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The Beauty, Terror, and Grace of Growing Up Black in America According to Imani Perry

By Gayatri Patnaik

Imani Perry
Author photo: Sameer Khan

Several months ago, when I was in the midst of editing Imani Perry’s biography of Lorraine Hansberry (Looking for Lorraine), I remember stopping and thinking about how special Imani’s voice was. She is extremely knowledgeable and intellectually sophisticated, but she also had this ability to write about Hansberry in an intimate way, and with an eloquent simplicity. A few minutes later, I happened to read a Facebook post from Imani about one of her sons and I immediately thought, How lucky her kids are to have Imani as their mother. And then I became curious and wondered, How is she educating them? What is Imani telling them about life and about coming of age as Black men in America? That led to my asking her if she’d write a book about it . . . and it’s almost as though Imani were waiting to be asked, because Breathe: A Letter to My Sons literally poured out of her in two months!

Breathe is a profound take on parenting and mothering. It’s moving, tender, gut wrenching, wise, and intense. Most of all, it’s fresh and authentic. To me, Breathe feels like spending time with a brilliant, thought-provoking, and true friend—one who never shies away from harsh realities but simultaneously refuses to succumb to despair. Imani effectively conveys how terrifying it is to be Black in America; however, she also instructs her sons to refuse to be cowed by fear and injustice, insisting they live a robust and full life.

 I wanted to mention that the cover art here is original and was created for the book by Ekua Holmes, a Roxbury-based artist. Using Ms. Holmes’s art, a suggestion by assistant editor Maya Fernandez, was a good one; her art hangs in many collections, and Imani happens to be a fan of her work as well. Ms. Holmes’s goal was to create a bold, rich, meditative, elegant, and rhythmic design. We think she succeeded!

Finally, I would say that this is a book you’ll want to re-read, discovering something new each time. It’s truly a remarkable book and an original one, and I can’t wait for more readers to discover it.


About the Author 

Gayatri Patnaik is associate director and editorial director at Beacon Press. She was previously an editor at both Palgrave Macmillan and Routledge, has been at Beacon Press over fifteen years and has published authors including Imani Perry, Cornel West, Kate Bornstein, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, and Jeanne Theoharis. She acquires in US History, with a focus on African American History and race/ethnicity/immigration, and began Beacon’s award-winning “ReVisioning American History” series. Gayatri occasionally signs memoir, began Beacon’s LGBTQ series, “Queer Action/Queer Ideas,” (edited with Michael Bronski) and developed books in “The King Legacy,” with Joanna Green, in a series about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Follow her on Twitter at @gpatnaik1.