Dr. Imani Perry spoke at Williams Hall, March 30th., 2023. Dr. Perry is professor of Hughes-Rogers' African American Studies at Princeton University. (Courtesy of Christa Neu)

Bestselling author Imani Perry discusses views of American history


Imani Perry, New York Times bestselling author, spoke at Williams Hall about her new novel and its associated themes: from her journey rediscovering her family’s history to reframing how people view American history. 

The lecture on Mar. 29. was presented by the Center for Gender Equity, Africana Studies, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and Notations — an extension of Zoellner Arts Center that provides lectures from creative minds.

Perry’s non fiction story “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation” won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2022. 

“‘South to America’ is not a history in the classic sense, although it is historically grounded,” Perry said. “It’s a story made of interlocking stories — a true story that takes readers into the past on an intimate level, as well as a national and social level.”

She said the discovery and learned experiences of her enslaved ancestor from Maryland inspired for the novel. 

This led her to write the story through the eyes of individuals who are not legally recognized or socially treated as humans in a nation founded on the ideal of human equality.

In addition to her book, Perry spoke about the importance of educating people on American history and culture. 

Perry said reframing how history is told is essential to breaking down myths about the United States’ founding because people’s perceptions shape reality.

“We live with the ghosts of the past every day,” Perry said in reference to America’s failure to address discrimination, especially in early American history. 

She said people who speak out against educating white children on Black history are not afraid they will be hurt but are afraid they will identify with those who suffer. 

“Instead of angst over whether or not they said something racist, their sense of ‘I’ and ‘we’ will shift,” Perry said. “(Being an) ally no longer has use because it is their struggle too.”

Rita Jones, director of the Center for Gender Equity, said the talk exceeded her expectations. 

She attributes this to Perry’s understanding that not all audience members had read her book. She said Perry gave context to her discussion topics. 

“(I was) pleased that it was less about the book and more general,” Jon Paulk, ‘22, ‘24G, said.

A short Q&A session followed the lecture. Afterwards, Perry was available to sign her award-winning books and speak to attendees.

Sameen Basha, ‘26, spoke to Perry after the lecture. She asked Perry how she deals with anger prompted by issues she sees in the world. Perry said she cares more about living life with joy, and she feels more grief than anger.

“She is great to listen to and a really amazing storyteller,” Basha said.

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