"South to America" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
"South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” by Imani Perry, is a fresh perspective on the states south of the Mason-Dixon line by someone who was born there.
Everyone seems to define the South by association: cotton plantations, slavery, The War Between the States, “Gone with the Wind,” Jim Crow, football dynasties and more. But Perry challenges these stereotypes as she interweaves meditations about the history, folkways and countryside of the region.
As the author travels to her native Birmingham, Alabama, and the surrounding territory, she claims that fully grasping the history and culture of the South is key to knowing the whole United States. “Paying attention to the South” she says, “allows us to understand much more about our nation, and about how our people, land, and commerce work in relation to one another, often cruelly, and about how our tastes and ways flow from our habits.”
Professor Perry reports on southerners from all levels of society with honesty and grace. As she narrates her tour, she shares her reflections about America’s troubling history and the commonplace denigrations and joyous delights characteristic of Southern culture. She examines the founding fathers’ slaveholding, North Carolina's history of insurrections in support of white supremacy including the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 and the 2006 Duke University lacrosse incident.
She contemplates the plethora of religious traditions, the rise of the religious right, present day white supremacy, the urban South, the pushback of Blacks evinced in literature and music and the effects of generations of punishing economies dependent on products ranging from cotton to Coca Cola.
Perry cites the people of Appalachia’s efforts to encourage Black educational institutions and discusses Low Country architecture with art collector Walter Evans. She historically observes city and rural life: “…the plantation South, with its Black vernacular, its insurgency, and also its brutal masculinity, its worship of Whiteness, its expulsion and its massacres, its self-defeating stinginess and unapologetic pride.”
Perry’s writing style is strikingly insightful, lucid, timely and challenging. She is a remarkable intellectual who maintains that if we want to live in a more humane nation then we must address the issues that have spread beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. Looking at the South through a 2022 lens, Perry’s book is thoughtful, complex, rigorous, intimate, and full of powerful ideas.
About the Author: Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She also is the author of “Looking for Lorraine”, winner of the 2019 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.