If you plan to read South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry, do so when you have time to slow down and savor this rich chronicle of our country and the importance of the South to our past and present. And, if you haven’t planned on reading this book, please reconsider.
Perry, a Princeton professor whose mentor at Harvard was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was born in Alabama and despite moving Cambridge, Massachusetts when she was five, has close ties to that state. The book moves into and across the South from DC to Miami and Savannah to Houston. Her book pays homage to Albert Murray whose 1971 memoir of growing up in Alabama was entitled South to An Old Place.
Perry’s book is filled with stories of past and present–some we know and many others we have never heard–of communities, rituals and traditions with a focus on lives lived well under often crushing poverty, oppression, and the threat of state-supported violence never far away. I found myself heading to the Internet time and again to seek out writers and artists and activists that she mentions and realized my own ignorance about much of Black culture and art. For instance, I had never heard of Lil Buck, a dancer who specializes in a dance form called Memphis Jookin. He has famously danced with Yo-Yo Ma but here is an early example of his work as part of a TedX Teen event:
Perry’s prose is as rich and complex as the region she explores. And she is always clear that she is part of the telling, her reactions to what she experiences sometimes as complicated as those of the region she is describing. I appreciated her honesty and wisdom. In the end, however, she concludes that just reading her book isn’t enough. Action is required if we are going to finally allow all people to dream great dreams.
This review does not do justice to the book. I highlighted passage after passage where Perry pulled disparate ideas together then clinched them with one short sentence. Her writing is just stunning and I found myself out of breath a few times. I’m still processing the book and already thinking about a reread.
In a section on New Orleans, Perry describes the practice of plaçage, in which white men would contract with black women to keep them as mistresses. As she points out, it wasn’t a mutual consenting contract but one in which young black women were forced as part of the society in which they lived. This practice forms part of the plot of The Thread Collectors, a book that would make an interesting companion read to Perry.