A Starred Kirkus for Imani Perry's Breathe

Jun 05, 2019
A distinguished scholar writes to her sons about the joy, possibility, and grace of black life amid ongoing American struggles with race, gender, and class. Carrying on an iconic legacy of public letters from black writers—think James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Kiese Laymon, among many others—Perry (African American Studies/Princeton Univ.; Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, 2018, etc.) reflects on her family history, tying it together with cultural allegories to impress upon her sons the precious inheritance found within black social life and the pursuit of a livelihood full of "passion, profound human intimacy and connection, beauty and excellence." A multidisciplinary and acclaimed researcher, Perry uses references throughout the slim volume that range across centuries and the global black diaspora, across folklore, music, and visual arts as well as the influence of numerous faith traditions. "The people with whom you can share the interior illumination," she writes, "that is the sacramental bond." She breaks down the structures of violence and marginalization that black children face while uplifting the imaginative and improvisatory space for them to focus on their becoming, to not be trapped in misnarrated stories or "forced into two dimensions when you are in four." Echoing Baldwin's distinctive "Letter to My Nephew," Perry emphasizes the critical life discipline of making choices—not in the shallow sense of choosing success or achievement but rather within the depths of the long, historic freedom struggle to answer important questions—e.g., "How will you treat your word? How will you hold your heart? How will you hold others?" Deeply intergenerational, the book blurs intended audiences to call all of us to face up to legacies of injustice while insisting on the grace and conviviality necessary to imagine just futures. A masterfully poetic and intimate work that anchors mothering within the long-standing tradition of black resistance and resourcefulness.