My wife is from Atlanta, so we visit Georgia frequently. In addition to downtown Hotlanta with its nauseating CNN Studio Tours and “World of Coca-Cola,” I’ve become acquainted with beautiful old towns in Marietta, Alpharetta, Roswell, and Dahlonega. I’ve explored the Chattahoochee, Stone Mountain, and various historic houses, plantations, and churches across North Georgia. I’ve seen the Braves, the Yellowjackets, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. And I’ve eaten my fair share of Georgia barbecue, soul food, peaches and peanuts.
With the exception of Coke and CNN (and a brief mention of Stone Mountain) none of the above are featured in Princeton professor Imani Perry’s two chapters on Georgia in her best-selling 2022 book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. Her chapter on Atlanta spends much more time discussing black music, historic black colleges and universities, and “Magic City,” which, apparently, is the most famous strip club in the world. “Atlanta makes it obvious that being American is being a trickster,” says Perry.
Granted, by no means would I call myself an expert when it comes to the Peach State. But if South to America is supposed to be a “revelatory argument for why you must understand the South in order to understand America,” Perry’s discussion of Georgia seems disproportionately focused on the things that matter to, well, a liberal, Ivy-league-educated academic trained in critical theory and working in Princeton’s Gender and Sexuality Studies program. And that’s pretty much the case with the entirety of Perry’s solipsistic work.
In her first chapter on Appalachia, Perry discusses how as a black woman she was regularly warned about going to West Virginia, especially “in the Trump era” (there are nationally-known black academics at West Virginia University and a Society of Black Scholars at Marshall University, but OK). So she decided to visit what most represents the Mountain State: Harpers Ferry. As she strolls the tourist town, she declares: “certain crimes were ceased by the Civil War, but they have not been purged. Not yet.” She is frustrated by the insufficient amount of historical references to the black experience there. “Maybe I am projecting too much onto the place,” she wonders. That might be the most self-aware observation in the entire book.
She meets a Confederate reenactor with a day job in Washington, D.C. whom she calls Bob. “I wondered if his dislike of DC was not really about his work but about it being a chocolate city… I wondered, did Bob face down Black soldiers on the battlefield? If so, did he see nothing but a blur of Black, no faces, no features?” Perhaps Perry could have asked him, but I’d imagine it’s dangerous to risk undermining the caricatures that achieve your desired literary effect.
In her chapter on Virginia, her reflections on Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are, of course, tethered to slavery. “Murderous hypocrisy is an old American habit,” she writes of Patrick Henry. She visits a restaurant in Lynchburg where she is not greeted. “I observed myself as the only Black person in the place,” she writes. You know what the only explanation must be! For extra flourish, she imagines an oppressed black woman in the back fixing the food.
She describes meeting a Lyft driver in Charlottesville, a middle-aged white woman with “very large bangs” and hair that reached to her waist. The driver divulges to Perry that her husband left her, but she then found Jesus and “the power to heal.” She tells Perry she once snuck into a hospital and healed a black man who had his arm in a sling. Perry writes of the experience:
What arrogance, I thought, to presume one self-aggrandized touch could heal the wounds of distance made clear by the lynching tree… To think it could purify her of an inherited untrustworthiness and, more than that, give her the authority to set the world aright in the personal chamber of an ailing and vulnerable Black man.
But there’s more. The Lyft driver then tells Perry of Jesus’s promise of a home with many rooms (John 14:2-4) and Paul’s promise that we will reign with Christ (2 Timothy 2:12). “But the bigger question for me was this,” says Perry. “Who did she plan to rule like kings and queens over? Nonbelievers? Sinners? Others?… This God of which she spoke, it struck me, was the God of masters.” Now granted, I would likely have my fair share of theological questions about a low-church evangelical who claims miraculous healing powers, but what Perry extrapolates about this poor woman from her religious musings is beyond specious — it’s downright cruel, laying at the white woman’s feet not only ignorance and arrogance, but lynching and slavery.
As even a Washington Post review hinted, much of South to America is of a similar character to the above anecdote: Perry projects onto Southern people and places her prejudices and preconceptions. Most everything about the South is interpreted through the narrow, ideological lens of the exploitation of black Americans. Every event, every story must be twisted to fit that narrative, something I believe psychologists call “confirmation bias.” In Perry’s world, blacks are the noble victims; whites are caricatured either as evil exploiters or ignorant bigots.
This also means that victim narratives must be forever foregrounded. Her chapter on Kentucky has a long reflection on the exploitation of black jockeys in the horse-racing business. Former President Trump’s immigration policies, for some reason, are discussed in her chapter on Maryland. When she gets to Alabama, we hear about Nazis, the “N word” and homophobia.
In a book claiming to “understand the soul of a nation,” one would think music would be a central topic. Yet the Grand Ole Opry is mentioned only to note that few blacks have performed there. Elvis receives no attention, nor Bluegrass or Southern Rock. Even the blues, a music genre America owes to black southerners, gets short shrift, with not a word about great early legends such as Robert Johnson, Blind Wilie Johnson, or Charley Patton. We do, however, learn about rappers Outkast and Ludacris (Perry wrote a book about the glories of hip hop).
In her awkward attempts at profundity, Perry’s prose often stumbles into the absurd. In one reflection, she ventures a link between Puritan pastor Samuel Danforth’s sermon “An Errand into the Wilderness” and Danforth’s spiritual descendents in Appalachia. She writes:
The gospel was extracting abundance from the wild landscape. Human sacrifice was expected. Suffering death and repetition served the new-world aristocracy of wealth. In Appalachia the errand isn’t an end but a repetition. Alliances and affections shift, but the whole cast repeats itself.
I have no idea what Perry is trying to say here. It’s unclear what purpose personifying “the gospel” serves here. The awkward placement of the word “human” next to “sacrifice” adds nothing except to lead the reader to wonder if she is implying Appalachians have engaged in human sacrifice. And is there a place where work is not repetitive, or alliances and affections don’t shift? Bizarrely, if ironically, she ends that chapter: “Acting like you know everything and acting like you don’t know how to be respectful will keep you ignorant. Be humble.”
South to America is anything but humble. Perry’s self-serving arguments are tenuous, her descriptions of the South contrived, her musings self-indulgent. She is less making an argument that the South is the “soul of a nation” than that she, with all her narcissistic preoccupations, is the soul of the South. And even that is a stretch: she claims to be a “native of Birmingham,” but departed Alabama when she was five years old, and has resided in the north ever since.
Every summer when we visit my wife’s family, my father-in-law and I (and more recently my eldest son) attend a Braves game. It’s an experience that reflects the charms, oddities, and paradoxes of Atlanta, and, I’d wager, the New South. Truist Park is in The Battery Atlanta, a mixed-use development featuring fine dining and luxury hotels, as well as apartments and office buildings. A talented (if very loud) all-black drumline greets you at the turnstiles, though you’re more likely to hear country music from the stadium speakers.
During tense, climactic moments, you’ll be invited to participate in the tomahawk chop, which remains a curious holdout in the face of woke protests regarding indigenous sports mascots. You can partake of barbecue or soul food, craft beers or sweet tea. In your section, you’re just as likely to rub shoulders with professional, urbanite blacks as you are thick-accented working-class whites from the boonies. It is, in sum, a fascinating panoply of racial and socio-economic diversity that reflects a New South city trying (imperfectly) to retain some residue of its old Southern character. The next time Ms. Perry visits Atlanta, I’d suggest that might be a better object of cultural anthropological study than a strip club I’ve never heard of.