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A kind of creative primal cry

South to America: A Journey below the Mason-Dickson to Understand the Soul of a Nation Forfatter
Forfatter: Imani Perry
Forlag: Harper Collins, (USA)
USA / What does it mean to be an American? Who are they, how did they get to where they are today, where have they left cultural traces? Here we see the voices of the civil rights movement that inspired the hippies in the 70s, the champions of gay rights and feminists for several generations.


Imani Perry is a writer and researcher on African-American history at Princeton University in New Jersey. She spent five years applying Americas soul in the country's southern states. She started by the Blacks’ historical roots and ended with a name the whole world came to know: At his death in May 2020, George was Floyd the latest in a near-endless parade of unarmed African-Americans killed by police brutality. Nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds he lay with Constable Derek Chauvin's knee across his chest. "I can't breathe," he cried. "Mommy" were his last words.

Slavery in the United States ended in 1865. Racismn remains, but have we seen significant progress after all? One might think so, because while racial oppression and brutality up until today were often ignored and lacked legal consequences, the mistreatment of Floyd sparked global reactions. This time the killer was convicted.

Blacks and Whites

Perry has in the book South to America: A Journey below the Mason-Dickson to Understand the Soul of a Nation consistently chose to use the designations Blacks og Whites. For as little as her narrative is an unvarnished register of the sins of white supremacy, it is consistently a story seen from the perspective of her people – the Blacks’– perspective. With this perspective, she seeks answers to the questions who we are, how we got to where we are today, where have we left our cultural traces, and what does it mean to be an American.

Perry weaves together the elements of history, literary quotations and travelogue. 'Mason-Dickson' refers to a border in colonial America, where it was considered the dividing line between slave states in the South and northern states without slavery. The author himself comes from Birmingham, Alabama: "My grandmother and my mother grew up under Jim Crow – I grew up under the violent backlash during the time of the dissolution of the laws." Jim Crow stands for the racial segregation laws that applied in several states in the United States between 1876 and 1965.

She likes to leave the strongest statements to favorite authors such as Toni Morrison, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

Perry's personal proximity to racism is a given, but she likes to leave the strongest statements to favorite authors such as Toni Morrison, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In 1978, the newspaper Die ZEIT published an interview with Baldwin – whose name derives from a white slave owner. There he takes the magazine out of his mouth: "Ever since we stood up for auction on the slave block, the whites have used us and thrown us away, like they do today with their cars or paper handkerchiefs. We were and are goods. Racial struggle is class struggle.”

'We' are also culture

Who and where are these 'we'? The slaves on the cotton plantations in the South built the American economy. They no longer exist, except in memory. Most African-Americans are today urban and live in cities such as Detroit, New Orleans and Jackson. To be Southern is, according to Perry, not least a mentality. In addition, the southern states are extremely diverse and complex. The people are multilingual, have different dialects and different histories. “But we call certain things Southern in a broad sense, some because they are essential and some because they mark 'not that', as in not from the North, which really means not from the Midwest, from the Northeast, from the Northwest, California, people with a British-American dialect, or from the periphery in the southwest.”

Blues, gospel, jazz and bebop are not only forms of music, but also forms of life.

'We' is also culture, culture that has expanded far beyond place of origin and lineage. Blues, gospel, jazz and bebop are not only forms of music, but also forms of life. Means of expression in the struggle for a dignified life, a life crowned with thorns. Perry's anecdotal excursions are also enlightening – as is the story of Little Richard. A Bing search informs: "Little Richard was one of the most flamboyant American singers and pianists of the mid-1950s, and his hit songs were defining moments in the evolution of rock and roll." He was an epoch-maker and held the position for seven decades. He was too Black, his dance moves were modeled after Elvis Presley. In Imani Perry's words, Little Richard was "a master of a genre Elvis was proclaimed king of".

What drove the pioneers?

Another favorite from that era finds no favor with Perry: Pat Boone. Some of us will remember him as a musical whiz from Nashville. Later in life, he accused Barack Obama of not being born in the United States and actively harassed gays and Arabic speakers. He had a lucrative career with hit songs originally recorded with African-American artists. Here Imani lets her antipathy have free rein: “Listen to the songs. They are woefully stripped of any eroticism; they sound like sour milk.”

This author's well-supported thesis is that the Blacks  history is America's history. For better or worse. Despite – or perhaps rather because of – all the suffering and injustice, it is a proud story. The voices of the civil rights movement inspired the hippies of the 70s, the champions of gay rights, feminists for several generations. So what drove these pioneers – a Martin Luther King Jr., a Rosa Parks, an Angela Davies, a Louis Armstrong – to such heights? A kind of creative primal cry rises from the threads of Perry's fabric.

If her book provides many examples to the contrary, Imani from Alabama is also living proof of what possibilities are open to them The Blacks in America today. She rejects sunshine interpretations: "Whoever mistakenly believes that American racism can be overcome by integration, by people uniting in friendship, even in love, must realize that southern America shows something else. There is no solution to unfair conditions without structural and ethical change."

Status? African-Americans are no longer disposable. We have come so far that we rage when one Black is killed by a henchman of the law, a white, and celebrates when he is sentenced to 22,5 years in prison. But so far and hardly much longer. Perry resorts to poetic turns in his conclusion: “If America can be saved, it is only because our skyscrapers tower over people who have tasted the red clay. Whipped, hidden, escaped, captured. … They have given their blood to the earth.”

Ranveig Eckhoff
Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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