Lest We Forget: A Journey to the South
by Dr. Brenda M. Greene
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon
to Understand the Soul of a Nation
By Imani Perry
383 pp. Ecco® and Harper Collins®
South to America, A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry, winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, is a memoir of her exploration of the South: its paradoxes, its landscape, its history of violence and criminalization of Black people, and the intricate and complicated relationships between Black and Whites. Perry’s journey begins with origin stories of Blacks in Appalachia, Virginia, Louisville, Maryland, and Washington DC. Her reflections provide readers with the historical significance of these regions as an observer and as one who may have origins in these areas. Thus, South to America is both Perry’s memoir of the history of her origins and a history of a southern portion of the United States that represents the diversity of people in America. She contends that paying attention to the south, its past, present, and “threatening future,” allows us to understand our nation and to determine what we must do to address the “national sins” and entrenched racism in our communities, cities, and states.
The book is replete with anecdotes from people whom Perry meets and what her observations and reflections on historical moments in cities throughout the south reveal about the state of race relations, southern traditions and mores, the significance of historical markers and monuments, the legacy of slavery, and popular culture. She reminds us that history provides us with instruction and informs us. “What you neglect to attend to from the past, you will surely ignore in the present.” The words “lest we forget” resound here.
Perry’s language is literary and poetic. In describing the state of racism in our nation, she calls it: “A polite tension on top, a flame below.” She elaborates, “The matter isn’t simply about anger, resentment, misunderstanding, or saying the right or wrong words. It is earthquake, fire, unmarked graves, and ash.” In her words, shame and rage collide. These emotions co-exist, revealing the inescapable and guilt-ridden volatile nature of race relations.
Remembrance of home is a motivating factor in South to America. Home is not a physical structure; rather, “home for the Southerner eases into the cracked places like Alaga, thick and dark sugarcane syrup. Woundedness is pro forma; disaster touches everyone, even if only because you caused it.” The south, a symbol of remembrance, remains home to the majority of African Americans in this country. There are joys and hardships but Southerners persist. To depart means that there would be no one to tend the graves of the ancestors.
Her description of New Orleans is compelling. She highlights the trauma and vestiges of slavery as well as the lingering effects of a city ravished by environmental disaster. The auction blocks in parks and on docked ships, the human trafficking, the impact of the Haitian Revolution, the trade in human flesh and the transport of unfree Black people, and the continuing placement of people in cages due to a high rate of incarceration all reflect the legacy of slavery. The impact of Katrina provides a more current symbol of slavery’s legacy. When Katrina hits New Orleans, the treatment of its victims affirms that slavery comes in many forms. The stacked bodies, the FEMA trailers falling into rapid disrepair, and the treatment of trauma victims like refugees are symbolic of neglect by the government or slavery by another name. This neglect continues as Black people, dispossessed by the hurricane, are not part of the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans.
Perry closes South to America by describing the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of a White police officer. As I write this review, our nation has just witnessed the tragic beating and subsequent death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Black police officers. Like George Floyd, Tyre Nichols was unarmed and like George Floyd, he called for his mother as he was tortured by the police. Tyre’s death is a stark reminder that police brutality cuts across color lines.
We are witnesses to a pandemic of violence and racism in our nation. Our students are being denied the study of the African American experience in this country. The Florida State Board of Education, under the supervision of Gov. Ron DeSantis, has rejected an AP course in African American Studies. How did we get here and where do we go from here? South to America provides a window into understanding the seeds of this troubling and tragic chapter in our country.
Dr. Brenda M. Greene is a Professor of English and Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Perry is the author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, winner of the 2019 Bograd-Weld Biography Prize from the Pen America Foundation. Perry, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago, lives outside Philadelphia with her two sons.