Understanding the South to Understand America
On the final leg of her book tour, renowned author and scholar Imani Perry stopped by Endicott on April 21 to promote her New York Times bestselling new book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.
Perry, the Hughes Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, used her book to elucidate the ways our society has glossed over the South’s real history and challenged the crowd to “dislodge” preconceived notions of the South and American history during her talk in the Rose Theater.
In her introduction of Perry, Distinguished Professor of English Charlotte Gordon reflected on her own journey of relearning American history, beginning with Thomas Jefferson—his relationship with Sally Hemings, who was 30 years his junior, and his belief that Black people were inferior, even though he claimed to hate slavery.
“I learned none of this in high school back in St. Louis, Missouri, and certainly not in college,” noted Gordon. “My teachers hailed Jefferson as a great man. And if anyone mentioned Jefferson’s status as a slave owner, it was as an aside. It has taken me a long time to shed this attitude about history, to even start to recognize what actually lies behind the myths about America. It has been a rigorous and sometimes lonely journey.”
Gordon, who is also the Director of the Tadler Center for Humanities, which sponsored Perry’s visit, said she invited Perry precisely so that Endicott students could start to recognize what lies behind these American myths.
As a little girl, Perry left Birmingham, Alabama, for Massachusetts, where she settled in Cambridge with her family. Every summer, she returned to Alabama or visited Chicago and lived a life, she said, “of departure.” Of disparate experiences, too.
While the South has often been characterized as deeply racist compared to other regions of the country, Perry said that her move to the area was right after the Boston busing crisis, “which had been a period of extreme racial tension and violence.”
“In Boston, I was afraid,” said Perry, who is also the author of six critically acclaimed books and the newsletter, Unsettled Territory, published with The Atlantic. “That’s a place where I first experienced being called racial slurs, where someone threw a brick in our car when we wound up in Charlestown by mistake, where someone screamed at us in Southie when we got lost on the train. And so my experience was actually contrary.”
Part travelogue, part personal history, South to America follows Perry on a journey throughout the South. But, she noted, that she doesn’t visit cliché spots like Monticello or Montpelier, but other Southern cities in an attempt “to dig underneath the soil to understand what exists here, and why people are the way they are in relation to one another, and how this tells us something about this nation writ large, and how we might transform it based upon what we know.”
Delving deeper into the South, and the misconceptions about it, Perry said that most people think of the region as a backwoods, backward place, whereas she’d always considered herself a city girl because Birmingham was both metropolitan and at the forefront of social justice.
“Even in my formal education, the way that I encountered the South was largely either through a couple of chapters on slavery in high school and then the civil rights movement, but not as a region that was deeply intertwined in the formation of the nation,” she said. “Why? Because it’s hard to tell a romantic story of an ever more perfect union when you understand how central the history of settler colonialism, displacement, and genocide against indigenous people was, but also that slavery was at the center of it.”
In South to America, Perry also pokes at the historical notion of where the United States began. “It’s a complicated question,” she said, adding that the South was quite literally fertile grounds for growth because of slavery, climate, and its agricultural opportunities.
“If you think about Wall Street, it began as a slave market. Lehman Brothers, the most important investment bank in the history of this country, began as cotton traders in Montgomery, Alabama, and that’s how they initially built their wealth,” she said.
Even now, she said, undocumented people from Central America are integral labor in the agriculture and livestock industries. “For me, the absence of legal status for those folks is tied to a society that can enslave people,” she said. “There are people in our midst who work hard and who don’t have rights. We’ve been doing that since the inception of the country. So, we have to tell the story true to get to why we do the things we do.”
“Perry has important stories to tell us and heart-stopping lessons to teach,” Gordon told the crowd. “I want to make sure that none of you, our students, learn the many untruths that I was taught—and that if you did, you unlearn them quickly.”
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