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New book explores how the American South has 'done the dirty work of the nation'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new book seeks to change how people view the American South, and thus the country's history as a whole.

Jeffrey Brown spoke to author Imani Perry, who traveled the South and explored the complexities and misperceptions along the way.

It's part of our ongoing series of Race Matters, as well as our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Imani Perry, Author, "South to America": It's sort of like trying to get to the root and help readers from all over the place understand that it's the root.

Jeffrey Brown: The root of the country, for Imani Perry, is the South. And even on a recent walk in New York, she saw connections everywhere.

Imani Perry: So, Harlem is filled with Southern culture. Wall Street, right, is dependent upon the history of the U.S. slave trade.

Jeffrey Brown: Perry's new book takes us on trips she made all over the region below the Mason-Dixon Line, from Maryland to Mississippi, and takes on what she sees as a misperception of the South's continuing role in who we are today. It's called "South to America."

Imani Perry: The South is really not only where the idea begins, right, of what this nation would become, but it also has moved the country about because it was the bounty of the South that allowed for the nation to become wealthy, to become a global power.

And it has continued to shape our tastes, our habits, our culture in ways that we often deny, in part because it's done the dirty work of the nation in many ways.

Jeffrey Brown: Perry is a professor of African American studies at Princeton, whose work explores race, law, and history, often through the lens of culture and cultural figures, such as the writer Lorraine Hansberry.

Her last book, "Breathe," was written as a letter to her two teenaged sons on the perils of growing up Black in America. She describes her sense of mission this way:

Imani Perry: I'm trying to figure out why we have this choreography of two steps forward, one step back, or sometimes three steps back.

Jeffrey Brown: We meaning?

Imani Perry: Americans, the United States.

And so I want to use history, tradition, very particularly the history and tradition of African American art, intellectual life, civic culture, to think creatively about how to move towards freedom, notwithstanding the fact that retrenchment happens over and over and over again.

Jeffrey Brown: She was born, she says, nine years after and a few miles from the site of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing that killed four young Black girls.

Birmingham remains the place she calls home.

Imani Perry: I always think, you know, that's the place I learned to walk, talk, laugh, read, dance. And so there's a core part of me that I see as having created there.

Jeffrey Brown: At age 5, with her mother and her adoptive father, a white civil rights activist from the North, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, returning South regularly to visit her close extended family.

But for "South to America," she did something different, visiting people and places she knew less well to see the present interacting with the past.

Imani Perry: Everywhere I went -- and I expect this will always be the case, to a certain extent -- in the South, you feel history. You feel the ghosts of the past.

Even when the Confederate monuments come down, it's still present. It's present in the way land is used, and it's present in the sort of quiet, but collective memories of what happened in those places.

Jeffrey Brown From her Northern perspective, she saw a place people look down on for its racism and backwardness, ignoring how the entire country's history, economy and culture was shaped and implicated.

Imani Perry: To say, well, that's down there, without acknowledging there, without acknowledging that that is actually what made the wealth and the prosperity for the entire nation, it's just insincere, but it allows for a deep inconsistency between the truth of the nation and the way we narrate it, right? So...

Jeffrey Brown: This is what you mean by saying that the South did the dirty work.

Imani Perry: The South did the dirty work.

Jeffrey Brown: And the rest -- and everyone else could look sort of noble.

Imani Perry: Yes.

Our habit of being OK with people working hard and suffering or having very little, our habit of people being pushed out of their homes, there are ways of doing things in this country that I argue begin with the ways of that region.

And so, in order to fully understand what this place is, and hopefully make it something closer to fair and just and kind to everybody who participates in it, I think we have to acknowledge, that's us. It's not some other place. That's us.

Jeffrey Brown: At the same time, she says, that other South, the place where social justice movements began and so much is happening today, isn't celebrated enough.

Her travels included Montgomery, Alabama, its profile changed by the work of the Equal Justice Initiative in fighting mass incarceration, including the powerful National Memorial for Peace and Justice. And political and social change in Georgia and elsewhere impacting the direction of the country, all of this, of course, continuing to be fought over.

Imani Perry: People say, how can you be someone who is hopeful about the future? And I say, it's easy. I'm from Birmingham, right?

If that place could change, known as Bombingham, known as the most racist, violent part of the South, coming from that place, I have to have faith in the possibility of transformation.

But the openings are still quite narrow for people to occupy different social positions. And retrenchment is so common, right, so that every movement forward has to be so jealously guarded, or else there can be almost immediate backsliding.

Jeffrey Brown: The book is "South to America."

Imani Perry, thank you very much.

Imani Perry: Thank you.

Judy Woodruff: Another way to think about the South and about the entire country.

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