Imani Perry: To Understand America, We Have to Understand the South
This Week on the Book Dreams Podcast
If we want to understand America today, we must first understand the South. This is both a central premise of Imani Perry’s latest book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, which is a finalist for the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and a proposition she explores in depth in this episode of Book Dreams.
During her conversation with co-hosts Eve Yohalem and Julie Sternberg, Imani illuminates the connections between Southern history and pivotal aspects of contemporary American society—everything from the overturning of Roe v. Wade, to episodes of mass violence, to the treatment of immigrants at the border. She also makes the case that the South could have a better claim to the name “Heartland of America” than the Midwest, because “the way Americans relate to the use of land and labor is so shaped by the South.”
Imani vividly conveys, too, a duality that has pervaded the South over the course of its history, particularly for those oppressed there: on the one hand, grief, pain, and atrocity; on the other, joy, vibrancy, and beauty.
“I spent a lot of time,” she says, “thinking about how much the violence of the country was associated with sources of pleasure: … slavery, and rum and tobacco and sugar. … Then there’s also the fact of people who have lived incredibly hardscrabble lives, through dispossession and also, you know, the South has been home to the deepest poverty and many forms of exploitation. And from that people have tapped into their humanity to create incredible beauty and meaning.”
A professor who has taught both history and law, Imani also explains why the Supreme Court’s recent tethering of the constitution to the “intent of the founding fathers” is both bad history and bad law.
From the episode:
Eve Yohalem: I imagine that there are moments watching or reading the news today when you think, “This is what I’ve been saying. If we want to understand America, we have to understand the South.” And if I’m right about that, could you give us an example or two of the kinds of news stories that give rise to these kinds of thoughts?
Imani Perry: Oh, gosh. I mean, yes. There’s so many. Certainly, as we look to what has happened with the overturning of Roe [v. Wade] and the Dobbs opinion–let me say this. One of the mischaracterizations is that [lack of abortion access] is just a Southern problem, right? The sort of red state, blue state frame of reference has made us think that the religious right that is interested in sort of rolling back all of the gains of the past 50 odd years is solely in the South.
And it’s really all over the nation. I do think that this idea that you can control reproduction, that you can coerce birth, I mean, that’s the story of the Antebellum South. Black women, of course, are at the center of that history. And then, you know, a couple of years ago, when there was attention to the fact of child removal for undocumented people and caging children at the border, that’s also Southern history.
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies. Her prior books include Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, which won the 2019 Bograd Weld Award for Biography from the PEN America Foundation and the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Non-Fiction and was a New York Times notable book, among other accolades. She’s also the author of Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, a Kirkus best nonfiction book of 2019 and a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in Nonfiction; Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation; and May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, also a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in Nonfiction.
Book Dreams uses books to explore topics we can’t stop thinking about. Hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Visit our website for more about the show: www.bookdreamspodcast.com.