Public Thinker: Imani Perry on How to Understand “Souths Plural”

“At the end of the day, the America project was about an encounter with abundance that was responded to with greed and brutality.”

In 2018, Professor Imani Perry published not one, not two, but three books. Ranging from Black feminist theory in Vexy Thing to a history of the Black National Anthem and a biography of Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Perry’s intellectual output that year was dazzling. Spending time with those works helped me see that “polymath” is a model of scholarship that persists despite the corporatization of the academy, and, importantly, it is possible for a Black woman scholar to fully own it. In her new, instant bestseller South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, Perry’s expansive fluency across disciplines, genres, and cultural modes is again on full display. There is a running theme through her entire body of work: to tell America about itself and proclaim Black America’s infinite dimensionality, not just through an Americanist lens but also with a perspective informed by the global diaspora.

South to America is more personal than those works from 2018, picking up in some ways where her Breathe: A Letter to My Sons left off. It is a travelogue. But it is also a treatise—on Black art, on Black internationalism, on labor, on womanhood, on who we are going to be as communities that inter-are. For someone like me who has spent a lot of time reading and then rereading Dr. Perry’s academic texts, each page carried a familiar voice informed by her life as a Black Southern woman who spent large parts of her childhood in Boston and then went on to earn both a PhD and a JD. As more junior academics often do, I used to compare myself to Dr. Perry and feel bad about my relatively lower rate of intellectual output. Eventually she had to tell me to cut that out. And I had to learn and relearn to focus on my work and enjoy growing through contact with the work of others. Just as its author has before, South to America pushed me and it taught me.

In January 2022, I had the opportunity to spend an hour talking with Dr. Perry about what work she hoped the book will do, its core ideas, and why this book, in this time. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (CPW): I had expectations going into the book, and what I read was, in some ways, not what I was expecting. I suspect that you knew that readers were going to have that experience with it and that’s part of the thing that you’re doing.


Imani Perry (IP): Absolutely is.


CPW: What do you think the book is?


IP: The book is a paradigm shift. It’s an invitation to walk through places and history and, for me, to invite the reader to stand with me and look not just at the surface of places but try to read beneath the layers in ways that are distinct. So, the South is one of these places that is much stereotyped, much maligned, and where the assumption most people have of it is largely incorrect. The easier part of the story to set forward is that the South is actually where what would become the United States begins, and it was the source of the greatest genocide, exploitation, and wealth production. And it moved all the other regions about because it was a site of wealth production. People don’t know that enough, but that’s one part of the story. The more complicated part to render is that so many tastes, habits, rituals that are seen as particularly American were cultivated there. Whether we’re talking our cultural relationship to sugar or our political relationships to Central America and the Middle East and so forth—the ways that we are with each other in this country and in relation with the rest of the world, so much of it comes from the history of the US South.

What has been an interesting phenomenon for me is that some struggle with the fact that it’s not a book that’s really about making an argument. It’s a book that is about contemplation, it’s a book that is about invitation, it’s a book that invites—and I actually do this quite a bit in my writing—that invites people to disagree in my moments of interpretation of an encounter, and in fact there are times when I double back on myself and I say, I read this moment in this way but maybe that was an incorrect reading. Because it’s complicated. Because national and regional histories and present relations are fraught terrain. And it’s a hard book that is about the heartbreak of what this American project has been, as much as it’s about the grace and beauty that exists nevertheless.

But, at the end of the day, the America project was about an encounter with abundance that was responded to with greed and brutality. And there was a decision that the desire for prosperity and abundance was more important than basic human decency that still animates so much of how we do things. And we pretend as though there are these moments that something new is happening, and over and over again it’s actually not. Sometimes there are new types of bodies in the roles and there’s new borders.

People talk about the South as part of the circum-Caribbean, which is true. It’s also true that the Caribbean is part of the South, at least historically. They were built together from the same desires: a European voraciousness combined with slavery and settler colonialism. So this is the sensibility behind the book.

CPW: In some ways, it’s obvious that this is a geography book. But the ways in which it is a geography book are not apparent from just like looking at the cover or the title or reading the description.


IP: Yes.


CPW: And so, to start with one of the preconceived notions that I had coming into it, I thought you were going to start in Birmingham, which is where you are rooted. The way you start in the introduction, locating yourself politically—well, I thought, she’s clearly going to start with where she is. But you start with West Virginia. How did you make the decision to start with West Virginia? What is the order that governs the geography and the way you chose to traverse the geography?


IP: This is such a good question. So part of the starting with West Virginia had to do with thinking about what it meant to defamiliarize myself with the place that is home. And I talk about this a little bit in the introduction. So for me the South meant always Deep South. So I start at the places that didn’t really count to me in my mind as the South: the Upper South, the Mountain South. For example, Maryland. I know Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are from Maryland, never thought of Maryland as the South. So I started with confronting the biases I had about what counts as the South, because I learned through the project that there is not a South singular, there are Souths plural. It wasn’t a preexisting concept. It was created through borders, history, and the environment. Through the very landscape that we occupy. So there was that. And then there’s just on a personal level as I started to do more genealogy and I would go further back, and I realized my ancestry was in the Upper South—which is to be expected, because as a multigenerational African American who descends from people who were brought here in the colonial period, the odds are good that I would have ancestry in the Upper South most likely.

So it shouldn’t surprise me but I was surprised. I’m one of these people from up in the mountains, and from the Chesapeake, and what does that mean? So the defamiliarization part was important. And I was also confronting the genre. There is a hundred-plus years’ genre of travel-through-the-South books. Very few women in them. Very, very few Black women, and part of that is a result of who is supposed to be where, and the way women’s time and existence in public space are constrained. And our vulnerability. Every time I told people I was going to West Virginia as part of this book, their eyes would get big and they’d say, oh, be careful. There was an assumption that as a Black woman, I would be unsafe in West Virginia.

So I was pushing against the genre especially because while there are some beautiful recent books about traveling across the South, the genre has gotten more male and whiter in the last two decades than even before. So I went to West Virginia but—I’m a little chicken too—so I started in Harpers Ferry because I feel like, well, that’s John Brown’s place so it won’t be so dangerous.

But overall, in the writing I’m trying to deal with what it means to write this book and encounter the things that I didn’t know from the outset and to allow myself to be surprised and transformed. But also to understand, and I talk about this in a visit to a Walmart in West Virginia, the landscape is also very familiar, and I describe how I’m so unremarkable as a Black woman in those Walmart aisles. Like there’s places where I don’t fit. I fit in Walmart pretty much everywhere I go as an unremarkable presence. And what that means in terms of race, region, gender, class—all that kind of stuff and how complicated it is—is at work in all the chapters. It’s a very deliberate choice that’s about where the book is fitting into a long story of this type of book.

CPW: The way you started with West Virginia forced me to think about my relationship to these geographies. I went to Harpers Ferry as a child. Because, for radical families, this is … I wouldn’t call it Mecca. But it’s a journey that you’re supposed to go on, and honor the man who tried to free us. I was 10 or 11 when we went. I thought, okay, it’s a bunch of old stuff, and John Brown’s pretty cool. But my primary memory of that is that there’s a place nearby where you’re basically in Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia at the same time. And for me that was the memorable piece.


IP: Right, right. There’s conflict at that location because of the river and because of it. So, yes, absolutely.


CPW: I more recently returned, because I have a friend who has been organizing with West Virginia Can’t Wait. There are all these stories that people tell about what West Virginia is, like they’re all “white hicks.” But when you go to Charleston, the state capital, you’re talking about multiracial working-class organizing communities who are organizing across difference. There’s Joe Manchin and then there’s the people; and they’re not the same thing.


IP: This is part of the reason why I wrote about the labor history in the way that I did. Because there are these moments of crossracial coalition and then they fall apart. And they fall apart because of the way that the society was structured, organized.

That’s why part of what is meaningful about being there is it’s this site of possibility. And also a site of a design structure that dashed so much possibility or continues to. Because the question always becomes, what happens to these movements and moments? When things fall apart that are still extraordinary, it is almost always a design problem. Until we end the design problem, there’s a problem of our particular brand of capitalism and exploitation, it’s a design of white supremacy, it’s a design of the complete failure of representation of the most vulnerable. It’s fascinating with West Virginia, because it tells you what the larger society thinks about white vulnerability, because it is the subject of so much mocking all the time.

CPW: I’m a firm believer that the American South is part of the Global South, so I don’t see the distinction between like Barbados and the Carolinas in particular. But actually I spent parts of my childhood in Takoma Park, Maryland. And you wrote about your time living in Maryland—in Silver Spring, which is near Takoma Park—and reckoning with Maryland as, really, the South. The first time I was called the N-word was at a party in Bowie, Maryland, when I was 15. Now, having lived in the Boston area for a while, I know that there’s no border around that behavior. And so, reading your book, I was asking myself new questions. Maybe I had, at least in part, a Southern childhood, but also maybe that wasn’t a particularly Southern experience.


IP: Yes, and depending on where you are in Maryland, right, because Baltimore is very different from Bowie. Very different from Takoma Park, too, and Silver Spring. Yes. The only place I have consistently experienced being called the N-word is in Boston, never anywhere in the South. And also racial violence: having bottles thrown at our car. But my socialization from my mother and aunts and her friends, who are mostly Southern Black women, and also my aunt who lived in Boston when she was in medical school, gave me a relationship to racial violence that was very Southern. So I was always made to be aware of where we’re going, how to be cautious, and the most important part was to never internalize any of it.

So before the first time I was ever called that slur, I knew that there was a moral failing to the person who would call me a slur—so before the six-year-old experience, I had been armored, and that I attribute to a particular culture that was created in the Black segregated South. So to that extent, because I remember being in high school once and people yelled slurs at us and my friends started crying and I was like, what are you crying about? Like what’s wrong with you? I just couldn’t even figure out why that would hurt someone’s feelings. It was unkind on my part, in the moment. I understand in retrospect that it would have been more appropriate for me to feel empathetic, but I literally didn’t get how a racial slur could hurt your feelings because I had been so intensely armed.


CPW: Right.


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IP: But there’s also a piece that is like Souths plural, right, because the experience of not being called slurs in the South is about where I was when I was in the South. In Birmingham, calling a Black person a slur to their face is going to lead to a whole lot of conflict. So there’s like, a withholding that happens in the urban Deep South, a détente between the Black and white South.

There are places—Upper South places, rural South places—where there’s a more complicated dance. I don’t think that anybody says it any less. And for me, I’m in Alabama, I just think that there’s a strong awareness of the consequences for someone like me, born nine years after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. There was my mother talking about Black men patrolling the neighborhood with guns—it’s not going to be okay to lob slurs. Right. There’s no consequences for that action in many parts of the country.


CPW: So there is this interesting question around how people understand the vocabulary as being what makes the things Southern or not Southern. As opposed to what you’re talking about is sensibility—even in terms of like, you having a Southern sensibility—about how to respond to Boston racism.


IP: When I was growing up, I remember Black people saying in the South, you can get as close as you want but don’t get too high. And then in the North, you can get as high as you want but don’t get too close. And so the residential segregation is the dominant logic: you have to stay in your geography amongst the racism experience as experienced in the white South. It was about like we do not want Black people over.

I grew up with the feeling that there was always this conversation, in which we understood that race and racism and white supremacy were not just national but international realities and manifested differently. And so you therefore had to navigate them differently. This is part of why I was always resistant to this narrative of the South as more racist. Because of course it wasn’t. Racism is a global enterprise; how could it be the province of one region? And in fact the way the various regions or parts of the world operated in tandem was how you get the real story of how it functions.


CPW: So obviously I am reacting to this a lot primarily as an outsider to the South. I assume that part of the audience you were writing to was Southern. What were you hoping other Southerners would see in the text? How did you want them to see themselves? Was whether they would feel seen one of the things you were thinking about, and how did that drive the writing for you?


IP: That’s a great question. I actually thought a lot about every encounter, how different Southerners—that is, different in terms of coming from different parts of the South—would probably respond to the same thing. There’s a process for me which was about thinking both about the intimacy, the recognition, the being seen part, and also the thing which is very Southern to be like, “That’s not us. That’s some up-North stuff.”

And I have said that about things that were Southern, they were just from a different part of the South that I was unfamiliar with. So using the back-and-forth of my life, of leaving and returning to the South as a larger motif, I wanted to capture the way that intimacy can also pivot to unfamiliarity, and that in some ways becomes a metaphor for the way the South operates in the national imagination. It’s construed as this other, different place. Actually, no, this is the core of what this American project is. To get to the core thing, right, of what this place is and why is really important to me. And to do it in a way that it’s not about—I’m not telling you what this is, I’m showing you through these encounters, I want you to feel what it’s like to not know exactly—to not be certain but to generally understand that there is a dynamic that repeats and repeats and repeats.

CPW: Throughout, there’s a confidence in your gaze. In American culture, you’re never supposed to be a Black woman speaking confidently. The book reads as though you said, I’m confident in my gaze now, and I’m ready to do this, this thing that I wanted to do for a while.


IP: Yes, I’m being completely frank. This is a book that I would have written 15 years ago but nobody would have let me do it.

And so my hope—and I know this is true for you too—is that some of the gatekeeping about what we get to say and how gets torn down. Because it actually has relevance for how people imagine. How people imagine movement, how people imagine freedom, how people imagine what they do, so when there are all these barriers to what you get to say when and how, it has real material effects on people’s lives.


CPW: As I was reading, the big invitation, the global invitation that I saw was, “Write your version.” This is not the definitive South or Souths. This is Imani Perry’s South. Now go write yours or your North or whatever it is. But write it as is. There’s also an active decision here that you’re not going to write just your South that you are somehow genealogically rooted in, but that you were also going to write the Souths that you have visited but don’t hail from. And so I’m interested by that decision, because you could have just written that book—one centered on your South—too, and filled probably just as many pages.


IP: I mean, this is partially about the tradition of the “travel through the South” book. And I love Albert Murray’s South to a Very Old Place, which was early 1970s, after the ostensible transformation of the South, and his reencountering it. And I love that its form is so unexpected, like he goes to—he starts in New York, he goes to New Haven, he tells the story in a way that is not what you think it’s going to be both politically and in terms of style. He has different relationships to different places. When he gets to the Gulf Coast, it’s all home. He’s a master of the second person and you’re invited inside him. And then there are other places where he’s like an observer. And so I love that movement because it allows the reader to experience varying relationships to place.

But there’s also another book which I’m fascinated by, V. S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South. And I’m fascinated by it because Naipaul literarily is a genius and politically is a nightmare frequently. He didn’t know the South. He starts that book going to Albert Murray’s apartment, as a pilgrimage. So it’s fascinating, like he acts like Baldwin doesn’t exist even though he’s recently written a book about his own turn in the South. The Evidence of Things Not Seen. But anyway, Naipaul gets some things so right about the South. I was used to feeling as though he was diminishing and dismissive of Black folks, in his writing about the Caribbean. But strangely enough, he didn’t do that with Black folks in the States. I’m fascinated by that. I don’t think that absolves Naipaul by any means, but the point is, as with Faulkner, there can be moments of absolute brilliance and insight even with someone who has some deeply problematic racial politics.

CPW: You describe Homer Plessy (Homer Plessy as in Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal SCOTUS case) as a white-skinned Black man. Actually, there are a couple of people you articulate in those terms.

I was interested by the discursive choice to use “white-skinned” and to juxtapose that with a Black identity, particularly because we are in maybe a moment that recurs, where people ask these questions about whether someone does or does not count as Black.

Was that pedagogy, as in, you were offering a vocabulary? Was it a political statement? Or was it all of the above?


IP: Well, I will be 50 years old this year. I was raised with the one-drop rule, period. Black is Black is Black to me. And Homer Plessy, the committee that he served on—and this is the thing people miss, right, so the history of Creoles in New Orleans, a lot of colorism, a lot of status markers, and yet there is a decision politically to not accept a half-caste status to identify politically with Black people. Not socially necessarily, not in terms of marriage, but that they were not going to be satisfied with incrementally more rights than other Black people. That politically they would be Black or rather Negro. And so I just—I understand that a lot of young people are asking questions about racialization. I also understand that the construction of blackness is not identical all across the globe, but when I talk about being a Black person, it’s not a phenotypic identity. The phenotype is a piece of it, it is genealogical, it is historical.

So to me, to reject the one-drop rule would mean casting people I love out of my family tree, of my history, a sense of who I am and we are in this world. I don’t know what the question about who counts as Black is going to yield at this moment. I’m trying to not have a knee-jerk reaction where I’m like, why in the world are they trying to reduce the numbers of Black people, like that doesn’t seem to be strategically wise. But also—I had a moment on Twitter once where I talked about the one-drop rule means that we’re these multiracial and multiethnic people and that’s beautiful, and lots of young people were very angry with me. I didn’t think they were right, but they were very angry and had serious critique when saying the one-drop rule is a white supremacist tool. It was, but out of the one-drop rule, Black people constructed a conception of identity that is not reducible to white supremacy. That to me is important. And the last thing I’ll say is I do think that part of what’s happening now is people are confusing colorism and its relationship to white supremacy for their structure of white supremacy. They’re related, but they’re not the same thing. Color matters. But so do class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and educational status. There are all these different ways that Black people get differentiated and stratified, but that doesn’t make those of us who are relatively advantaged white people.


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CPW: I guess I will just say I’m glad that people are making it so that colorism as a conversation is no longer optional but is requisite.


IP: Yes.


CPW: And there is power in that. And also a challenge: How do we address that in a way that does not break us apart unnecessarily and preclude solidarity?


IP: Right.


CPW: You were also very clear in the introduction, about how you’re writing in a US American context but that US Black American context has always been multinational.


IP: Yes.


CPW: And again I wonder if, for you, this felt like, for this particular moment, a necessary political statement. Since you were saying you might have written this book or a book like it 15 years ago, would it have felt as necessary then as it feels now, or…?


IP: That’s a great question. It would. I would have done it regardless, right, because—and there’s sections of the book about my educational formation that didn’t make it in the book but talked about South Carolina and Barbados and talked about the transatlantic slave trade and how I grew to understand the history of Black people here, like how we got here, as hemispheric. So I would have done that anyway but perhaps I wouldn’t have had to be quite so assertive about the point—and that’s both because of the political moment and the “diaspora wars,” as people call them colloquially.

Fifteen–twenty years ago I just think that there was more of a day-to-day sophistication about the history of connections between Black people in different parts of the world, at least in political conversation. So when I was coming of age, there was TransAfrica, there was Stevie Wonder connecting to African and Caribbean cultures—and Muhammad Ali and Miriam Makeba, so there was this sense even in popular culture, never mind talking about the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, and so forth. So the fiction that is often trafficked in now is that the different parts of the Black world were completely siloed.


CPW: This reminds me that I was interested by your invocation of June Jordan’s “Report from the Bahamas, 1982.” It connects to what you were just talking about. You quoted her saying—she’s talking about Olive the cleaning woman at her expensive hotel, the Sheraton British Colonial—“even though both ‘Olive’ and ‘I’ live inside a conflict neither one of us created, and even though both of us therefore hurt inside that conflict, I may be one of the monsters she needs to eliminate from her universe and, in a sense, she may be one of the monsters in mine.”

She’s capturing some of the tensions that you’re talking about. It’s not just about what you look like, it’s also about educational level, it’s about, in this case, which passport you’re carrying.


IP: Right.

CPW: And so then, in the book, you transpose this to your own experience in doing something similar (the way that she talks about Olive that maybe Olive is also her monster). What does that mean? How do you view that?


IP: Yes. It’s so incredibly honest. Because June Jordan is a radical, she’s a leftist, she’s a person who deeply believes in Black liberation, and in that moment she’s confronting what it means to deal with the fact that she is also a part of empire. And she is a part of the structure of the dominating class.


CPW: And she’s having a hard time with it.


IP: If there is anything we run away from as Black and academics and intellectuals and professionals, it’s that. We are much more comfortable dwelling in the ways in which we are more vulnerable than our counterparts professionally, but it’s much harder to deal with the position that we occupy vis-à-vis other Black folks.

I just wanted to sit there with that realization. Just a moment of trying to be really honest and vulnerable in that encounter. And also fallible.


CPW: So is Olive maybe the monster, in the sense that she holds up a mirror that says, “Look at you in the empire”?


IP: Yes. And monster—and people won’t necessarily know this. You read Vexy: monster is not a bad thing to me, I believe in Hortense Spillers’s statement “Embrace the monstrosity,” hold on to it. Yes, that’s holding up the mirror, the honest assessment.


CPW: Last question: What song have you had on repeat this week?


IP: One of them I’ve had is Ludacris’s “Stand Up.” It’s been buck-up music, because I’m overwhelmed by this moment. And then also—and this is so terrible, it’s not terrible, it’s a great song, but—Tay Money’s “The Assignment,” the TikTok song. I’m thinking, I did, I understood the assignment.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platticon

Featured image photograph provided by Imani Perry.