The Thread®

Want to understand the U.S.? This historian says the South holds the key

Imani Perry speaks at the Brooklyn Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York, on Jan. 17.
Imani Perry speaks at the Brooklyn Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York, on Jan. 17.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Brooklyn Academy of Music

Author Imani Perry says if you really want to know the United States, you must first understand the South.

"The ideas about race, we get them from the way the stage was set in the South from the beginning," she says. "It is, in some ways, an origin point for the way the whole nation operates."

The book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.
The book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.

Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University, was born in Birmingham, Ala., and has always considered it home, even though she moved north as a child. In her new book, “South to America,” she recounts her travels to the South — its cities, rural areas and historic sites — and reflects on the region's history of slavery and racism.

Though popular culture often dismisses the South as backward and racist, Perry says that's a mischaracterization that, too often, lets the rest of the country off the hook.

"The South in some ways becomes the repository for the nation's sins, right?" she says. "And then it allows the rest of the country to conceive of itself as relatively pristine."

But Perry says the South has always been a vanguard of the way the nation would develop. She points out that many of the Founding Fathers were Southern and that much of the nation's early wealth can be traced to the slave trade.

"So many of the things that sort of made the nation possible that come out of the South and the conditions that made it possible are the very things that are part of the painful history of the South," she says. "We try to sort of excise [that history] from the mythology of the nation, but [it's] really key to understanding it."

Interview highlights

On why she wanted to do this journey through the South

It's my home. But I have spent my life, in some ways, much of the time in exile of the South, and I have been traveling back and forth the majority of my life, and I've had this experience of being both an insider and also seeing how the South is seen — and from a young age, experiencing some frustration about the misperception. But as an intellectual and a scholar, over time it just became increasingly clear to me that the misunderstanding of the South — the depiction of it as this sort of some other backwards, different place — in other regions is actually part of the way in which we mischaracterize the nation. So that's sort of the heart of it. It both comes from frustration and also wanting to share and illuminate something.

On experiencing more racial terror in the North than in the South

People are astonished when I tell them this, but my fear about race as a kid was ignited in Boston. That's the place where I experienced racial terror with bottles thrown at our car and having slurs hurled at me. I have never in any place in the South had someone call me a racial slur. I've had it happen numerous times in Massachusetts, more than I can count. My point is not that up North is more racist than the South or something, but that disposition to sort of imply that that's a Southern thing actually gives a lot of freedom to not confront the racism in other parts of the [country].

But also part of the reason I haven't heard slurs in the South is that something will happen if that moment occurs. If someone hurls a slur at me in Birmingham, there's almost certainly going to be violence to follow. There was a civil rights revolution. There were a lot of people who gave their lives for it. That was a hard-fought battle. Those moments are not going to be casually passed by anymore. So there's a detente. There's these sort of silent spaces that exist so that people can negotiate around each other and around history. Some of that doesn't exist in quite the same way in Northern cities.

But the attitudes, the idea that people are inferior on the basis of being Black ... that does come from Southern history, but it is American history too. That attitude, that belief system about human beings is what allowed for the exploitation of Black labor, the moving out of Indigenous people, all of those sorts of things. ... The ideas about race, we get them from the way the stage was set in the South from the beginning.

On why she wrote ‘Breathe: A Letter to My Sons’

I wanted to raise my children [to see] themselves and their possibilities as greater than what the society anticipated for them or how they were seen. ... Obviously there's both [Ta-Nehisi] Coates' Between the World and Me and [James] Baldwin's The Fire Next Time and the "Letter to My Nephew," but I also wanted to think very specifically about gender in that, too, and what it meant to try to talk about all of these issues from the perspective of a woman and particularly of a feminist, someone who wanted to also raise sons who were free from all of the burdens and the attitudes associated with patriarchy, wanting to raise sons who could be fully expressive of the complexity of who they are and to really feel free even while knowing that things are not completely free in this world.

On her reaction when people have said, ‘it must be terrifying to raise a Black boy in America’

It would make me so angry. ... I know that people didn't have bad intentions, but it felt so voyeuristic and it also felt like it diminished the incredible beauty of raising children. They were funny and smart and imaginative and curious, and every day is just kind of a beautiful adventure. And I felt so often that my parenting was being diminished to racism. And I also felt that it was really important that I not raise them to move with fear as a dominant emotion because I didn't want to clip their wings. I wanted them to fly. I want them to fly, to feel a sense of expansiveness and possibility.

On a controversial line in ‘Breathe’ that says, ‘I have taught you not to love white people’

For me, it's to love people as people, but not white people as such. It's not to love white people as a category, but individuals. And the question with each individual is, what are your values? Can you fully respect me? Can you care for me? Can you love me? In some ways it sort of turns the question of colorblindness on its head: OK, we want to be colorblind, and I'm not going to make decisions about who I care for based upon who the society says is more important. And I'm actually going to make decisions based upon whether another person can fully acknowledge me. And I think that's really important because the messages are just so overwhelming from a very young age ... this idea that white people matter more. ... It's everywhere. It's so ubiquitous. It's like the air you breathe. And so to raise Black children ... you actually have to question it constantly. And that means you have to challenge the idea that you're supposed to love these people as this category, as opposed to make assessments in terms of who you encounter and how they treat you and how they see the world.

On why she taught her sons to love Black people

There is absolutely a distinction because Black people, the society tells us, are not to be loved, are to be reviled, are dangerous, are inferior or less intelligent, are less hardworking, are less filled with integrity. And so to counteract that message, I do believe that Black people have to treat Black people with a particular kind of care. ... There's plenty of individual Black people that you won't love, that I don't like or love, but I think that the work of undoing white supremacy in terms of the way that we are all at risk of it seeping into the minds of Black people in ways that become a form of self-loathing means to treat Black people with a tenderness that the society doesn't afford, to have a softer gaze to understand in light of history and in light of social realities.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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