Imani Perry.

Photo courtesy of Imani Perry

Nation & World

Heading South in search of the real heart of America

Imani Perry returns to Alabama to interview Angela Davis, another daughter of Birmingham, in excerpt from new book

long read

Excerpted from Imani Perry’s “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” winner of a 2022 National Book Award. Perry, J.D.-Ph.D. ’00, will join Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences in July. 

I went back to Birmingham four times in 2019. In February of 2019, I was called back to Alabama to interview Angela Davis, another daughter of Birmingham. She had recently been awarded a human rights award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and then had it rescinded for her leftist politics. I was selected to speak for the people of Birmingham in our declaration of love for Angela Davis, a defiant reaction to this humiliation, a beautiful and thick love from a socially conservative but deeply self-protective Black community. This is a Southerner’s paradox. We conserve. Holding on is a commonplace of people without a great deal of luxury, for whom disaster is a commonplace. Some of you will make fun of your grandmother’s sofas covered in plastic, but how else would we find those living room suites, pronounced “suits,” in pristine order long after the furniture man, diligently paid once a month, and his son, too, was dead and gone? The caramel set, scroll-edged and brocade satin, has not a tattered thread on it, since 1964. The South is conservative in the sense of conservation. But what that means is not in fact easily described in political terms. It is more solidly grounded in the withholding and forbearance and tendency to hold on, and depending on the moment, that can usher in radical transformation or leave us stuck.

I took a taxi from the airport to my aunt’s house. This is something I never do. Usually someone comes to get me, or I rent a car at the airport. My driver was a white man. I got in and was stricken because I could not remember the last time I’d spoken to a white person in Alabama who was working neither in a store nor a university. He was chatty. I could hardly understand him except for when he said “yonder.” “Yonder. Yonder. Yonder.” I held my head cocked to hear. I often laugh when Northerners can’t understand Southerners, but here I was, confused. Once upon a time, not being able to understand the particular twang and yammer of a white man could have been deadly for a Black woman. Now it just elicits an anthropological curiosity for this one. What was he saying and, better yet, what was he trying to say?

Finally my ear grew accustomed to the pacing of his words, the flat pressure at the back of his throat that made words reedy. “Worked in the coal mine nar thirty yar.” Thirty years in the depths of the earth, pulling out coal, is claustrophobic work. I wondered: Have his eyes adjusted to living above ground? To driving? To Super Walmart?

He is the man I have known to distrust. He is the one whose race and manhood once (and maybe still) made him my ruler and me his mule. He could kill me then, and if he had a badge, he could kill me now. I tasted venom in my mouth when he spoke. I won’t even say he hadn’t earned it because the odds were good he had. I can guess the words he wouldn’t say to my face but most certainly would say. The fact that some tenderness crept into my chest despite myself made me uncomfortable. I know he has struggled. Just like I know that he thinks I am supposed to struggle more than he does because I’m a Black gal. And that, of course, is the conundrum — I am American. That means something to me, some common ground with others of this soil, even as the country feels irredeemably racist and maybe not worth saving. It is what Du Bois called a twoness — two warring souls — Black yet American. You face it in its most raw truth below the Mason-Dixon Line. To be an American is to be infused with the plantation South, with its Black vernacular, its insurgency, and also its brutal masculinity, its worship of Whiteness, its expulsion and its massacres, its self-defeating stinginess and unapologetic pride. What the white South confronted in the movement era was a paradigm shift. There was a model for sustaining white supremacy: terrorizing Black folks, the dispassionate acquiescence of the white North and the federal government, economic control, and an ideological hold on its ranks managed by humiliation and cruelty. But a model only holds as long as its assumptions can be sustained. The terror was confronted by valiant organizers. The federal government began to see its racism as bad for the Cold War, Black people cut into their profits with boycotts, and though the screaming mobs were louder, the stranglehold of the white South cracked.

When Birmingham came out to see Angela, it was a way to remind each other that we are still here. Prisoners and freedom dreamers alike. Migrants and homegirls. Strivers and dope boys. The spirit of freedom dreams remains, however, if waned and complicated. And it rests on imagination as much as resistance.

If we ask the question “Why didn’t enough change?” one answer is this: domination is creative as well as consistent. The way the region does working — working people like dogs, working to the bone, working somebody to death, working hard “ALL my life,” as the old folks would describe it, for little to nothing — was kept up. Servants became service workers. So did farmers and factory people. The lash and the prison farm became the chain gang and the prison farm and then the penitentiary and the prison farm. Birmingham, once a place of dynamite and industry and social transformation and protest, coalesced in the other thing it has always been: resilient.

Riding aboveground, circuitously and with a bit of frustration because the new highway project had redirected everything, with more sunlight and less stability, the coal-miner driver got me to my aunt’s apartment complex. And he waited to make sure I got in the door.

The driver’s gentility, despite the fact that he could have, could still, string me up without the world flinching? That toothless smile that could easily accompany either mirth or murderousness, depending on the eyes? This is what Black folks mean when we say we prefer the Southern white person’s honest racism to the Northern liberal’s subterfuge. It is not physically more benign, or more dependable. But it is transparent in the way it terrorizes. You never forget to have your shoulders hitched up a little and taut, even (and especially) when they call you “sweetheart.” Cold comfort.

That night, I went to the Boutwell Auditorium to interview Angela Davis. You might expect it would be an audience of young people who see her as an iconic figure. But the elders were the ones who had made the space for her to come home. Richard Arrington, the first Black mayor of Birmingham, was there, on Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard. He had once been my parents’ employer as the dean at Miles College. My father had been his first campaign manager when he ran for city council. Arrington is a historic figure, and also a living, breathing man with the vibrancy of someone half his age. Judge U.W. Clemon was also there, Alabama’s first Black federal judge and the father of my college friend Michelle. He’d enlisted me to interview Davis, and regardless of whether I’d wanted to or not (I did), I would have because of who he was to me and us. Not only was this a man who’d been a leader of the student movement at Miles College, he also was the one who had sued Bear Bryant for the segregation of Alabama football. He’d cracked open the state iconography really, and made way for us to become a part. Davis, who was 75 years old, was greeted by her Sunday school teacher Odessa Woolfolk onstage. Davis, whose iconic visual image has always belied a lifelong commitment to freedom fighting, was feted in today’s Birmingham by folks who had tended her when she was young, and by young organizers who sought her counsel and thanked her profusely for her legacy.

You cannot resign this place to the past if you are being honest. That was the evening’s testimony. Victories were had, some died, some live, and the struggle continues. It was the first time in my life, and probably the only time, that large numbers of the people in my professional world, professors from various places who had come to celebrate Davis, were in the same space as my people. Twice that night, someone I knew through my work life said to me, “I think I just saw your family, everyone in the group looked just like you.” Recognition is a powerful thing.

Ensley, the Birmingham neighborhood where I was born, is a tough place. Nearby Pratt City, once a mining town, is, too. I had a student at Princeton once who had lived in Alabama and, hearing I was from Ensley, looked at me, mouth agape, and said, “How did you get here?!” and by “here” he meant the distance between the “Southern Ivy” (as Princeton is often called) and the Southern trap, I guess. It’s almost like all that mining metal and mineral ore gets baked into jaw clamps. Ensley is a place that is protective of who it belongs to, and cautious about interlopers. And it is pretty. You walk along its streets and you are likely to witness, if the weather is mild, people working on cars or sitting on porches or on fold-out chairs right in the yard, listening to music. There are warnings not to walk around on the street. I still do.

From crack house to trap house, in the 1980s and ’90s, the zones of addiction disturbed what little peace there ever was. It would ebb. It flowed. Back in 2004, in Ensley, three white cops were shot dead, and one injured, at a drug den. Word circulated that these were dirty cops who were asking for too much of a cut of the dope business. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I know that’s what folks said. On March 6, 2020, one of the men convicted of the crime, Nate Woods, was executed. He did not pull the trigger. He was convicted under an Alabama law that says that if you are an accessory to murder, you can be convicted as harshly as the killer himself. Governor Kay Ivey went forward with the execution despite a public uproar. The Supreme Court granted a stay for a few hours, then gave the go-ahead. Ivey said, “This is how we do things in Alabama.”

The day after Thanksgiving in 2019, I asked my big cousin to take me to see the Ensley ironworks. Photographs I’d seen showed a shell with light shining through. The vestiges of a postindustrial city that survived because of the hospital system that I was born into. But by then, the city had closed the ironworks off. We couldn’t get to it. Dwayne showed me instead where they used to bring Black men to beat them, and then have them walk home. Next we rode to the sewage facility; behind it is a Black community. The stench was so great we couldn’t stand it beyond a few minutes.

I think people don’t really understand Birmingham’s toughness, even when they speak of its heroism. How my mother and Angela Davis both recall the men who patrolled their communities at night, armed protectors against White supremacists. How they, as children, pretended to be speaking another language and sat at the front of Jim Crow buses. Those Birmingham buses, the historian Robin Kelley wrote, were a public theater, a ritual site of Black resistance. And that was a deadly matter. My mother has described one of the most harrowing events of her youth happening on a bus. She was with a group of teens who had decided to exit through the front door. The bus driver stood up, wielding a knife. He lunged, and only the protectiveness of one of the boys, who pulled the girl at the front back by her shoulders, saved her life. All of them witnessed the violent commitment to Whiteness. Those things aren’t forgotten.

When Birmingham came out to see Angela, it was a way to remind each other that we are still here. Prisoners and freedom dreamers alike. Migrants and homegirls. Strivers and dope boys. The spirit of freedom dreams remains, however, if waned and complicated. And it rests on imagination as much as resistance. You have to have an active imagination for all of that building. Sun Ra, a man who changed from polished suits to capes and sparkles and spangles, echoed the famous observation of Zora Neale Hurston: “The will to adorn is the second most notable characteristic in Negro expression.” Perhaps his idea of ornament does not attempt to meet conventional standards, but it satisfies the soul of its creator. In this respect, the American Negro has done wonders to the English language. No one listening to a Southern White man talk could deny this. Not only has he softened and toned down consonant heavy words like “aren’t” to “ain’t” and the like, he has made new, forceful words out of old feeble elements. Examples of this are “ham-shanked” (with big thick legs), “bodaciously” (boldly and physically), and “muffle-jawed” (with a fat-droopy face). That night Angela Davis said, “I love Birmingham,” and it was like the sound of Sun Ra’s “Abstract ‘I,’” a blade sharpening for the battle to come.

Like the word, the musical note stretched to capacity allows the living room to breathe through the incessant unmitigated disaster. Staying alive on the grounds of your ancestors’ murder and abuse is no small matter. It requires a living witness to their alchemy. Go into a church, find the old woman singing, listen to how her voice, even if cracking, takes up much more space than that to which she has been resigned. Like the laws of slavery, Jim Crow laws were defied every time people on the darker side of the color line opened their mouths and released sound and air from the diaphragm into the ether. Fighting there is heroic. And I mean fighting for freedom, of course, but also simply fighting to live. That struggle has never ceased.

It teaches. By now we know that the flower children, the yippies, the gay rights organizers, and the second-wave feminists were all inspired by the voices of the freedom movement. But the ripple is much bigger. In each successive generation, expression has pushed past existing boundaries, arguing that their insistence is more than a matter of style or taste, but rather that it is a matter of freedom. It’s completely reasonable to argue the point about whether an insistence is frivolous, substantive, or righteous. But it seems to me undeniable that we’ve collectively taken that reaching voice as a case for living.

Copyright © 2022 by Imani Perry. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.