In 1967—it feels like forever ago—the brilliant writer and critic James Arthur Baldwin penned a letter to the son of his only brother and named it “And My Dungeon Shook”, a reference to the famous biblical passage. In the letter Baldwin expresses not only his deep love and care for his young nephew, but also his fears for him as a person of African descent born and raised and hopefully coming to adulthood in a country that did not love him and that wanted to cage him or kill him both in body and spirit. The letter is part of and precedes Baldwin’s more widely known titular long essay, “The Fire Next Time,” again taken from a famous biblical passage.
A substantial number of years later, Randall Kenan paid homage to Baldwin’s text, calling his reflections on the state of Black America The Fire This Time (2007).
Still more recently the literary scholar and writer Jesmyn Ward edited a brilliant collection of essays and reflections authored by Black people under the title, The First This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2017). The contributions, harkening back to Baldwin’s and Kenan’s texts, also explore the experience of being born and growing up in a black body in a society that does not value them and in fact, would rather see them in chains or hanging from a tree or six free underground, as has been the fate of countless… The one thing that holds all of these writings together, besides the title, is the reckoning with the innate knowledge of the gift of Blackness against a backdrop of profound white hatred and fear of the gifts that Black people carry with them.
When Baldwin wrote “And My Dungeon Shook” this country was in the throes of social and political upheaval as African Americans agitated for their birth right: Civil Rights; that is to be treated civilly in a land that their ancestors had been central to building. The Black Panther Party was agitating for the ceasing of the gunning down of unarmed black people, the right to defend themselves, and very simply, the right to self-determine. The streets were burning across the country while the FBI’s COINTELPRO was in full swing.
When the first The Fire This Time was published this country was again in the throes of social and political upheaval as the crack epidemic had taken hold of many African American communities and white America probably rested a bit more easily believing that the rabble-rousers who had fought for African American people’s Civil Rights in the 1960s had been properly disposed of.
When Ward published her own edited collection under the same name, the US, as it has always been, was in the throes of political and social upheaval as mostly white police officers continued gunning down mostly unarmed black men and women. Only this time their crimes were caught on video, thanks to camera phones.
One of my favorite and most-often cited essays in Ward’s collection is Claudia Rankin’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in which the author lays bare the particular challenges that parents of black boys in the US face on a daily basis. They mourn for the very real possibility that their very reason for living may be taken away from them at any moment by the bullet or the billy club or the chokehold of someone whose blood is poisoned by their beliefs around white superiority.
Imani Perry, Princeton University professor of African American Studies and Law and mother to two young boys, Freeman Diallo and Issa Garner, explores this condition of mourning and more in her recently published Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (2019). Her title and subject matter, of course, summon, not only Baldwin’s brilliant letter to his nephew, but also W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Langston Hughe’s “Mother to Son”. It also echoes the now infamous plea by Eric Garner to the cop who snuffed out his life: “I can’t breathe.”
The book reminds the reader of the human desire to find space in one’s body, to dream, to envision, to create, to live fully in a way that honors and celebrates the imagination. But in asking rhetorically, “How do you become in a world bent on your not being and becoming?” she makes a critical connection between the physical ability of one to draw life-giving breath and the expansiveness of the life-giving breath of imagining and becoming. This, in a country that is hell-bent on putting chains on not only black feet and hands, but black imagination, if not by their own hands then it’s, as Tupac said, sitting back and watching us kill each other.
Breathe is a tiny book, divided into three sections, “Fear,” “Fly,” and “Fortune.” From the first page I was hooked as Perry begins, following an epigraph by the brilliant poet June Jordan, with a phrase that countless black mothers (and fathers) have heard issue from the mouths of white parents/people: “It must be terrifying to raise a Black boy in America.” Indeed, it is terrifying, but those who say such things are shielded from that terror by their whiteness, and indeed, as Perry notes, there is a voyeuristic element to such comments that is enraging to those of us who must live with that terror.
I absolutely love the way Perry, rather than leave white people from whose lips such lamentations drip to an “empathy” that issues from ignorance, expresses at the very least, indignation, and at most, justified disdain.
There are countless similar moments in the text in which Perry takes on “the taboo” of calling out the privileges of whiteness with daring eloquence, grace, and self-consciousness. As Kiese Laymon has remarked about the text, “Somehow Perry manages to mourn, celebrate, theorize about, and welcome us in the space between, and around this Black mother and her Black sons.”
Laymon’s endorsement though, raises a question: Who is the “us” that is welcomed into the space? Because for all of the text’s truths, rawness, and beauty it is important to remember that those of “us” who will most likely be reading it are members of a relatively speaking, privileged class: educated with resources to purchase the book or to check it out from a well-funded library, and a bit of leisure time to read and digest it. And while yes, Perry’s sons’ privilege as the children of a Princeton professor will not shield them from the weapons of ignorance that too many wield, it should be noted that Perry finished the text while she and her sons were in Japan for a summer, taking in the sights. One wonders how the message would land on Black mothers and fathers who are struggling to make ends meet while keeping their children alive in Chicago (Chiraq), or Little Haiti, or Ferguson.
That said, there are many things to love about Breathe. In the tradition of those on whose shoulders she stands, Perry’s text is honest, often raw, beautiful, driven by a profound love for her boys, and one gets the sense, a cautious hope for the blind, the pitiable, and the dumb.