When Imani Perry, JD, PhD, set out to write her book, “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” she felt the need to put the story right back on the region of the United States that was his home.
“Every time I went on social media [after] Something [bad] would happen in the South… I saw obnoxious northerners saying things like, “Can’t we just cut off this part of the country? Annual meeting on November 15.
This characterization of the South as a distinct and offbeat stain on the nation struck Perry, a black woman from Alabama, not only as inaccurately exonerating the rest of the country from her own racism, but as an undeserved affront to the complexity of Southern heritage and culture.
“I was reminded to tell a truer story about the country. And that is that our most vulnerable are the children of those who actually produce the prosperity and greatness of the nation itself,” she said. declared: “Those who work in the mines; those who are on the battlefield; those who are in the cotton fields.
Perry urged health care providers to resist the urge to stereotype and scapegoat the South, reminding them that the South is home to a third of the US population and most of the country’s black people, even after that the great migration brought many north.
“As a Southern White, I will say, my feeling has always been that it is to our eternal shame that we have failed so miserably to create a more perfect union that [we] forced people to leave,” added Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham, who moderated the discussion. “And I think the South has been immeasurably impoverished by the loss of so many people.”
At a point during the session’s question and answer period that moved some to tears, Kimberly Manning, MD, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, thanked Perry for writing so well about a problem that plagued her, as her father, a black man living in Birmingham, Alabama, was unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor.
“Your book was truly a love letter to ancestors, to my father, and to all of the patients I have the privilege of caring for,” Manning said.
Last month, Perry spoke with AAMCNews about his book and why Southern heritage is relevant to health care today.
Q: What inspired you to write this book and how does the South represent “the soul of America”?
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Massachusetts. So I’ve spent my life going and going back to the South and I feel like there’s this extraordinary distortion of the region as being kind of out of step and lagging behind the rest of the country – that kind another strange place. This perception is a way of scapegoating the South for the nation’s sins or vulnerabilities, when in fact a much better explanation is that the South is really where the country began, and where we we are forced, I think, to confront in the most dramatic way the tensions between the promises and ideals of the nation and the reality of a history of cruelty and exploitation.
So, for the book, I wanted to correct this qualification error, but also to delve into the South with a view to the possibility of making our country reflect on How? ‘Or’ What [we can live up to our professed ideals of equality for all, and how we can] caring for those who are most vulnerable in the fabric of the nation. The South is a place where there is a lot of concentrated vulnerability, but also one of the most extraordinary places of culture and imagination. [and dreams of freedom]. The book is a combination of an argument about our national identity and also a love letter to the region.
Q: In your book, you describe how people in the United States often relegate the South to “country ravine.” Why is this a common sentiment and how is it, as you put it, a “convenient misunderstanding”?
There is a deep shame about the reality of the centrality of slavery in building the prosperity of the country and, of course, this is concentrated in the South because of the climate. Slavery was a national institution at first, but the core of slavery [took] place in the southern region, then [the same region implemented racist Jim Crow laws. These were sources of shame for the United States on a global scale]. And so to say, “Well, that’s just what happened there,” becomes a way of trying to separate that reality from the truth, which is that a lot of the way the United States has become a world power is linked to this story.
One of the big challenges for Americans in terms of developing some sort of political maturity is to start moving away from the nation’s mythologies and romantic histories and honestly confronting how we came to be who we are, for for better and for worse. I understand the impulse, because people want to separate themselves from the question, but in fact to do so is in fact not to see themselves, that is to say to completely reject the mirror of the country.
Q: How does health care, and in particular health care education, play a role in the themes you explore in your book?
I come from a family of health care providers. My grandmother was a respiratory therapy assistant, my late father was a public health researcher. So my family is filled with people who have worked in hospitals, and so many of the stories that have surrounded my life are actually about people at times of physical vulnerability, but also about inequities in health care. This is a subject close to my heart. But it’s also one of the most dramatic areas where we talk about inequality in all sorts of ways. We talk about it in terms of revenue; we talk about it in terms of education; we talk about it in terms of protecting rights — but nothing is as fundamental as your life. These moments of physical vulnerability are, in some ways, the most dramatic moments in human life. I am also someone who lives with several chronic diseases. And so, for me, this health care and health education work is an area where stories are so incredibly important, because through stories we actually understand people’s lives in a deeper way. The ability to empathize and the ability to listen carefully, I think, is extremely important for physicians. I hope there is a way that what I have to share relates to their practice or is helpful in some way. And I’m certainly honored to talk to people who are doing, I think, what is one of the most important jobs in the world.
Q: What do you think people in medical schools and teaching hospitals can learn from your research to help them confront racism in their own institutions?
The most important is [the lesson] to listen carefully. I know so many doctors are under pressure to act quickly, to evaluate scientifically, but I think medicine is as much an art as it is a science. And art depends on attention – putting aside this abbreviated set of assumptions, stereotypes, [and] judgments based on the cadence of someone’s voice or their appearance. And that’s so much what I talk about in the book. I think it’s relevant to the practice of medicine to try to really listen to people on a human level. I hope this message will get through. And I know that most – if not all – of the attendees already know this, but just to echo the fact that such a crucial part of what they do is just pay attention – [to] Listen.
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