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 was 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 autobiographi...
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