Hands up, don’t shoot, can’t breathe, can’t run, can’t play, can’t drive, can’t sleep, can’t lose your mind unless you are ready to lose your life, dead dead dead” -Perry (15)
A distinguished Black scholar writes to her sons about the delight, hope, and grace of Black life amid ongoing American struggles with race, gender, and class. Perry writes this love letter to her sons to remind them that they live in “some worlds that are more white than Black...and that the aversion to Blackness can turn perfectly lovely people grotesque”. The title alone evokes the idea of intentional breathing within the current society we live in. Last year’s racial reckoning and the pandemic have magnified this awareness, pushing a lot of Black mothers to acknowledge that their experience of motherhood is compounded by a unique kind of suffering. Where Black parents and their children must take a deep breath as they step out into the world, there is a constant struggle to do what the body is meant to keep doing...BREATHE. This notion may seem simple, but in the era of senseless killings of Black bodies, Perry’s one word of advice to her sons, “breathe,” is a way of insisting they stay alive.
The intimacy throughout the letter to her sons provides personal narratives, to help those readers of any color that are looking for insight regarding what life as a Black mother, or Black person can look like. Throughout the letter, the reader becomes privy to the fact that as a mother, Perry cannot guarantee the safety of her children because of the color of their skin. “Breathe” centers on Black endurance throughout history and the fights that are being fought within Black society.
Like any parent, the author wants her two boys to be given the ability to lead happy, thriving and safe lives. Yet there is always the disturbing prospect of the white imagination, where these boys are not seen as individuals and simply judged for being Black and are subjected to the “larger white world’s constant evaluation as to whether or not you are worthy”. I wonder if this white world is mainly a western view and should be viewed or stated as American white society?
This brilliant book is not without its hiccups or perhaps cliffhangers throughout. In one section Perry mentions the death of her eldest uncle “Boot”. This section starts with the shocking sentence “Boot was poisoned”, then proceeds to talk about the what-ifs that his future could have held, and nothing referencing the bold statement of the section. Leaving the reader to perform mental gymnastics turning pages back and forth thinking they have missed something. Yet in the end...we don’t know what happened to “Boot”. Maybe it is just me, but unfinished thoughts that linger throughout the book could cause a reader to put the book down.
Perry weaves in her own memories from childhood to parallel those of her sons. Almost as a way to show that the world has changed, but not in a vast way when it comes to the Black experience. These intertwined histories are sometimes confusing without its section breaks and each story flows into the next. Upon completion of the book, one would call this letter a collection of letters and memories for the author's sons to regale later in their years.
The historical recollections and stories that Perry is telling her sons, is a way of giving them a connection to their mother and all Black people that have come before them. A way to expand on the village that has raised them, a way to dive deeper into what it is and has been like to be a Black individual in a white society. It’s a scary labyrinth that can be solved and lived in, with the guidance of others, but not something that should be feared. Because after all, as Perry states “ you must move towards freedom”.