Big IdeaThe best writing is a conversation that you as a reader want to return to. There are some books I will be learning from, and some I’ll be arguing with, my whole life.Imani Perry
Your most recent book, for which you won the National Book Award in nonfiction, is South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. In thinking about our nation’s history, you’ve said, “I don’t believe in a kind of reverential patriotism…love of country requires, I think, brutal honesty.” Is the process of writing for you an effort of love? Can tending to stories help us find love of country?
My love of country is not romantic. It is the very fundamental reality of being bound to my home. As an African American who is descended from people enslaved in the colonial period, all the way back in the 18th century, there is no question that this country is my home. And I want my home to be loving and kind and just. And of the millions of stories we can choose to tell, I think we do best when we tell those that guide us to be more humane, whether they are heroic ones or devastating ones. Really we need both. And of course love of humanity and the planet are even higher virtues than love of one’s community or country, but reaching towards such expansiveness and decency, step by step, is something that good stories help us with. So yes, I’m trying to tell good stories in the service of love.
This year, one of the Festival program tracks is “We the People.” What does that phrase mean to you? Do you have a new or different understanding of “we the people” after writing South to America?
We the people is so excellent because it’s open. Of course it wasn’t when it was first codified. It didn’t mean all of the people. It was an exclusionary we. But it’s a phrase with gorgeous possibility. The challenge is whether in our doing we can meet that possibility. We haven’t quite yet but we could, we can. That makes me hopeful, or makes me want to be hopeful which matters because hope is a choice not a fact.
Big IdeaWriting is absolutely the work of freedom. Not just freedom dreaming but being free.Imani Perry
You’ve talked about producing writing that invites contemplation and disagreement. As an academic and intellectual, how do you cultivate that openness in your craft?
I am very deliberate about exposing my own fallibility and contradictions. I am never interested in being an imperial scholar. The intellectual at best is vulnerable enough to search and dialogue and change her mind. I hope that allows my reader space to disagree and openness to seeing my side of things. The best writing is a conversation that you as a reader want to return to. There are some books I will be learning from, and some I’ll be arguing with, my whole life. I aspire to have that relationship with readers too.
Reflecting on the magic of writing, you’ve said, “Words perform, I think, a kind of spiritual alchemy that is actually connected to imagining freedom.” Whether you’re writing a new book or teaching a class at Princeton, are those different ways of imagining — and building — freedom?
Writing is absolutely the work of freedom. Not just freedom dreaming but being free. There’s a reason freed people flocked to school after slavery ended. They wanted to feel their freedom through literacy, making a mark in the world, leaving a record, tracing the thoughts and ideas of others. I take that legacy seriously. On the page we can create worlds and invite others to share in our vision of what the world ought to be. It is such an incredible blessing.
The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas