Dr. Imani Perry, Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, just won the 73rd annual National Book Award in Nonfiction for her book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.
In a book that takes a multiplicitous approach incorporating elements of memoir, history and cultural writing, Perry turns our gaze to the South in order to encourage a deeper understanding of not only the South but the United States as a whole. In her acceptance speech—for which she received a standing ovation—the Alabama-born scholar took time to honor the breath and labor of her ancestors and the unforgettable natural landscapes of the South:
“I write for my people. I write because we children of the lash-scarred, rope-choked, bullet-ridden, desecrated are still here, standing…I write for the sinned against and the santifying. I write for those who cleaned the toilets and tilled the soil and walked the picket lines. For the hungry, the caged, the disregarded, the holding on—I write for you. I write because I love sentences and I love freedom more. For Piney Woods, Live Oaks, swamps and Cypress trees, red clay, Black Earth, cotton, Kudzu and Spanish moss, pecans, paw paws and peaches, the the prettiest daybreak, the chatting Blue Jays, the dancing lightning bugs, the decaying Magnolia blossoms.”
Raised by activist parents, Perry is an a multi-time award winning author of 6 books including Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (Beacon Press 2018), which received the The Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award for outstanding work in literary scholarship and the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction among other honors. Her book May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem (University of North Carolina Press 2018) was a winner of the 2019 American Studies Association John Hope Franklin Book Award for the best book in American Studies, the Hurston Wright Award for Nonfiction, and finalist for an NAACP Image Award in Nonfiction. And her book Breathe: A Letter to My Sons was a finalist for the 2020 Chautauqua Prize and a finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. She is a multi-talented, interdisciplinary scholar who earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, an LLM from Georgetown University Law Center and a BA from Yale College in Literature and American Studies.
As her scholarly interests and her background show, Perry has long been concerned with freedom and justice for Black folks. And in 2016, when she was pulled over and arrested by Princeton police during a traffic stop she stated that she was rededicating herself to liberation work. Thankfully—unlike countless other Black people like George Floyd, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and Tony McDade who have had fatal encounters with the police—Perry survived hers and has been able to persist in her dedication to telling stories about us and for us. In her National Book Award acceptance speech Perry emphasizes this commitment:
“As I have remained steadfast in moments of disappointment, may integrity and grace be my familiar in this moment of recognition. The artist and the intellectual is obligated to be truthful. I promise that I will continue to bear witness to the best of my ability.”
Perry’s commitment and tremendous contributions to the culture have been evident over the years, so it is wonderful to see her get her flowers with such a distinguished award. She closes her speech with a call-to-action: “Let us meet the challenges of a broken world together making intercessions with love unbound and heart without end. Ashe. Amen. Ameen.”
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