These selections from Imani Perry’s South to America (Ecco; January 25, 2022) join earlier excerpts from V.S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South and Joan Didion’s South and West to exhibit how others from outside the American South perceive both the region in general and Mississippi in specifics.
Perry’s work echoes Naipaul’s in scope and form (in fact, she read A Turn in the South to prepare herself for the project), but her work is more perceptive, learned, certain, and above all determined.
Many will find South to America as provocative as it is ambitious. Perry maintains that race is “at the heart of the South, and at the heart of the nation,” and that “the country has leeched off the racialized exploitation of the South while also denying it.” These selections provide the reader with a radical perspective on the South, and most specifically on Jackson, Mississippi, which she says is “publicly, unapologetically Black.” While many will be surprised to hear Jackson’s Mayor Lumumba referred to as a “scion of Black nationalism,” it’s certainly nothing new.
I HEARD HIS VOICE OVER the PA in the airport and I wet my eyes. “I am Chokwe Antar Lumumba,” the mayor of Jackson welcomes you when you arrive.
He is one of a growing number of young Black Southern mayors, Mayor Lumumba, like my uncle Cornelius, went to Tuskegee for college and Texas Southern for law school. He was nurtured in the tradition of HBCUs. And he is a scion. Sons have a certain importance, culturally. Patriarchy, that fundamental structure of the West, was denied to Black people during slavery and has remained fragile ever since.
Money, protection, domestic authority–these are elusive, though cherished things in the face of poverty and prison. As much as I have written about escaping from patriarchy’s hold, I can’t pretend to not understand the deep yearning for a son to take on the leadership role of the father when it comes to Black people.
In Jackson the mayor’s father, the elder Chokwe Lumumba, had spent decades in the service of the freedom movement. The attorney for revolutionary Black activists of the Black Power movement like Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, he was also a leader of NAPO, the New Afrikan People’s Organization and notably carried a chosen surname that was the same as that of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese anticolonialist movement leader who had been murdered in 1961 by Belgian and US forces.
NAPO was a coming together of different communities in the New Afrikan Independence Movement. The Republic of New Afrika was imagined in 1968 as an independent Black-majority nation in the Southeastern United States. The first vision was articulated at a meeting of the Malcolm X Society in Detroit. The states they imagined as being part of this new nation: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. They shared goals of self-determination, landownership, and an independent nation-state for New Afrikans, who were colonized by US imperialism, in line with the older Black Belt theory. They believed in Democratic centralism, socialism, and reparations, as well as humility and self-defense.
The elder Lumumba was elected to the Jackson city council in 2009, and then to the office of mayor in 2013. He died under mysterious circumstances soon thereafter. The latter two events were national news, but I’d heard about the elder Lumumba repeatedly from my parents and their friends of his brilliance, courage, and commitment to the struggle” to “free the land.” And now here was the voice of his son, bearing a shared name, welcoming us to Jackson.
Jackson is urban, but it is also country. Naipaul referred to it as “the frontier” It was where he was introduced to the classic architecture of the Deep South “There were streets of ‘shotgun’ houses. It was the first time I had ever heard the expressive word: narrow wooden houses (like mobile homes or old-fashioned railway carriages) with the front room opening into the back room and with the front door and back door aligned.
On Sunday afternoon the people were out on the streets, so that the effect of crowd and slum and blackness was immediate: as though outdoor life, life outside the houses, was an aspect of poverty.” I wouldn’t call Jackson the frontier, but it might be something else: a sort of reverse metropole, a substation of the people.
The generations of freedom fighters in the Black Belt continue their work. And in Mississippi, they have made it the state with the most extensive Black political representation in America. It is the closest we have to a realization of full Black political citizenship. And it is the only state with a scion of Black nationalism as the executive of its capital.
Jackson is publicly, unapologetically Black, even for Mississippi. It evidences itself in culture as much as polities. For example, the marching band at Jackson State University is called the Sonic Boom of the South. When the male dancers jump, in navy and white so crisp it could not have possibly touched dirt or concrete for how pristine it is, they are suspended in air, time stands still, and yet the music goes hard and unceasingly.
When the women dancers dash a hip, to left, to right, it is sharp, taking back the lasciviousness teased in an instant, a taste before magisterial precision; as the horns gleam, the musicians are consistent as seasons of crops. They march, left right left right. The band does not make the flesh crawl; it revels in it. Love this flesh, it says. It makes sense that this is where the great chronicler of Black history in poem and fiction and prose Margaret Walker made her home as a professor at Jackson State University. She was one who saw the glory of the eternal coming of Black people. The exultation.
They march through the streets, not just in stadiums, and you can always see the dirt high-stepping underfoot. There is no easy resolution between beauty and terror, between poverty and abundance.
And just outside of the city, you find yourself looking around and saying the South would be worth holding close even if only for the trees. You can see it. How before all the building, the Piney Woods once stretched across five states. And as chopped down as they are now, their sharp warm scent and sight wraps around you even when you’re standing from a distance. They emanate fragrance that you feel in your eye sockets and above your socks. They are a fortification against climate change. The scientists say these trees are in a desperate battle against human green, slowing the pace of destruction by literally killing greenhouse gases with their scent, If only we were willing to reblanket the Southeast in conifers, we might save ourselves.
The interior rotunda in the seat of Mississippi government has a statue of the blind goddess Justice lit by over seven hundred lights. Around her are two Indigenous people, a European explorer, and a Confederate soldier. There is no African. Look up at the top of the gold leaf copper dome and see our national symbols a white-headed bald eagle.
We haven’t outrun or outlived the plantation, although it looks a little bit different. Now the fugitives are from Central America and the unfree laborers are in prison. Some kids are still hungry, even so many years after the breakfast programs and Head Start and all of the gains fought for by Black elected officials, because the gag is in the money and the land, and it still isn’t free.
There’s an honesty to Mississippi about all of this. The triumph is not in ends; it is in the fact that we are still here.