those splits, she contends, are integral to our national identity. “To be an American is to be infused with the plantation South, with its Black vernacular, its insurgency,” Perry writes, “and also its brutal masculinity, its worship of Whiteness, its expulsion and its massacres, its self-defeating stinginess and unapologetic pride.”

Perry, who left the South as a child and has lived in Cambridge, Mass., Chicago and now outside Philadelphia, claims the tradition of the exile writer. Such a perspective can suffer through time and distance, she admits, yet it allows her to delve into “an archive of historical memory” in a quest that can be “less detailed and more impressionistic but ultimately more profound.” In “South to America,” that effort is rendered through a mix of travelogue, memoir, and literary and historical inquiry, an ambitious project that becomes enlightening and frustrating for its very scope. “Race is at the heart of the South, and at the heart of the nation,” Perry writes, and wherever she goes, she listens for its beat.

Quite often, it isn’t hard to hear. Perry has a knack for the simple observation that showcases the contradictions Americans endure or ignore. South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, a source of national pride, and Georgia’s Stone Mountain, a source of regional angst, each display two Virginia-born Southerners: at Rushmore, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who practiced slavery; at Stone Mountain, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who fought to preserve it. “Let’s accept that slavery, and its attendant value, racism — though debated — was integral to the founding of the nation,” Perry writes. She also emphasizes that the Constitution’s original three-fifths compromise did not simply mean that an enslaved person counted three-fifths as much as a White citizen. “They did not count at all,” Perry emphasizes. “Rather slaveholders were made larger people by virtue of holding others as slaves.”

No fan of so-called Great Man theories of history, Perry prefers to stitch together a “collage of historical meaning,” as she puts it, one that can encompass the experiences of those who “labored in these fields.” When she visits a Maryland tavern where some of the founders had engaged in the slave trade, she is struck by how mundane, untheatrical and “matter-of-fact” the spot appears; in North Carolina, she recalls the murderous 1898 riot by White citizens in Wilmington against the multiracial local government that had won power, concluding that “the broken oasis is a motif in the post-Emancipation South”; in Georgia, she pegs Atlanta, which once dubbed itself the city too busy to hate, as the city that "makes it obvious that being American is being a trickster.” Perry regrets that history “freezes” her birthplace of Birmingham, Ala., in the strife and tragedy of 1963, as though the present doesn’t count. “My grandmother and mother came of age in Jim Crow; I came of age in the violent backlash against its undoing.”

The collage can get messy. Perry moves quickly from one place and debate to another, and the effect can feel scattered, at times superficial. A lunch at a food truck in Jackson, Miss., leads to a digression on catfish farming — brief enough to be forgettable, long enough to wonder about the point. The beliefs of White Americans are gleaned from random chats with Lyft drivers in Virginia and D.C., or from a marginal conversation with a worker refilling an airport vending machine in Nashville. (They exchanged three banal sentences, yet Perry concludes that “were I to do an assessment based on that man’s demographics, the odds are he wouldn’t feel so warmly about me. … And the odds are pretty good that I would be irked by the things he thinks about the world.”) Deep in the book, readers still find relatively generic summations of the region or various locales. “The South is extremely diverse and complex,” we learn 144 pages in, and several chapters later we are told that “the South is so varying that it can seem endless.” Also, “New Orleans is the most Southern of American cities,” and Miami, while “the most Caribbean of American cities,” Perry explains, “is not just peopled with people from the Hispanophone Caribbean.” Fewer stops and longer stays would have been welcome.

This book is billed as a journey, but the most insightful moments occur when Perry is less a frenetic traveler than a thoughtful essayist. Reflecting on the excuses history makes for the founding generation — they were men of their time, they compromised out of political necessity, they were in a bind — Perry is outraged that “as an American I am expected to digest the founding fathers’ venom casually, as though it is merely part of the nation’s genealogy but not its soul.” (She memorably calls out Jefferson, declaring that “I have been all over the state of Virginia and I have my own notes.”) Black Americans are “descendants of the incomplete puzzle,” she writes, a phrase that sticks in my mind, and she skillfully — sometimes brutally — draws out the links between past struggles and current injustices. Mass incarceration is not the cruelty of slavery, she writes, but the cruelty of “being caught up in a system like slavery when you are called, by right and law, free.” And regarding the communal impact of desegregation and gentrification, Perry ponders how, “even acknowledging how important desegregation was, the persistence of American racism alongside the loss of the tight-knit Black world does make one wonder.”

In writing “South to America,” Perry draws self-conscious inspiration from the late novelist, biographer and social theorist Albert Murray, whose second book, “South to a Very Old Place,” a blend of memoir and cultural history, recently marked its 50th anniversary. Murray hovers all over Perry’s volume; she cites him frequently, discusses Toni Morrison’s 1972 review of the book and even confides to a collector of African American art in Savannah that she is “trying to write something in the vein” of “South to a Very Old Place.”

It is the sort of explicit homage that invites comparisons. Yet for all its invocations of Murray, “South to America” is just as much in conversation with contemporary works, such as Charles Blow’s “The Devil You Know,” which calls for a reverse Great Migration for Black Americans back to the South; Clint Smith’s “How the Word Is Passed,” an intimate tour of slavery’s presence in national memory; “The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times, on the legacy of slavery’s first presence on these shores; and “Read Until You Understand” by Farah Jasmine Griffin, a meditation on Black life and activism through literature, especially Morrison’s novels.

Perry’s is a distinct project. She does not offer grand solutions, save for her hope that the written word can yield moral redemption; she is distrustful of memorializing even while recognizing its power; she identifies many distinct origin moments for America; and she has found her own literary muse to guide her soul-searching. But in her return south, Perry joins the others in trying to understand the tensions straining the country — a nation old enough to rewrite its history yet new enough to still regard itself as an experiment.

“At moments of crisis, it always makes sense to return to the past to try to figure out if the arrangement of what is remembered and what is forgotten, or what is retained and what has been thrown away, are part of the problem,” Perry writes. “And, better yet, if a rearrangement offers a solution.”

Many pieces remain missing from the incomplete puzzle, but Perry is trying to find and rearrange them. And if you squint just a little, “South to America” helps fill in the picture.

Carlos Lozada is The Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including:

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