Published on September 23rd, 2019 | by Nefertiti Austin0
“My Children Are Not Problems”: Imani Perry Talks to Nefertiti Austin About BREATHE: A Letter to My Sons
It was my pleasure to read and reflect on Dr. Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons. Warm and smart, Breathe reaffirmed my decision to share intimate aspects of my life in Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America. We are each raising Black boys in a violent, racially charged climate and discuss the highs and lows of giving our children the best of ourselves, while simultaneously preparing them to navigate the world we inherited.
The publication of Breathe means new and seasoned mothers have a point of reference with lessons in history, geography, politics and the fierce love Dr. Perry has for her sons.
Here is that conversation. – Nefertiti Austin
MUTHA: As scholars, we are trained to maintain a distance from our subject. In Breathe, you break with convention and write up close about motherhood, race, gender. Why choose such a personal topic? Why now? How did it feel?
IMANI PERRY: Although four of my books are university press books, I’ve never written from an emotional distance, and I actually wasn’t trained that way thank goodness. Academic objectivity is a fiction. So, I always pursue rigor and excellence, but make clear my emotional investment in the subject. I think what distinguishes this book and Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, is that they’ve allowed me to expand as a creative writer. My wonderful editor, Gayatri Patnaik, suggested the book to me in part because I write a good deal about my sons on social media, and because its very clear to people who are around me that my children are always at the center of my creative and intellectual work. And of course, there’s a political urgency to this moment. There is so much cruelty, violence, and injustice. Writing to them, and to the world, was for me an act of devotion, a commitment to thinking deeply about how to come of age, to bloom, and to continue to grow in the face of the ugliness of the world we live in.
MUTHA: You wrote lovingly of your sons with their distinct personalities. Is it challenging to raise two different children who simultaneously face the same prejudices from society?
IMANI PERRY: Each child, really each human being, is distinct and part of the work of loving someone is to recognize and attend to their distinctiveness. Loving isn’t formulaic, and I think that includes the work of loving children.
MUTHA: I think I was expecting a formal opening salutation to your sons, but you skilled the “Dear _______” and plunged the reader right in to your narrative. Was that a conscious decision to begin your memoir that way?
IMANI PERRY: The beginning of the memoir is an invocation of W.E.B. DuBois’s classic formulation “How does it feel to be a Problem?” from the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois described it as a frequent question he receives “To which I seldom answer a word.” My refusal is akin to that of DuBois. My children are not problems even if the society they exist deems them as such.
MUTHA: In addition to your southern roots, “place” is an important aspect of your narrative and seemed to inform how you mother. Please elaborate on the role geography has played in your approach to motherhood.
IMANI PERRY: I’m very deliberate about raising my children in our traditions, meaning the intellectual, literary and musical traditions of Black culture, and also meaning I’ve nurtured a deep connection to my birth state, Alabama, in them. After Princeton, Tuskegee is probably the college campus they’ve visited most frequently. Likewise, their bonds with family in Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, and Baltimore, have taught them that they belong to a beautifully complex genealogy.
MUTHA: You write that you and your ex-husband have given your boys the gift of travel and experiences beyond what many Black folks typically experience. This privilege has created an outsider perspective on some aspects of Black culture for them. How do you keep them grounded? How do you teach humility and service to children who seemingly want for nothing?
IMANI PERRY: My children are deeply rooted in Black culture and their extended families. And they have nuanced understandings of class, gender, race and other structures of inequality which they witness every day. I’m amazed at how ethical, analytical and generous they both are with everyone they encounter, and how much critical insight they have when it comes to injustice. I think children are naturally ethical and decent. But very often adults socialize kids out of having the kind of values we need to create a better world. So while we socialize them into having good values, we also recognize their inherent goodness and nurture and support it.
MUTHA: There are not enough Black mom narratives in the world. How many would be enough to get across the message that our children are human beings who should not be stripped of their innocence so they can survive in white America?
IMANI PERRY: I don’t think writing books will eradicate the depth of American racism. Given how amazing and vast the African American literary tradition is, were that the case the problem would be long gone. But testimony and witness are always meaningful tools in struggles for justice.
MUTHA: What is the goal of Breathe? What should readers takeaway from your book?
IMANI PERRY: I hope it inspires reflection, that it resonates with readers, and that it fuels the freedom fighting imagination.