SOUTH TO AMERICA
A journey under the Mason-Dixon to understand the soul of a nation
By Iman Perry
At the start of “South to America”, Imani Perry implores the reader, “Please remember, even though this book is not a story, it is a true story.” I tried to keep these instructions in mind – not always easy with a story so scrupulously researched and full of facts and quotes – but eventually I brushed them aside. After all, Perry touches on everything from hip-hop to the United Fruit Company and his own grandmother. Any attempt to classify this ambitious work, which straddles the genre, tears down the fourth wall, dances with poetry, engages in literary criticism and moves from journalism to memoirs to academic writing – well, that’s a wild ride and only undermines this insightful, ambitious and moving project.
It’s not a “two-sided” affair: Perry is a shameless “movement” baby, raised by intellectual freedom-fighter parents. The belief of this book is that race and racism are core Southern values, that “the creation of racial slavery in the colonies was a gateway to habits and dispositions that eventually became the ways common ways of doing things in this country”. In other words, the South is America, its history and influence cannot be dismissed as an embarrassing parent at the nation’s holiday dinner table.
Inspired by Albert Murray’s 1971 memoir and travelogues “South of a Very Ancient Place”, Perry travels to more than a dozen cities and towns across the South, delving into both modern histories and realities. . It begins in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. We meet Shields Green, a black man from South Carolina known as the “Emperor of New York” who was executed with John Brown. His heroism was almost lost to history and, to compound the tragedy, after his hanging his body was taken to Winchester Medical College for dissection. In telling her story, Perry reveals the first of many patterns in the quilt sewn on these pages: At each stop, she recounts an atrocity, but also a resistance. And she doesn’t flinch when she documents the consequences.
From the three essays that examine Alabama, it’s clear that despite growing up in New England, Perry’s heart belongs to the idiosyncratic state of Yellowhammer. Her tone softens when evoking her dancing cousins or the foot-washing Baptists. Her portraits of her grandmother combine elegiac nostalgia and the rigor of a historian who sets the record straight. Equally moving are the dispatches from his mother’s native Louisiana.
The theme of unmarked graves and untold stories permeates this work. As a remedy, Perry names dozens of Southerners: some famous, some unknown. As André 3000 said, “The South has something to say.” And it’s something to take your breath away – from fine art to reality TV, from international business corporations to roadside rib-shacks whose flavors inform the American palate.
Perry vowed to visit and view as much of the South as possible for this project; this ambition is both a gift and an obstacle. The advantage of such a large canvas is that the patterns are easily identifiable. Historical injustice such as the Wilmington massacre cannot be considered an isolated case, nor can the contemporary violence of Dylann Roof or the historical resistance of Rosa Parks. Perry finds that a “hidden virtue of uncertain genealogy is a vast archive of ways to be learned from birth”.
It’s inevitable, however, that not all venues will receive the same care and attention — and it’s clear that his loyalty lies with Alabama. A sidekick to Toni Morrison, Perry nonetheless categorically disputes the Nobel laureate’s description of Mobile’s women. I understand his pain, because it is the same feeling evoked in me reading the chapter on Atlanta, my hometown. While in some places Perry benefits from a guide, here she doesn’t cite the personal conversations that led to her insights, and the resulting observations seem a little cold. Perry states that “the great metropolis of the South does not have a sufficient public transport system or a polyglot culture….” but goes on to suggest that the survivors of the dirt roads take solace in the shiny trinkets instead. peddled at Lenox Mall. Well, that hurt me.
Wounded pride aside, it must be said that this work, although sometimes uneven, is an essential meditation on the South, its relationship to American culture, even Americanness itself. It is, as Perry puts it, “not preservation. It is an intervention. For too long the South has been scapegoated and reduced to a backward land on the other side of a translucent but impenetrable barrier.
Beyond the literal Mason-Dixon divide, Perry is fixated on the line that divides past and present. During her travels, she encounters a Confederate re-enactor celebrating a birthday. Although he is nostalgia and revisionism made flesh, Perry finds him surprisingly enjoyable. Assuming he’s talking about ‘aggression from the North’, Perry chooses not to question him, and that too is the legacy of the intimacy of slavery – we’ve lived together so long we think we can read in the thoughts of the other.
While visiting Maryland, Perry sees people wearing muslin shirts and straw hats while working in a field. His insides tighten, fearful of witnessing a cruel pre-war cosplay. As she gets closer, Perry hears the men speaking Spanish. She was “sad, and also relieved. Workers, not re-enactors. But of course, it underlines the refrain of this immersion in the life and history of the (American) South – to what extent are we all re-enactors of the nation’s brutal history? This work – and I use the term to refer to both Perry’s work and its fruits – is determined to bring about a return to the other southern heritage, the ever-urgent struggle for freedom.