Winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction.In this blend of memoir, history and travel diary, Princeton University Professor Imani Perry narrates a trip back to her native home below the Mason Dixon line. Her journey is full of detours, deep dives and surprising encounters with places and people through which Perry unfolds a narrative about the South and its centrality to American identity.
Scrupulously researched and teeming with facts and citations ... Any attempt to classify this ambitious work, which straddles genre, kicks down the fourth wall, dances with poetry, engages with literary criticism and flits from journalism to memoir to academic writing — well, that’s a fool’s errand and only undermines this insightful, ambitious and moving project ... Perry travels to over a dozen Southern cities and towns, excavating both histories and modern realities ... At each stop, she recounts an atrocity, but also resistance. And she does not flinch when documenting the consequences ... Her tone grows tender as she recalls her dancing cousins or the foot-washing Baptists. Her portraits of her grandmother combine elegiac longing and the rigor of a historian setting the record straight. Equally moving are the dispatches from her mother’s native Louisiana ... It is inevitable, though, that all sites will not receive equal care and attention — and clearly her loyalty is to Alabama ... It must be said that this work, though sometimes uneven, is an essential meditation on the South, its relationship to American culture — even Americanness itself.
Provocative ... [Perry] accepts the challenge of speaking for the region. And in the process, she throws down her own gauntlet, presenting her essays as a cautionary tale for what the future may hold if we don’t pay heed ... Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Perry grew up in Massachusetts and Chicago, and currently lives near Philadelphia. That distance from the region has given her a unique perspective as she ventures back to her roots and views it anew ... Perry scrutinizes the destination, and plucks threads from its history, its culture, its personality; then she weaves them together to tell a story about the place that reflects, informs, or portends our national psyche. The result is a compelling, thought-provoking read sure to spark both consensus and debate, but ultimately it serves to illustrate just how much race impacts life in this country.
... engrossing if erratic ... The book's pleasures are many. Perry shines when she's present in the narrative, an archaeologist troweling through strata of history and culture. Her vignettes spark off the page ... Unfortunately, these evocative moments are overwhelmed by a strident op-ed voice, ginned up by conjecture ... and a stream-of-consciousness delivery. South to America is, at best, an impressionistic overview of this inscrutably complex region. Perry tosses off obligatory lines about revered figures such as Dolly Parton (good), Flannery O'Connor (bad) and Thomas Jefferson (very bad); but evangelical churches, SEC football and Rotary Club luncheons don't ping her radar ... Too often her editorializing reinforces stereotypes rather than diffusing them ... an immersive read, but in the end it's blinkered by a failure to illuminate the homeland for those of us born and raised there, and who crave—sweet Lord, how we crave—a deeper wisdom and clarity among the scorching contradictions.