Want to understand the U.S.? This historian says the South holds the key
Imani Perry says the South can be seen as an "origin point" for the way the nation operates. Her book South to America reflects on the region's history and traces the steps of an enslaved ancestor.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Our guest, Princeton African American Studies professor Imani Perry, was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Though she moved away with her family as a child and has lived in Cambridge, Chicago and the Philadelphia area, she's always considered Birmingham home. Perry has a new book about the American South, written as a journey through its states, cities and rural communities. In each chapter, she focuses on a place and reflects on its distinctive relationship to the region's history of slavery and racism, drawing on her own extensive knowledge of literature, music, art and folklore, as well as her own family history.
Imani Perry earned a bachelor's degree from Yale, then a law degree at Harvard, where she also received her Ph.D. in American Studies. She's currently the Hughes-Rogers professor of African American Studies at Princeton and the author of six previous books, including "Looking For Lorraine," a biography of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and most recently "Breathe: A Letter To My Sons." Her new book is "South To America: The Journey Below the Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation" (ph).
Imani Perry, welcome to FRESH AIR.
IMANI PERRY: Thank you. Delighted to be here.
DAVIES: You are, as I said, a child of the South, a native of Birmingham, but now teaching in an Ivy League institution. What made you want to take this journey into the South? Where did this come from?
PERRY: It has a couple of different origin points. I mean, one, of course, is it's my home, but I have spent my life in some ways in exile - much of the time in exile of the South and I have been traveling back and forth the majority of my life. And I've had this experience of being both an insider and also seeing how the South is seen and from a young age, you know, experiencing some frustration about the misperception. But, you know, as an intellectual and a scholar, over time, it just became increasingly clear to me that the misunderstanding of the South, the depiction of it as this sort of some other backwards, different place in other regions is actually part of the way in which we mischaracterize the nation. So that's sort of the heart of it. It both comes from frustration and also wanting to share and illuminate something
DAVIES: The frustration that people see the South, as some - how did you say, a distant, backward place?
PERRY: Yeah, distant, backward. That's where racism is. That's where, you know, social dysfunction is. That's where people are uneducated. And, I mean, there's all these stereotypes of the South that I think are because the South in some ways becomes the repository for the nation's sins, right? Like, that's the bad place down there. And then it allows the rest of the country to conceive of itself as relatively pristine, when in reality, the South has so often not only not been backwards, but really the vanguard of the way the nation would develop, you know, from the very outset, right? It's where it begins.
A huge proportion of the Founding Fathers are you, know, are southerners. It's where D.C. is located because the South paid Revolutionary War debts. And then it's where the prosperity of the nation developed through King Cotton. And it's oil. It's coal. It's - there are so many of the things that sort of made the nation possible that come out of the South. And the conditions that made it possible are the very things that are part of the painful history of the South that, you know, we try to sort of excise from the mythology of the nation, but are really key to understanding it.
DAVIES: You start in Harpers Ferry, W.V., where in 1859, people will remember that the abolitionist John Brown led this band of armed men hoping to spark a slave revolt. It didn't happen. They were all captured. He was hanged. Was it a conscious choice to begin there?
PERRY: I mean, it was a conscious choice to begin in West Virginia because it's this unusual place that was separated from Virginia over the cause of slavery and then became the most whitest of the southern states and seen as a place that is, you know - people use the term sort of hillbilly and the kind of stereotypes of Appalachia there. So that's one reason I started there. I also - so many people warned me not to go to West Virginia as a Black woman, so I was sort of intrigued by people suggesting I not go to West Virginia and then also kind of nervous. And I said, well, Harpers Ferry, given its history, felt like, OK, this is a place that I can probably enter into relatively comfortably, although I went beyond Harpers Ferry.
And it was one of those moments where I could come to a place and then understand that my, you know, the simple historical association, John Brown, there's a much more complex story there. In so many ways, it's about industry. It's about the Shenandoah. It's about all of this abundance of that particular region and why John Brown was there and these intersecting histories. So it's a really rich place that so much more complex than the stereotypes or the - just the image of John Brown, the stereotypes of Appalachia or the image of John Brown. So I loved that trip.
DAVIES: And it's interesting that in 1859, it was in Virginia. West Virginia didn't exist at the time...
PERRY: Yes, did not yet exist. Yeah.
DAVIES: ...So it's just across the line. And it's an interesting place. I've been - I've visited there. You spent some time speaking to a Confederate soldier re-enactor who, as I guess, was working in one of the historical buildings there.
PERRY: It was great.
DAVIES: What was - yeah, what was great about it?
PERRY: First of all, I, you know, part of when I was writing, there was sort of kismet because - and I read a little bit about this. I had read Tony Horowitz's "Confederates In The Attic." And I had these quibbles with it. And he was a really lovely man. But I had never talked to him about the book. I unfortunately didn't, you know, get to talk to him about it before he died. And I just was like, you know, I felt like he was romanticizing the Confederates. And I also felt like, you know, this was a story that was from the perspective of the kind of, you know, white lost cause sensibility that I wouldn't have access to.
And then I go to Harpers Ferry, and I wind up in this conversation with someone who is a Confederate re-enactor. And it was a conversation I didn't expect someone being open to having with me as a Black woman. And it was really affable, but I was gentle with it. And he was initially skeptical. And then he started to talk to me about, you know, the details. But I also was very aware that there was a barrier there. And much of the book is sort of dealing with encounters and across lines of difference and the complications of them. But that's so much of what life is like across, I think, across the color line in the South in the sense that there's an incredible intimacy there always has been. And there's also a detente, right? There's some things that are very difficult to broach. And that was one of those moments, and there are multiple ones in the book.
DAVIES: You spent some time in Appalachia. And then you go to Maryland, which, I guess, like West Virginia, is a state that is below the Mason-Dixon line but was not a Confederate state. In Maryland's case, it was a pretty close battle about whether it would be. You think your ancestor from Maryland, Esther (ph) or Easter (ph), may have been a runaway at some point. Is that right?
DAVIES: And you write about something I had not heard of, the Great Dismal Swamp, where kind of fugitive slaves kind of established their own ongoing community. Tell us about this.
PERRY: One of the interesting stories about it is, you know, George Washington tried to go in and destroy at a certain point the communities of enslaved people who live there. But part of what I find so interesting about it is that it was a place that was, you know, a fugitive community for generations. And historically, I mean, the conventional historical narrative - this is changing now, but has been that there were relatively few marooned communities, fugitive communities that functioned really independently as communities in the United States as compared to the Caribbean or South America. And increasingly, you know, that's - we're learning that that wasn't necessarily the case. And here's an instance, this location that is sort of - occasionally kind of coughs up artifacts that are indications of - you know, that there were communities there, and they lived in the swamp. And - you know, but there are tools. There were - so much is overgrown because it's a swamp, but that there are these signs that there were communities.
And so I imagined, well, you know, perhaps she - that's where she was trying to get if this woman was a fugitive. You know, it was a place that many tried to escape to. And I'm genuinely sort of interested in the imagination behind fugitivity, right? So we have one common story in our minds about Escape North, but people tried to escape to Mexico. People, you know, tried to escape to the Caribbean. And people also tried to escape to the dismal swamp.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Imani Perry. She's a professor of African American studies at Princeton and author of the new book "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Imani Perry. She's a professor of African American studies at Princeton and author of the new book "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation." You were born in Birmingham, and you have ancestors in Alabama, different parts of Alabama. And Alabama includes at Huntsville the U.S. military's Redstone Arsenal, which became a center of missile research, particularly after World War II. And so a lot of scientists who had worked in Nazi, Germany, made their way to Alabama. Do you find this significant?
PERRY: I do find it significant. I mean, I think it's one of those moments when you realize that the contradictions of the nation were not just - you know, were not just domestic, but they cut across national lines, and this is what I mean. So after World War II, which we think of as the good war - right? - against Nazis, what did it mean to invite literal Nazis to do research for the - you know, because of an investment in the space race?
And so you have this context where there's Jim Crow - the Jim Crow South that, you know, Nazis were in-part inspired by in their, you know, fascist endeavors. And Black soldiers went in, you know, World War I and World War II went to Europe and were - and fought, you know, for democracy but were subject to racism and the failures of democracy at home. And then there are Nazis literally invited to the grounds where, you know, my ancestors lived and worked and occupied a higher status position than they did. And it's just one of these moments where you sort of - the priorities of the nation become at - and some of the ugliest priorities of the nation become sort of really clear, right?
So it's not just, yes, there's the story that, you know, the pursuit of wealth and prosperity was seen as a justification for Indian removal and slavery and et cetera and - but it's also - it repeats itself, you know, that over the course of history, there's these repeated moments that are, you know, quite heartbreaking. And the lead scientist, von Braun - whose name is pronounced brown in Alabama - is - and his name is all over Huntsville still to this day, and it's kind of memorialized. So...
DAVIES: In what way?
PERRY: There and at NASA, various institutions around the city. So we'll talk about - you know, we're having these rich conversations now about Confederate monuments. But there's this bigger question - right? - about, you know, power and who is valued that lasts past - you know, beyond the question of the Civil War and the lost cause. But, you know, who's seen as worthy for remembrance? And one of the pieces of that chapter just as sort of the other side is that so much of the building of NASA has taken place on - over the graves of - you know, of Black people.
DAVIES: A lot of rural country, yeah. Your chapter about Birmingham is personal in a lot of ways. I mean, it's your own home. And it's interesting that you write that, you know, people talk about the Great Migration as being a movement of African Americans from the South to the North. But you write in many cases, including, I guess, your grandparents, it was from the rural South to the urban South. They went to Birmingham. And you talk about the story of your birth, about your mom had a relationship with a man that didn't last, the result of which was your birth. And then she met the man you would know as your father. You want to just tell us the story here?
PERRY: Yeah. So, you know, my dad who raised me and passed away about - just under six years ago was a Jewish man from Brooklyn who was inspired by the civil rights movement and so chose to work - finished a Ph.D. at Yale and chose to go down South and work at a historically Black college and met my mother at the orientation of the - you know, for new faculty. And so - and my mother, you know, was also a political organizer. So they had this unusual union, you know, in what was once known as the most segregated city in the country and tried to, you know, have a revolution, as it were. And I grew up in - at that crossroads, you know, of a multiracial kind of activist, radical in many ways, politically leftist community and also very much in a kind of traditional Black, working-class, Southern family. And so a part of what I wanted to show - you know, the world kind of freezes Birmingham in 1963. And it was just this really fascinating, blooming, growing place through the '70s and '80s. And I - so I use my personal story to talk about that complexity.
DAVIES: And then you go off to - you know, getting an education up north. Did you go to Concord Academy? Did - do I remember that correctly? That's a...
PERRY: I did.
DAVIES: ...Prestigious private school - and then Yale and then Harvard for a law degree and all of that. And you're in a world of people who, as you say, probably have a lot of preconceptions about the South. Did you find yourself bristling constantly when you heard their prejudices expressed?
PERRY: Oh, all the time. Oh, yes. I mean, even younger, you know? And people - and I will say this - like, across, I mean, all kinds of identities. I mean, even - it was just a couple of weeks ago someone said, oh, I'm too afraid to go down South (laughter), right? It was another Black woman (laughter). And, you know, that fear and also this idea, this myth that there's not a - there's not an urban South. So people - unless it's Atlanta or New Orleans, people think, you know, you're in some rural community. So people would say things to me like, oh, you know, must be weird to be around cows and chickens and - at a certain level, I was around chickens. Like, people next door did have chickens in the backyard, but it was still city. So I - but I - yeah, I would bristle and also, you know, be frustrated by the sort of mocking characterizations of the South.
DAVIES: I will say - I mean, I identify with this. I grew up in Texas. My grandparents were up - were at - my granddaddy actually drove cattle up near Lubbock. But I've spent most of my life up north. And yeah, people think they know, and they make - sometimes, I will say, yeah, we actually got indoor plumbing now, believe it or not.
PERRY: Yeah (laughter), right. Can you imagine, right (laughter)?
DAVIES: But the other interesting observation I had about it, I thought, was, you know, when I - I grew up in South Texas - Corpus Christi - and in a not particularly enlightened time. I was born in the '50s and came up north in the '70s. And it seemed to me that when I got here, I - you know, I - when in Philadelphia - and I had a lot of working-class jobs in - when I was in my 20s. And it just seemed - I heard the N-word a lot more...
PERRY: All the time.
PERRY: Oh, yeah.
DAVIES: ...Working-class communities in the North than I had in Corpus Christi, Texas, which admittedly did not have a large Black population. It was there - but I just - it's interesting that people - again, it's - people assume racism is - has its heart and its home in places that - (laughter) not where they live. But there's - they're not quite...
DAVIES: ...Looking at it so clearly.
PERRY: That's right. I mean, and one of the things that - and people are astonished when I tell them this, but, you know, when I - my fear about race as a kid was ignited in Boston. You know, that's the place where I experienced racial terror with bottles thrown at our car and hearing - having slurs hurled at my - I have never in any place in the South had someone call me a racial slur. I have had it happen numerous times in Massachusetts (laughter), you know? More than I can count. Now, it's not - and so my point is not, though, that, you know, up North is more racist than the South or something but that that disposition to sort of imply that that's a Southern thing actually gives a lot of freedom to not confront the racism in other parts of the region.
But also part of the reason I haven't heard slurs in the South is, you know, that's - there will - something will happen if that moment occurs, right? So, like, if someone hurls a slur at me in Birmingham, there's almost certainly going to be violence to follow, right? You know, there had - was a civil rights revolution. There were a lot of people who gave their lives for it. That was a hard-fought battle. Those moments are not going to be casually passed by anymore, right? So there's a detente, right? There's a sort of - there are these sort of silent spaces that exist so that people can negotiate around each other and around history. Some of that doesn't exist in quite the same way in northern cities.
But the attitudes, you know, the idea that people are inferior on the basis of being Black or of not being white - right? - or not being fully American as, you know, Mitch McConnell recently implied, that does come from Southern history. But it is American history, too, right? It is the - that attitude, that belief system about human beings is what allowed for the exploitation of Black labor, the moving out of Indigenous people, you know, all of those sorts of things. So it's not as though, like, the South is better, it's - or more racist, but it is the - in some ways, an origin point for the way the whole nation operates. Like, the ideas about race, we get them from the way the stage was set in the South from the beginning.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Imani Perry. She's a professor of African American studies at Princeton and the author of the new book "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation." She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAMPIN'")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I'm trampin'.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies at Princeton. She's a native of Birmingham, Ala. And she has a new book which is a journey through the American South, reflecting on the history and culture of its many communities. The book is called "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation."
Now, a couple of years ago, you published a biography of Lorraine Hansberry, who was known for writing the play "A Raisin In The Sun" about a Black family in Chicago that tried to move into a white neighborhood, huge hit on Broadway in - what? - 1959, I guess, and then was made into a film starring Sidney Poitier. And she tragically died of cancer at the age of 34. What made you want to examine her life, write this book?
PERRY: Yeah. So part of it is that, you know, I'm always moved by sort of heart and passion. And she was a muse of sorts. My father actually really loved Hansberry, and he was an epidemiologist by training. But he would begin lectures on public health disparities with quotes from Lorraine Hansberry's essay, "Scars Of The Ghetto." And she was this person who, you know, she had done this extraordinary thing. You know, she was the youngest person to win the Drama Critics' Circle award, the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. And yet people didn't know her, right? They knew "A Raisin In The Sun," but they - she - her story was submerged.
And she was interesting because, you know, she was the child of migrants from Tennessee and Mississippi, grew up relatively privileged, became a leftist, was a passionate intellectual as well as an artist, and just had this remarkable, though very short life and also was a lesbian, though that wasn't known at the time, and also had married a white Jewish man, and also, you know, had these sort of internationalist politics but was interested in the South in particular, towards the end of her death, was excited about the movement, was involved with SNCC. And so she just is this fascinating person. And I wanted to share something of what I thought I could bring of her story to the world.
DAVIES: A lot of threads of her life, you know, can be found in yours, too. I mean, there are some similarities there.
PERRY: Deep identification, yes. Even her mother was a Perry. So I tried to find a connection because, you know, yeah, but I didn't.
DAVIES: Is it true that she single-handedly integrated a dormitory at the University of Wisconsin?
PERRY: Absolutely, she did. And, you know, she - it was also - it was unusual for her to go to Wisconsin, right? So most of the women in her family who went to college went to historically Black colleges. She went to Wisconsin. She became a campus activist. She - and she had to be interviewed to be - to integrate this dorm, right? So they, you know, and Lorraine comes from this very erudite, like, you know, bourgeois family. But they had to make sure that she was acceptable to occupy this dorm as a Black young woman. So it's a, you know, one of those painfully ironic moments in history. Yeah.
DAVIES: It was striking as I looked at your book how she worked with and had personal relationships, like, a hall of fame of Black intellectual and cultural life. I mean, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes. It's kind of amazing, isn't it?
PERRY: Yes. And her uncle with whom she was close, William Leo Hansberry, is really known as the father of the discipline of African studies and taught at Howard University. And he taught a number of Black independence movement leaders, early presidents of postcolonial nations. So yeah, she was at the crossroads of so much, really, across generations like that robust 1930s periods and also the 1960s. You know, she's connected to everybody. Just as another example, her mentor, Louis Burnham, was the father of Margaret Burnham, who was Angela Davis' best childhood friend, and also Angela Davis' lawyer. I mean, it just - the connections are truly extraordinary.
DAVIES: Right. She had quite a relationship with James Baldwin, too, right? They wrote a lot of...
PERRY: Yes, oh, very close. Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. She has this amazing meeting with Robert Kennedy when he was attorney general, when John F. Kennedy was in the White House. And he was, you know, he was the brother of the president and really the president's closest adviser. And he assembled this meeting, which I gather was in a place in New York, in an apartment. You want to describe who was there, what the context was, what the point was?
PERRY: Right. So, you know, RFK was actually hoping to bring, you know, Black public figures and civil rights leaders. He called James Baldwin, who called Lena Horne and Rip Torn and Martin Luther King Jr.'s attorney and, you know, Lorraine Hansberry and on and on. And the idea was that they actually wanted - the Kennedys were hoping to quell some of the activism in Birmingham, which is part of why I feel this so personally, because it wasn't good for Democratic Party politics - right? - for, you know, these Black people in Birmingham to be sending their children out to march and getting arrested and the like. And so the idea was maybe these Black leaders can kind of calm the Black protest down in the South. And the meeting began awkwardly. And then there was this moment where a young SNCC organizer was in the meeting too named Jerome. And he...
DAVIES: That's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But yeah. Go ahead. Yeah.
PERRY: Oh, yes. Yes, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And he was in New York to get surgery because he'd been so badly beaten by police officers in Mississippi. And he spoke up. And RFK was kind of dismissive of him. And this incensed Lorraine Hansberry. And she was saying, that's the person, not all these famous people, you know, who you need to be listening to. And also said, you know, not only are we not going to tell organizers in Alabama and elsewhere in the South to, you know, to slow down or mute their activism, they speak for us. And then she said, and what we want from you, your, you know, the Kennedy administration, we want a moral commitment to support the cause of the civil rights movement.
And so she stands up and basically leads the group out of the meeting. And Baldwin remembers this. He's like, you know, she was so tiny, you know, but she seemed huge - right? - in that moment. And she - and they followed her. And, one, this was, you know, there's a kind of emotional connection for me, right? Because she's saying that's the place you need to attend is the deep South. And it follows in part because, you know, that's often what Du Bois would say as well, right? That's the place you need to look for the social transformation we need. But also, you know, she was famous by that point, and she made a decision over and over again. She was not afraid to risk her fame because she - it was more important to say what was right. And after the meeting, RFK - it was reported in the Times, in other newspapers, he said the meeting was a failure. But JFK's language changed after the meeting. He started talking about civil rights as a moral commitment. He started to use the language that Hansberry used in the meeting. And so to me, it was a success in shifting the frame of reference and, you know, really led by her.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Imani Perry. She's a professor of African American studies at Princeton. Her latest book is "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Imani Perry. She's a professor of African American studies at Princeton and author of the new book "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation." I wanted to talk about the book that you wrote before this, I guess, just a couple of years ago called "Breathe: A Letter To My Sons." Tell me where the idea for this book came from.
PERRY: So it actually - the idea for the book came from my editor at Beacon Press and, you know, she was sort of responding to how on social media I will talk about my sons. And usually it's sort of, you know, the sort of funny stories about coming of age and the like. And she said, would you like to write something about parenting and in particular in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement - right? - and parenting Black boys in that context? And I said, well, yeah. And as I started to write it, it kind of developed into something I think more than what initially was intended. I wanted to communicate a tradition, you know, in which I saw - wanted to raise my children in of seeing themselves and their possibilities as greater than what the society anticipated for them or how they were seen, right?
So I was drawing on previous work and in particular - you know, and obviously there's both Coates' "Between The World And Me" and Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" in the letter to his nephew. But I also wanted to think very specifically about gender in that, too, and what it meant to sort of try to talk about all of these issues from the perspective of a woman and particularly of a feminist - right? - someone who wanted to also raise sons who were free from all of the burdens and the attitudes associated with patriarchy, wanting to raise sons who could be fully expressive of the complexity of who they are and to really feel free even while knowing that things are not completely free in this world.
DAVIES: You say early in the book that a statement that goes around a lot is it must be terrifying to raise a Black boy in America. Your reaction to this statement?
PERRY: I just it - it would make me so angry. I felt oftentimes - and I say in the book, I know that people didn't have bad intentions, but it felt so voyeuristic, and it also felt like it diminished the incredible beauty of raising children, you know, to that. And I - you know, they were funny and smart and imaginative and curious, and every day is this kind of beautiful adventure. And I felt so often that my parenting was being diminished to racism. And I also felt that it was really important that I not raise them to move with fear as a dominant emotion because I didn't want them - I didn't want to clip their wings. I wanted them to fly. I want them to fly, to feel a sense of expansiveness and possibility. So to me, there is a resistance that is important in not limiting my imagination about what it means to raise them to the fact that this is a racist society.
DAVIES: Yeah. You're telling - it is not a terror, it's a gift.
PERRY: It's a gift. Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah. You say to your sons in the book you are second-generation integrators, meaning, I guess, what - that you've had to learn to navigate living at times in a largely white world, as they do now. Is that what you meant?
PERRY: Yes, and also that, you know, they - like me, you know, they attended predominantly white, private schools, elite schools. And what's so interesting about that is is that even several generations in, for Black people, we continue to be conceived of as outsiders of a certain sort, as though these institutions don't belong to us. And so it's a sort of strange dynamic. It's related to Du Bois' concept of double consciousness - right? - one ever feels one's two-ness. It's analogous to what it means to be Black and American - right? - that you very much belong. You know, you've always been here. And yet there's this sort of skepticism about you as part of an institution and to understand that that's - you know, there's a source of grief there, but it's also a really important source of critical insight. And to understand how to harness the critical insights so as not to be overwhelmed by the grief, that's part of the challenge. So, yeah, they - we - they are where I have been in so many ways.
DAVIES: You write in the book, addressing your sons, I have taught you not to love white people. And you add that that's a sentence that may get you into trouble. What do you mean by that?
PERRY: Yeah, it did.
DAVIES: Yeah, I can imagine.
PERRY: Well, it means - yeah.
DAVIES: So tell us - elaborate on this idea. What do you mean by that?
PERRY: Yeah. So the idea for me is I - you know, for me, it's to love people as people but not white people as such, right? Like, it's not to love white people as a category, but individuals. And that question with each individual is, what are your values? Can you fully respect me? Can you care for me? Can you love me, right? And I think - in some ways, it sort of turns the question of colorblindness on its head. OK, we want to be colorblind. Then I'm not going to make decisions about who I care for based upon who the society says is more important, and I'm actually going to make decisions based upon whether another person can fully acknowledge me.
And I think that's really important because the messages are just so overwhelming from a very young age about - you know, we talk about white supremacy, but I don't know how much people actually think about, from every turn, this idea that white people matter more, you know, as my colleague Eddie Glaude talked about in his book "Democracy In Black," right? It's everywhere. It's a kind of - it's almost - it's so ubiquitous. It's like the air you breathe. And so to raise Black children, I think, who regard themselves, you actually have to question it constantly. And that means you have to challenge the idea that you're supposed to love these people as this category, as opposed to make assessments in terms of who you encounter and how they treat you and how they see the world.
So - but, you know, a lot of people felt hurt by that sentence, which was really instructive to me because I think - you know, part of, I think, the growing up - and Baldwin talked about this a lot - part of the growing up that Americans need to do is to get over, like, feeling anxious about the problem of racism and needing to be innocent in order to even engage. I'm not racist. I'm not - well, it's a racist society. So let's just operate with the assumption that that's - it's just in the air. Now what are we going to do, you know?
DAVIES: Right. Well, I mean, you know, Dr. King had that famous expression where he said, we look forward to the day - I'm paraphrasing - when we - people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. And so we shouldn't like or dislike anyone based upon their skin color. You do say in this section of the book, you know, that I've taught you - of course you can love individual white people, but not love them as a group. And you say, but I have taught you to love Black people. So it seems there's sort of a distinction at first blush, yeah?
PERRY: Yes. There is absolutely a distinction because Black people, the society tells us, are not to be loved, are to be reviled, are dangerous, are inferior, are less intelligent, are less hardworking, are less filled with integrity. And so to counteract that message, you have - I do believe that Black people have to treat Black people with a particular kind of care. Now, the next section goes on to say you might - there are plenty of individual Black people that you won't love, that I don't like or love, right? - but that there has to - I think that the work of undoing white supremacy in the - in terms of the way that it - we are all at risk of it seeping into the minds of Black people in ways that become a form of self-loathing, means to treat Black people with a tenderness that the society doesn't afford, to have a softer gaze, to understand in light of history and in light of social realities.
And so it's not - and I would also say, you know, it's almost like that - even that phrase of King's gets excised from the larger message, right? He's the same - he's also the person who talked about, you know, in the South, Black people don't have a right to vote, and in the North, they don't have anything to vote for, right? That's a statement about white supremacy, when he talked about the evils of capitalism and the evils of colonialism. These are pretty - you know, there's a lot of super radical statements, and there's a way in which that formulation, when it's decontextualized, seems like it's saying, you know, well, people need to be nice to each other, when really, over and over again, he's saying, no, you have to take - you know, the foot needs to be taken off of the neck of the - of people who have been oppressed and colonized and subject to Jim Crow. And it's not a kind of bothsidesism. It's very clear about relations of power and domination. And so, you know, I think it's - I actually think that sort of my message is very deeply connected to King's, but not in the way that he gets described these days.
DAVIES: Imani Perry, thank you so much for speaking with us.
PERRY: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
DAVIES: Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers professor of African American studies at Princeton and the author of the new book "South To America: A Journey Below The Mason-Dixon Line To Understand The Soul Of A Nation."
Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Compartment No. 6," one of the top winners at the Cannes Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.