If we want to understand America today, we must first understand the South. This is both a central premise of Imani Perry’s latest book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, which is a finalist for the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and a proposition she explores in depth in this episode of Book Dreams. During her conversation with Eve and Julie, Imani illuminates the connections between Southern history and pivotal aspects of contemporary American society–everything from the overturning of Roe v. Wade, to episodes of mass violence, to the treatment of immigrants at the border. She also makes the case that the South could have a better claim to the name “Heartland of America” than the Midwest, because “the way Americans relate to the use of land and labor is so shaped by the South.”
Imani vividly conveys, too, a duality that has pervaded the South over the course of its history, particularly for those oppressed there: on the one hand, grief, pain, and atrocity; on the other, joy, vibrancy, and beauty. “I spent a lot of time,” she says, “thinking about how much the violence of the country was associated with sources of pleasure: … slavery, and rum and tobacco and sugar. … Then there's also the fact of people who have lived incredibly hardscrabble lives, through dispossession and also, you know, the South has been home to the deepest poverty and many forms of exploitation. And from that people have tapped into their humanity to create incredible beauty and meaning.” A professor who has taught both history and law, Imani also explains why the Supreme Court's recent tethering of the constitution to the “intent of the founding fathers” is both bad history and bad law.
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies. Her prior books include Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, which won the 2019 Bograd Weld Award for Biography from the PEN America Foundation and the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Non-Fiction and was a New York Times notable book, among other accolades. She’s also the author of Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, a Kirkus best nonfiction book of 2019 and a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in Nonfiction; Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation; and May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, also a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in Nonfiction.
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