"Every other region can jam its fingers in its ears and shake its head and tunelessly chant, 'Not in my backyard,' but not so the South," ZZ Packer observes in her introduction to the 2008 edition of "New Stories From the South." "The South is the backyard. ... The truth is that every awful and beautiful thing that has happened in America happened in the South first."
The quest to understand this region, long a thorn in the nation's side, drives Imani Perry's engrossing if erratic "South to America." A professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Perry picks up Packer's gauntlet, seeking to carve away the South's hoary myths and metaphors. She cannily frames her investigation as a travelogue, moving from Appalachia to the Upper South to the Deep South to outliers like Florida and Cuba.
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: brutal race riots in Tulsa, Okla., and Wilmington, N.C.; historically Black colleges; Charles Chesnutt's conjure tales; a famous group of backup musicians known as "The Swampers"; brilliant analyses of Southern colloquialisms and tonalities.
There's even a sidebar on grits! Her personal interactions are affecting, particularly with White Others: a Confederate reenactor at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., say, or a Lyft driver in Virginia. And a gorgeously pictorial section on coastal Georgia's Gullah Geechee people recalls Julie Dash's poetic film, "Daughters of the Dust": "Walking along their water's edge among the knobbed whelks, fluted shells that end in a point like a bloom or a seed, I felt like I was sitting in the decorations of history. Swirling, haunting, repeating, eerie and magnificent."
Unfortunately, these evocative moments are overwhelmed by a strident op-ed voice, ginned up by conjecture (too many "mays," "mights" and "seems") 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.
She recognizes her inner conflict: "Maybe I am projecting myself onto the place, keeping myself from seeing it fully," she writes, and then later, "In virtually every cultural arena, there is both common ground and disaffection between Black and White Southerners." Too often her editorializing reinforces stereotypes rather than diffusing them. Why?
Although Alabama-born, Perry left the region at age 5; she grew up in Cambridge, Mass., and Chicago, and was educated in the Ivy League. In this sense she's more South-adjacent than a bona fide Southerner. "South to America" is 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. Ever Sphinx-like, the South has once again eluded a writer's penetrating gaze.
A contributing books editor for Oprah Daily, Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the Star Tribune, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.
South to America
By: Imani Perry.
Publisher: Ecco, 432 pages, $28.99.