Breathe: A Letter to My Sons By Imani Perry
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
To read Imani Perry’s new book, Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, as an African American mother of a teenage son is both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. It is not unlike raising a Black boy in America. It prompts a complex rush of emotions. I highlighted so many passages, lines that I wanted to remember, to use as inspiration—including those that made me wince in uncomfortable recognition—I simply decided to reread the book as soon as I’d finished it.
The book evokes so well the myriad ways in which Black parents and children alike must be intentional about how we inhale and exhale. And frankly, given this moment in which we live, the book reminds us all to take a deep breath. It is so startling and apt and timely that you will likely devour it the way a swimmer takes a giant gulp of air as she cracks the surface of the water—greedily and gratefully.
Right from the start, Perry states her position directly to her two Black sons, Issa and Freeman: Between me and these others—who utter the sentence—the indelicate assertion hangs midair…. But no matter how many say so, my sons, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one.
She goes on to give the truth to her sons straight, no chaser. And here is where she takes our breath away:
I have known from the first day of your lives that I cannot guarantee your safety…. Racism is in every step and every breath we take. It has been proven over and over again … you are always under the watchman’s eye … the insult is incessant … you are remarkable boys, but we are all at risk of falling under the sway of a much too cruel world … feeling deep love and complete helplessness to protect the beloveds is a fact of Black life.
We’ve not seen this intimacy from Perry’s writing before. She is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and prolific author of several books, including the award-winning Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. But the interrogative, intellectual writer we’ve come to know makes her presence felt throughout these pages as well. That Perry can navigate so seamlessly between interiority and the interrogation of American culture is astonishing. There’s something so tender and vulnerable about Perry’s voice here, yet I would not call it “raw.” It’s refined and honed, each word burnished and given to us with care, as a hand-carved, African sculpture might be bestowed by its creator; it’s a loving gesture, this book, mindful of its recipient.
You will likely think of Breathe as the companion piece to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me, his letter to his son, which laid out his own coming-of-age as a Black man in America as a way of instruction and warning and guidance. Perry’s letter to her sons is that, too. At its stripped-down core this is a manual for living, replete with sound advice for Freeman and Issa. We are cognizant that Perry’s oneword advice to her sons, “breathe,” is a way of insisting they stay alive, that they do what Eric Garner plaintively repeated over and over that he could not do against a policeman’s chokehold, a cutting off of breath that ultimately stopped his heart. But Breathe is so much more than a guide or a caution, and more revealing. It is a layered meditation, one that fluidly moves through memory, history, “wild-eyed” whiteness, faith, ancestral inheritance, community, freedom, and grace … a kind of holistic, textual nebulizer Perry provides to her boys, a lifeline she knows they will ultimately need.
To be clear, we’ve never seen a book like this before. This is a beacon for any young African American trying to swim through the waters of that unique antagonism that America has long held for its Black citizens, be they man-child or woman-child. In fact, in her acknowledgments, Perry says that had she written this book for girls her advice would be much the same. And as the mother of a teenage daughter, I find a lot here to glean for helping my fifteen-year-old make her way in the world.
Breathe also transcends race-specificity, just as Perry’s own personal narrative does, just as her own boys do. It’s for any person of color, and for any mother looking for articulation of her own doubts and fears and hopes; and this book is for anyone who resides in difference, and/or is rearing a human being who does, i.e., that wide family of us who are not white, male, and straight.
Amidst the advice and eloquence and shimmering honesty is Perry’s own story folded in via pivotal anecdotes. We learn some stark facts about her, almost in passing: that in Black spaces she has always become physically indistinguishable; her struggle with asthma and lupus (what she calls “hallmarks of an inherited vigilance”); that she had a white daddy who was not her biological father; that she is a “born mama,” a nurturer by disposition. We also learn that as she toggled between her life in Birmingham and Chicago and Cambridge, there were moments of joy.
And in a passage that prompted me to do likewise, she tells her sons what she loves. She lists 21 different things—from drinking limeade and being outside in the summertime, to reading and people-watching to laughter and silliness to sitting in solitude and crocheting—that personally bring her joy. Because she understands that as mothers, giving our children the chance to really see us for who we are as individual women is important, too.
Its bruising honesty comes most powerfully when Perry admits her mistakes, her missteps and uncertainties as a mother. Who among us as mothers hasn’t once lost a child in a public place, or questioned our decision to not offer up religion to our offspring (“I haven’t raised you in the church, and I probably won’t now … I wonder if this isn’t another area in which I have failed you when it comes to discipline….”) or felt the guilt that comes when a child has an accident, when a child falls, bleeds, hurts? She speaks to that conundrum all parents face, complicated for Black parents by a real and present danger, of not wanting to clip their children’s wings in the effort of trying to keep them safe. We can hear her reminding herself to heed her own advice as she tells her sons, “Yes, we are afraid but we cannot wear terror around our necks like cowbells for our own denigration, no matter how lost we feel, no matter how dangerous the poisons.”
And yet, what also comes through is what she has gotten right, how sensitive and conscious her sons are, how the arc of their moral universe already bends toward justice. She has allowed them to be her guides, her teachers even as she parents them, understanding that children are not extensions of the parent. She does not gloss over their particularities, nor present them as perfect boys. She is too honest for that; but she does show us what it means to see each child for who he is, in his specificity, and to love him for that, full stop, so that you can give him the tools to protect his selfhood, his self-worth. “Freeman, you arrived as an independent fugitive … you can see another world,” she tells her oldest. “Issa, you called my refusal to let you pierce your ears inconsistent with my feminist identity,” she tells her youngest. “True ... Be better than me with respect to that.” She lays out for her boys what her hope is for their future, for their becoming:
You have been running from lies since you were born. But the truth is we do not simply run away from something; we run to something…. I want you to be appreciated for your labors and gifts. But what I hope for you is nothing as small as prestige. I hope for a living passion, profound human intimacy and connection, beauty and excellence. The greatness that you achieve, the hope I have for it, for you, is a historic sort, not measured in prominence.
Oh, that we’d all receive such a letter of boldfaced, unconditional love from our parents; Oh, that we as parents would take the time to craft such a letter to our children.
“She was devoted to the human race, but she was not romantic about it,” James Baldwin said of Lorraine Hansberry. This line came to me as I finished reading Perry’s book the second time. Imani Perry also is not a romantic, but she is a woman of deep devotion, and that is what will bring you back to this slim, penetrating book many times, like rereading your favorite psalm; or perhaps more precisely like a morning meditation, deep breaths filling your lungs with air, leaving you in a state of grace.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author most recently of the memoir, The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life In The Detroit Numbers, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing.