Notes from two interviews with Imani Perry. The first is about her new book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. The second, last year in the New York Review of Books, followed her review of a biography of Lorraine Hammond, author of Raisin in the Sun. Both contain valuable insights.

***

Interviewed by the Washington Post magazine last month, she stressed the African American contribution to US society and “the reality of its centrality in the history and the culture of the country.” Here’s a fine quote on Southern vernacular music, which has gone nationwide. (But first, for Perry’s take on rap and hip hop, as well as creolization, which is the thrust of the quote link HERE.) WaPo’s interviewer asked Perry:

You talk about the art and the culture that comes out of the South.

Yeah, it’s the home of American music. It’s the intersection between multiple African origins, Scots-Irish and incredible music coming out of the South from people who lived on the land, who had encounters across experiences, who gave voice to their freedom dreams, to their yearnings, to their longings and made art of it in an everyday way. I also talk a lot about yard art in Alabama, which I think is a direct consequence of industry in Alabama. So you get incredible artists who build from the scraps of the industries — coal and steel — and live with art. It’s also even in more mundane ways, in cross-stitch, in crotchet and quilting, creating beauty literally from the scraps on the margins. [It’s] such a deeply Southern way of living. And it has inspired art across the country, but also across the globe. [Link and brackets in the original.]

What she says about quilting here could be an apt metaphor for cultural creolization, by the way. Here’s another, more broadly attuned to US culture in general (which is more Southern than we like to think it is, and getting more so every day). Also what Faulkner, among others, refers to our original sins of slavery and dispossessing the American Indians. The interviewer asked:

What do you think we gain as a nation by reframing the South?

I think we gain a more honest rendering of the country. We want to tell this story of an ever more perfect union — a kind of liberty-and-justice-for-all narrative, a noble narrative. And the reality is we are a country that was built on settler colonialism. Genocidal behavior toward Indigenous people. Enslaving people of African descent. And that foundation really shaped so much of how we do things. And to sort of marginalize where it happened, and to tell the story of the beginning of the country with Plymouth Rock as opposed to Jamestown — we forget how we came to be. I think that story has to not only include, but centralize, the South. All of the industries that made the country a global power — cotton, coal, tobacco, sugar — all of these industries were essential to building the wealth of the nation, and they wound up being centered in the South because of the climate and because that’s where the bulk of enslavement took place.

Imani Perry: Don’t marginalize the South in America’s history,” Washington Post, July 12, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2022/07/12/race-south-racism-black-lives-matter/.

***

Interviewed in July 2021 by New York Review of Books staffer Daniel Drake, Perry spoke of why she changed majors from math to American Studies as a Harvard undergrad; of what she sees as the role of history; and of Lorraine Hammond, best known. for the play (and movie)  A Raisin in the Sun. I want to preserve the indents, so that part of the interview is excerpted verbatim below:

[..] History and literature are “like that question Jamaica Kincaid’s character Lucy [in the novella of the same name] asks, regarding her employer: ‘How did she get to be like that?’” Perry told me. “I want to know how we got to be like this.” She went on:

And I don’t just mean the hate-filled people, although there are far too many of them, but all of us who accommodate so much suffering every day. I look to the past, I look to the imagination, I look to the interior, trying to figure out how we get from here to a future of ethical and kind human relations.

And Perry believes that Faulkner had it right with his dictum that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—an aperçu with, she observed, “a particularly Southern sensibility.” Indeed, the South’s relationship to history, and to the North, is—for her, who grew up in both—an abiding interest, as she elaborated:

The South has always had to carry this nation’s water. The United States became a global economic power because of its vast source of unfree labor in the South: Black people. Economic development depended not only upon their physical labor, and skill, but their reproductive labor. Generations of Southern Black babies were born to fill the nation’s coffers.

It’s horrifying. But it is dishonest to put the burden of all that on the South. To act as though it is some vulgar racist backwater that the rest of the country is above is deceptive.

She will take up these insights in her next book, South to America (due in 2022), but these reflections on American race and geography have a genealogy, as well—Perry sees a similar concern in Hansberry with poverty and despair in the South:

History and literature are “like that question Jamaica Kincaid’s character Lucy [in the novella of the same name] asks, regarding her employer: ‘How did she get to be like that?’” Perry told me. “I want to know how we got to be like this.” She went on:

And I don’t just mean the hate-filled people, although there are far too many of them, but all of us who accommodate so much suffering every day. I look to the past, I look to the imagination, I look to the interior, trying to figure out how we get from here to a future of ethical and kind human relations.

And Perry believes that Faulkner had it right with his dictum that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—an aperçu with, she observed, “a particularly Southern sensibility.” Indeed, the South’s relationship to history, and to the North, is—for her, who grew up in both—an abiding interest, as she elaborated:

The South has always had to carry this nation’s water. The United States became a global economic power because of its vast source of unfree labor in the South: Black people. Economic development depended not only upon their physical labor, and skill, but their reproductive labor. Generations of Southern Black babies were born to fill the nation’s coffers.

It’s horrifying. But it is dishonest to put the burden of all that on the South. To act as though it is some vulgar racist backwater that the rest of the country is above is deceptive.

She will take up these insights in her next book, South to America (due in 2022), but these reflections on American race and geography have a genealogy, as well—Perry sees a similar concern in Hansberry with poverty and despair in the South:

Lorraine, like her mentor W.E.B. Du Bois before her, saw the South as an essential place of possibility, where freedom dreams could be ignited. If we want to get to something better in this nation, we need to look there, there where slave ships are still being dredged up from waterways that keep getting poisoned.

Cite: Imani Perry, “Dredging Up the Ever-Living Past,” interview by Daniel Drake, New York Review of Books, July 17, 2021 https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2021/07/17/dredging-up-the-ever-living-past/.

[Published Aug. 22, 2022]

2 thoughts on “Imani Perry on history, Faulkner, ‘settler colonialism’ and the (Southern) soul of America

  1. I don’t think we were taught this in school when we were kids, but there’s a lot of truth in it. Slavery wasn’t the only reason we became an economic superpower in the 1800s — natural resources and cheap immigrant labor were also important — but it was definitely important. What I *did* learn as a college history major was that a lot of our capital formation in the 1700s and early 1800s, especially in port cities like New York, Boston, came from a “triangular trade” where slaves were shipped from Africa to America; cotton, sugar and tobacco were shipped from America to Europe; and textiles, rum, etc., were manufactured in Europe and shipped back to Africa (along with the rest of the world). They’re teaching stuff like that now in the high schools, and it’s one of the reasons why they’re banning books and hollering about “CRT” in the red states these days.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s