Speaking Black Life Across Generations: A Conversation with Imani Perry

Mitchell Jackson Talks to the Author of Breathe

In Imani Perry’s newest book, Breathe (Beacon Press, September 2019), the author calls on her two sons, Freeman and Issa, to live dignified, fulfilling lives that honor Black political and intellectual traditions, despite the precariousness of Black life in the contemporary US. Perry is the author of several books, including Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.

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Mitchell Jackson: I’m very much interested in how you prepared for this amazing book. Did you re-read other epistolary texts: The Fire This Time and Between the World and Me? Was Kiese Laymon’s Heavy on your mind? If so, were there elements of how they addressed their nephew, son, and mother respectively that you wanted to echo or emulate? Did you see places where you could expand or nuance what they did?

Imani Perry: All of those works, along with Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Marita Bonner’s On Being Young, a Woman and Colored, and Langston Hughes poem, Mother to Son, are in some way in this one. The idea of trying to speak Black life across generations and places, as an act of love without sentimentalism and with instruction, devotion, care, and even anger, has always been compelling to me.

Peoples lives are never static even as wisdom persists, and racism, like other -isms, is a creative enterprise. So, we try to navigate this complicated shapeshifting beast and stay whole. And we try to teach our young how to do it, as it changes. It’s difficult and yet imperative. So yeah, I was trying to step into that tradition. But I also was very aware that the particulars of my life as post-freedom movement Black woman intellectual would add a particular valence that I hope readers will find useful or compelling.

MJ: Were there other published letters that you found yourself returning often while composing the book? What fruits did they bear?

IP: I was in Japan without my books when I wrote the bulk of it. So much of it was reaching into myself for the work that has shaped me, rather than my standard pulling books off shelves, if that makes sense? I also found myself trying to read the spaces around me without having the language I needed available because I don’t speak Japanese, and that shaped this book a great deal too: how to put into words things that are hard to understand, hard to articulate, and yet essential. Also the spirit-theology of Shintoism, like feeling as though I was walking among spirits everywhere, that shaped how the book turned out.

MJ: I believe titles are essential not just to how readers apprehend a book but also to how us writers conceive and perceive of what we are making. Early in the book you write “racism is in every step and every breath we take.” Was that line the reason for the title? If not, can you talk about how you arrived at the title and it’s symbolic meaning?

IP: I haven’t thought of that before actually, but probably so. So much of the magic of writing, I think, is the dance between the deliberateness of craft and the wonder and imprecision of inspiration. The title is in part a result of how much I was thinking a lot about the air quality in the city where I was born, Birmingham Alabama, and how because of the residue of steel mills and coal mines, it had some of the worst air in the country back then . . . And all of the asthma and autoimmune diseases and various impediments to breathing freely that resulted.

And then all of the events in our lives where we have to hold our breath, and yet we must breathe. The title is an imperative, a defiant act actually. I also was thinking of Eric Garner, of course. The terrible violence of stealing his breath… it haunts me, us, I think. The stranglehold, the choking, because we don’t really have a way of protecting ourselves against it. The impunity of a racist, classist, world is terrorizing.

MJ: You write, “if you explain the way the world works, its pernicious efficacy, you will create justice warriors for a lifetime.” I began to think that perhaps that was the telos of this book, to further help transform your sons into justice warriors. Did you think of this book in terms of a thesis or central theme?

IP: I have to admit there’s something wild eyed under the book. Desperate even, but I tried to temper and tamper it with what I know, the depth of my love, and the little bit of wisdom I have gathered over the past 46 years. Values are at the heart of it, trying to beat back the amoral destructiveness of how the world is organized. And I want my children, all of our children, to embrace those values in ways we have failed at terribly. But there’s also a big question mark in it. So I’m unsure about the telos, even though I’m sure about what matters: love, decency, kindness, stewardship.

MJ: There were long periods during my childhood and youth when my family lacked financial resources, when I felt poor. I was hyper-conscious in the letter that I wrote in my last book to my daughter—who will turn 18 in a few days—that she had never known those type of struggles. In Breathe you write, “Trust me. We do not want the trials of poverty. We do not want the wrecking ball instead of the hammer.” I wondered if you could unpack those great metaphors, if poverty is the wrecking ball” what do you see as “the hammer”?

IP: I think this is really a huge thing for Black folks right?  Because almost all of us who are middle class live lives that are intimately connected to people living in poverty or with economic insecurity and honestly very close to economic insecurity ourselves. But, it’s also really important that those of us who are middle class don’t overrepresent our Black experience and instead just tell it true. One of the many things that I love about your book, Survival Math, is the stunning and thick description of Black life in a particular place, and how you can see the various ways that social class, migration, transiency, and economic realities shape Black life through all of the lives in your world and in your coming of age.

There were always extraordinary Black scholars, and a long history of these institutions refusing to even acknowledge their existence, until the demand came.

It is gorgeous and profound and particular-Oregon is not exactly the representative region for us-but there are forces at play that are at play across our experiences. You wrote that book! Anyway, to get to your question, the hammer is an important metaphor for me. Because it can tap you and bruise just a little, but it can also break your knees if its swung hard enough. Privileged Black people confront racism, confront cops, confront all of the various ways inequality is practiced. And it all can knock us over. It does more often than we admit. That’s part of why it’s so hard to ensure social class reproduction for middle to upper class Black people.

We are always slipping down the economic ladder cause the forces are powerful. That said, the wrecking ball that most of our folks live with is unrelenting. Eviction, prison, environmental racism, food insecurity, homelessness—these are frequencies in Black life. And whether or not we intimately experience them, they are ours to grieve over and contend with. Simply put, I’m not raising my sons to set themselves apart from other Black people because of an insecure privilege. I’m raising Black people who understand who and whose they are. That’s a value I hold dearly.

MJ: How’d you determine the book’s sections? How do the section titles of “Fear”, “Fly” and “Fortune” help a reader navigate the book?

IP: The sections are a riff on Richard Wright’s Native Son, which Ta-Nehisi Coates used as well in Between the World and Me. Both of them have the sections fear, flight and fate.  I have a complicated relationship with Richard Wright. I read him a lot when I was a kid, and then I went to college and learned I was supposed to dislike him because of his politics. But the thing is, Wright was an extraordinary writer, just an absolute beast with the pen, and even as he didn’t acknowledge Black love and agency and the richness of Black life, his literary genius was evidence of it.

You can hear the moaning Blues, the rhythm of Black English, the intercessions of Black prayer, in his compositions despite himself. In the second section, my shift from Wright’s Flight to Fly, was of course also a riff on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and the motif of flying, which we’ve had since the enslaved Ibo were mythologized as having flown black to Africa in the antebellum period, turning away from the American disaster. So rather than fugitivity, which is a big and important theme in Black American history, I wanted to speak about a different theme, the act of taking flight as part of the tradition of refusing the terms of this white supremacist world.

We have created so much beauty and displayed such a depth of humanity, it’s truly dazzling. I remember watching the Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus music video for “Never Catch Me” and thinking, yes that’s the tradition! I wanted to get it on that, to pump more blood into that part of our tradition. “Fortune” does something similar for me, because that tradition is in fact our great fortune. Poor in cash, but rich in humanity. It is our resource to draw upon even as our collective fate is continually re-sealed. We pop the seal with refusal and insistence, refusal of the terms of racism and white supremacy and the hierarches of capitalism, insistence on our full humanity and beauty and possibility.  

MJ: I’m glad the you mention Morrison. I like, I’m sure thousands if not millions of others have been inspired to spend more time with her work since her passing. There’s a line in The Bluest Eye that struck me. It’s when Frieda explains about the way that grown folks treat kids “adults do not talk to us—they give us directions.” It seems you resist giving directions in this book, and also that you listen to your boys. But then I also wonder if you think giving one’s child directions also has efficacy? If so, might you point to an example?

IP: You know, when I’ve taught The Bluest Eye there are two things that I emphasize that I think teachers often miss: the moral witness of Claudia and Frieda. They observe how the community fails Pecola, and even children who are deeply loved, the limitations in how adults engage with them. I do try to listen to my children, and really all children I encounter, with great care. We miss so much of what they have to teach us by ordering them around.

That said, I do give many directions to my children. And I suppose if this were a parenting book, I would have included more of that part. But it’s much more searching and intimate than doctrinal. But one direction that I try to give consistently though is about human decency and integrity. The society is consistently teaching all of us to sort people into those who have greater or lesser value. As parents we have a responsibility to raise human beings who are better than the cruelty of our society. I insist that my children show kindness and respect to everyone, including themselves.

MJ: I’m with you on giving directions. You direct a passage on Thelonius Monk at your son Freeman, citing Monk as an example of how a black man achieves genius: “Iconoclasm, passion, and the sternest of disciplines, the practice that refuses the lie of white supremacy.” I wondered if you think that definition of genius holds true for other marginalized groups. If not, what do you see in the particular circumstances of black men that demand those qualities for genius?

IP: Black people in this society, and even in this world which has been organized in large part since the age of conquest around a white supremacist ideology, have to reject that ideology in order to commit to the love for our imaginations and skills that allows genius to emerge. Now, that may be an individual rejection, i.e. a person says” I am not that inferior being that x,y, and z say I am” or at best it is a rejection of that ideology writ large. So what I mean is that there is a precondition for us, a necessary resistance. I think that also opens up a critical discernment that is its own form of brilliance. If I can recognize the lie in the idea of my inferiority, I can apply that critical faculty in many other ways.

MJ: In Breathe, you mention a grandmother and grandfather’s brilliance, the brilliance of an uncle named Byron (who reminded me of my charismatic uncles), and an aunt named Phyllis, also how there’s a long history of academic achievement on both sides of your sons’ family. There are several moments in the book where you mention the talents of Freeman and Issa, drawing, playing music, interpreting a literary text. I wondered if you could speak a little about what you see as the relationship between genius and brilliance? Also, is there a way to nurture talent into brilliance, to help transform brilliance into genius? Asking for a friend.

IP: I must admit, I’m not too precise when it comes to those terms. I don’t exactly know what the border is between them except that I think when brilliance meets the world in ways that shake its foundation and ushers in some new alignments and understandings that that is what can be described as genius. But part of what you point out is a big part of my family culture that seeped into the book somewhat unwittingly. Perrys are known for being smart and know-it-alls, for better or worse. We take pride in it. And that attitude should be understood in the context of our history in Birmingham, Alabama, once considered the most violently racist city in the United States.

We try to protect our children but there are always hurdles and roadblocks coming our way and in our children’s way, and we have to negotiate around them, or pick ourselves up off the ground if we run into them.

We had a matriarch, my grandmother Neida Mae Garner Perry, who invested in our sense of our own intelligence and capabilities. And that has never had to do with what kind of job you have or class position. Really, it is a form of self-regard that beat back white supremacist thinking. So, for example, I remember having racist slurs yelled at me and my friends as a young person in Boston and being stunned that my friends would cry afterwards. I had been given armor for such moments. I considered the bigots morally bankrupt and stupid.

MJ: In an extended passage on Western music you write, ”Improvisation is among the greatest gifts that Black music made to the west.” You also compare the improvisation of Jazz to writing. That comparison got me wondering if parenting could also be analogized to Jazz. Is there enough for you to riff on that comparison?

IP: I mean, it is all improvisation if we are honest about it. Especially for Black parents. We try to protect our children but there are always hurdles and roadblocks coming our way and in our children’s way, and we have to negotiate around them, or pick ourselves up off the ground if we run into them and nurse everybody’s wounds. And, like with jazz, developing those chops, the strategies, is a discipline. It requires practice and knowledge. And even then we know that it might not be enough. And so I guess it is like jazz in another way too, we have to revel in the beauty of the immediate moment. Our futures are not neatly promised. 

MJ: You, like your boys, were once a promising young person. I’d say you more than made good on that promise. You have a wonderful job, an important job with what I imagine are high demands, and I’ve also heard from reliable sources that you’re a generous mentor. And if that ain’t enough, you’ve also been a very prolific (I’m frankly in awe) writer. This inquiring mind wants to know how have you managed this?

IP: Ok, this requires another long answer! My life is demanding. I’m raising these beautiful children, I’m teaching, I’m participating in a powerful academic and intellectual community in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton. I mean, it really is a mind-blowing place. Every one of my colleagues is brilliant, creative, and unconventional and I love it and I feel responsible to them to do excellent work.

And I’m also living with Systemic Lupus and Graves Disease and chronic migraines. I identify as disabled because these diseases impact me every day and will until the day I die. In the thick of it all, writing really is my gift to myself. So, I insist upon making time for it when there really isn’t time, because it’s something I know I’m supposed to be doing and it brings me joy.

Now, my job as an educator is also something that I feel strongly about. I mentor and develop long standing relationships with my students because I care a great deal about them, but also because I have no illusions about how and why I have the job I have. Predominantly white universities first opened up to Black scholars because of the insistence of students, and we remain because of their ongoing insistence that we be there.

There were always extraordinary Black scholars, and a long history of these institutions refusing to even acknowledge their existence, until the demand came. And it came with a great deal of risk for the students. So I know my professional career will always be bound up with students who recognize the value of what it is I’m trying to do, and I have a responsibility to return the recognition, to see and nurture their gifts and growth. I also really adore young people. They’re smart, and curious and hopeful. And hilarious to a grizzly Gen Xer like me!

So anyway, the way I manage it is a combination of “moving when the spirit says move” as the spiritual says, prioritizing, with my children always at the top, and giving time to myself every day to write, even if it’s just a short time. And always spiritual reflection and prayer. It clarifies things for me.

MJ: Do you mind illuminating your process of revision? Is it consistent? Does it change across projects?

IP: Because I write across genres the revision process really does vary. Sometimes it’s a lot of hunting down of footnotes and other times it’s a lot of hunting down of personal letters or the right word or metaphor. But regardless, I am a hardcore outliner. I outline, then write, then outline again, over and over. I mean dozens of outlines. I try to get the pacing and form right for the piece, to tap into the rhythm of the story I’m telling or the argument I’m making, and so I almost always am writing each book multiple times over, and they change a great deal in the process.

Also, I’m pretty sure I have hypergraphia but that’s another topic altogether. My nerves get shredded when I don’t take time to write. Regardless, in the end, every book entails failure and I’m ok with that. It’s like, we can’t ever accurately depict the scent of gardenia, but what we can do is put words together well enough to evoke the sweet-drunken feeling of inhaling gardenia. And that has to be good enough. That’s the goal.

MJ: You mentioned earlier that you wrote a great deal of the book while you were in Japan and away from your books. I’d call that one an obstacle. Did you see it as one?  What’s one problem you had to solve in the making of this book? How did you solve it? What was your last significant revision?

IP: It was an obstacle but also an opportunity. One of the things I always say is, each book I write is a methodological exercise or puzzle. So, I will begin with knowing what I want it to do, and then a big part of the project is figuring out how to do it. I wanted this book to have the impressionistic but emotionally potent quality of parenting. That feeling of being in the thrall and the rush of love and life, and yet also having these moments in which you obsess and worry, and the ones in which you’re just on your knees in intercession for the most important people in the world to you.

So, as I revised towards the end, I had to resist the urge to tidy up some parts of the book, to elaborate everything. Those are academic tendencies, but I’m writing here not so much with my academic hat on, but as an artist and intellectual whose primary responsibility in life is as a mother. I’m showing my slip, or maybe a better metaphor is, showing the seams, in a way that is both new and vulnerable for me.

MJ: If precedent of the last couple of years holds true, you have an idea or are already at work on another project. Can you share anything about what’s next? Why is it next?

IP: My next book is tentatively titled: A Mirrored Pool of Brilliance, from a Margaret Walker poem. And it is about the South. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, like Walker, and that’s where I learned to walk, talk, dance and read before moving up North. It’s my home, and yet I’ve been in an exile of sorts for most of my life. I love the South deeply. Case in point: I’m profoundly shy in my daily life, but once I set foot below Virginia it’s like my every apprehension sheds and I talk to everybody.

That’s how much it is home. I also think, even with such an extraordinary Southern literary tradition, there’s still a lot to be said about the region, still questions to be answered, especially right now when the South is the pitch and pith of struggles over what this country was, is, and will become. I also have at least four other books, including some novels which I will write, as they say, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

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Imani Perry’s Breathe is out now from Beacon Press.

Mitchell Jackson
Mitchell Jackson
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years (2013), was praised by publications including the New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Times (London). The novel won the Ernest Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence and was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Salon, and Tin House, among other publications. His latest book is the memoir Survival Math.





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