Imani Perry photo: Sameer Khan.
You have been running away from lies since you were born. But the truth is we do not simply run away from something; we run to something. I do not think you fully believe me, but I am not a mother who yearns for you to be a president or captain of industry. I will not brag about your famous friends or fancy cars, and I will not hang my head in shame if you possess neither. I am practical, to a certain extent. I want you to be able to eat, to keep a roof over your head, to have some leisure time, to not struggle to survive. 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.
It is a kind rooted in the imagination. Imagination has always been our gift. That is what makes formulations like “Black people are naturally good at dancing” so offensive. Years of discipline that turn into improvisation, a mastery of grammar and an idea that turns into a movement that hadn’t been precisely like that before—that is imagination, not instinct. Imagination doesn’t erase nightmares, but it can repurpose them with an elaborate sense-making or troublemaking. This is what I take to be the point of the idea in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” Flight is a way of transcending the material given in favor of the heretofore unseen.
Here is a confession: Recently, I have wondered if white people are irredeemable. Again, I have to issue a caveat for the sensitive. No, I do not mean individuals. Individuals are the precious bulwark against total desperation—in them we find the persistence of possibility. Of course a single person can be someone’s hell. But a single person can be a heaven, too. Or a friend.
But I worry that white people are irredeemable, and it scares me. What would the complete dissembling of the kingdom of identity look like? How would the viscera pulse under a cracked open surface? Would we all shatter? Could we put something together again? I don’t know. I am losing some of my ability to dream a world.
Freeman, for years you have plotted elaborate science fiction novels. And you used to imagine the artificial limbs you would make one day as a prosthetics designer. You were hoping to make ones in which the flesh would respond to heat and touch. And when you were very little you loved masks: green monsters, ghosts. Issa, you preferred costumes that left your face free. In either instance, you were boys who loved to play with full flights of fancy. These were not coercive masks. They weren’t the masks Paul Laurence Dunbar once described, a pleased surface presented to white America, hiding the inner roiling and rage, a survival technique. Not that. But play is complicated. The proscenium is a place of both the real and possible. The circumstance and dreaming beyond it. And the backstage is always present, parts of the interior that do not fully emerge. I want to remind you that even though you were born into a display generation, and your imagination rivets, the backstage cannot ever be forgotten.
Mothers ride the backstage of their lives frequently. Even mothers like me, who live a substantial portion of their lives center stage. I remember one day, doing an internet quiz designed to ask your small child questions. The result was supposed to be hilarity at what the kids get wrong, like your age, and all of their frankness about things like snoring and food indulgences. I asked you, “What is something I like to do?”
You sat and contemplated. I could see you going through the inventory of details: my job, name, age, and and and. But you had no answer and were silent. I was gutted.
Anyway. Here it is: I love drinking limeade and being outside in summertime. Reading, of course, and people watching. Black-and-white movies and independent cinema. Laughter and impressions. Silliness. Beautiful fabrics. Painters who verge on the gothic. Pizzeria Regina pizza, which I haven’t eaten in decades. Rain. A delicious hot bath, a long sleep. Connectedness, intimacy, semiprecious stones, being with my people—in the general and specific—and sitting in solitude. Especially while crocheting.
When I was a little girl, my windows were covered by curtains your grandmother sewed. Chinese dragon kites hung from the ceiling; a Puerto Rican flag someone gifted me and a rope of copper bells were affixed to my bedpost. I sat on the floor, by the window and the radiator to read. And dolls, my favorite kind of toy, were everywhere. In my sweet refuge of a room, I journeyed everywhere on pages and played at being a mama one day.
I used to say that one thing I would never make my children suffer from is my resentment, neither guilt nor the pain of a parent who blames you for what they fail to have. So I wouldn’t cut myself off for them, I declared as a young woman. I would model living in my own purpose and joy. Clearly I failed. I will keep trying to do better. Giving you the space to know me gives you the space to become you. At least I hope so. So indulge me a bit more:
Everyone’s story has a plethora of plotlines.
I will tell you some. You will discern some that are hidden, even from myself. Others you will hear and perhaps heed. Gabriel García Márquez said we all have a public life, a private life, and a secret life. Of the third, he said, even God doesn’t know about that one.
My story, as I tell it, never stays in one lane.
I was born a regular black girl. Brown, Alabaman. Narrow, with bowed legs and pigeon toes. The doctors corrected these features, one of which was still a mark of sexiness by the time I hit adolescence, with plaster casts. I wonder, did they actually break my legs, or control their growth? I don’t know.
I was born to an unexceptional exceptional working-class black family, known for being smart and hardheaded. You can’t tell them nothing. Lots of valedictorians, lots of tales of outspokenness. Humor and composure at once.
I was born of a graduate of Exeter and Harvard, the son of a prizefighter and cook, and a Louisianan, raised in upstate New York. One of the remarkable ones, plucked from the darker ranks because of how much he sparkled.
He and my mother separated before I was born. I was raised by a Jewish communist father. A working-class kid from Brooklyn who hated school and somehow (and here I mean somehow in terms of the labor movement and welfare-state values) ended up not where he began his working life, pushing bolts of fabric in the Garment District, but at City College, and then the University of Pittsburgh, and then Yale, and then Alabama, and then as a revolutionary.
I promise you, I am talking about myself when I say all of these things. The story I tell about myself is my constant companion. The first time I read Marita Bonner’s essay “On Being Young—a Woman—and Colored,” sometime in high school, I learned that what James Baldwin said was true: reading will remind you that you are not alone, even when you are lonely. Bonner wrote: “Strange longing seizes hold of you. You wish yourself back where you can lay your dollar down and sit in a dollar seat to hear voices, strings, reeds that have lifted the World out, up, beyond things that have bodies and walls.”
I have often wished that I was born with a caul around my face. A slippery membrane, like the flesh of a jellyfish that allows you to see ghosts. But my caul, if I could have chosen it, would walk around the history that led me to exist in this time and place. To understand myself as not only my crafted interior, but as the bloom of a certain soil.
My mother has always been the most cerebral person I know, and my grandmother was, and I know this is a cliché for black intellectuals with working-class roots but I really do mean it, one of the most brilliant. Books were everywhere in my homes. I watched my grandmother read every day, usually the paper, with a cup of coffee or a cut-up watermelon. I watched my mother read philosophy and sociology and ethnography. I think that is how I came to be.
My generation was oddly situated. And I was especially so. I was a child of the South, and of the movement, and of leftist intellectuals, and of the working class and of the New England educational elite. My home was always my grandmother’s green kitchen and blue bedroom. The language that feels closest has always been that of the black South. But my tongue, in most of my walk through life, is crisp. It is guarded. I keep the paths I travel at a distance. If you hear me say words like finda, siditty, and sometimey, it means I trust you. You remind me of the loss when I moved up north as a little girl and became a visitor, not a resident, in my home.
The protests, the prisoners, the books: Fanon, Albert Memmi, Amílcar Cabral, Malcolm X, Karl Marx—I suppose in a sense it was a form of indoctrination. But it also convicted me. I knew, even when I looked into the pale eyes of my schoolmates, that I belonged to a bigger world of people on a mission for freedom. The books were around me; they also pulled me in. I lived in them. When my dad (who lived in Chicago) yelled at political meetings, and when my mom wrote her doctoral dissertation, my nose was in a book. Sometimes my mother left me in bookstores, where I sat on the floor, for hours, reading. You have to understand: I wasn’t trying to be smart. I was satisfying my yearnings. It was play and delight. It was making do. This is why I am who I am.
The teachers who saw me and cared for me were the ones who witnessed our mutual passion. The ones who believed in the magic of the human imagination and the discipline to make it art. We shared an often unspoken bond but one strong enough to keep me attached to “school” as an institution for the rest of my life. It is a place for the people who love books.
The refuge of books will never disappear. Through each heartbreak of my life, romantic and, even more significantly, death, I go to pages: reading them, writing them. It is escapism and also creativity. I have devoted my life to cultivating and curating that place inside.
This habit of retreat is shyness and sensitivity. There is a gap that usually seems difficult to traverse, even though I am fascinated by people and enjoy many of them. In college I learned that some people saw me as standoffish. And I suppose I am, but not because of a feeling of superiority but rather of incomprehensibility. I do not blame people for not understanding me. I just prefer to experience that fact in controlled doses. But here I am trying to explain myself, still.
Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of six books, including the award-winning Looking for Lorraine. She lives outside Philadelphia with her two sons.
Excerpted from Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, by Imani Perry. Copyright 2019. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
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