Historian Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine) reaches new storytelling heights in the vibrant and compelling South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In this unique blend of travelogue, memoir and cultural history, the Birmingham, Alabama, native traverses the wilderness of Appalachia, the rolling hills of Virginia, the urban corridors of Atlanta and the swampy vistas of Louisiana to explore the idiosyncrasies of the South. The book’s three sections are organized geographically, beginning with “Origin Stories” about where the South and America began and then moving deeper into the country, from “The Solidified South” in the heart of the Southeast to the “Water People” of Florida, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Alabama.
In striking prose, Perry testifies to the insidiousness of racism throughout the South and throughout history. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for example, she revisits the Wilmington race riot of 1898, in which an all-white group of Democrats overturned the town’s multiracial Republican government in a violent coup. Before the riot, “Wilmington was an integrated city in which Black people thrived,” Perry writes. “The deeds of the rioters in Wilmington were illegal. But they went unpunished because the de-facto law of the land had always been the respect of White grievance and the destruction of Black flourishing.”
As she zooms in on the South to show its complexities in more vivid detail, Perry takes time to observe the South’s continued enactment of political and business policies that fortify segregation, poverty and racism. For example, Atlanta is often presented to the world as a shining example of racial equality and justice. It’s a city that is over 50% Black, “but the unbearable Whiteness of its being—by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—leaves most Black Americans vulnerable,” Perry writes.
Given that the South is still the region where the majority of Black Americans live, the question Perry asks herself is “not why did Black folks leave, but why did they stay?” The answer, she says, is that it’s home. “If everyone had departed, no one would have been left to tend the ancestors’ graves,” she writes. “Had these graves not been seen, daily, over generations, had we not been witnesses to them, I do not know how it would have been possible to sustain hope, or at least pretend to.”
South to America, in the words of the traditional spiritual, troubles the waters, calling readers to understand the complex history of race and racism in the South in order to better comprehend the true character of America.