The Urgency of Now: An Imani Perry Trilogy
Breath: A Letter to my Sons (2019) Beacon Press
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (2022) Harper Collins
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (2018) Beacon Press
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“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”(1)Excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. April 4, 1967.
Access the full speech here.
Memoir offers intimate introduction to people we want to know and may never meet. Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons caught my attention. I’m the white mother of African American siblings, daughter and son. Hearing Dr. Perry’s longing to send her boys off with this maternal paradox: “I want to hold you safe. I also want you to fly,” resonated profoundly.
I notice now how this next line is prescient, “The routes have always been rough. West Africa to Barbados to South Carolina Maryland to Alabama. To Chicago from Mississippi…. Claim your earth as you see fit and ride above it.” (2)
Raising Black children in the landscape of racial and gender violence takes courage
and the fiercest love. Breathe: A Letter to My Sons is a long letter, a short book, of warning and tenderness.
The routes Perry mentions in Breathe come into acute focus in South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. She travels below the Mason-Dixon
line through historic events, literary landscapes, with piercing contemporary longings.
“I was just trying to see how the back-then is inside the now.” (3)
History and now. She asks, “Can [the United States] ever be remade in the image of the Declaration of Independence? Or will the founders’ racist sins taunt us always?” (4)
Each chapter is a world of wonder with historic figures, racism’s worst consequences, beautiful lands, complex cityscapes, and everyday people she meets along the way.
Of New Orleans she says, “But if we are to tell the truth about that history, we have to tell the tragedies as well as its miracles.” (5) She ends with George Floyd, Houston, Texas hurricanes, pondering her writing as a “moral instrument,” and wonders if we will do more than read, if we will “allow curiosity and integrity to tip over into urgency.” (6)
Urgency was the heartbeat of Lorraine Hansberry. Dr. Perry’s biography of the playwright offers the intricacy of art of the past’s relevance to now. A Raisin in the Sun is Lorraine Hansberry’s best-known creation, but her light shines so bright despite her short life. Perry introduces us to her remarkable friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. They gave each other solace and creative inspiration during the era of civil rights activists raging and bargaining for justice. Perry makes clear how Hansberry was fearless, unyielding in timeless matters of injustice.
In a meeting of Black artists and activists with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May of 1963, she ended the meeting with a comment that is hauntingly immediate, “…But I am very worried about the state of the civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.” (7)
Lorraine Hansberry died on January 12, 1965, of cancer at the age of 34. Malcolm X was assassinated three weeks later. James Baldwin died of cancer in December of 1987 at 63. Nina Simone wrote the song “Young, Gifted, and Black” for Lorraine Hansberry, and inspired a generation of Black pride and determination. She died in April of 2003 at the age of 70.
Their art, created in the not-so-distant past, illuminates much too much of now. Dr. Perry writes in these three books of the tragedies, the miracles, the wonder of whether it is possible to ride above the heartbreaks and fly.
(1) Excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. April 4, 1967. Access the full speech here.
(2) Perry, Imani. (2019). Breathe: A Letter to My Sons. Boston: Beacon Press. P. 66.
(3) —-(2022). South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p.67.
(4) Ibid. p. 267.
(5) Ibid. p. 323.
(6) Ibid. p. 382.
(7) Perry, Imani. (2018). Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Beacon Press. p.164.