The South Has Got Something To Say
The South Has Got Something To Say
In recent books, Adolph L. Reed Jr. and Imani Perry offer divergent explanations of Southern inequality.
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation
by Imani Perry
Ecco, 2022, 432 pp.
The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives
by Adolph L. Reed Jr.
Verso, 2022, 176 pp.
Black inhabitants of the South did not respond uniformly to the rules and folkways of Jim Crow, nor do they see its demise in quite the same way. Two recent books use the authority of testimony to demonstrate this plurality. Adolph L. Reed Jr.’s The South and Imani Perry’s South to America are both outstanding contributions to an ongoing debate about how to evaluate Southern culture, identity, and politics.
Of the two books, Reed’s is the more straightforward autobiography. He is in the age cohort, “black or white, for which the Jim Crow regime was a living memory.” The book is thematically structured by his travels in the South during Jim Crow and in the wake of that order’s demise. In some ways, the book is a reflection on the rules of the racial order as Reed lived them. Under Jim Crow, blacks were subjected to the capricious will of whites. They had to adjust to certain rules and norms as a matter of life and death. At the same time, for a whole host of idiosyncratic reasons, the rules were not uniformly enforced; in fact, they were routinely violated on all sides of the color line—an indication of Reed’s view of Jim Crow’s fundamental instability. Some of the most affecting and vivid passages of The South recount how confusing it was to navigate this terrain from one place, one five-and-dime, one bus ride to the next. The overarching point of these accounts is that the Jim Crow order was always disjointed.
Reed seeks to show that race never took on a life of its own. The rhetorical power of racial allegory—the notion that the power structure was impenetrably white over black—is insufficient as historical explanation because it assumes ideological uniformity. It is also insufficient for wrestling with political and cultural change after Jim Crow. In one relevant episode, Reed recounts how he almost beat a man who followed and harassed him and his wife in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1970—something that might have carried deadly consequences just a few years earlier.
Reed has long argued that race is historically contingent. Racism, he wrote in 2000, “is not an affliction; it is a pattern of social relations. Nor is it a thing that can act on its own; it exists only as it is reproduced in specific social arrangements, in specific societies, under historically specific conditions of law, state, and class power.” The point is not to play into a liberal narrative of inevitable progress. The point is that social, political, and economic conditions generate the circumstances of our everyday interactions. The South presents these arguments in autobiographical terms. In the incident above, the man in Fayetteville was confident in his own dominance, but Reed was armed with the knowledge of legal recourse that was now available to him as a matter of right. Still, Reed’s perspective is provisional and incomplete. Since reading about this encounter, I have wondered what would have happened if it were just his wife walking alone, or if it was a cop following them instead.
Like Reed, my parents were born long enough before the fall of Jim Crow to know what it was like in practice. My father is a native Mississippian whose early years were spent picking cotton with his siblings and father, a sharecropper in Coahoma County; my mother, born and raised in Memphis, was among the first students to integrate her high school. My mother resents driving through Mississippi to this day because of a brick that came hurling through the window of her parents’ sedan on the way back from a family trip to Greenville, Mississippi, in the late 1960s. When they hear people say nothing has changed, they have recounted these episodes with a mix of bemusement and ambivalence. I told my dad I was reviewing two books on the South before and after the Jim Crow era, and in casually asking him about what this period meant for him, he cautioned that I should see any wisdom he gave as limited by the distance of memory and change. Even so, I recall his insistence that everyone more or less accommodated Jim Crow’s rules and norms. The ability to choose to violate them depended on a host of factors including place, gender, and class position. My mother and her family wouldn’t have dared, for instance, turning the car around to find out who tossed that brick.
Perry’s South to America is inspired by Albert L. Murray’s genre-bending travelogue and poetical memoir, South to a Very Old Place. Like Murray, Perry moves between autobiography, literary criticism, and historical reflection as she travels around the region. In a time where the South is routinely reduced to caricature, Perry’s approach is both refreshing and necessary. Her voice as a daughter of the South (born and raised in Birmingham, with family connections across multiple states) is positioned alongside the voices of others she encounters (black and white) in her travels along the way. Her interlocutors tell different and sometimes overlapping stories about the Jim Crow past and its aftermath. It’s a democratic approach: the author’s voice appears as one of many in an agonizingly messy community. In her account, Jackson, Mississippi, does not share the ideological backwardness of the state’s ruling class; Atlanta is a shining city on the hill but only for blacks who are wealthy and upwardly mobile; and the history of white racial terrorism in Appalachia should not obscure stories of disobedience to the codes of whiteness. Perry’s flâneur-like observations bring this all into focus.
Perry is ambivalent about the histories of people immiserated across the color line. “The tenderness I feel for the descendants of White miners is limited by my own sense of the story of Black folks in Appalachia and how many of their untended dead lie across the landscape,” she writes. “Despite the struggle and the labor movement, Jim Crow existed here, too.” Reading this passage, I wondered whether the problem the South faces today—a ruling class that subjects more and more working-class residents of all colors to violence, poverty, and neglect can be tracked entirely within a racial idiom. There is no denying the graveyard of black suffering across the region or the role whites across the class spectrum played in producing it—and it is a political dead-end not to mourn this suffering as such. But in focusing on the brutal history of white domination, we risk missing the potential for empathy and solidarity in the present. How can we remember the wounds while also recognizing that racialist thinking—now and in the past—has functioned to deny working-class power? Current social, cultural, and political cleavages are vestiges of the old order; what can be done to break them down at a moment when so many of the South’s inhabitants are similarly vulnerable?
Perry’s powerful invocation of the Highlander Folk School shows some possibilities. Myles Horton founded the school in the 1930s in Fentress County, Tennessee, to bring poor and working-class people of all races into mutual dialogue and provide education about their shared plight. The school’s claim to fame was its citizenship schools, led by the educators Esau Jenkins and Septima Poinsette Clark. At great risk to their personal safety, black and white Southerners challenged the assumptions of racial separation. A line can be drawn between Highlander and contemporary (often black-led) working-class mobilizations in the South: the Poor People’s Campaign, organizing with National Nurses United and at distribution centers like Amazon, Project South, the Southern Workers Assembly network. These efforts not only challenge how racism dictates poor and working people’s life chances, but also how it limits our sense of possibility in the pursuit of more just futures.
Reed and Perry both refer to the afterlives—the damaging legacies—of our racial past. But they use the term in different ways, pointing to a fundamental conflict in how we understand the inheritance of history. Perry draws on Saidiya Hartman’s notion of “the afterlife of slavery,” a phrase that refers to an essentially unbroken logic of white-over-black power that has led to black vulnerability to premature death and uneven life chances. This formulation has become standard in black left intellectual circles and popular discourse about reparations, inequality, and historical memory. Throughout the book, especially when Perry writes about contemporary black inequality in the South, slavery frequently reappears. Any analysis of local and regional dynamics starts with the idea that the South’s political inheritance is the racial order of slavery. Perry’s account of North Carolina is typical: “Local cultures and power structures are remarkably resilient. The God of masters, as it were, has kept a hold on power.”
For Reed, slavery is not the “essentially formative black American experience.” Instead, “it is Jim Crow—the regime of codified, rigorously, and unambiguously enforced racism and white supremacy—that has had the most immediate consequences for contemporary life and the connections between race and politics in the South and, less directly, the rest of the country.” The living members of Reed’s generation—black and white—knew what it was like to live under that order, and their testimony provides an important window (for both good and ill) into how power has been reconfigured in its wake.
These divergent perspectives shape how Reed and Perry explain the rise of a multiracial cohort of professional managers and elites in the South. For Reed, it’s a story about class. “Black professionals shared a perspective and worldview with their white counterparts,” he writes, “one that had to do with the premises of governance and the protocols of management and administration as well as middle-class lifestyle.” Black elites wanted to join the ruling classes as partners with white elites. The fall of de jure segregation freed blacks to pursue ruling- and professional-managerial-class aspirations, not just over their poor and working-class black counterparts but over poor and working-class whites as well.
Perry seems to conclude that such desires are white desires rather than straightforward class desires. In her chapter on Atlanta, she depicts the black metropolis as enchanted with the golden calf of celebrity, money, and respectability. In reality, black elites merely preside over an old order. Notwithstanding representational changes within this system, she contends, “the unbearable Whiteness of its being—and by that I mean a very old social order grown up from plantation economies into global corporations—still leaves most Black Atlantans vulnerable. No matter how it might look, Atlanta still comes out white as snow.” The fact that black elites sit at the ruling-class table does not alter the basic function of this order.
In other places, South to America does point to the mutable class politics of the contemporary South. Perry invokes a warning from former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms not to tarnish the city’s carefully managed respectable image: “Atlanta will be known for lemon pepper wings and great strip clubs if we’re not careful.” Perry sees this as part of the “choreography of self-creation” of a city that has become “a spectacle of consumption and ambition.” Bottoms’s comments shed light on the beliefs of the city’s elites. Indeed, any account of black political history free of melodrama, romance, and allegory needs to center how class ambition and power have shaped the post–Jim Crow South, especially in a place like Atlanta that has long been held up as a beacon for racial progress. In my view, the expansion of the ruling class suggests that the facts of material inequality need to be central to thinking about where we go from here, especially given how elites mobilize anti-racism to deflect attention from their own interests and betrayals.
During a taxi ride to a relative’s house in Alabama, Perry recalls how she “tasted venom in [her] mouth” when the driver spoke in what she described as a nearly indecipherable Southern drawl. “He is the man I have known to distrust,” she writes. “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 was struck by how this encounter seemed to channel an omnipresent, inherited virulence that hangs over the South. The would-be social interaction Perry describes (I say “would-be” because she is speculating about his attitudes) functions as a metaphor for a more or less generalizable experience of unending psychic trauma.
Her account brought to mind Richard Wright’s 1941 collaborative photo essay 12 Million Black Voices. Wright looked back on his experience as part of the peasant class in rural Mississippi as akin to being cursed: “as though the Lords of the Land had waved a magic wand and cast a spell upon us, a spell from which we cannot yet awaken.” The trauma of racial terror stayed in Wright’s mind, a psychic residue that shaped his now classic work Native Son.
I sometimes wonder, however, about the limits of historical memory—about how the past intrudes on our present as folk beliefs (as Reed puts it, “what we know because we know it”). It is important to investigate the limits of one’s autobiographical experience represented as historical knowledge; people living under oppressive circumstances have reflected on their lives in so many different ways.
There are good reasons to be wary. Perry’s description of her encounter with the taxi driver resonated with me because my upbringing dictated a similar vigilance, especially regarding police encounters, but also because my mother often talks about her own fears and anxieties around white people. It seems to me that the mood in our own time must be one of vigilance—a mood that allows for reflection on the traumas of the past and present without viewing every interaction as irrevocably wounded.
“Old habits die hard,” Reed reminds us. The clichéd formulation suggests that the patterns of a racial order that for centuries have held up the idea that black people are worth less than whites will not simply go away on their own. The ideological and cultural diversity of the South we see in South to America, and even more so in The South, points us to the rupture and change led by its inhabitants. There is no easy fix, no determined path to the promised land of justice. The pressing question is what can be done to push things in that direction.
Jared Anthony Loggins is