A Review of Jabari Asim’s We Can’t Breathe
December 4, 2018 § 1 Comment
by Katharine Coldiron
We all have that friend. You know the one. He says he doesn’t understand what people are so upset about, that slavery’s been abolished for like 150 years, that everyone’s got the same rights and opportunities in this country as long as they work hard and behave properly. That all lives matter. If you’ve ever yearned for a single book to stuff in this person’s mouth in the hope that they might absorb some truth, We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival is the one.
The author, Jabari Asim, has long experience as an editor and writer (for the Washington Post as well as The Crisis), and his research skills are top-notch. This book is extraordinarily well-informed and written in a mode just short of scholarly. It winds patiently between Asim’s life experiences as a black man from a middle-class background and the life experiences of black people across American history, whether well-known (Ida B. Wells, Barack Obama) or obscure (slaves, soldiers). It embeds single great lines, like “what could be more American than pretending truths were self-evident when they seldom were?” and “instead of going high [as Michelle Obama instructed], we should be going everywhere,” in detailed, persuasive essays that must be read attentively.
It’s a disservice to Asim’s supple rhetoric to say that one essay is about racial representation in children’s books (“The Seer and the Seen”) and another is about black fatherhood (“Color Him Father”), when all the essays in We Can’t Breathe are about so many things. Blackness, obviously, is the rebar inside each one, but each essay is only loosely organized around a particular subtopic. This is a compliment. The relaxed intentions of each essay allow Asim to draw in evidence and argument from multiple discourses instead of sticking to one area or another. In a lesser writer’s hands, the essays would meander, but Asim is not a lesser writer.
His breakout of the differences between white and black art in “The Thing Itself” is especially skilled, ruminating as it does on art by both black and white artists about important figures from black history. Asim’s conclusions are measured and thorough. On Dana Schutz, the white artist who painted Open Casket (about Emmett Till), he writes “I believe it’s possible to defend Schutz’s project without underestimating the larger problem of institutional racism that keeps artists of color out of major museums and exhibitions.” In this same essay, he denounces William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner as the product of a “usurper” while taking an I’m-not-sure approach to Kenneth Goldsmith’s disastrous Michael Brown performance. This kind of particularization is hard to come by in an intellectual culture that cherishes pugnacious rhetoric, and as a posture, it’s absolutely necessary for meaningful criticism.
We Can’t Breathe is in some ways a pleasure to read—in its intellectual rigor and personal honesty, as well as its wonderful sentences—and in other ways excruciating. As a white person, I feel implicated (and rightly so) by Asim’s patient explanations of American white supremacy both past and present. Asim exposes, without artifice or excuse, the systems that have historically oppressed and continue to oppress people of color. It’s painful to read, but it’s a powerful tonic against anyone to whom those systems are invisible or unproblematic. He asks important questions of “Lukewarmers,” white political moderates who are unperturbed about the prevalence of supremacist attitudes. “To what extent do white silence and active-but-illicit racism come between people of color and equality? To what extent do they impede our children’s opportunity to embrace the American promise?” Earlier, in a different essay, “Is voting for a racist itself a racist act? Can one commit a racist act and not be a racist? Until we delve into that riddle, no real conversation can take place between those who voted for the forty-fifth president and those who did not.”
Even though American politics has taken bizarre new shapes just in the past two years, or about as long as it takes to bring a book into print, these essays are perfectly relevant to our current moment. Part of the reason for this is Asim’s own point that the black struggle, depressingly, hasn’t changed much in a couple of centuries. But another aspect is Asim’s precise understanding of how history moves, how it leads us to where we are now. As he writes in “The Elements of Strut,”
Sometimes, I picture in my mind a crimson thread originating in Africa, unspooling alongside a young boy stumbling and choking as his coffle yanks him toward the sea. The thread extends apparently without end, through the bloody spill of centuries and across fruited plains and fetid plantations, trailing the double-time stomp of a black Union soldier and continuing to unspool beside the swollen ankles of a church matron marching her way from Selma to Montgomery. I could see the thread snaking along Pennsylvania Avenue during Barack and Michelle Obama’s stately walk to the White House. It’s a spirit-lifting fantasy of black endurance and triumph, a useful antidote for the Weary Blues.
We Can’t Breathe is, itself, a useful antidote—for the complacency and ignorance of white Americans. It stands next to Howard Zinn’s work as a supplement to an educational system that teaches the textbooks of the victors. I can imagine thrusting it at any number of well-meaning but inadequately informed acquaintances when they use the phrases “not that bad,” or “post-racial era,” or “who’s Ida B. Wells?” It’s all right here, Asim assures us. Everything we turn away from, he turns back to us, patiently, intelligently. Relentlessly.