On Tuesday, Sept. 20 in Marshall Auditorium, Haverford College welcomed Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, to speak about her latest book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.
This book was chosen as the inaugural title for Haverford’s “Campus Read”, a new program of the Anti-Racism Curriculum Development Working Group, the Office of the Provost, and Dean’s Office. Last spring, all faculty, staff, and first-year students were offered a free copy of the book, and over the summer, the book was incorporated into this year’s Customs program.
The Campus Read initiative, spearheaded by Dean of the College John McKnight and Provost Linda Strong-Leek, is designed to gather the entire community, especially the first-year class, to explore together the historical roots and enduring legacies of structural racism and inequality in American society. The program anticipates having multiple events around this book, such as informal discussions, throughout the academic year.
Perry’s book was chosen by a committee of faculty and staff in the Anti-Racism Curriculum Development Working Group because it “has a strong narrative arc and is engaging and accessible to first-year students,” according to one of McKnight’s emails. Prefacing last Tuesday’s talk, McKnight said that, “Imani Perry’s voice is critically important for understanding racism in America.”
During the talk, Perry described her writing method and contextualized South to America, focusing on the utmost importance of labor as it relates to the country’s economic development. “The wealth of the nation was predicated on the theft of labor and life,” she said “The negation of the South is remarkable, given how important it was to economic development.”
For the book, Perry traveled across the American South and collected a variety of perspectives on the history of racism and people’s experiences with racism. She particularly focused on Alabama, her home state, not only because she wanted to learn about her family’s past, but also because of the state’s economic prosperity during the 19th century. “These histories resonate into the present,” she said.
After Perry’s talk, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Qrescent Mali Mason moderated a question-and-answer session, opening up the floor to questions from the audience.
First-year Eshal Asim noted how intimate Perry’s writing is and asked how she decides what to share and what to set aside in her book. “l wanted to write in ways that didn’t just make people think, but to make people feel,” Perry responded. “You have to tap into some pieces of the emotional register that is universal. It allows the reader to fill in the blanks with their own heart.”
For first-year Emily Kavic, attending Perry’s talk was “Enchanting. Hearing her talk offered a lot of texture to the substance of the book.” Mason, the moderator, considered the talk to be “a really special opportunity we had to talk to her about her writing process and how she approaches writing.”
After the talk, Asim reflected on Perry’s book: “To tell a story is an art and l think she really does know how to tell a story and she makes you understand that we have this notion to understand people based on our predetermined judgements of them from the first moment we meet.”