Imani Perry’s Capacious History of the South

Imani Perry’s Capacious History of the South

A Nation Within a Nation

Imani Perry’s capacious history of the South.


In a 1971 issue of Ebony magazine dedicated to exploring “The South Today,” its publisher, John H. Johnson, wrote: “Long before there was a United States of America, there was a Southland.” For many in his generation who had participated in the civil rights movement, the South was a zone of both oppression and liberation—it was the country they knew even if they lived in the North. For many Black Americans, the South was an ancestral home as well as a place of present warning and future promise. It was where the historic struggles against inequality and discrimination had taken place, but it was also a region that had cast an ominous shadow over the rest of the country.

The different Souths that many Black Americans carry with them is the central theme of a new book by Imani Perry, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. With it, Perry enters a long tradition of considering Southern identity—the South of Black freedom and of Black oppression. What it means to be Black in the South, Perry shows, is not just a question of being Black in the South; it is also a question of what it means to be Black in the United States—to be Black in a nation whose traditional narrative of itself shifts the blame for racism, white supremacy, and segregation onto one region instead of confronting the ways in which these maladies were and still are national. But Perry goes even further in her book: One cannot understand Black life in America, she maintains, without understanding the South, but one also cannot understand all of American life without it.

South to America crisscrosses genres in much the same way that Perry crisscrossed the South while she was working on it. The Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Perry has built a career out of writing books that escape easy categorization as one genre or another. Her works are radical combinations of history, African American studies, Southern studies, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, and cultural studies. They also have something in common throughout: a centering of the Black experience and, as a result, of the Southern experience that helped shape Black experience. But here Perry makes the South her primary focus, joining a growing number of Black writers—including Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Zandria Robinson—who have forced us to reconsider what the South means in present-day America while also reevaluating what we thought we knew about the South of the past.

At the heart of Perry’s book is this basic truth: The American South is not a monolith. Nor, she takes great pains to explain, are Black Americans. Yet both the South and Black America have too often been painted with a single brush. Perry, however, won’t let her readers make that mistake. South to America is broken down by regions, with each area of the Black South given its own nuance, subtlety, and particular understanding.

South to America begins in Appalachia. As a region, Appalachia is traditionally ignored in narratives of Southern Black history. Yet Perry’s story of a Black and Southern Appalachia makes perfect sense. Beginning with the Harpers Ferry raid of 1859, she focuses her narrative on a man named Shields Green, one of several Black Americans present at the raid and executed by the state of Virginia in its aftermath. Harpers Ferry was a turning point in American history, but also, Perry reminds us, in Southern history. “Harpers Ferry is a monument to the defeated,” she writes—to the Southern way of life, but also to a more radical vision of emancipation. At Harpers Ferry, “the defeated are wild-eyed radical abolitionist John Brown and his companions, and not the Confederate dead.”

From Appalachia, Perry moves to Louisville, Ky., and Washington, D.C. These early chapters offer rich stories and details about Black life in states like Maryland, Alabama, and North Carolina—stories and details often ignored in “traditional” narratives about Southern Black life. But it is in her chapter on Atlanta, appropriately titled “King of the South,” that Perry offers perhaps her most compelling and complex portrait of Southern Black life. There we find not only problems of racial discrimination but also class and political differences within the city’s Black community. The giants of civil rights activism from Atlanta are well-known: Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Andrew Young, and Hosea Williams are among the champions of freedom who resided in Atlanta. To leave the story at that, however, would be a mistake, as the city witnessed impassioned debates among Black Americans about civil-rights-era tactics. After the 1960s, Atlanta’s Black activist and political classes clashed over the best method of consolidating Black political and economic power. Atlanta, she observes, has a way of “sucking in features from here, there and everywhere of the South, repackaging it, and selling it to the world,” and this has led to it being described as a real-life Wakanda. Yet this Wakanda is only for some and not all Black Atlantans, as the city is also deeply divided by class.

In Perry’s telling, the first great act of “repackaging” for Atlanta came in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ravaged by Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea, Atlanta experienced a rebirth that took off in the Reconstruction years and crested with the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition. There, Booker T. Washington gave his famous—for some Black Americans, infamous—”Atlanta Compromise” speech. That speech was Washington’s way of announcing, after the death of Frederick Douglass the same year, that he was now the leading figure in Black America. Despite the protests of intellectuals such as Anna Julia Cooper and W.E.B. Du Bois, Washington’s argument that Black and white Southerners needed to accept some forms of inequality caught fire at the exposition. “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly,” Washington told his segregated audience, “and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.”

But Atlanta was not just the site of Washington’s vision of an unequal South. It was also where Du Bois and other Black radicals posited more egalitarian visions. The 1899 lynching and mutilation of Sam Hose in Coweta County, Ga., just south of Atlanta, was one such incident. It horrified Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, and transformed his sense of the urgency of the Southern struggle. When he was informed that, after Hose’s murder, his knuckles had been put on display for sale, Du Bois was sickened and became newly determined in his fight against segregation in the South. The Atlanta Race Riot, which followed in 1906 and killed dozens of Black Americans, only reinforced Du Bois’s belief that political and social resistance was the only viable way to save the South from white segregationists—and by doing so, to save the United States.

Du Bois insisted, in The Souls of Black Folk, that although Atlanta was the site of barbaric lynchings and massacres, it could also be a center for Black resilience and leadership. Through its cultural institutions, especially its universities, Black Americans would be able to uplift one another and the South as a whole: not by making more money and going into business but by resurrecting the true spirit of American democracy that had briefly flowered during the Reconstruction period. “The true college,” as Du Bois wrote, “will ever have one goal—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”

For Du Bois, the city of Atlanta would serve as an intellectual cauldron for Black freedom because of its great institutions of learning: Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) as well as Morehouse College and Spelman College. But Perry reminds her readers that Atlanta also had a culture apart from its universities and its committed civil rights activists—a culture dedicated to making a way for Black Americans in a society polarized by extreme wealth and inequality. “Behind Atlanta’s shine,” Perry notes, “whether we are talking about social media, the spectacles of pop culture, elegant fine dining, global corporations, or icy diamonds dripping from necks, there are myriad stories and relationships” of a divided Atlanta too.

Perry’s chapter on the Black Belt offers a similarly complex portrait. The Black Belt, she writes, had “the blackest soil and the Whitest people. The Blackest people and the whitest cotton.” For her, it represents the clearest distillation of the brutality and promise of the South in American history. Members of the Communist Party of the USA made a similar argument back in the 1930s. For Harry Haywood and other communists, the Black Belt and its inhabitants represented a “nation within a nation” ready to serve as a vanguard for both a communist revolution against capitalism in America and a Black nationalist revolution against white supremacy in the South. Haywood and other Black communists from the era, including Richard Wright, insisted that for this reason the Black Belt was the key to an emancipated Black America. If it could be liberated from the ravages of poverty and white supremacy, then so could the rest of the country.

And yet this vision was doomed to fail. The tragedy—or, more accurately, one of the many tragedies—of Southern history is the unfulfilled promise of Black land ownership in the South. In the Black Belt, Black Americans sought to hold on to political and economic independence via the land. They wanted not only to revitalize the region’s agricultural economy but to find ways to escape its burgeoning industrial economy through smallholder farming. But thanks to the failures of Reconstruction and the emergence of sharecropping, and then the devastation wrought by the boll weevil in the early 20th century and the fortification of the Jim Crow system, this did not happen. What emerged instead was a hardening of the sharecropping system and a lack of social mobility for Black Americans in the region. Most had to go north during the Great Migration for any chance of a better life.

Even with these hardships, the Black Belt remained a central site of resistance throughout the 20th century. It was there that civil rights activists like Rosa Parks carried the fight against segregation into the belly of the beast, and it was there that Martin Luther King Jr. witnessed some of the worst poverty in the nation, which led him to launch his final crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Despite all of the adversities of life in the Black Belt, the region was filled with people who hoped for and demanded a brighter future. Most of these demands fell on deaf ears, with many leaders in Washington eventually turning away from the War on Poverty to embrace law-and-order politics. Yet many Black Americans stayed nonetheless. Why? Perry asks. “The answer is home.”

It makes perfect sense in the structure of the book that the chapter on the Black Belt is followed by one on South Carolina’s Lowcountry. If the Black Belt served—and in many ways continues to serve—as a physical home for so many Black Americans, the Lowcountry is Black America’s original home. Charleston was the point of entry for most enslaved Africans brought to North America. Even if a Black American does not have direct connections to the Lowcountry, they are still, in a sense, “from” there. “That is what it means to be Black American: the hidden virtue of an unsure genealogy is a vast archive of ways of being learned from birth,” Perry writes. “To this day, the children of the children of the children of the slave South, in ghettoes and hoods across the country, will clap and stomp in unison.” The Lowcountry includes some of the oldest cities in the United States, such as Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., as well as Gullah-Geechee culture. A mélange of languages and customs combining various West African traditions, Gullah-Geechee peoples form a unique culture, crafting what Perry calls “language and folkways…more distinct here than anywhere else in Black American life.”

In Charleston and the rest of South Carolina, different versions of the past and present collide almost daily. While white Charleston continues to build the city’s reputation via tourism and a somewhat whitewashed telling of the past, Black Charleston continues to serve as a home of resistance to the legacy of white supremacy and the contemporary problems of racism, gentrification, and labor. The region’s labor history alone is worth retelling, as it complicates the assumptions most Americans make about the region and race. From the 1945 Charleston Cigar Factory strike, to the 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike, to 2000’s Charleston Five, who became internationally known during an International Longshoremen’s Association strike, Charleston has stood at the crossroads of race, gender, and labor activism for more than a century. The massacre of the Emanuel Nine in June 2015 at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a national tragedy at the time, but it should now be seen as a harbinger of future white supremacist shootings such as those committed in El Paso, Buffalo, and even Christchurch, New Zealand—front lines in an asymmetric war by white supremacists against peoples of color across the globe.

In Perry’s last chapters, she moves south of the South, to Cuba and the Bahamas. She refers to these two nations as “distinct from, independent of, yet deeply familiar and bound to the United States.” For Perry, the American South has always been, in one way or another, connected to the Global South—geographically, culturally, politically, and historically. In the run-up to the Civil War, Southern leaders coveted areas south of the South for the potential expansion of the Cotton Kingdom. But even afterward, American influence and power in the area south of the South was the representative of the region. Take, for example, the 1895 Cotton States Exposition. While best remembered for Washington’s speech promising an end to agitation on racial issues, for the city’s political and business leaders, the exposition was most important as a way for the New South to announce to the world that it was open for business. Soon, investment and trade deals began to flow between the American South and South America. Slightly more than a century later, Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics was the announcement of yet another New South, this one a generation removed from the end of Jim Crow and eager to showcase its multiracial present and future—with, of course, a bottle of Coca-Cola in one hand.

While the South is often dismissed as a region catching up to the rest of the country, Perry’s book demonstrates that the South, for better and worse, was often in the vanguard in terms of defining the promise and limits of American democracy. It was as much America’s future as it was its past. The salvation of the country, Perry argues, likewise will come from confronting the legacies and lingering power of the South’s past and, by extension, shaping its future for the better. “‘Greatness’ is such an egotistical and dangerous word,” Perry writes. “But in the land of big dreams and bigger lies, we love greatness anyway. And if we want it, if we aren’t afraid to grab it, we have to look South, to America.” Ending the book with this elegiac observation puts Perry in conversation with numerous other writers, Black and white, who also believed that the nation could be saved only by understanding and reckoning with the South.

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