Breathe With Me As We Listen to What is Hard to Hear

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

The UU Common Read for this year is Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.

She begins with what you might think a Black mother would say to her young, Black sons: “I want them to admit that you are people.” 

I want them: those who see harm done yet remain silent, who stay comfortable when harm is done to children not their own. I want THEM to admit that my children, that Black children, are people.

Imagine yourself, whatever race you are, as a child having to hear your parent assure you that you are human. Or imagine that you are the adult having to assure your child that they are human.  

If you have read Imani Perry’s book, you heard, you read how painful and gut-wrenching it is to have to do this task as a parent, as a Black parent of Black sons… to keep your young sons’ sense of original blessing alive, by having to say not only to your child, but those with power; not only those intent on wiping away any sense of human dignity, but those who are silently complicit with continued dehumanization of those who are treating as less than, not worthy of regard.

Imani Perry is in a time when there are still Black bodies brutalized and dehumanized, some whose dying words were “I can’t breathe.”

She just wants her sons to be able to live a good life, and she is telling them how.

Yet she knows what the odds are. 

She has known her whole life, as she tells us on page 29.

My father had the poem “Who Killed McDuffie?” above his desk while I was growing up. It is a harrowing account of the unsolved murder of a Black man in Miami in 1979. I learned, practically from birth that judicial procedure was a cruel choreography and not a fact finding when it came to violence against Black people. That is the terror that makes me want to say, “That could have been my child,” and also, “That could have been me,” even though thoughts of the self cannot, should not, take over our collective outrage and grief. And I know that, despite my fear, I cannot clip your wings, as though cowering is a respectful tribute to the beauty we have lost. No, I want your wingspan wide. To honor the departed, ancestral, and immediate—…. Living defined by terror is itself destructive of the spirit. And it is submission. The truth is that life is unsafe. And genius, more often than not, remains unvalidated or, even worse, dormant. But joy, even in slivers, shows up everywhere. Take it. And keep on taking it.

Imani Perry, from Breathe (Beacon Press, 2019).

Breathe into the joy. Breathe for the ancestors whose legacy you live.

Imani Perry was born in Birmingham, Alabama and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her parents when she was 5. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies and Literature from Yale University in 1994. She subsequently earned her Ph.D. in American Civilization from Harvard University and her law degree from Harvard Law School. She taught at Rutgers school of Law in Camden for seven years. In 2009, she joined the faculty of Princeton University, where she holds the  title of Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies and is affiliated with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs and Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of six books and has published numerous articles on law, cultural studies, and African American Studies. 

Yet none of those achievements protect her or her family from the racism built into our way of being in this country together, the reduction of who we are in our resplendent fullness, to Black or white, dominated or benefiting from domination.

Like so many other Black authors, she wants us to see the world from her perspective, and to give a damn about the generational harms still being done. She wants us to care enough to speak up. 

I have read so many books about the evils of racism. All have been hard to read. Hard truths to hear. 

I had to stop reading his book often, to catch my breath. I had to put it down again and again to let the intensity of her words to her sons sink in. 

I kept imagining the letter I might one day have to write my daughter about how to recover, after being dehumanized. How to find the slivers of joy. How to find strength with those who have endured the experience I never want her to have. To be able to know that oppression is related.

I kept thinking of my children, and the legacy that they live with, the ancestors that they have.

Each one of us who reads this book will try to find our own way to make a connection, a way to understand and read it to the end, without turning away before Imani Perry is done. This book is clear in its indictment. We white folk do turn away, yet we need to see what she sees.

I believe part of the genesis of this book is that it is overwhelming. I couldn’t hear very much at any one time, because I didn’t want to hear it. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence is so full of a mother’s need to make her sons’ lives different than they likely will be, different not just for her children, but for all Black children, for all children. 

I had to feel my own sadness and guilt about how my whiteness has allowed me to see how my life and my children’s lives without hearing a Black mother’s truth. 

Near the end of the book, Perry quotes Angel Kyodo Williams, a Black Buddhist, who often speaks of how important it is to free the Black mind of overwhelming domination by white supremacy and take instead the posture of Buddhism, accepting the truth as it comes for what it is. Truth that is and yet can be let go, so that one remains with the “infinite possibilities that one can approach, if one can accept anything… even pain.”

Breathe with me. Let us accept our complicity as truth. Then, let it go. Let the pain break our hearts, but not our spirit. Let it not cause us to turn away from the beauty and the joy of possibilities.

Let us breathe together. 

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