Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
Writer Imani Perry (2019) spoke to us about her search for humanity in her research, the ethical considerations that drive her work, and what makes Philadelphia a “Blackness-of-all-sorts kind of place.”
Perry crafts her writing in the African American literary tradition, drawing on various fields of scholarship such as law, social sciences, music, and cultural studies. She has written several books on Black historical topics, including May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, and More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States. Her next book, South To America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon Line to Understand the Soul of a Nation, will be published in fall of 2021.
When you start a new writing project, where do you begin?
Every project begins with observation, ritual, and organic observation of the world around me. And then I read, voraciously and widely. And often I re-read because the seed of an idea is almost always something that came into my mind years prior and has just recently made its way to the surface. My writing process is protracted, so I guess the beginning and end aren’t easily defined. It’s just at a certain point, I become deliberate about the shape and scope of what I’m doing.
For whom do you make your work?
I make my work for everyone who finds it interesting or useful or appealing. But young adults are almost always at the forefront of my mind. They’re so expansive and experimental, and often they’re the most open to imagining different ways of organizing the world, so I’m drawn to them as readers. On the other hand, I feel the deepest sense of obligation to my elders, those who came before me and made a place for me, in particular Black elders who forged a remarkable tradition for me to step into: intellectually, politically, and artistically. My commitment to integrity comes from them.
In an interview with Krista Tippett on C-SPAN, you said that you frequently consider the question, “How do we more fully recognize each other as humans in order to be humane?” How do you incorporate this line of inquiry into your writing? How has it evolved over time?
I’m always turning people over in my mind. We often read a person, based upon the shorthand information we have about them. But in order to write about people honestly, we have to defamiliarize ourselves with those shorthands—and that’s the case for people we idealize and those we demonize. We have to see the contradictions and the complexity, and I mean that both ethically and in the sense of pursuing artistic integrity. Because I have spent much of my life as a scholar trying to understand and then explain how power and structures of domination work, that close attention to the individual doesn’t always appear. I went to graduate school and law school because I wanted to know how things worked, and I have spent most of the past 27 years of my life devoted to figuring it out. Now that I have an account of the world and how it works that feels firm, I can spend more time with that close, intimate attentiveness. The firmament is there.
What is your daily writing routine? How has it changed during the pandemic?
I write everyday. I always have. I have to write something. I probably have hypergraphia because most of what I write doesn’t make it into print, but it is a necessary activity for me. It anchors me and excites me.
What images or things keep you company in the space where you work?
I love visual art, I love flowers, and I love my family. So that’s what I keep around in addition to stacks of books. My current screensaver is a picture of an ancestor born in 1897 to whom I have an uncanny resemblance. I stay on Facebook because I like to see my family in real time, and they’re mostly in Alabama.