South to America by Imani Perry


Imani Perry has an impressive academic background:  Yale undergraduate, Harvard Ph.D, LLM degree from Georgetown, and she now teaches at Princeton. Her ramble through the South is an informed and wide-ranging trek, with both familiar and new bits of information to digest. The approach to talking to people about Washington, DC used the question, “Is Washington a Southern city?” While such a question makes me uneasy because the answer is inevitably “yes and no,” it did evoke some interesting comments. I appreciated the observation she made that locals call the city “DC,” a designation that sounded so right to me, having grown up in Northern Virginia. And there’s John Kennedy’s comment about Washington mentioned by Mr. Booklog:  “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”

She wrote about Charlottesville, a city she visits as part of her work; about the 2017 Unite the Right rally she notes that local people were quick to blame “outside agitators” for the hatred. She said the people did come from other places, “but there’s something to be said about outsiders thinking that your place could be a place for their hate to bloom.” While I know local people reacted with “that’s not who we are,” that was countered by Black people who can testify to the racism they experience. And it is true the rally was organized by a Charlottesville person, Jason Kessler. On the other hand Kessler was reacting to the decision by the City Council to remove two Confederate statues, and was able to recruit significant national groups to react to that. I believe that fact makes this a more complicated story; while plenty of racism exists here, the organizers were recruited to come here not because they would receive a warm welcome from the city, but because the city had made a decision racists could rally against.

Perry writes about a wide range of topics including music, food (she has definite opinions about grits), her grandmother and much more. Sometimes the pivots were dizzying.  The subtitle of the book is A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. Can one understand the soul of a nation through experience of one part of it? I am uneasy at the thought of speaking of the soul of a nation at all. But then the journey itself should be the reward.

Imani Perry, South to America, Harper Collins, 2022, 410 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library.

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