The American South is known for being central to U.S. culture, particularly Black American culture. Some of the most significant American literature has been centered around Black American women and their voices and how their experiences have shaped our country. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is considered a literary great due to its depiction of Black women and how it challenges the stereotype of the “strong Black woman,” it shows how there is strength in vulnerability and sisterhood.
Interdisciplinary scholar and writer Imani Perry has kept the tradition of her literary foremothers alive through her work that reckons with America’s past to inform our future. She has recently been named a 2023 MacArthur Fellow, a testament to her ability to draw from many fields ranging from history, literature, and philosophy to contextualize the Black American woman’s experience with authenticity and vulnerability that only she can provide
The MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as the “genius grant,” is a prize awarded to a group of individuals, regardless of their field. Their work has showcased originality and dedication to pursuing new horizons with a sense of creativity and enthusiasm.
Imani’s work focuses on racial identity and inequality in the United States and utilizes a multifaceted approach to understanding how this affects everyday people.
Imani’s work focuses on racial identity and inequality in the United States and utilizes a multifaceted approach to understanding how this affects everyday people. This can be seen in her book More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States, which explores a variety of racial issues ranging from the creation of racial narratives to how the concept of surveillance and voyeurism can be racialized in contemporary society.
Her work on author Lorraine Hansberry showcases her ability to humanize her subject and highlight how individuals can utilize their work for political and social activism. Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry explores the legendary figure and how she used her voice and creative abilities to advocate for change.
The book touches upon several aspects of Lorraine’s life that showcase her dedication to being a champion for social justice. Imani provides a comprehensive outlook on Lorraine’s short but monumental life by providing key insight into her most well-known work, A Raisin in The Sun, which served as a springboard to becoming a household name. However, Lorraine used her mainstream literary status to challenge political authority figures and the concept of performative activism that was prevalent in the Beatnik scene of the 1960s and is still topical today.
Imani’s lived experience as a Black woman provides context to her writing that focuses on daily social issues that Black women face.
Despite passing away at age 34 from pancreatic cancer, Lorraine created a legacy for Black women in the literary world. Imani conveys this legacy through her word choice and authenticity that comes with the skillset of a writer and historian. Imani’s lived experience as a Black woman provides context to her writing that focuses on daily social issues that Black women face.
The hardship Imani has faced has influenced her work and helped redefine how Black women navigate their trauma and chronic pain. In her essay, A Dangerously High Threshold for Pain, written for The New York Times, Imani explores how she came to terms with the long road to her lupus diagnosis and the struggles Black women face in the medical field.
“It was Aug. 22, 1996. I was 23. My previous doctor had said the test was negative, but I don’t know why: maybe racism, maybe incompetence. Maybe it was the result of H.M.O. cost-cutting pressures,” Imani said. Furthermore, due to her family history of this chronic, debilitating disease, the diagnosis allowed her to come to terms with her own understanding of it and the idea of truly not being prepared for a diagnosis as severe as this.
“If I didn’t learn to listen to my own suffering and respond with kindness to it, he told me I’d undo myself,” she said.
As mentioned, Imani’s work focuses on the Black American South, as seen in her latest book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. The book review Searching for America, South of the Mason-Dixon, by Tayari Jones, explores how Imani combines her activism roots with her historian skill set to provide an analysis of how racism and race are an integral part of the American South.
“Any attempt to classify this ambitious work, which straddles genre, kicks down the fourth wall, dances with poetry, engages with literary criticism and flits from journalism to memoir to academic writing — well, that’s a fool’s errand and only undermines this insightful, ambitious and moving project,” said Tayari.
Imani’s work has been highlighted for several awards throughout the literary world, cementing herself as somebody whose voice should be listened to and whose words read.
Imani’s work has been highlighted for several awards throughout the literary world, ranging from A New York Times Notable Book of 2018 to A Black Caucus of the American Library Association Honor Book for Nonfiction for her biographical book on Lorraine Hansberry. Moreover, her most recently completed book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, was declared the National Book Award for Nonfiction winner in 2022, cementing herself as somebody whose voice should be listened to and whose words read.
The MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award solidifies her position in the literary world as someone who unabashedly discusses uncomfortable topics with empathy and courage that inspires her readers.
Imani has not only taken the torch from her literary foremothers but has run with it to achieve unheard-of heights. Her work teaches us that self-care is self-preservation, and it allows us to learn more about ourselves and gain a deeper understanding of how our ancestors navigated hardship to help contextualize our present moment.
“People need each other, and I’m no different, but the core responsibility for my care can’t be outsourced; whether or not someone holds my hand, I matter.”
Congratulations, Imani Perry!
© Jessica Bond (11/21/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read more about Imani’s career and her MacArthur award here.
Check out Imani’s book More Beautiful and More Terrible here.
Check out Imani’s book Looking for Lorraine here.
Read A Dangerously High Threshold for Pain written by Imani for The New York Times here.
Read Tayari Jones’ review for Imani’s South to America book here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Photos courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.