For nearly two decades, Jabari Asim has chronicled the African American experience--past and present--in books for adults (The N Word) and kids (Fifty Cents and a Dream). In the eight essays in We Can't Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival, he merges a memoirist's personal narrative with a historian's authority, producing a work of panoptic scope and clarity.
In "The Seer and the Seen: On Reading and Being," Asim reflects on the sporadic presence of black characters in the picture books available to him as a child. In "The Elements of Strut," about the way that white people read the black body in motion, Asim describes a morning walk during which he picks up a subtext of distrust from a white police officer's idle-seeming chatter. "Color Him Father" begins with a look at President Obama's 2009 Father's Day speech, during which the president addressed the deleterious effect of absent dads on the black community, and proceeds with Asim's assiduous consideration of his reliably present schoolteacher father.
While each of We Can't Breathe's essays is a powerhouse, the book's tour de force is "The Thing Itself," a five-part look at white appropriation of black identity, notably through artistic interpretations of Emmett Till's and Michael Brown's dead bodies and in William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. For this essay, Asim reserves his harshest judgment and sharpest wit. Perhaps most winningly: "As for Styron's renderings of black women, calling them cartoons would be uncharitable--to cartoons." Without its plentiful moments of levity, We Can't Breathe would break your heart. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer