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Imani Perry

Pew Fellow of the Week: An Interview with Writer Imani Perry

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.

Imani Perry’s home workspace, featuring an original painting by Vivian Schuyler Key.
Imani Perry’s home workspace, featuring an original painting by Vivian Schuyler Key.

Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?

Philadelphia is a diverse city, but it is also an unapologetically Black city. When I first came here, I loved that I could encounter Black punk rock folks, Black queer folks, Black artsy folks, who were no less deeply immersed in their communities than anyone else. It is a Blackness-of-all-sorts kind of place. I also love that it is a culturally Muslim city. It’s the only city where I’ve met people who attend Holiness churches and mosques and practice traditional West African religions, all at the same time. With respect to my feeling of being part of an arts community here, I’ve lived here longer than anyplace I’ve ever lived in my life, and so I’ve experienced people coming and going over time, but I think it’s special that it seems to be a sort of consistently safe landing place for the artists who I know. People venture elsewhere, but they also come back. It helps that it is less expensive than most other cities on the Eastern seaboard and that all of its smaller communities are intact, so you can kind of nestle yourself into places again and again.

What single ethical consideration most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?

There are two: Love and liberation. Everything I do is driven by a love for the earth and its people. I have to operate accordingly, and I have to make sure that what I do is consistent with my belief in liberation from domination, exploitation, and violence.

In reflecting back to the beginning of your career, what is the most useful advice you ever received?

Let your freak flag fly. I’ve never fit into anyone’s boxes, in terms of work or my personal story. The best thing I did was to not try to discipline myself but rather to pursue excellence in whichever direction I might grow.