Imagine taking a bus tour of about a third of the United States with a guide who not only knows the history of everything she shows you, but has absorbed her material with such passion that the tour has become a testimony . From South to America is no ordinary travel book, and Imani Perry, a writer perhaps best known for her biography of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, In search of Lorraineis no ordinary tour guide.
Each chapter shows the uniqueness of a region or city in the southern United States, with a final chapter on the Bahamas and Havana, Cuba completing the journey. Perry starts in Appalachia and commutes to Maryland, DC, Virginia and Louisville, all Upper South panhandles. Then it crosses Alabama (its home state), Mississippi, Tobacco Road, the Sea Islands, Savannah, Charleston, Atlanta, Beale Street in Memphis, and the peculiar American crescent known as the Black Belt. From there it is to the low countries of Florida, Mobile and New Orleans.
The chapters explore the distinctive qualities of each place, but together they represent something bigger and more original than themselves. They are the South. As the journey progresses, Perry reveals the formative role of the South in shaping the essence, or soul, of all that America has become. She mourns the thefts that can never be returned: neighborhood schools running out of books and computers, historically black colleges and universities starved of endowment, traditional communities either gentrified and yuppified or bisected by freeways, professions largely closed to Blacks, promised lands but never given. The fabric of the South has been torn and bled, but it survives as a witness to something more than survival. At the crossroads of our nation, grappling with new forms of old hatred, the South represents a way forward for all of us.
Beyond its historical and geographical landmarks, the American South is also an intuition. We cannot define it, but we know it when we see it. From time to time, Perry asks the people she interviews: how does this place make you feel? To one person, DC looks like the South, to another it doesn’t. Virginia Beach, located at the southern tip of a southern state, never felt like the south to me, while the river city of Cairo, Illinois, located in a historically free state in the Midwest, definitely does. . To Perry, Princeton feels like the South, probably because she teaches at a gorgeous university with echoes of the plantation still about it. Her goal, however, is not to define the attributes of Southern sensibility but to connect with the stories and feelings of others, and always to share her own.
This book is a kind of Southern Wikipedia. Who knew about post-war Nazism in Jim Crow, Alabama? Or the “crack architecture” of Florida, or the survey crew of Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon, or the pretty dress Carlotta Walls wore the day she helped get into Central High School in Little Rock ? This information can be summarized, but what makes the book sing is Perry’s voice. He is open, pointed, generous and tirelessly curious.
It is also deeply interactive. In the chapter on Savannah, for example, Perry meets and befriends Walter Evans, a surgeon and collector of African-American art and artifacts, and his wife, Linda, who is from “Alabama North” ( aka Detroit). She feels at home in their Netherlands home with its high ceilings and large windows. It’s nestled in live oaks and Spanish moss, which brings her back to an earlier visit as a teenager, when she was first fascinated by the town’s “mythical” moss. Everything in the chapter radiates from this house. At dinner, his host leads a discussion about his childhood home of Beaufort, South Carolina, “the most beautiful city in the United States”, and explains how it happened that a young Howard University graduate was became both an authority on art and a surgeon. The omnipresent spirits of WEB Du Bois and black power preacher Albert Cleage hover above the conversation.
Later, a stroll through the squares leads her past the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, whose private bashing of black people disqualifies her as a “local saint.” Perry imagines O’Connor in conversation with fellow Savannah resident, black trans icon Lady Chablis. (Their meeting does not go well.) After walking to the First African Baptist Church, the oldest black church in North America, Perry strikes up a conversation with two black women who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Savannah’s depths contrast Perry’s earlier assessment of “Hotlanta” with its superficial brilliance. (“Atlanta makes it obvious that to be American is to be a trickster.”) This little one-chapter summary only hints at the rich blend of history and humanity that emerges from the pages of this book.
Everywhere Perry mourns black slavery, exclusion and deprivation – and wherever she finds something to celebrate. In Memphis, she notices the gentrification of the city’s black identity, though her music remains. She adds:
Just remember that the sounds of this nation that conquered the whole world were born out of repression. From the top of the gutbucket, so to speak. You know the song, maybe even the story, but I want you to investigate where it came from. Because it belongs to you too. And so you are involved; we are all. But will you serve as a witness?
Noticing Elvis Presley’s debt to black music, she names one of his counterparts. Did Elvis steal Little Richard’s thunder? I don’t know myself, but Perry makes the case for Richard Penniman in a way that makes him a symbol of the greatest theft of black culture by white domination.
She knows rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, gospel, bebop, rap and hip-hop, but she reserves her best eloquence for music that doesn’t fly: the blues. Leading the Mississippi Blues Trail, she reflects on the difference between Parchman Farm blues (born out of desperation in the most notorious penitentiary in Southern history) and plantation songs that echo another despair but push the work. The blues are songs from within, born of shared memories, hurts and hopes that can never come true. She remarks, “A good time doesn’t require letting go of the hard time that’s settling in your chest. Still. That’s what I think the blues is. They are outside the American dream, but they dream nonetheless.
Perry does not wonder why blacks left the South; she asks why they stayed. His answer is “house”. If everyone had left, who would have stayed to take care of the ancestral graves? It reminds me of the poignant scene of Incidents in the life of a slave when young Harriet Jacobs goes to her parents’ grave to ask their permission before running away. Perry reveres all those who, like her, have strayed from the Southern route and taken it with them. But it equally deeply honors those who remained.
I expected religion to play a more visible role in From South to America. Martin Luther King Jr. seemed determined to shape the civil rights movement in the mirror of the Bible, whose characters and message he brilliantly illuminated in his South. His ministry evoked deliverance as a decisive act, a victory. Perry’s stories tend to slow him down. She raises many crucifixions – the hidden ones – as well as evidence of ongoing victories. The phrase “Understanding the Soul of a Nation” in Perry’s subtitle is a subtle play on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s motto, “Redeeming the Soul of America.”
Yet Perry understands with King what happened to the biblical God in the South: how that God was captured and robbed of his own righteousness and his dearest people. In fact, she sees two gods, that of the masters and that of the slaves. She asks, as King did when he gazed at the beautiful spiers and manicured lawns of Birmingham’s white churches, “Who is their God?”
She sees white domination for what it was and is: a grotesque article of faith. It is a doctrine of cleanliness that its adherents will defend with the dirtiest of tactics. She against:
The God I was taught to believe in, a God made by slaves, was and remains at odds with this God. The God we were taught was the God of Exodus, the one who thundered, “Let my people go. Our God saw that Caesar’s way was wrong, not because of who was above and who was below, but because of the addiction to the idea of up and down, and the sinfulness of working people. unto death, and fits of vice and wickedness.
So many people have been crushed by the God of masters. Perry is open to the grace of God, but she also honors the spiritualities of those for whom grace has taken a different turn, in art making and even conjuring and hoodoo. She writes, “While we want the Articles of Faith to tell our stories, the most important thing is to be honest that they don’t tell all of them.”
In his chapter on the black belt, the region in which people were poorest and their chances of being lynched greatest, Perry makes a sincere, if familiar, challenge to the moral imagination. “We have to become different kinds of people from each other. . . people suited to the society we want to create. One thinks of a similar comment by James Baldwin in fire next time, following his own trip to the Deep South: “We, blacks and whites, need each other deeply. . . if we really are, that is to say to reach our identity, our maturity as men and women.
From South to America is not a book about religion, but it is a religious book. It is a research book. One of his discoveries is the racism that is found so close to the heart of America – and not just in the culture of the South, but in the nation’s sacred documents and original politics. Perry’s comments on Thomas Jefferson Virginia State Notes– in which he goes so far as to degrade the intelligence of the people he possesses – remind us that white supremacy is not an accident of our history or a recent aberration.
As Perry insists, we shouldn’t pretend that white supremacy is “merely part of the nation’s genealogy, but not its soul.” The enormity of its defilement confronts each successive generation. Paradoxically, this very sin also magnifies the continued achievements of beauty, courage, and hope among African Americans of all generations. According to one’s notion of how salvation occurs in history – and in our particular history –From South to America honors the complexities of being saved in America.
A version of this article appears in the print edition as “A way forward from the South”.