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On Tuesday, my seventh book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon Line to Understand the Soul of a Nation was released. In my anticipation (and anxiety), I’ve been thinking about the South as both an idea and a region even more intensely than usual. And that’s saying something, because I am fairly obsessed with the region of my birth and have been for most of my life.
In this book, I ask readers to travel with me, through the landscape but also through history. It is more invitation than proclamation, more exploration than argument. And it is a book of encounters. And there were a few new encounters over the past week that I wanted to share here, because they resonated deeply with the why and what of this book.
The first was the death of André Leon Talley, longtime Vogue editor, who hailed from Durham, North Carolina, specifically a neighborhood that was named “Little Hayti” in homage to the Haitian Revolution. Much has been said about Talley and his singularity as a Black man in the world of high fashion. Relatively little attention has been paid to how much he attributed his conception of glamour and elegance to having been reared in the Black South. But if you know that traditional culture, you recognize that learned sense of elegance that also had a political undercurrent. It was a rejection of being seen as inferior. It reflects a kind of cultivation that took place inside ritual and outside of the dominant gaze. Thank goodness for those habits. How else could Black people have forged any sense of self-regard in a white-supremacist society?
In the society pages of the June 26, 1954, edition of The Carolina Times, a prominent Black newspaper in North Carolina that ran from 1919 to 2020, Talley’s world is revealed. Just a few weeks after the Brown v. Board of Education opinion was decided by the Supreme Court, the issue shows that “life behind the veil” of the color line, as W. E. B. Du Bois described it, was robust. Ann Bibby, one of Talley’s dearest friends, was performing in a child operetta of Hansel and Gretel. Roland Hayes Jr. was reported to be visiting his grandparents. A smiling child is announced the winner of a baby contest. And one of Talley’s relatives, Gwendolyn Genette Talley, is reported to have married. The article notes that she wore “a gown of white lace and net over taffeta, featuring a fitted bodice, high-lighted with a scolloped neckline, puffed sleeves with matching lace gloves. Her shoulder length veil of bridal illusion was attached to a crown of lace trimmed with seed pearls. She carried a white prayer book topped with a white orchid with satin streamers, stephanotis and lily of the valley.” When you think of the violence of lynching, sharecropping and Jim Crow, remember that Black people tended to themselves with this kind of beauty in its shadow.
The second meaningful encounter I had last week was with video footage of Eartha Kitt’s 1982 documentary, All By Myself. In it, she returned to her hometown of “North” South Carolina, in Orangeburg County, once known for producing short-staple cotton. As with Talley, she was often depicted as singular and therefore isolated. But when she talks with a man named Mr. Harley, we remember that she came from somewhere. He said to her, “Chile, I know you before you know yourself.” It resonated with me. Part of the culture from which I hail, the same as Kitt and Talley, is that people keep track of you. They note your personality and disposition from an early age, even if they are not family members. They remember these things because you are part of the fabric of the place. And even if you have departed, you are still considered.
I think of how this way of being was cultivated. Black Southerners have been traveling since the beginning of being a people, here, so often against their will in slavery, or as fugitives in escape. And then, after emancipation, they often traveled under duress, looking for work or a little less American racist violence. Departure and loss were part of being excluded from citizenship and mainstream civic life. So to hold onto people, to consider them always, whether they were here or there, was a way of sustaining connection. It still is.
As I get dressed up to do book talks, when I smile and nod and say “thank you” repeatedly, I am standing in the tradition into which I was cultivated: “good home training.” And when I say “I’m going home” as I travel south in the coming weeks, I mean I am traveling to a place where I have always been considered. My work considers it in return. This home fits no easy description, and it deserves much more than myth or stereotype. It deserves love. God willing, I’ve offered it enough.
This article has been edited to clarify that Roland Hayes Jr. is not the son of the tenor Roland Hayes.