South to America

by Imani Perry

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South to America Summary

South to America is a 2022 work of nonfiction by American author Imani Perry about the history and culture of the American South.

  • Perry travels to Appalachia, Virginia, and Kentucky, reflecting on the coal industry, the founding fathers, slavery, and the Kentucky Derby.
  • Perry researches her family history and journeys to Washington, DC, where Black residents are being driven out by gentrification.
  • In Alabama, Perry reflects on the Civil Rights Movement, as well as Christianity and the “God of masters” versus the “God of slaves.”

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Last Updated on January 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1345

South to America follows author Imani Perry as she journeys throughout the Southern United States in order to learn more about the unique history and culture of the region. She points out that the South is a misunderstood region, with the cultural narrative depicting it as a bastion of racism and “backwards” thinking. However, the reality is that the South has had a deep and undeniable impact on nearly every facet of American culture, from its founding political documents to its modern-day race relations.

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The first stop on Perry’s journey is Appalachia, a mountainous region extending from New York to Alabama. It is one of the whitest regions in the United States and also one of the most impoverished. While Confederate sentiments and racism are common in the area, Perry also notes Appalachia’s strong history of labor organization and the economic devastation that has followed the gradual decline of the coal industry.

Perry’s next stops are Virginia and Kentucky, both of which are remarked upon for their hypocritical veneers of high-society respectability. Virginia brands itself heavily with the history of the United States’ founding fathers, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. While a patriotic narrative of American history would count these men as enlightened thinkers, Perry points out that both were slave owners. The values of men who willingly owned other humans are written into the country’s founding documents. Kentucky, meanwhile, is home to the Kentucky Derby, an event known for its pageantry. However, the affluence of the wealthy elites who attend the event disguise the exploitation that built the city in the first place. Just beyond the gates of the racetrack are impoverished neighborhoods inhabited by the underpaid workers who tend the horses on behalf of their millionaire owners.

Perry is interested in learning as much as possible about her own family history, and she is particularly intrigued by an enslaved ancestor recorded varyingly as Easter, Esther, and Stace. During a trip to a Baltimore museum, she reflects on the lives lived by enslaved people in both the rural and urban cities of the South. Maryland often escapes classification as a Southern state due to its more urban nature, but domestic slaves were common throughout the major cities. Perry wonders what kind of life her ancestor lived.

The next stop on the journey is Washington, DC, the capital of the United States. Perry notes that the city is filled with museums and monuments dedicated to American history. Black history has historically been underrepresented, but the National Museum of African American History and Culture has sought to change that. However, even as the discussion surrounding race appears to be broadening, the Black population of Washington, DC, is gradually being driven out by gentrification. 

While traveling through Huntsville, Alabama, and different cities in North Carolina, Perry reflects on the religiosity of both the United States and Black communities. Christianity is the dominant religion in both of these regions, and while many of the founding fathers questioned the nature of organized religion, Christianity has nonetheless been treated as a default for settling moral quandaries in US legal history. Indeed, Christian beliefs have even been used to justify acts of oppression, including racism, sexism, and homophobia. However, Perry draws a distinction between the “God of masters” and the “God of slaves.” The God of masters refers to Christian teachings that focus on hierarchies and power, promising the faithful a chance to rule over others. However, the God of slaves teaches compassion and freedom for all. Black communities have strong ties to spirituality, with churches providing sources of community and support. In many cases, these churches perpetuate the teachings of liberation and uplift communities. However, religious traditions can also sometimes inhibit social progress and keep people trapped within hierarchical ways of thinking.

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During her visit to Atlanta, Georgia, Perry remarks upon the ways in which modernity and industrialization have allowed some Black artists and entrepreneurs to obtain unprecedented prosperity. However, the majority of those living in the city remain undereducated and economically disenfranchised.

Birmingham, Alabama, is Perry’s hometown. Her parents are civil rights activists, and Perry recalls growing up surrounded by community organizers. She was indoctrinated into the cause of Black liberation from a young age, and she retains connections with many of those who helped push the movement forward—including some who are still serving out unjust prison sentences. The Civil Rights Movement is often distilled down into individual events or charismatic leaders—such as Martin Luther King Jr. However, Perry urges readers to recognize that the fight for Black liberation is a vibrant and ongoing movement, led by people from all across the country and from all different backgrounds.

Perry next visits Memphis, where she reflects on the different treatment received by Elvis Presley and his Black contemporaries. Elvis’s musical style was heavily influenced by Black culture, but he, as a white man, was the one who popularized it. Memphis is also the location where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while supporting the unionization efforts of local sanitation workers, yet a new monument to the Confederacy was erected barely a year after his death. Perry ruminates on the hypocrisy.

The “Black Belt” refers to a region in the Southern United States—mostly centered in Alabama and Missouri—characterized by particularly fertile soil. This meant it was a prime location for cotton, and it remains the region with the highest concentration of Black people as a result of the large enslaved population once exploited as laborers. In the modern era, it is one of the few regions with a robust Black presence in local politics. However, it remains an impoverished region plagued by high rates of incarceration, which local grassroots movements continuously struggle against.

Perry’s travels next take her to the so-called Deep South of Georgia and Florida. In Georgia, she befriends Dr. Walter Evans, a surgeon and collector of Black art. Florida, meanwhile, provides intriguing insights into the function of race as a social construct. Florida has a large population of immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Central and South America. Many Cuban refugees have been granted a tentative sort of privilege, benefiting from their proximity to white culture and its values. By contrast, undocumented immigrants and those deemed otherwise less desirable face a similar—but also distinctive—level of discrimination as Black Americans.

Perry returns once again to Alabama in order to ruminate on how Black Southerners often adopted “elegance” and modest styles of dress in an effort to regain dignity in the aftermath of slavery. Women in particular were encouraged to wear restrictive items like girdles and pantyhose in an effort to preserve their image and prevent any “messiness” from showing.

In New Orleans, Perry contemplates the destruction that 2008’s Hurricane Katrina wrought on the city. In the aftermath of emancipation, free Black people had built their homes and livelihoods in New Orleans, and the city was a rich blend of French, African, and uniquely Black American culture. However, after the hurricane, the process of gentrification began in earnest, and land once owned and inhabited by Black residents was quickly purchased by white developers. Furthermore, many of those who died as a result of the hurricane were impoverished Black people. Now, Perry resents the tourists who come to the city to drink and celebrate along the same streets—and on the same nearby plantations—where unimaginable cruelty once reigned.

Perry ends her travels by visiting the Bahamas and Havana, Cuba. While neither is a part of the Southern United States, they nonetheless share a painful history of colonization and slavery, and each place has its own history of defining Blackness.

South to America closes with a reminder that there are countless stories of the South that Perry could not tell in a single book. As she reflects on the murder of George Floyd and the continuing efforts of Black organizers and activists, she also reminds readers that “dreaming isn’t dead,” encouraging them to take up the cause of justice and dream of a better future.

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