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Book Review: “South to America,” by Imani Perry

Book Review: “South to America,” by Imani Perry

A journey under Mason-Dixon to understand the soul of a nation
By Imani Perry

At the beginning of “South to America,” Imani Perry asks the reader, “Please remember, although this book is not a story, it is a true story.” I tried to keep these instructions in mind – not always easy with a story that is so carefully researched and teeming with facts and quotes – but in the end I rejected them. After all, Perry deals with everything from hip hop to United Fruit Company and her own grandmother. Any attempt to classify this ambitious work, which extends across the genre, kicks down the fourth wall, dances with poetry, engages in literary criticism and alternates from journalism to memoirs to academic writing – well, it’s a fool’s errand and only undermines this insightful, ambitious and moving project.

This is not a “both sides” affair: Perry is a rude “movement baby”, raised by intellectual freedom fighter parents. The belief of this book is that race and racism are fundamental values ​​in the South, that “the creation of racial slavery in the colonies was a gateway to habits and dispositions that eventually became the usual ways of doing things in this country.” Sørlandet in other words is America, and its history and influence, cannot be dismissed as an embarrassing relative at the nation’s festive dinner table.

Inspired by Albert Murray’s memoir-cum-travel book “South to a Very Old Place” from 1971, Perry travels to over a dozen southern cities and towns, digging out both stories and modern realities. She begins at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. We meet Shields Green, a black South Carolina known as the “Emperor of New York” who was executed along with John Brown. His heroism has almost been lost to history, and to intensify the tragedy, his body was given to Winchester Medical College for dissection after he was hanged. In telling her story, Perry reveals the first of many patterns in the quilt sewn on these pages: At each stop, she tells of a cruelty, but also of resistance. And she does not shy away from documenting the consequences.

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From the three essays examining Alabama, it is clear that despite a childhood in New England, Perry’s heart belongs to the distinctive Yellowhammer State. Her tone becomes tender when she remembers her dancing cousins ​​or the foot-washing Baptists. Her portraits of her grandmother combine the elegiac longing and austerity of a historian who sets the record straight. Equally touching are the broadcasts from the mother’s native Louisiana.

The theme of unmarked graves and untold stories permeates this work. As a remedy, Perry mentions many southerners: some known, some unknown. As Andre 3000 declared: “The South has something to say.” And it’s a fantastic thing – from art to reality TV, internationally traded companies to roadside huts whose tastes inform the American palate.

Perry swore to visit and think as much of Sørlandet as possible for this project; this ambition is both a gift and an obstacle. The advantage of such a large canvas is that patterns can be easily identified. Historical injustice such as the Wilmington massacre cannot be dismissed as a one-time fear, nor can the simultaneous violence of Dylann Roof, or the great opposition to Rosa Parks. Perry finds that a “hidden virtue of uncertain genealogy is a vast archive of ways to be learned from birth.”

However, it is inevitable that not all sites will receive equal care and attention – and her loyalty is clearly to Alabama. Perry is an acolyte of Toni Morrison, and still has a sharp problem with the Nobel Prize winner’s characterization of the women in Mobile. I understand her pain, for it is the same feeling evoked me while reading the Atlanta chapter, my hometown. Although Perry in some places has the advantage of a guide, she does not quote here the personal conversations that led to her insight, and the observations that were the result feel a bit cool. Perry declares that “the largest metropolis in the south does not have a sufficient mass transport system or a polyglot culture …”, but goes on to suggest that survivors of gravel roads instead comfort themselves in the shiny bullets driven in Lenox. shopping center. Well, it hurt my feelings.

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Apart from the wounded pride, it must be said that this work, although sometimes uneven, is an essential meditation on the South, its relationship to American culture – even Americanism itself. This is, as Perry puts it, “not a conservation. This is intervention. “For too long, the south has been a scapegoat and reduced to a backward country on the other side of a translucent but impenetrable barrier.

Beyond Mason-Dixon’s literal separation, Perry is fixated on the line that separates past and present. On her travels, she meets a Confederate re-enactor who is celebrating a birthday. Although he is nostalgic and revisionist made meat, Perry thinks he is surprisingly nice. Assuming he wants to talk about “northern aggression”, Perry chooses not to ask him questions, and this is also the legacy of the intimacy of slavery – we have lived together for so long that we think we can read each other’s thoughts.

During his visit to Maryland, Perry sees people wearing muslin shirts and straw hats while working in a field. Her insides squeeze in, fearing she’s witnessing a cruel antebellum cosplay. As she gets closer, Perry hears the men speak Spanish. She was “sad, and also relieved. Workers, not re-actors. ” But, of course, this chorus underscores this immersion in the life and history of the southern (American) state – to what extent are we all creators of the nation’s brutal history? This work – and I use the term for both Perry’s work and its fruit – is determined to provoke back to the second legacy of the South, the ever-pressing struggle for freedom.

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