The first time Krista Tippett interviewed Imani Perry at Chautauqua Institution in 2014, their discussion was interrupted by a torrential downpour three times. Promptly after promising that wouldn’t happen again, a fire alarm did the trick, stopping Tippett mid-question four times.
But louder than the alarms was Perry’s call for grace in modern-day America, the force she said allowed her ancestors to hold on — making it possible for her, her sons and the country to “become.”
Tippett, journalist, author and host of “On Being with Krista Tippett,” interviewed Perry, award-winning author and Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater, continuing Week Seven’s morning lecture series, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts — A Week in Partnership with Krista Tippett and ‘On Being.’ ”
Perry is a “cradle Catholic” from Alabama, who describes herself as “a child of the fragments of Christianity.”
“In my life, there is a dance between the traditional black, southern, coming of age, as my foundation,” Perry said. “On the other hand, my family is Catholic, which is rather unusual for that part of the world.”
Although Perry grew up in Massachusetts, she spent her summers alternating between Alabama and Chicago. Living in various places, she had encounters with a variety of people and spiritual traditions.
“I think of myself as a seeker, and I respond to that which resonates within, so my spiritual life is as promiscuous as my intellectual interests,” Perry said.
“Let’s say interdisciplinary,” Tippett said.
Perry was raised among divides — her mother and grandmother are Catholic, her great-grandmother was Baptist, her birth father was Lutheran, and the father who raised her was Jewish.
“The transition, personally, from sort of feeling like I’m this strange person entering all of these worlds, to actually thinking about it as a source of insight, offered me the capacity to connect with a variety of people, and that’s the process of maturing,” Perry said.
Perry recalled memories from her summers in Chicago, where she had undocumented friends who introduced her to an America she had never known. Her friends, only 10 and 11 years old at the time, did not answer their doors, out of fear that the knocking could be an immigration officer. When visiting, Perry would enter through a basement door to avoid causing unnecessary attention. Those friends were also navigating finances and work negotiations for their parents.
“Now, in this moment in history, we are repeating some of the worst parts of our history,” Perry said. “You see children being ripped from their parents in a way that is reminiscent of slavery, and that really is the repetition of the worst parts of our history. For me, it’s also a recollection of those intimate relationships with children who have the burdens of adulthood on their shoulders.”
When present-day becomes history, there will be an “us” to look back on, Tippett said. Perry said for her book, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation, one of the reviewers questioned her use of “we,” which she said shifts whom it includes.
For example, Perry said a “collective we” might involve the “Earth screaming.” At just 5 years old, Perry remembers people thinking the concept of human suffering resulting from environmental issues as weird, but now, there is scientific evidence the two — human suffering and environmental issues — are related.
To exemplify a more isolated “we,” Tippett referenced Perry’s 2016 “The Year of the Black Memoir,” an essay she wrote for Public Books. In the piece, Perry talked about Kenneth Warren, professor of English at the University of Chicago, who in 2011 declared there was no longer any such thing as African American literature because a black president was in the White House.
“One thing to ask is, ‘What is the investment in declaring an end?’ ” Perry said. “I do think part of the investment comes from the desire for the new, and so while it’s often a mischaracterization to say this is the end of history, the desire for the new is something that is meaningful.”
While efforts to recharacterize or reclaim history — particularly the lost and misrepresented history of African Americans — are necessary, Perry said people need to learn to “live in the remains.”
“You try to revitalize our commitments, but you can’t wipe away history in the midst of it,” she said. “It’s not just because there is the risk of repeating it, but because it lives inside us. All of the ugliness dwells inside us, but we still try to do things that are meaningful and live meaningful lives.”
For Tippett, having an African American president was an “extraordinary accomplishment,” but she said it also surfaced “all of the unfinished reckoning.”
“That’s not what everyone expected, and that was heartbreaking for me,” Tippett said.
Tippett read from an article Perry wrote for The Progressive in February 2019.
“Once upon a time, in 2008, we were all wistful that our grandmother didn’t live to see a black man become President,” Tippett read. “I mean ‘our grandmother’ in the collective sense. All of our departed really.”
In contrast, Perry said she was grateful her grandmother wasn’t alive for Donald Trump’s presidency.
“It was a feeling of ‘What will it take?’ ” Perry said. “What will it take for the nation, ‘us’ collectively, to take seriously our creed as foundation, not something that you can move in and out of based on anxieties and fears and resentments, but actually as a core value? That’s terrifying, after all of these generations of struggle and resistance, to not know what we do now.”
To work through those unanswered questions, Perry wrote her forthcoming book, Breathe: A Letter to my Sons. The book starts with a quote attributed to “everybody and their mother”: “It must be terrifying to raise a black boy in America.” That quote is an echo of words from W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk: “How does it feel to be a problem? To which, I seldom answer a word.”
Perry, who addressed this topic in relation to her two sons with Tippett in 2014, said she is “tired of that question.”
“There is an effect to the fact that 100-plus years later, the same question remains,” Perry said. “Part of what I’m trying to work through is yes, there is terror, but there is also incredible beauty. There is a way in which the repetition of the narrative of the terror almost evacuates the full humanity of their lives.”
Welcoming redirection, Tippett referenced a question in Perry’s book that is also directed toward her sons: “How do you ‘become’ in a world bent on you not being and not becoming?”
Tippett said it was interesting Perry still lives with that question, given her sons have access to more resources than most African American children in the United States.
“It was very important for me to acknowledge the class position of my sons and the way it geared their experiences, not just for black children, but for other children in the United States,” Perry said. “I think it is important to acknowledge that, because I don’t want to participate in fiction.”
Perry said she arms her sons with skills, intellectual tools, ethics, values and a way to make sense of the hostility from people whose responsibility is to treat them like members of the community.
“That’s the world they occupy,” she said. “It’s a complicated task and I mention it, in part, because I do want it to trigger, for readers, an ethical reflection on their part.”
Whether in her own life or the lives of her sons, Perry is struck by people who consider racial inequity to be “natural.” Perry said she has come to see whiteness as a “potent form of binding.”
“I think that it is a constriction; it cuts off the blood supply, it disciplines or threatens to discipline white people out of deep identification with other human beings, which I think is the natural state of things,” she said.
The concept of “whiteness” is derived from mythologies and acts of imagination, according to Perry.
“We can imagine differently,” Perry said.
When videos of the murders of unarmed black people increasingly surfaced online, Perry said it was motivated by the misguided belief that something would change if people saw the realities of racism for themselves.
“I was skeptical of it then, I am very sure now, that the repetition of seeing a particular group of people suffering may have the capacity to make one identify with their suffering, but it also may deepen stigma,” she said.
But the issue, Perry said, is not that the visuals are insufficient, it’s the overall disbelief in the extent of racial inequality.
“That disbelief is actually at the cornerstone of the structure of racialization,” she said. “It’s not whether there is a visual recognition of it, it’s the ideological commitment that’s at the cornerstone of American history, and that has to be broken down. Videos, as tragic as they are, are not going to do that.”
Perry does not have a solid answer for what it will take to break down that cornerstone, but said the process will leave scars.
“I think we would do an ethical wrong if we didn’t acknowledge that there will be enormous growing pains,” she said. “Change is hard, deliberate or not.”
To bring the conversation back to grace, Tippett read an excerpt from Perry’s Breathe:
“This life we have is grace. In the Catholic tradition, there is a form of grace — that is the stuff of your soul,” Tippett read. “It is not defined by moments of mercy or opportunity, it is not good things happening to you; rather it is the good thing that is in you, regardless of what happens. You carry this down through generations, saying that endemic trauma of violent slave masters’ society, that the grace is the bigger part. It is what made the ancestors hold on so that we could become.”
Throughout Perry’s life, she has seen the repetition of mothers whose sons have been taken away, and is aware that she could live that reality. But resilience is present in those tragedies and the people who live on despite them, so the question becomes: “What does that tell us about how to be human?”
Perry searches for this answer in the midst of novelist Toni Morrison’s passing, which was revealed only hours before the Tuesday lecture.
“What her work has done for me and for many others, is to have us sit in the ordinariness of tragedy, with historical awareness,” she said. “There are specific forms of tragedy that we have a responsibility to respond to, to act, but there is also something universal.”
According to Perry, Americans are constantly in pursuit of life where tragedy doesn’t occur, avoiding conversations about death and other finite elements of life.
“We are all going to be there,” Perry said. “God willing, every meaningful relationship we have in our lives will end, and I say God willing because that means we have loved and lost, we have lived long enough to love and lose.”
The capacity of human beings to connect with one another, while they still can, is what Perry thinks people need to focus on, and according to Tippett, that starts from within.
“That is, for each and every one of us, interior work — as much as it is work we do in conversation,” Tippett said.
For her own interior work, Perry said she turns to reading; for when one reads, they “enter a whole world of other human beings.”
“There is something very intimate about it,” Perry said. “So that’s why I’m a writer, because there is a possibility to get to that.”