Photo credit: Sameer Khan
I turned eight the year Stevie Wonder’s album Hotter Than July
was released. My favorite song from that album was “Master Blaster.” Like most people, I imagine, I called it “Jammin,’” from its refrain, “Nobody ever told you that you / would be jammin’ until the break of dawn.” A reggae-influenced jubilant song, it makes you want to dance and laugh. And I was listening to it, nostalgically, the day before I heard that the former and first Zimbabwean prime minister, Robert Mugabe, had died.
I cried. Not over Mugabe’s death, but over his loss. Before he was a despot, he was a freedom fighter. In “Master Blaster," Wonder sings, “Peace has come to Zimbabwe / Third World's right on the one / Now's the time for celebration / 'Cause we've only just begun.” It's a party song, and a revolutionary one. I was raised a child of leftist intellectuals. So I knew why Zimbabwe was called out in the song, who Mugabe was, and how his political organization, ZANU, beat back the British colonial forces, just as I knew about the New Afrikan People’s Organization in the U.S. South, that shouted the mantra “Free the Land,” and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the ANC in South Africa. Around me, adults talked about Algeria, Guinea-Bissau, Chile, El Salvador, and so on.
One of the stories that I tell in Breathe: A Letter to My Sons
is about me in second grade. A classroom globe had Zimbabwe's colonial name, Rhodesia, on it, and I told my teacher that the name was incorrect. It was the colonizer’s designation. She taped over it, at my request, and wrote Zimbabwe.
That was just under 40 years ago. And raising children now, I can’t help but think the unfinished or distorted business of freedom fighting from my youth leaves all of us by turns confused, bitter, or confounded. The music is not so hopeful now. And I’m not so sure about where and how to point my kids towards freedom.
Those of us who are unafraid to tell the truth about these failures carry an enormous responsibility.
When I was a child, many of my white peers talked about the environment: Greenpeace and the Audubon club. Back then, I was skeptical of them, people who seemed to care more about the trees than human suffering. Now, I know that there is no separation between saving the planet and loving its people. I remember the Iran Contra hearings, the sleazy Cold War deals that fed religious fundamentalism abroad, as well as guns to those who would tamp down socialism in favor of authoritarianism. I remember the sanctuary given to undocumented people in my father’s friend’s church. I remember the rise of crack cocaine before opioids and meth. I remember when good industrial jobs disappeared, dropping the bottom out of working class black life, and the black lung disease settlements for men who had once been proud to work in the mills and mines of Alabama. Thick wads of cash in exchange for breath that grew shallower and shallower until they choked to death.
This season of reaping is devastating. When I titled the book, Breathe
, as many people have guessed, I was thinking of Eric Garner’s dying repetition, “I can’t breathe.” I was also thinking about my own days of sleeping with an oxygen tank when my lupus flared badly. I was born in Birmingham, an industrial city that at the time had the worst air quality of anyplace in the nation, and I carry diseases that are likely evidence of the consequences of that air.
Despite all of this, I want to remind my children, and all children, to breathe deeply where we can, to hold on to sustenance. It is at once a necessity for life and a form of refusal. Black Americans traditionally say, “As long as I have breath in my body…” before announcing the greatest of commitments. A fight to the last breath. The music that my generation made, hip hop, is about both the mastery of language and the control of breath. Even in the most breathless of circumstances, the task is to hold it, to control it, to make meaning and beauty out of it. Still.
We’ve failed in so many ways. The nation we Americans live in was founded on a contradiction. As Fannie Lou Hamer once called it, this is the “Land of the Free, Home of the Slave.” After generations of hard-fought correction, the logic of slavery seems to be encroaching more deeply into the fabric of our lives as we idle before our own despotic leader. Trump is worse than Mugabe. There is no moment that we can point to from the past of a once-good self now distorted when it comes to Trump. His past is ugliness: housing discrimination, misogyny, exploitation. Unabashed racism and anti-Semitism. His present is violent chaos here and there and everywhere.
All of us who are parents, educators, or the family members of young people are leading our children despite evidence that our capacities are limited and our breath is shallow. We have not prepared the table for them as we should. They know that we allow Central American children — their peers — to be ripped from their parents and kept in detention camps, hungry and vulnerable, their trauma growing with each passing day. They may not know, but they should now, that we allow children — their peers — to be locked in cages as punishment for infractions born from poverty and cruelty, kids tried in court as adults and treated as less than human. They know that there are children who sleep on the street, who live in slums, whose lives are grounded down before they even get started. They know the guns are everywhere, and more are made every day.
Those of us who are unafraid to tell the truth about these failures carry an enormous responsibility. As long as we have breath in our bodies, we must fight with our young for their inheritance: neither status nor a mess of pottage, but a life-giving earth; and the earth itself; and its people; the best ideas; the virtues of justice; the deepest kindness; the examples of love and beauty beyond measure.
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is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, where she also teaches in the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, and in Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and spent much of her youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Chicago. She is the author of several books, including Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry
. Breathe: A Letter to My Sons
is her latest book. She lives outside Philadelphia with her two sons, Freeman Diallo Perry Rabb and Issa Garner Rabb. Connect with her on Twitter (@imaniperry