“I believe writing can be a moral instrument if it asks you to do more than read.”—Imani Perry, “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation”
In the acceptance speech she made after winning the 2022 National Book Award for nonfiction for her latest book, “South to America,” Imani Perry ’00 spoke of writing for “those who clean the toilets and till the soil and walk the picket lines.” She said, “I write for my people … children of the lash-scarred, rope-choked, bullet-ridden, desecrated.” She writes, she said, “because I love sentences, and I love freedom more.”
She has loved sentences for a long time. A voracious reader as a child, she recalls being asked in seventh grade what she wanted to be when she grew up and answering, presciently, a teacher and a writer. She has loved freedom even longer. Her parents raised her to think about social and political issues. Her family didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July holiday, honoring Frederick Douglass’ stance that Independence Day is not for the oppressed. The first time she was in a newspaper, she appeared under a sign that read “Stop the War against Black America.” She was not yet 5 years old.
The Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Perry has written seven books reflecting her engagement with political economy and jurisprudence. “I’m interested in this question of how we make social progress and then retrenchment on those issues,” she said. Her earlier books focus on how racial inequality is perpetuated, feminism and patriarchy, the culture of hip-hop, and the history of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” More recently, she wrote “Looking for Lorraine,” which she described as a search into her own past and playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s legacy. Her father, who admired Hansberry’s radicalism and art, “built her into my coming of age,” Perry wrote. “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons,” focused on the “special calling” of raising Black sons in America, provides insight into her own life journey and guidance and hope for her two sons in a country in which, she tells them, “the aversion to Blackness can turn perfectly lovely people grotesque.” In that book, she also reflects on the heat and anger she’s faced as a public intellectual who comments about race and social justice issues, including as a contributing writer to The Atlantic magazine. She’s received racist and misogynistic messages, even death threats, which are frightening, she said, but also an important reminder of the state of our culture.
While she seeks to educate people about American history and culture in her work, Perry also increasingly has revealed details of her life. That includes writing about living since she was a young woman with the autoimmune disease lupus, which has shaped her in profound ways: “You learn a kind of radical acceptance that comes from this acknowledgment of the vulnerability of your body.” She has been willing to share more personal information, she said, to deepen the resonance between the reader and the writer.
“I wanted to transition from writing that felt overwhelmingly like making people think or understand to also allowing people to feel,” said Perry. “In order to do that, you have to be vulnerable, because people have to trust you, and vulnerable not just in terms of telling your story, but also exposing your flaws.”
In “South to America,” she journeys to the place of her birth, Alabama, and other parts of the region, offering a meditation on the South’s meaning and significance to the nation. Although she moved away when she was a small child, the South remains her “anchor,” she said, where her family has its roots and where she feels a sense of ease.
She spent a large part of her childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before attending Yale College and then pursued a law degree and a Ph.D. in American studies concurrently at Harvard, where her doctorate focused on 19th-century property law. She jokes that she was one of the few people who liked law school classes, calling the academic environment at Harvard Law “intellectually magnificent,” and crediting professors Christine Desan, Terry Fisher ’82, Morton Horwitz ’67, and Randall Kennedy with helping to shape her work.
After graduate school, Perry was a professor at Rutgers Law School. She taught a class in African American studies at Columbia and loved the experience, and it sparked her to shift her academic focus. Now teaching classes at Princeton such as African American Intellectual Tradition and Diversity in Black America and writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, she encourages intellectual inquiry by “making sure that my classroom is a respectful place, but not a precious place.”
“I think people across the board would describe me as someone who is fair and open and really gives people space to speak their mind,” said Perry. “I’m somebody who has strong opinions, but I don’t think my students would ever think you have to agree with me for me to care about you or nurture you as a student.”
In “South to America,” Perry writes about artist Mario Moore painting portraits of Black members of the Princeton staff who work in the dining hall and as security guards, some with generations-long connections to the institution, whom she calls “legacies without a claim.” Individuals “like me,” she wrote, “the descendants of those who cleaned the toilets who happened to make their way into the classrooms, are distorted images of some remarkable transformation, but in truth we are the exception that solidifies the rule.” She owes her purpose, she added, “to the fabric from whence I come.” And that is why she writes for people like the staff members whose portraits now hang on the walls at Princeton — so their stories can be heard, so they can be seen.