The Journey ‘South to America’

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South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry

Published in January 2023

Higher education is everywhere in Imani Perry’s South to America. That makes sense, as Perry is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University.

I didn’t know that Princeton is often called the “Southern Ivy.” In a passage that I can’t get out of my head, Perry writes,

From the fictional rumors of slave quarters in the dorm rooms, to the ghost of an auction block that sits right outside my office, the one from which Black slave children were once sold, Princeton retains an echo of the plantation South. (p. 179)

In the D.C. chapter, where Perry seeks to discover if the district is or is not part of the South, she observes,

And though it may seem counterintuitive to many, Howard is one of the places that makes DC lean Southern. Sites of Black higher education are overwhelmingly Southern. (p. 90)

So in South to America, the reader learns some profound things about higher education. I learned many things from Perry about the history, role and importance of HBCUs.

But while stories set in and around academia are a thread that runs through the book, South to America is not about (or only about) higher ed. Instead, this book, in which Perry travels throughout the South, is about how the U.S. came to be and get rich—and who has paid the price.

Perry will not let us look away from the reality that the foundational wealth of this country was built on the unfree labor of the enslaved.

At another place in South to America, while traveling through Cuba and speaking about herself, Perry writes, “I needed to behave as though I was as ignorant as I actually was if I wanted to learn anything” (p. 363). I thought I knew something about U.S. history (as a proud undergrad U.S. history major), but reading Perry, I know how little I understand.

South to America has me questioning my understanding of higher ed, as the connections she makes when writing about her work with colleges across the country illuminate the paucity of my knowledge on this subject.

Perry narrates the audiobook version, and her warm and generous voice animates the descriptions of contemporary and historical Southern institutions and everyday life packed densely in each location-based chapter.

You will also want to get the paper or ebook version, as there is so much knowledge and brilliance and facts and tidbits and big ideas in South to America that you will want to go back and reread Perry’s sentences again and again.

South to America is a gift, but a challenging one. Another sentence I can’t shake is about my ancestors: “In the context of slavery, Jewish people were understood to be White, with higher rates of slaveholding than their Christian peers” (p. 189). I had no idea.

This is the sort of book that, if I were thinking about where to go to college or grad school, I might have been convinced to do everything possible to get to Princeton to study with Perry.

What are you reading?

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