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Imani Perry’s Capacious History of the South

In a 1971 issue of Ebony magazine dedicated to exploring “The South Today,” its publisher, John H. Johnson, wrote: “Long before there was a United States of America, there was a Southland.” For many in his generation who had participated in the civil rights movement, the South was a zone of both oppression and liberation—it was the country they knew even if they lived in the North. For many Black Americans, the South was an ancestral home as well as a place of present warning and future promise. It was where the historic struggles against inequality and discrimination had taken place, but it was also a region that had cast an ominous shadow over the rest of the country.

The different Souths that many Black Americans carry with them is the central theme of a new book by Imani Perry, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. With it, Perry enters a long tradition of considering Southern identity—the South of Black freedom and of Black oppression. What it means to be Black in the South, Perry shows, is not just a question of being Black in the South; it is also a question of what it means to be Black in the United States—to be Black in a nation whose traditional narrative of itself shifts the blame for racism, white supremacy, and segregation onto one region instead of confronting the ways in which these maladies were and still are national. But Perry goes even further in her book: One cannot understand Black life in America, she maintains, without understanding the South, but one also cannot understand all of American life without it.

South to America crisscrosses genres in much the same way that Perry crisscrossed the South while she was working on it. The Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Perry has built a career out of writing books that escape easy categorization as one genre or another. Her works are radical combinations of history, African American studies, Southern studies, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, and cultural studies. They also have something in common throughout: a centering of the Black experience and, as a result, of the Southern experience that helped shape Black experience. But here Perry makes the South her primary focus, joining a growing number of Black writers—including Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Zandria Robinson—who have forced us to reconsider what the South means in present-day America while also reevaluating what we thought we knew about the South of the past.

At the heart of Perry’s book is this basic truth: The American South is not a monolith. Nor, she takes great pains to explain, are Black Americans. Yet both the South and Black America have too often been painted with a single brush. Perry, however, won’t let her readers make that mistake. South to America is broken down by regions, with each area of the Black South given its own nuance, subtlety, and particular understanding.

South to America begins in Appalachia. As a region, Appalachia is traditionally ignored in narratives of Southern Black history. Yet Perry’s story of a Black and Southern Appalachia makes perfect sense. Beginning with the Harpers Ferry raid of 1859, she focuses her narrative on a man named Shields Green, one of several Black Americans present at the raid and executed by the state of Virginia in its aftermath. Harpers Ferry was a turning point in American history, but also, Perry reminds us, in Southern history. “Harpers Ferry is a monument to the defeated,” she writes—to the Southern way of life, but also to a more radical vision of emancipation. At Harpers Ferry, “the defeated are wild-eyed radical abolitionist John Brown and his companions, and not the Confederate dead.”

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