MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
I say the South, and you think what - positive connotation, negative? Did your mind's eye flip to the bustle of Atlanta, the pulling currents of the Mississippi, maybe your own grandparents' front porch, pitcher of sweet tea? Or did you think of the violent history of slavery, Confederate flags, the fight for civil rights? For every Southerner - and I am one of them - there is a South. A new book considers what that looks like for the many Black Americans who call the South home and what the South can teach us about America as a whole. The book is titled "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon To Understand The Soul Of A Nation." The author is Imani Perry, and I want to welcome you, fellow Southerner.
IMANI PERRY: Thank you. It's lovely to be here.
KELLY: You're from Alabama.
PERRY: Yes, indeed.
KELLY: I grew up mostly in Georgia. Well, let's get right to the heart of it. I want to ask you just to begin by reading how you set up the journey you're going to take us on in this book because you're talking about trying to tell the story of the South, which is a big story, and how you picked where to pay attention to. Would you pick up? This is toward the end of your introduction.
PERRY: (Reading) My son Issa has warned me about the danger of making things look too beautiful. To be beautiful, it must be truthful, and the truth is often ugly. But it's funny too, and strange, also morbid. This is a collection, but it is also an excision, a pruning like we might do to a plant in order to extend its life. Most of all, please remember while this book is not a history, it is a true story.
KELLY: Not a history but a true story. Say more. What do you mean?
PERRY: You know, the discipline of history is based upon argument. This book is much more an effort to have people dwell in place and space and time and reconsider their relationships to this place. So - and all of it, I think, is as truthful as I can be about it, which means that I had to get rid of some of my romantic ideas of the place I call home and really look at it in a stark way but also still loving.
KELLY: Talk about what that's meant for you when you say you had to let go of some of the romantic ideas you had about this place that you clearly still love and call home.
PERRY: The reality of being born in Birmingham seven years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, nine years after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing - right? I'm born into a place that has been transformed from what was known as the most segregated, most violent city in the nation that has been transformed into a place of Black possibility. So for me, I carry that everywhere I went as this incredible pride, right? And it was a motivator. But it's also the case that people in my home are still suffering. It's also the case that it is still a place of profound inequality.
And so to get over the romanticism was for me to both hold on to what I think of as these sort of incredibly noble parts of Southern tradition and also grapple with the fact that, you know, it is - it remains the poorest region. It remains a region where many, many people are disenfranchised. It remains a region where people are exploited. And so how to hold on to wanting to celebrate it, wanting to defend it against what I think are often sort of terrible stereotypes and diminishment and also tell the truth about its painful past and present?
KELLY: Yeah. So, you know, your book is about looking at the South to try to understand the soul of America. You wrote that if we're trying to understand the soul of the South, we need to look to the Black Belt. And I want you to describe what it is, where it is, what sets it apart.
PERRY: That's the place where King Cotton made the United States one of the most wealthy nations in the world. And they were - one of the people I turn to to think about the Black Belt and what it yielded is Richard Wright, who taught in particular both his books "Black Boy" and "Twelve Million Black Voices," in part because I'm trying to understand something that I don't know inherently. I don't come from Black Belt folks, right?
And so I turn to Wright and the way that he describes growing up in the Black Belt, in this place with so much incredible beauty - the landscape is gorgeous and abundance - and being hungry, right? And that kind of juxtaposition of deep hunger and incredible abundance is - like, you know, at some level, that's the substance of what we might call the original sin of the nation - right? - deprivation alongside abundance...
PERRY: ...To really get what it was like in recent history for people to essentially live in a plantation economy - right? - and confront the violence of that but also what it meant that that's the font of American music, too. Incredible creativity emerges, imagination and also cruelty.
KELLY: You're arguing that the South is the heart - is the beginning of this country. I'm guessing we might have some Midwesterners who would have something to say about that. So make the case.
PERRY: There's something about the way that we describe the South in the nation in general as somehow backwards, other, different that is actually a denial of the core of what the country is. And that self-denial allows for a story that doesn't get to the essential tension - right? - between freedom and subjugation - right? - democracy and domination, those kinds of things.
And so, you know, I almost find myself thinking, we're at an era where the myths that nations tell about themselves - and all nations do this - are too naive now. You know, we're facing climate disaster. We're facing this pandemic, and there will likely be more. We're facing growing inequality. We have to tell the story true as best we can. And in order to tell the story true, you know, we can't deny parts of who we are, particularly when those parts are the ones that set the stage for what the nation would become. So, you know, for me, that is part of why we have to look to the South to understand the country.
KELLY: We've been speaking with Princeton University professor Imani Perry. Her new book is "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon To Understand The Soul Of A Nation." Imani Perry, thank you.
PERRY: Oh, thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "PARANOID ANDROID")
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