(BIRMINGHAM, AL)–  Princeton University Professor and Birmingham-native Imani Perry’s acclaimed book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (Harper Collins: 2022) will be the first title in a new yearlong citywide literary program, Birmingham Reads, sponsored by PEN America and its Birmingham chapter, to engage readers through one title relevant to the city and its history. The reading and book club discussion program begins Sept. 2 with a celebratory event at 7 p.m. at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, featuring poetry readings, African drumming, and dancing. The public is invited free of charge.

Ashley M Jones, poet laureate of Alabama and co-chapter leader of PEN Birmingham, said:  “By reading one book of fiction or nonfiction in one given year and then discussing it in book groups and at events throughout the city, our goal is to build community, boost literary and civic engagement, and promote greater understanding of underrepresented perspectives. We are so thrilled to begin this journey with Imani Perry’s insightful book that relies on her extraordinary scholarship, depth of knowledge, and her personal experience growing up in Birmingham. Birmingham is a magical place for so many reasons, and this program aims to celebrate that magic!”

In South to America, Perry writes that the meaning of American is inextricably linked with the South, and that our understanding of its history and culture is the key to understanding the nation as a whole. Perry is a scholar of race, law, literature, and African-American culture at Princeton.

Perry said: “I’m thrilled that PEN America’s Birmingham chapter is raising up South to America as a collective reading experience across the city. The stories of Birmingham, the city of my birth, and the broader Southern region, are essential for understanding our country and necessary for creating a future in which all people, regardless of station, identity or personal history, are respected and cherished as members of the beloved human community.  I believe the stories we share from the past give us hope for creating a better world in the future. And I can’t wait to be with my people come February!” 

Next Feb. 1, the Birmingham Reads project will feature a conversation with Perry at Miles College.

The kickoff event at 7 pm Sept. 2 will feature poetry readings by Ashley M. Jones, Alina Stefanescu, and Keimaya Downey; African drumming and dance by Sahi On Ko Djony, and a dancing workshop inspired by Perry’s book by Ursula Smith Dance Company. The event will celebrate the rich and diverse culture of Black and Southern peoples, and their role in creating a distinct culture in the South that has meaning throughout the country.

Organizers will select future titles by authors either based in Alabama, or those with historical connections to the state. In addition to PEN America and the Birmingham chapter, sponsors and partners for Birmingham Reads include the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Hoover Library, Thank you Books, and the O’Neal Public Library. 


Ashley M. Jones is Poet Laureate of the state of Alabama (2022-2026) and co-leader of PEN America’s Birmingham chapter. She received an MFA in Poetry from Florida International University (FIU), where she was a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellow. She served as Official Poet for the City of Sunrise, Florida’s Little Free Libraries Initiative from 2013-2015, and her work was recognized in the 2014 Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writer’s Exchange Contest and the 2015 Academy of American Poets Contest at FIU. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including CNN, the Academy of American Poets, Tupelo Quarterly, Prelude, Steel Toe Review, Fjords Review, Quiet Lunch, Poets Respond to Race Anthology, Night Owl, The Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, pluck!, Valley Voices: New York School Edition, Fjords Review: Black American Edition, PMSPoemMemoirStory (where her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016), Kinfolks Quarterly, Tough Times in America Anthology, and Lucid Moose Press’ Like a Girl: Perspectives on Femininity Anthology. Jones is a recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. She currently lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where she is founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival, 2nd Vice President and Membership Chair of the AWC, and a faculty member in the Creative Writing Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham. The co-leader of PEN Birmingham, she is a multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her first poetry chapbook Objects in Vases (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016) won the 2016 Award for Poetry Book of the Year from ASPS. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Prize and was published in May 2018. Her writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Virga, Whale Road Review, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, President of Alabama State Poetry Society, Board Member for the Alabama Writer’s Conclave, Co-Founder of 100,000 Poets for Change Birmingham, and proud board member of Magic City Poetry Festival. Her poetry collection, Defect/or, was a finalist for 2015 Robert Dana Poetry Award. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, the 2019 Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, the 2019 Frank McCourt Prize, and the 2019 Streetlight Magazine Poetry Contest, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. She loves to collaborate across mediums and be the poem she wants to read in the world.

Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies. She is the author of 6 books, including Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, which received the Pen Bograd-Weld Award for Biography, The Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award for outstanding work in literary scholarship, the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction and the Shilts-Grahn Award for nonfiction from the Publishing Triangle. Looking for Lorraine was also named a 2018 notable book by the New York Times, and a honor book by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It was a finalist  for the African American Intellectual History Society Paul Murray Book Prize. Her book May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem, winner of the 2019 American Studies Association John Hope Franklin Book Award for the best book in American Studies, the Hurston Wright Award for Nonfiction, and finalist for an NAACP Image Award in Nonfiction. Her most recent book is: Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (Beacon Press, 2019) which was a finalist for the 2020 Chautauqua Prize and a finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Excellence in Nonfiction.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057