Imani Perry: eight books that explain the South
Sign up for Imani’s newsletter, Unsettled Territory, here.
For over a century, readers have been fascinated by the American South, a place where dialects remain distinct, storytellers abound (I’ve never met a Southerner who couldn’t tell at least one good story) , and American music is rooted . Their interest is rewarded by the many books written over the decades on travel to or through the region. Although its tone and scope have changed over time, this genre constantly focuses on the particularity of the region: its cultural beauty, its idiosyncrasies, the poverty of many of its inhabitants and the cruelty of its racial regime.
My most recent book, From the South to America: a journey under the Mason-Dixon to understand the soul of a nation, a hybrid work combining history, travelogue, creative non-fiction and personal discovery, is part of this tradition. I invite readers to reconsider the South with me, and to confront its centrality in the construction and the being of the United States. Any honest portrayal of who we are as a nation requires that we understand how much our national abundance has depended on southern land and labor, and how much of our tastes and pleasures have depended on southern people.
Because I am not the first to travel through this history, this place and this genre, the following list includes some of the titles that have most affected me and shaped my writing. These authors used a variety of forms: fiction, scholarship, history, and poetry. Some have found their voice by going or leaving from the South. I cherish these works as models because they are not simply representations of the landscape or those who live there, but also artistic and philosophical explorations. They each push the boundaries of literature, using the liveliness of Southern culture as context and inspiration.
old creole daysby George Washington Cable
Cable was a writer, social critic, and native of New Orleans. In his work, including this first collection of stories from 1879, he takes readers through the streets of New Orleans, reeling in the city’s history and culture. After taking a strong stand against Jim Crow, most notably in the 1885 essay “The Freedman’s Case in Equity”, Cable was forced to leave his country and went into exile in Massachusetts. But he continued to write about Louisiana for the next three decades, paying particular attention to the intimate cultural ties between African, Indigenous, and European people despite the restrictions of segregation. old creole days, written while still in Louisiana, buzzes with fond observations of Cable’s home. For the rest of his career, he would masterfully combine his attentive and respectful attention to the South, even from afar, with an in-depth social critique.
The souls of black peopleby W.B. Du Bois
Du Bois’s classic collection of essays from 1903 remains arguably the most influential text in African American studies. Du Bois was a Renaissance intellectual and a “man of race” – an early 20th century artistic term for one who dedicated his extraordinary gifts to the cause of racial justice. Du Bois spent decades studying inequality while defending colonized and racially subjugated peoples. Born in Massachusetts, he first made his way south as an adult when he attended Fisk University, Nashville. The souls of black people, his work of appeal on behalf of black Americans living under the shadow of a Jim Crow society, is a multi-genre text that draws on music, economics, labor analysis, social history and pedagogy. In particular, his chapters on Atlanta and the Georgia Black Belt are notable for their accounts of the differences between the urban and rural South, as is his critical assessment of how land and trade are integral to American construction of races. .
South Roadby Sterling A. Brown
Brown, a famous blues poet, was a professor at Howard University for 40 years, where he taught such literary figures as Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka and Stokely Carmichael (before he was known as Kwame Ture). In this 1932 collection, the “southern routes” that lead him across states and into creative, resilient rural communities serve as material for his poems about folk characters and stories. Through South Road, Brown argued that Southern culture was in fact still vibrant, despite claims by many of his peers that it was on its last legs. Listening carefully and learning allowed Brown to praise the vitality, voice and imagination of the workers.
Mules and menby Zora Neale Hurston
Educated at Howard and Columbia, Hurston was an anthropologist and one of the nation’s most influential columnists on southern and Caribbean black culture, as well as a fiction writer extraordinaire. Hurston was born in Alabama and raised in the black incorporated city of Eatonville, Florida. His ethnographic collection of 1935, Mules and men, is a written compilation of African-American folklore from this city, neighboring Polk County, Florida and New Orleans. Despite her positioning, Hurston was not an Imperial scholar. Instead, she appears in the book as a participating observer who speaks her subjects’ language and gets in on the action – in one instance, she becomes a contestant in a toe contest – to captivating effect. . Hurston’s methodological irreverence, combined with his diligent research methods, leaves us with a significant documentation of black folk traditions.
The Mystic of the Southby Howard Zinn
Before becoming known as the left-wing social historian behind A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, a Jewish man from Brooklyn, wrote a book describing his experiences working as an activist on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights era. It details the complex social relations that existed on either side of the color line, while simultaneously rejecting the idea that racism was a uniquely southern affliction. Instead, he writes, when it comes to race, the differences between North and South were of degree rather than kind. Zinn’s book reveals that even someone who might have been considered an “outside agitator” could make astute observations about life under the Mason-Dixon.
South of a very old placeby Albert Murray
Close friends with influential artists such as Romare Bearden and Ralph Ellison, Murray was a revolutionary music critic and novelist who experimented with form and style. Born in Alabama, Murray moved to Harlem in 1962. To from south to a very old place, however, he returned home, traveling to several southern towns and villages. He noted that although the civil rights movement changed the South in some ways, many of its traditional rituals, sensibilities, and habits were maintained: the color line remained, but so did intimacy across its border. While Hurston, among others, consistently traced the connections between black cultures across the diaspora to their roots in West Africa, Murray argued that the United States was deeply influenced by blacks and that Black Americans were basically Americans. Much of the text challenges the cultural nationalism associated with the Black Power movement; he also rejects the designation Afro-American. Although our policies are not aligned, Murray’s crooked and insightful arguments directly inspired my own title and framing. I, too, moved to the South, struggling with my own relationship to the place and finding exceptional beauty and imagination there, despite all the hurts.
The proof of the things we don’t seeJames Baldwin
This book chronicles one of James Baldwin’s literary and literal forays into the South. In 1972, with the publication of No name on the street, Baldwin portrayed his travels to cities like Birmingham and Washington, D.C. as a sort of pilgrimage to his homeland as it was in the midst of social upheaval; fear and inspiration met him there. More than a decade later, he traveled to Georgia to report on the Atlanta child murders from 1979 to 1981. Echoing Du Bois some 82 years earlier, he found a unique city, one that distinguished by its effort and stratification. In the text, a multi-part essay, Baldwin despairs of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. He encounters a city devastated by the murders of black children and maps the shifting grounds of black experience in a time after laws opening the doors were passed, but economic and social barriers to equality remained.
A bend in the southby VS Naipaul
In the late 1980s, Naipaul shifted his gaze from his native Trinidad and ancestral India to the southern United States. He was not known for his sensitivity to racial politics in the Caribbean or for his appreciation of black diaspora cultures – Naipaul could cut into his assessments of Caribbean politics and economics while keeping his distance by as an Indo-Trinidadian. But his willingness to listen carefully to southerners, black and white, and to trace a sense of place tied to land, ritual and story, results in a compelling portrait of a place he doesn’t know. He notes, for example, the resonances of language and musicality that the region shares with its own nation. It exposes how white Southerners embraced the Confederacy and how some African Americans preferred the more honest racism of the South to the covert but no less intense racial animosity of the North. And, most importantly, he understands why, for African Americans, a brutal setting could also be called “home”.
When you purchase a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for your support Atlantic.