Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies. She is the author of 7 books. The most recent is instant New York Times bestseller South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (HarperCollins, 2022), More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States (NYU Press, 2011), Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018), Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (Duke University Press 2018), and May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem (2019). Her most recent book is: Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (Beacon Press, 2019). Perry is a scholar of law, literary and cultural studies, and an author of creative nonfiction. She earned her 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. Her writing and scholarship primarily focuses on the history of Black thought, art, and imagination crafted in response to, and resistance against, the social, political and legal realities of domination in the West. She seeks to understand the processes of retrenchment after moments of social progress, and how freedom dreams are nevertheless sustained. Perry’s forthcoming book under contract with ECCO Press is a narrative journey through the South, arguing that it is the nation’s heartland for better and worse. Future planned projects include an examination of African American theories of law and justice, and a meditation on the color blue in Black life.
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Imani Leonard
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- “Ping Pong” by Lee Clarke feat. Kingsley Ibeneche
Carol Lani Guinier (1950-2022) was an American educator, legal scholar, and civil rights theorist. In 1993 President Bill Clinton nominated Guinier to be United States Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Conservative journalists and Republican senators mounted a campaign against Guinier’s nomination. Clinton withdrew her nomination.
Beloved (written by Toni Morisson (1931-2019), Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 1987)
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (written by Imani Perry, Beacon Press, 2018)
Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (directed by Tracy Heather Strain, 2017)
Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry (written by Soyica Diggs Colbert, Yale University Press, 2021)
Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (written by Imani Perry, Beacon Press, 2020)
Paulo Freire (1921-1997)
May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem (written by Imani Perry, University of North Carolina Press, 2018)
Lift Every Voice and Sing (written by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954))
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (written by Imani Perry, Harper Collins, 2022)
Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes : As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
You’re listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host Maori Karmael Holmes.
For this episode, I’m joined by Princeton African American Studies Professor Imani Perry. Imani is one of my favorite writers and people. In addition to teaching, she’s a mom, a contributor to The Atlantic, a mentor, and an avid collector. She’s written eight books. Her first book, Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, came out in 2004 followed by More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, and of course her most recent, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. To call her prolific is an understatement.
In this episode we discuss our shared geographic connections and the manner in which the places we belong to have shaped who we’ve become. We get into Imani’s commitment to beauty. And we talk about her family, the intellectual tradition she inherited from her grandmother. And finally, Imani and I bond over being migrant weirdos.
[00:01:49] Maori Karmael Holmes : I think I’ve told you before and I will embarrass you now, you’re one of my favorite writers and so it means a lot to have you on the show, so thank you.
[00:01:57] Imani Perry: Aww, thank you. Thank you, thank you
[00:01:57] Maori Karmael Holmes : I mean, you’re one of my favorite humans, that’s what I was going to say too.
[00:02:03] Imani Perry: That’s mutual, yes.
[00:02:06] Maori Karmael Holmes : You do work a lot. And I know that is a serious statement, but I’m curious, you’re a full-time professor, you know, you’re speaking, doing informal and formal editing of other people’s content. You, you know, have a newsletter in the Atlantic. And then somehow there have been years when there’s two books coming out. How do you do this?
[00:02:36] Imani Perry: Well one is that I work on a lot of things at the same time. It’s something, a habit you might be familiar with––
[00:02:42] Maori Karmael Holmes : I have no idea what you’re talking about.
[00:02:45] Imani Perry: So I think actually like, cause some people I think work on one thing and then they’re, like struggling. So, like one year I did have three books come out in that year. But I had worked on all of them for seven years. So I think that’s a piece of it and tell me if I’m wrong, but I think that we probably share, which is like, when you have been sort of dreaming and scheming and thinking and imagining for years, and then you finally get to the place where you can do these things. There’s a rush where you like, oh, now’s my chance I can do all-. Okay, here we go.
[00:03:18] Maori Karmael Holmes : I understand that for sure. You have a bunch of degrees.
[00:03:25] Imani Perry: I do.
[00:03:29] Maori Karmael Holmes : I stan! I’m curious what drew you to them and in the order in which you received them, you know, what were you imagining in high school that led you down this path? Because I feel like you also achieved them pretty young. So if you could just like very briefly walk us through the Imani Perry education trajectory.
[00:03:49] Imani Perry: All right. So I went to college and went to Yale and started out wanting to be a math major. And two things happened. One is I wound up in this American Studies course, and they were talking about Senegambia rice cultivation techniques in South Carolina being responsible for the South Carolina colony existing and being able to sustain itself. And I was like, oh my God, this is amazing. And so then I had to major in that. And then I was in this literature course, and they were talking about Freud’s theory of Unheimliche and like, the uncanny. And I was fascinated by the idea of something being uncanny. So then I was like I got a major in that, and I loved Latin American literature, so I was like, let me concentrate in that. And so it was just sort of like, I fell in love with stuff. When I was applying, I couldn’t decide––I thought I wanted to be a professor, but I had a vision of being a professor that was very different from the reality. So I just need to say that. But then the Lani Guinier thing happened, and that was when Bill Clinton nominated Guinier to be Attorney General and then all of these people flipped out because she had thought of innovative ways of changing the voting system in order to ensure more Black representation. And then they both attacked her ideas. They attacked the way she looked, her natural hair. They called her a witch. All this stuff, and then I was like, oh, I got to go to law school. Cause I want to make white folks mad like that, that literally was the thought process. And then it was the end of the fall semester, my senior year and I told my parents, I was applying to law school because I wanted to be like Lani Guinier and then I was like, I don’t feel like it. And they were like, what are you talking about? I was like, I don’t feel like applying to anything else, I’m tired. And then they, you know, went on tirade, That’s not how you make life decisions, blah, blah, blah. And I was like, fine. I’ll apply to one law school, which was Harvard law school. But then when I got in, I was like, well, maybe I can just do both because I didn’t, you know, my mother would say to me, she’s like, there’s no need to get out of school. All there is, is work for the rest of your life. I didn’t feel like I needed money. Like I really kind of, I was really good with being tight with money when I was in school. So then I went to the PhD program through my first two years. And then I started law school, did a year of law school and then I went back. So I was doing, writing my dissertation and finishing law school at the same time. I was 27 when I graduated with my PhD and law school. Then I went into a program at Georgetown that prepared people to be law professors, but they gave you a degree at the end of it, which is an LLM. And so, yeah, so that’s, that was the trajectory.
[00:06:34] Maori Karmael Holmes : It’s kind of incredible. I mean, just even that you could do these things simultaneously is just, it says so much about what you continue to do. I know that you also love art and you’re someone who has been collecting even before you really could collect. Right? It seemed like it was a personal mandate. And I’m curious, where did that come from? Like how, how did you know that it was important to buy art? Even just like for yourself.
[00:07:05] Imani Perry: Yea in some ways it’s kind of visceral and loved art and I met this man at Union Station in DC in 1999, and I had always thought that original art was just for rich people. So I would have poster versions of fine art. And I met this man in Union Station who worked as a garbage collector and he started to tell me about how he collected Black art. And he was telling me stories of, of finding things at yard sales and buying things from when he was very young. And he was an older man. And he was telling me sort of the processes about like, when people didn’t really value Black art and of course back then it wasn’t anywhere like it is now. And I started to think about, you know, one, how beautiful it was that this man had invested in Black artists, but also that original art didn’t have to be the province of the wealthy, because it really was just about encountering art that moved you. Right? And deciding that out of your disposable income, that that was something that mattered to you. I also had an experience of going to someone’s house, her apartment, and there’s very little in the apartment and her bed was on the floor, but there were these big, massive paintings on the wall and virtually nothing else. And I was like, I would never need a piece of furniture if I could live like this.
[00:08:43] Maori Karmael Holmes : There’s this line from Erykah Badu’s On & On where she says, “what good do your words do if they can’t understand you?” Right? And one of the things that I so appreciate about your writing is that it is exceptionally rigorous and then it’s also accessible. And so I’m just curious, who is the audience when you’re writing? Are you thinking about it being broadly accessible? Are you not thinking about any of that?
[00:09:08] Imani Perry: I never think about accessibility, but I believe in quality writing. Toni Morrison is absolutely one of my favorites. I had to read Beloved three times, understand what was going on. Right? I didn’t-, so it’s difficult. I’m not against difficulty, but I kept trying because it was so beautiful and profound. So I don’t think about accessibility as much as I want it to be worth, if and when it’s hard, I want it to be worth the work.
[00:09:35] Maori Karmael Holmes :Yes.
[00:09:38] Imani Perry:And I want the words to speak even if the meaning has to take some time to unfold. There are people who say, well, you write for Black people and I do, but I really write for everybody. But I think what people are feeling is that my first consideration is Black people and not, and I don’t mean that as audience, but as human beings. There’s a centeredness there that I think is communicated in ways that feel as loving, or I’m hoping they feel as loving as it is. And so I do tend to think about people who are in that like, 18 to 25 age range a lot only because I’m like, they’re stepping into a shit show of a world and then we want them to save us. But again, I write for everybody, but I’m like trying to think, okay, what does an 18 year old need from me is always a question as I’m writing, which isn’t, you know, I have an 18 year old. Which is sort of funny now, because I’ve been writing that way for a long time and now I have someone that age. So he can actually tell me a lot about what speaks to him in the writing and what doesn’t, which is helpful.
[00:10:53] Maori Karmael Holmes : So do you have your kids read your work before you finish?
[00:10:58] Imani Perry: Sometimes if they’re willing, I talk to them a lot about the work. A lot. We talk about writing in general, though. We talk about the things each of us write to each other, which is interesting. It’s funny, I don’t think I’ve ever said that before to anyone in public, but that’s true. Like we talk a lot about writing, but they tell me about what writing matters to them. Both of them have pushed me to write fiction, which one day I will.
[00:11:27] Maori Karmael Holmes : I’m very excited for that. Well, this is a lovely segue. Speaking of fiction, you wrote an amazing book about Lorraine Hansberry, who is someone that we don’t often, but probably should consider an icon of youth culture. And in Looking for Lorraine, you present an intimate and beautiful composition of her rather than a biography. Why is this distinction important to you? Like what does it mean to have caught, catching a likeness was supposed to be?
[00:12:01] Imani Perry: One of the terms I use is third person memoir, and I was thinking about how memoir settles into themes rather than cradle to grave. Like when I started, I was really interested in why doesn’t she have her rightful place? And then as I worked on it, I thought, you know, she was relatively invisible. That has changed a lot. You know, Tracy Strain, some film, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, was just, I think incredible. And that has been a big part of the transformation. And then, Soyica Diggs Colbert’s biography, which came out as well. And so I think that, you know, she has a story that is relevant for today in so many ways. She’s an artist. She struggled with depression. She was queer. She struggled with the sort of the complexities of not being fully recognized by her community. She experienced a disability, because for several years, she didn’t know that she was dying and she had some sort of significant political disagreements with her family. And so she had this life that is so resonant, I think, for young people today. And that’s what I want. I wanted it to sort of think about how her life could become something that is meaningful for us as we navigate this moment. And not just let me tell you why she mattered. The other piece was that Margaret Wilkerson, who has been working on a Hansberry biography for years, I was not going to write something that was in competition with the work that she’s doing, but rather trying to focus on what is the thing that I with my particular set of experiences can illuminate about her life. And so that, you know, and it was really a beautiful process because there was this community of Black women, all of us working on Hansberry in our different ways and trying to support each other and sharing materials. That is so contrary to the way both the writing and the academic world tend to work, that it was really, really great. So it was both the community, and also like, you know, what my priorities were with the project that led me to craft in the way that I did.
[00:14:11] Maori Karmael Holmes : I want to move on a little, I want to come back to family, but in Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, you write that you “live for the life of the mind and heart.” Can you explain what this means A little bit more? And I want to ask you if the mind and heart in conflict? Are they in lock step? You know, what does this mean?
[00:14:32] Imani Perry: I don’t think the mind and the heart are in conflict. I do think the academic and the heart are in conflict. I have, by profession, I have been a professor for a long time, and yet I still struggle with that as the definition for me. It’s not that it’s not true, but there’s something that like, kind of, I don’t know, like something sticks in my craw. I have a strong sense of myself as an intellectual in terms of living the life of the mind. You know, and love to read, I love ideas, I love art, I love the sort of quest for meaning and truth and all that stuff. And I also deeply love beauty and love. And for me, those things all have to go together. I think the thing that I am resisting is the dissociation that is so much part of what an academic life consists of between the heart, the feeling self, and the intellectual self, and also the professionalism and the construction of what matters is something that I really have a hard time with. Especially now as academia has become so cruel. When I was a teenager, the Brazilian intellectual Paolo Friere, he used to come when I lived in Massachusetts, used to come to town occasionally for events and we’d go to dinners with him and like he’d talk. And I was so totally in awe. And I remember thinking he’s the first professor I knew who talked about food and beauty with the same relish as he talked about like socialist theory and critical pedagogy. And I was like, that’s the thing for me! Right? Like, so the interdisciplinarity piece is more about sort of bringing all the aspects, not just of myself, but about what I think is important about being a person in the world together.
[00:16:37] Maori Karmael Holmes : Where does that interest in beauty come from? Is that your astrology? Is that your mother, you know?
[00:16:43] Imani Perry: Oh, that’s a good question. I think it’s certainly, it’s certainly my family. And, you know, especially when it comes to like, clothes, and like, shoes, and this sort of pleasure, taking pleasure in, you know, material culture. I mean, I went to the art museum a lot with my dad. What was interesting about it, I didn’t realize that until he was near the end of his life, is that like, he sort of, you know, and he identified as a communist and he was like, he was a public health researcher, you know. So in his world, that kind of stuff, visual arts and even theater were a little sort of considered, I think, a little bourgeois, but he used to take me to plays all the time and to art museums all the time. And he taught me about modern art and nobody else in his life knew that he was interested in these things. Like nobody. You know, and also just, I just love being moved emotionally, like all the kinds of beauty that can just, that are like sublime, that can take you over, that can captivate you. I’m hooked on all that stuff. So maybe it’s partly astrological. Maybe it’s the Leo in me. I don’t know. You have to tell me, I dunno.
[00:17:54] Maori Karmael Holmes : Well, I don’t know. I mean, I’d love that. Also thinking about your father’s kind of secret affinity for the arts, because I think some of the people who I’ve become closest to, or people I met in social justice space and we secretly would shop afterwards, you know.
[00:18:14] Imani Perry: Yes! And it makes sense. It’s so sad that it’s seen-, because like, you know, you seek the beloved community, you seek harmony. Like there’s so much that’s about social justice which is like being able to experience delight and joy freely. Right? But we sort of. I don’t know, Marx did a number on us. But that is neither here nor there.
[00:18:36] Maori Karmael Holmes : So speaking of being at odds, um, I had another question which is thinking about what is expected of so-called Black girls and how I sort of feel odd and out of place. And then when I meet you, I feel seen, I’m like, oh, yes I’m not alone.
[00:19:00] Imani Perry: There’s another Black girl like me. Yes, same.
[00:19:01] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah. And also in Breathe, you write, I want to continue in the strangeness that allows me to discover myself in others. And so I’m curious if you feel comfortable in your strangeness and have you hoped for your children to be strange?
[00:19:19] Imani Perry: I have hoped desperately. They are satisfying me completely. I mean, my children will not pretend to like or care about things they don’t like or care about. They are both artistic. Diallo, is my older son, you know, has been identified as artistic all along and Issa was the athlete, but now he’s an artist and he’s taking photographs all over the place and he’s taking these gorgeous portraits. And the thing that feels so good about it, is not just that they’re beautiful, but they are. But that the thing of being the identity that was placed upon him, you know, as like an athlete. He is not being constrained by it. He’s like, I’m not that into it, you know. I want them to understand that they are constantly becoming and there’s no boxes of any sort. I feel comfortable in my strangeness and that, like, I think it’s pretty–a pretty good assessment of myself, but I still feel as though there are ways that I am punished for it and the consequences of being misfitted. I definitely feel that. So it’s like, I’m not willing to fit more easily. I’m just, I’m not interested in any of this stuff. And I don’t follow any of these rules and this is clearly bothering people, but I can only be who I am. Yeah.
[00:20:49] Maori Karmael Holmes : No, I totally experienced that. I don’t know that I’m comfortable. But it’s like, I don’t have a choice. So I’m trying to learn to be comfortable, you know, like I might as well get comfortable and it was like, you don’t have a choice. What are you doing?
[00:21:04] Imani Perry: Yeah. There’s always the risk, I think when we’re sort of different right, or unconventional that, that can turn into different and therefore superior. And so I think that to not take that position, especially when an adolescent is important for the development of values, you know what I mean? I’m glad that we did not become those types of people is basically the point.
[00:21:29] Maori Karmael Holmes : There’s something for me that’s coming up though, that there’s a kind of romance about what I’ll say is like sort of air quote, “normal.” And I feel like that’s the thing that comes up is this, like, in me, it’s like a nostalgia for like what could have been if I were normal. And that’s such a waste of time.
[00:21:48] Imani Perry: I mean, I make, I know exactly what you need cause there’s a little heartache attached to it. But the reality is that the cost is so high. Because I, you know, I had this experience a couple of years ago. I mean I had it over many years, but then I realized a couple of years ago that as a professor, every student who came into my office to pour their hearts out, every single one would say, I don’t fit in. At every place I ever worked. And I was like, oh, because nobody really fits in. But people, most people try to, and that there’s a deep cost to it. I mean, I don’t mean nobody there’s degrees, but I began to realize that the costs of conformity is experienced probably by everyone. And the choice not to conform is to exchange one kind of pain for a kind of yearning. Right? And so that though until the world is different, that’s probably just going to be the choice, which I, you know, whatever.
[00:22:54] Maori Karmael Holmes : There’s a lot of, you know, I think kinship that we have, and I was thinking about is I had a conversation a couple of years ago with the filmmaker Damani Baker who made the film, The House on Coco Road. And when I saw his film, I was able to articulate this feeling of coming from people with migration in the bones. And I know you and I share roots in Alabama, and I know you have roots in Louisiana and Massachusetts and you know, a couple of other places. And I was just curious what that phrasing means for you.
[00:23:27] Imani Perry: Yeah. So it’s interesting for me, because I often define myself as someone who doesn’t come from a Great Migration family, because my family is still overwhelmingly in Alabama. I ran into Damani and his family in a train station in Japan a couple of years ago. And it is that thing, like this sense of like coming from, I would say, especially mothers who are seekers and seekers in a way of like, imagining one’s life outside of the conventions for the generations before. And so even like, you know, having mothers that kind of just take you where they’re going as they look for freedom, but I would say I am grateful to be given a vision of what it meant to be a woman that was not bound to traditional notions of like, what it means to live a good life or what it means to be decent. Like the idea that you try to kind of find yourself and keep finding yourself, is not just a normal thing, but as a good thing. I’m so grateful for that. I’m so grateful for the idea that you can start over. I think as part of that, the importance of friendship and like, community, not just because, you know, I come from a family, that family is super, super important, but also my mother had friends and I saw them and I cared about them and I stayed over the night at their houses. And sometimes people say, oh, they like, act as though it’s a tragedy if you don’t spend your life witnessing, having parents who are partnered indefinitely. On the other hand, I think so often what people miss out is actually seeing parents as friends, like and cultivating friendship. And that’s something that I really, really appreciated, you know? Cause it’s about, cause that’s a big part of having a good life.
[00:25:31] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah. That’s really true. That chosen family. I also liked this mothers as a seekers and I’m going to think about that a little bit more. Your friend, my mother will, she will appreciate that.
Unidentified speaker: SEEN is a journal of film and visual culture focused on Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities globally. With essays, reviews, interviews, and more from critics, artists, and other luminaries of color, it’s the publication Harper’s BAZAAR calls “a must read for anyone with a serious film interest”. Subscribe at seen.blackstarfest.org.
Maori Karmael Holmes : I want to go back to thinking about you being born in Birmingham, raised in New England and the Midwest. You’ve definitely talked about cautioning against, you know, a simplistic reading of these as poles. Um, but I’m also curious about how being raised in all these places, did it embed in you a sense of freedom just because you weren’t in one place or am I projecting?
[00:26:48] Imani Perry: I mean, I think there’s a benefit without question. I mean, I moved like, okay, so here’s the benefit. This is not going to seem-, but like, I was in a car in New Orleans and the driver picked me up and I’m talking to him and I was like, so are you from Honduras or Belize? It was a Black man and he laughed and he’s like, I’m from Honduras, and my grandmother was from Belize. And it, and he just was sort of surprised that I could hear it. But I was like, I have an ear because of being in different places, I’m attentive because of being in those different places. I also think I know what I want because you know, you do see different ways of living. I know what I want. I know what I like. So I guess that’s a kind of freedom, you know, to be able to imagine oneself and one’s life broadly. There’s comfort, but also a confidence in moving into lots of different arenas that I know has to do with that.
[00:27:48] Maori Karmael Holmes : I’m really curious about the geographic demarcations of the South. And you queer this a bit in South to America. I’m curious, where does the south begin and end for you and what are those markers?
[00:28:02] Imani Perry: Right. Well, they’ve changed, but I will say when I moved to Philly and realized that they sell Jim Dandy grits at the Walmart, that was a really interesting moment. I mean, I think it’s, you know, the borders are porous and there are Souths plural. I used to really just think of the Deep South as South, and it was the Deep South excluding Atlanta, frankly, because that’s the way I had been socialized to think of this. Like Atlanta was something sort of different, right? I no longer think that way. And that’s partially because I know more about Atlanta and I also know more about the upper south. Although last night I had, on my way from Virginia, had a driver who was like, yeah, you know, they call us southern, but you know, that ain’t nothing like down there. Like talking about Alabama. Right? And so there’s this sort of awareness that there are degrees of not just southerness, but the way in which the cultivation of the land and the conditions of human beings in relationship to the cultivation of the land shaped culture. Right? And so now I’m avoiding answering your question. I mean, the places where it gets hard to me are Oklahoma, Missouri. I’ve grown to see DC, at least old DC, as being southern, but of course in a very different way, but it’s because it’s the capital there’s been sort of painstaking efforts, I think, to make it less so. Which is why it’s sort of in-between. Yeah. So it’s a large region. I think the most controversial thing I think is just as I think the deep south is part of the circum-Caribbean. I think the Caribbean is part of the south in terms of how it was constituted.
[00:29:48] Maori Karmael Holmes : Absolutely. Especially if you think about Mobile, and New Orleans, you know. So you grew up transiting locales, and you know, sometimes you were in predominantly white spaces. Sometimes you were in predominantly Black spaces and I’m curious, being a Black person having more intimate experience with whiteness. I imagine being sometimes the only Black friend in a room or in a group, how has that contributed to your understanding, you know, of the world and also the inverse right, of like coming back home, you know, so to speak and then bringing that white world with you?
[00:30:24] Imani Perry: Yeah. When I was about, I would say 15, I pretty much decided that my friendships with white people were going to be individual and my social experiences were going to be black. And it was largely because I just, for lack of, you know, more nuanced language, I just found white people collectively so exhausting. That I couldn’t do it. I mean, really like it’s, you know, just feeling like I didn’t want to have to be on guard socially. Constantly so that my individual friendships with white people, those were friendships that were, you know, we have shared interests. We talked through things, we talked through difficult issues. I could talk about race and develop real intimacy with individual white people. And I think in some ways that was my dad, who was my adoptive father, but him being a white person, who’s very, very critical of racism. And didn’t want me actually to date white boys, because he was worried that I would be a victim of racism. It was like, I love, and [now] he’s passed, but I love him so much that I never had the experience of thinking, like I never questioned the capacity to have deep closeness and intimacy and family with white people. But what I did have in these spaces that were classist and elitist and also racist, I did have a kind of general skepticism that was learned and they had earned. It’s so interesting. I think partially because of my family and where my family was from, especially being in the Northeast, you know, those moments that you experience, where people were sort of want to question your authenticity, like racial authenticity as a Black person, like cause you’ve been, you know, you went to this school or you live in this neighborhood, I have to say it, it didn’t phase me. Like I would just sort of be like, whatever. I also learned early that people are often projecting in those moments. So, I don’t know.
[00:32:43] Maori Karmael Holmes : No, I appreciate that. I mean, it’s just, it’s something I feel like is so different in every situation. There’s no way to even talk about it broadly, but I was just curious. I had a moment when we moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta and I started my first day of school. I remember this girl came up to me and she was like, you bilingual? And I was thinking, no, I don’t speak Spanish. I was like, what are you? You know, she was like, you speak Black and white.
[00:33:11] Imani Perry: Oh my God. That is cute.
[00:33:13] Maori Karmael Holmes : And it was so amazing to me because I was literally, what is true is that I was having to translate, my mother’s going to hate when she hears this, but I remember, cause you know the Atlanta speak, right? Like people think about southerners as slow, but it is a very fast patois. You know what I mean? It’s like, oh girl, shawty we about to go down the street da da da. My mom was working with these young people, and she would look at me and she’d go, what are they saying? And I had to translate. So I was like, she’s right. I am bilingual.
[00:33:45] Imani Perry: Well, that’s the thing. Cause it is, listen, there are multiple ways that we speak. That reminded me of, and I had one of my cousins once asked, do you go to speech class? And I was like, no, I just been up in Massachusetts
[00:34:02] Maori Karmael Holmes : You’ve talked about your father and I’m curious if you could just talk a little bit about what he taught you, particularly in relationship to whiteness and your political reality?
[00:34:14] Imani Perry: It’s, it’s pretty remarkable when I think about it, but he’s the person who taught me about, you know, what we now term thanks to Moya Bailey, misogynoir. But he’s the person who would say, look, there are people who are in particular, going to underestimate you and deny you opportunity because you are Black and a woman, your job is to not be defined by their bigotry or their racism, their sexism. You know, and my mother was much less interested in putting pressure on me in terms of my work, having to be meaningful for some larger goal of liberation. But he was like, you know, the work that you do has to be in service in some way. He was like, at some point you have to go back and live in Alabama, need to be there. He would say like, the point of education is more than anything about the quality of life it affords you, you know? And he would talk about, you know, so he was a Jewish man, he grew up poor sleeping on the sofa in the living room, and kind of just got to college by happenstance when City College was basically open admission. And so then had experienced this sort of bounty of education out of nowhere as changing his whole life and making him the person he became. And so for him, it’s like, it changed the very person he could be. And so he emphasized that, that it was so much about experiences and expansion and that in some ways was like, so like my grandmother, there was a lot of thought about, you know, the importance of knowing and becoming and exploring more than a certain kind of attainment. And he also, and I think this is for me, this was really important is that, I mean he loves Black people deeply. He never wanted me to have any negative conceptions of my biological father, though I did.
[00:36:21] Maori Karmael Holmes : I’m sorry. This is where I interrupt and play a joke about daddy issues. I’m sorry. Keep going.
[00:36:27] Imani Perry: Um, you know, so he is really kind of a remarkable human being. I don’t quite know how he came to be in the world.
[00:36:36] Maori Karmael Holmes : How did he come to be your father?
[00:36:40] Imani Perry: So, you know, this is, again, one of those things that gets shrouded in, kind of not secrecy, but a lack of memory. But my mother left my biological father when she found out she was pregnant and she said he was too authoritarian and went back home. I mean, she was like a feminist with that calling herself a feminist. She was like, I’m not staying involved with a man who is trying to give people orders. And she went home to Alabama and got a job working at Miles College, which is an historically black college in Fairfield, Alabama. At the new teacher orientation, my dad was there too. He had finished graduate school, and inspired by the movement and by the ‘68 Olympics was like, I gotta, you know, I need to find my way south and figure out how to do something meaningful with my life. And they met at the new faculty orientation. Now my father says that he just thought she was so beautiful. And he was like, oh, but you know, she’s going to be stupid, you know, cause she’s so gorgeous. Cause he was a complete sexist back then. One of his friends just texted me and was like, he told you that story, that was a lie. Everybody knew she was a genius when she first walked in the room. So who knows what really happened. I mean, literally, read that in my book and was like, that was a lie he told you, so who knows? Cause he was there too. So they met at the new faculty orientation. He asked her out. She said, you know, I like you, but I’m pregnant. And he was like, I don’t care. So that’s the story. So he’s the only father I ever had, like, knew.
[00:38:18] Maori Karmael Holmes : That’s amazing. What a blessing.
[00:38:22] Imani Perry: It is a blessing. Yeah.
[00:38:23] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah. This is a slight pivot, but I want to ask, how did your mother settle on your name?
[00:38:31] Imani Perry: Oh, this is a great question. My mother. I have no idea. My mother doesn’t know.
No, let me tell you. When I had Diallo, which I know, cause this is––the world knows this Freeman cause that’s what he goes by publicly. So when I had Diallo and I was asking my mother stuff about having a baby. And she kept saying, oh, I don’t remember. And then eventually my aunt was like, stop asking her, she doesn’t know. And she said, we were taking care of you while she was going on trying to have a revolution. And I don’t mean, my mother wasn’t neglectful, but my mother really was one of these people who was, who thought that they were going to win. I asked my mother, for example, I was like, did my name come from Kwanzaa? “No, I knew East African people.” Okay. But did they tell you? “No, I don’t know, I don’t remember.” It just, and that’s sort of where you go and that’s sort of the end of the conversation. So all that to say, I don’t know. I don’t know. But I love it.
[00:39:35] Maori Karmael Holmes : No, I mean, it’s a fantastic name. Do you have a middle name?
[00:39:40] Imani Perry: Um, I do not. So when I was baptized, which is also a sort of complicated story, but I was baptized. Actually I was born in Alabama, I was baptized up in Boston, even though we lived in Alabama at the time, because my godmother was a principal of a school that the archdiocese of Boston had given over to Black people to make a community school. She gave me a Saint’s name, which was first St. Claire, but in Italian, Chiara. Then later when my aunt said, oh, I wanted you to be named Nia. So I sort of added Nia on my own when I was about 11. Which points to the Kwanzaa thing, but my mother insisted it wasn’t a Kwanzaa name. I put Chiara in when I was younger and sometimes Nia, but I do not have a middle name formerly speaking. And I have another Saint’s name when I was confirmed. Oh, I didn’t mention I come from a Catholic family. And so that’s why we have Saint’s names. And so my other Saint’s name is Perpetua.
[00:40:46] Maori Karmael Holmes : I love that.
[00:40:47] Imani Perry: So when I was 16. She’s African, you know.
[00:40:50] Maori Karmael Holmes : I love all of those. It’s very, it like all tells a story, right?
[00:40:54] Imani Perry: A lot of stories. Yeah.
[00:40:58] Maori Karmael Holmes : There’s this line in the opening––the dedication to Salt Eaters, by Toni Cade Bambara, which she writes, “having come upon me, daydreaming in the middle of the kitchen floor, she mopped around me,” which is just such a layered and loving articulation of the kind of freedom and respect her mother had for her, the freedom she hoped for her and the respect she had. And I love it because it has resonance for me. And I’m curious if it has a resonance for you as a mother or as a daughter?
[00:41:28] Imani Perry: Both. And also as a granddaughter. So one of the things about my grandmother is that the two people she let stay in the bed and you know, that she conventionally as a Southern Black woman to not believe that people stay in a bed, were my mother and then me, and it had everything to do with reading. This idea that as long as I was reading, I could be mocked around was absolutely the sensibility. Right? Um, but I do also remember like feeling, in my own way, put upon by the domestic norms of Black womanhood. And that’s why I loved learning about Ida B. Wells, who didn’t like to clean up very much either. But also, you know what, I want to take that back a little bit because my mother did have the very strong sense that it was really important that I be capable of taking care of myself. And so she was not, yeah, she would be horrified to hear that I said this publicly, and I will say somebody will tell her because people always just go back to my mother and tell her the things I say. When I always said I wanted to be a writer, she’d be like, that’s not a job. I was reading all the time. And yet I believed her, oh, they must, I don’t know how they’re doing this. This is not a job. You know, it was like, you have to have a profession. And, you know, being an academic seemed like the closest thing to doing that. So there was both this investment in the dreaming, but also some pressure for a certain kind of practicality that came more from my mother than from my grandmother. My grandmother was, was not, you know, she wanted her kids and probably, you know, in some ways this was shaped by the circumstances of her life. She wanted her children to be educated, but she wasn’t sort of pushing for a certain kind of professional trajectory by any means. It was just, you have to go to school, you know.
[00:43:26] Maori Karmael Holmes : You dedicate May We Forever Stand to your mother. And you say that she taught you to know and love your people. What do you mean by that?
[00:43:37] Imani Perry: So my mother has always, always refused any deficit accounts of anything associated with Black people––at every turn. She talks about the resilience, the dignity, the building, the creation, the struggle. And I didn’t realize how important that would be for me, especially as a scholar, because it shaped the way I looked for things, right. Like, because if you presume certain kinds of deficiencies, then you just ignore entire bodies of knowledge. When I was writing that book, I spent so much time looking through the records of Black schools to see how people used Lift Every Voice and Sing in school rituals. And when I looked in the archives and HBCUs that just had these incredible archives that people just don’t use. And in Black studies in particular, for some time now there’s been a pretty robust discourse about, you know, the absence in the archives, the materials, we don’t have, the gaps. But if you actually value Black institutions, you know, there are some gaps, but there’s a lot that has been preserved that scholars just don’t go to because they don’t know that it exists. Right? And don’t value the institutions and communities enough to assume that there are things that exist that are out there, that aren’t in Ivy league libraries. She taught me to value institutions that so often in my line of business, get devalued. And communities.
[00:45:24] Maori Karmael Holmes : I want to ask you about your relationship to your grandmother and great-grandmother now that they’ve passed. Because you’ve talked about how they continue to be a presence in your life. And just wondering if you could share, you know, how they show up for you?
[00:45:39] Imani Perry: My grandmother is in every single thing that I do. A woman who spent most of the years of her life experiencing either Jim Crow or the vestiges of Jim Crow. Spent a whole life in Alabama, except for a year in DC and a year in, um, or a year and a half in Nashville. And was a daily reader and had 12 children and worked as a domestic and then worked in the hospital. And so she was in many ways sort of amongst the most marginalized and was also completely headstrong and outspoken and had incredible self regard and socialized us into it. And so her self regard made her this incredible critical, had this incredible critical lens about the world. And it’s something that I have tried to emulate, and I deeply admired. And I, in this work, I also tried to take that relationship I have with her, and also to think through the women who came before on both sides, you know, going as far back as this ancestor, who was by virtue, one document says was born in Maryland in 1769 named Easter Esther. So, you know, from the very early 1700s , these black folks who worked to build the country economically, probably in tobacco fields. And then who witnessed, this woman, she witnesses the nation becoming a country formerly speaking, right. When she’s a little girl and is outside of contemplation of what it means to be part of this country. And I want to always keep that lens––cause we always have people who are inside literally, but treated as outside. Treated as inconsequential, treated as unworthy of consideration. And it’s just a matter of values, I try to keep that frame of reference as central to whatever I try to explore intellectually and artistically. So yeah, they’re always there.
[00:47:46] Maori Karmael Holmes : That’s really beautiful. Back to your children. I imagine that they must be teaching you all the time, but I would be curious today. What would you say have been some of your greatest lessons from them?
[00:48:02] Imani Perry: Oh Gosh. Well, one is that there are actually some inborn talents. No, like there are things where I’m like, how do you know how to do that? And I really resisted the idea that there’s some sort of gifts that we’re born with, and then you have children. And not only do you realize there’s some gifts that people are actually born with, but also people come with personalities and you know, your job is to nurture them. Right? And so I think one of the things I’ve most learned from my kids is the ways in which they’ve said no to me, when it contradicted who they took themselves to be. It’s such an incredible gift because it’s so much better to see a person who feels fulfilled and comfortable in their skin, than someone who feels as though they have to fit a cookie cutter image that someone else has projected upon them. I mean, it makes you feel much better about parenting to do the former. Talking to them, their perspectives like, Issa is so good at being a friend. Like he does the work of supporting his friends on a regular basis. And I learned so much from him about what it means to actually be in active relationship with someone on a daily basis. Like not this thing that so often, and you know, that we do where we’ll talk to someone like once a month or every three months, I’ve been so busy. And when you catch up, like now he’s like, this is the day to day work. And I actually, interestingly enough, I learned so much from Diallo about the kind of joy of being an intellectual. You know, you get, like today, he and I had a conversation for 90 minutes where he’s telling me about this story that he might write. But it’s more like a journey through his imagination. And, you know, and he laughs and he smiles and like it’s so, and I’m like, yeah, that’s the thing of where it feels good. Not everything is like, just instrumental. I’m going to write this thing. I’m going to complete this thing, but it just feels good to think, and explore, and dream
[00:50:18] Maori Karmael Holmes : I asked Jeff Chang this in our last episode about whether or not his sons had been taking notes. I was curious if you’re seeing that, like, do they respect your work or are they just dismissing you as a boomer? Which is incorrect, but people like to do that these days.
[00:50:35] Imani Perry: You know, my kids are so sweet. They are so affirming about my work and that it’s sort of like, unnerving. I mean, Issa was like the week South to America came and he was like, you’re going to make a New York Times bestseller list. And I was like, no way. And he’s like, no, he’s like, I feel it. I feel at this time, the energy he’s like, it’s going to happen. Like, who is this kid?
[00:51:02] Maori Karmael Holmes : How old is he?
[00:51:03] Imani Perry: 15. And then when it did, he was like, I told you. But also he’s watching, he watches, you know, he follows the social media stuff. I do think that there are times in there, like nobody wants to work as hard as you do ever, but they’re also particularly about the things that are important to them. They will spend time on, you know, like they treat the advocations like work, which is probably cause those would probably be the things that become their work. Yeah. So that’d be interesting to see.
[00:51:35] Maori Karmael Holmes : I want to ask a question about language there, ways that you talk about Blackness, the Black vernacular Black grammar are incredibly powerful and you offer a stylistic note in South to America, which is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot. We’ve been thinking about it as an organization and, you know, so I want to read it and then talk to you a little bit about it. So the passage “I have long thought Black, in reference to people, should be capitalized. Finally, the style guides agree with me. But I also capitalize White in this book. That is less common. I do so because the categories, Black and White, were made together. They are strangely symbiotic, opposing yet intimate. Historically, White was a term reserved for those who could possibly be full citizens and members of the country. Black was for the “ultimate others” held down or at the margins. I also capitalize Indigenous, a people of many nations, named “Indian” by European error, who were colonized, expelled, robbed, and shuttered from their native lands. Generations have expanded and challenged the meanings of race that were created by colonialism. Nevertheless, in this country’s history, Black and White have never been mere adjectives, and Indigenous, a global term, is specific in this nation. These are identity categories that were made by law, custom, policies, protest, economic relations, and perhaps most potently, culture. Politeness, grammar rules, and political pieties aside, this strikes me as a simple truth that ought to be acknowledged. I didn’t make the rules. I am trying to tell them to you.” So, I love that because there’s this conversation right about lower and uppercase Blackness, you know, not making the rules, but understanding them. And I personally was slow to capitalizing my “b”s, you know, from like early college on. And I think in some ways I was trying to downplay the acknowledged artificiality of race and also not wanting to put this thing in the center that I hadn’t created. But over time I also have shifted my thinking and, you know, at Blackstar we capitalized the being Black, we capitalized the “b” Brown and capitalized “i” and Indigenous. And it’s because much like our Americanness, right. It is a real thing and it should be respected as such. Right. So, yeah.What, what prompted you to include that? You know, what, what has shaped your thinking on this?
[00:54:06] Imani Perry: Well, I will say it was really––the house style of Harper Collins, is not to capitalize white. Previously I’ve had backs and forths, which I’ve lost about this question. Like in May We Forever Stand, the “b” in Blacks, not capitalized. It still bugs me. That was the house style of that press UNC. But it Harper Collins, they said, listen, if you want to capitalize white, you just need to tell us why. Right? And so that’s why I wrote this down note and I just, you know, I, it just seems so odd to me that all this suffering is because white was such a big thing, and then we’re not going to capitalize it. Right? I mean, it feels kind of fictional. Like, let’s, we’re just going to pretend like this isn’t really what white means. We know what it means. And so I felt like, especially in this book where I’m trying to explain the structure. And the roots of this border that we live with, the way that this out sort of animated, what would happen in this country. I wanted the kind of honesty of the capitalization of white. I don’t know if I’ll always do it, but I just could not do it in this book.
I also sometimes feel like there are ways. And I think this is particularly sort of focused on the liberal to left spectrum who experienced sort of making white, a lowercase as a kind of self, a kind of self-effacement like, you know, oh, we’re not that’s, you know, your identity of course needs to be capitalized. But again, it feels like a gesture that doesn’t carry much weight because everybody knows that whiteness is the, is the sort of the most powerful gear in this society. And so I understand the sentiment, that yeah, the sentiment is not as important as the truth. That’s just my––now and at the time, I don’t know, but I don’t know. Cause I also, my big thing is that I language changes. It grows. I’m very uncomfortable with the sort of hard, fast, absolute rules about things besides, you know, I don’t want anybody, who’s not Black using the N word, but beyond that, I want to be open to language shifts.
[00:56:26] Maori Karmael Holmes : That is a conversation for another time. But, I’m also sort of really apprehensive about codifying things, but I also appreciate particularly now because we’re not writing necessarily on paper, so things can change on a website. You know what I mean? It’s like we very much can have these shifting definitions and guides and I really appreciate you posing it in that way. I mean, we’re literally putting it in our style guide at BlackStar. So I appreciate it. I’m curious for you. What’s next on the horizon and if there’s anything you haven’t attempted professionally that you’d like to experience in addition to, you know, you talked about writing a book of fiction, but is there anything else that you’re looking to do?
[00:57:13] Imani Perry: Yeah, I mean, I, obviously I have a ton more books that I’m trying to write, but I would love to curate a visual art exhibition in a way that could be coordinated with writing and language. Right? So in a way, like whether it’s a show or whether it’s sort of pairing poems with photographs or paintings, that’s something that I would really love to do at some point the thing that I think I want to do, but then I’m also kind of afraid of, I would love to sort of figure out how to do writing retreats, how to host them. I’m a little afraid of it, but I think about it all the time.
[00:57:48] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah. Yeah. Leaning into fear. Woo! You know, we’ve talked about your family a lot, but do you have any personal luminaries or intellectual north stars?
[00:58:01] Imani Perry: I mean, you know, there’s always Morrison and also Thelonious Monk, aesthetically speaking, but there’s something that’s happening with both of them aesthetically around being elliptical and repetition and variations on a theme and that sort of relationship between constraint and freedom that shapes so much of what I’m trying to do, like discipline and then freedom and the dangers in both, like, that’s a thing that is sort of always underneath what I’m trying to figure out as an aesthetic question. So yeah, there we go. I’ll regret not saying 10, 11 more people, but that’s the most concise form.
[00:58:48] Maori Karmael Holmes : Yeah, no, I appreciate that. Thank you, Imani.
[00:58:54] Imani Perry: Thank you. This has been a great conversation. I’m so grateful!
[00:58:57] Maori Karmael Holmes : Thank you. Imani Chiara Nia Perpetua.
[00:59:06] Imani Perry: Oh yeah, Perpetua––you got them all and you know, I used to write it like that too. The way we do every, all the extra words.
[00:59:12] Maori Karmael Holmes : Oh, absolutely.
[00:59:14] Imani Perry: Okay. All right.
[00:59:27] Maori Karmael Holmes : Follow Imani Perry on Instagram and Twitter @ImaniPerry. To subscribe to her newsletter Unsettled Territory, visit newsletters.theatlantic.com/unsettled-territory. You can purchase her new book South to America at harpercollins.com.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The Host and Executive Producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. Our Producer is Imani Leonard. Associate Producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Managing Producer is Alex Lewis. Executive Editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David ‘lil dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘lil dave’ Adams.
Sending you light and see you next time.