We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival by Jabari Asim
Published by Picador, 190 pages, $17

In We Can’t Breathe, Jabari Asim’s tone sometimes seems like bitterness wrapped in sorrow, but it’s also suavely poetic. The Medford author and associate professor at Emerson College writes in his latest book about violence against black people, from slavery to the killings of unarmed Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. He also touches on black musicians who were “paid” in Cadillacs while their work was hijacked by white singers, as well as the questionable portrayals of their lives by white writers and artists.

Examining his own upbringing, Asim acknowledges that others were less lucky than he. His present and loving father nurtured his intelligent curiosity, eventually leading to a position at The Washington Post, the editor-in-chief role for the NAACP’s The Crisis and many books. Now in Massachusetts, Asim wonders about Medford’s Slave Wall built to mark a white owner’s property in 1765, the same year more than 5,000 blacks were held captive in our state. He also strongly embraces the energy of his race with a wonderful chapter on “Strut,” celebrating that particular confident energy displayed by blacks in music and in everyday movement and style. Sometimes that spirit is summoned in troublesome situations as when Elizabeth Eckford did so in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, bravely marching to integrate schools while being attacked.

While Asim vividly, sometimes sardonically, describes racial horrors and cruelties, his attitude often holds to measured contrarianism as well as an unforgiving stance on oppressors. His writing throughout the book embodies that spirit.

From Page 156: “Adulthood was right around the corner but Emmett never got there. Mamie Till wanted us to know why he didn’t. When she arranged his battered remains in an open casket, more than fifty thousand black Chicagoans lined up to view the body. Today, Till’s casket, exhumed in 2004 when a grand jury reopened his case, sits on display in the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture.” ◆

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