Yet do a marvel at this curious thing; To make a poet black and bid him sing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
—Paul Laurence Dunbar
Asthma is an inflammation of the airways. But that word in a Black American life is an associative one. It is emergency room visits, “treatments,” and jackleg care. It is death’s door. It is the vague feeling that something in the bedroom walls, school corridors, cells, coming up from the pavement, is eking away at your life. We speak of it knowingly and frequently.
“How is your asthma?” When Dr. Bird asked me that question, I was alarmed. I’d forgotten I had ever received the diagnosis. But there it was in my chart. There are so many words about me housed in that digital file. I expect there’s more than I could guess. The chart itself is a testament to access. Not everybody has the protective surveillance of a chart or an ID, much less medical insurance. Mine is far more crowded than I’d prefer.
The conditions of my life and body have made it such that I could forget my own asthma. But I think about asthma all the time, because it has snaked through my family and friends and communities. I have written, more than once, that the most powerful statement that hip hop leaves us with is this: An art form made by generations ravaged by environmental racism is defiantly profound because it depends upon the mastery of breath. Breath control is as much its hallmark as rhyming. Snatching oneself from the gates of a breath-thieving hell, with a heavy bass line, is its testimony.
Have you ever gasped for air? You grab at it and get almost nothing. Flail. You are rendered indeliberate. Panic is the only option in that moment. Invisible hands crush your windpipe but never touching a bone. (After this, how could you not believe in ghosts?) When you get out of it, relief spreads over you. It is euphoric at first. Then trauma settles and you ritually hold your breath and neck muscles, hypervigilant for the next time though praying against it.
Black people have the highest rates of asthma in the United States. Black women are most likely to die of the disease. I am not a scientist so I can speculate about this terrible fact freely. I think it is because Black women’s roles require a tamping down of suffering in the service of labor for others. Private keening and public fortitude. There is poison in our post-coloniality of being.
That said, the post-coloniality of being doesn’t belong alone to those with colonized and Jim Crowed histories. It is a shared though wildly unequal condition. The post-coloniality of being characterizes this epoch, post- ages of revolution and decolonization and social transformation, in which we (the big we, not the freedom-fighter we) against all better dreams, remain committed to being suffocated. And as the climate crisis shows its face, we have to admit that everybody’s breath is shallowing. Everyone’s body is being invaded by the ethic of accumulation, to a greater or lesser extent. And that “lesser” promise is the worst kind of seduction. Air purifiers and green detergents are nothing but stop-gap measures in a world bent on its own destruction.
I could say, we, Black women, are like canaries in the coal mine. But the metaphor hits too close to home. It is too true a thing to attach it to the glibness of literary figurative language. Our airways are literally closing in. In the Black South, to be “strangled” doesn’t require someone’s hands around your throat. It is used the way other English speakers use “choke.” As in “I got strangled on some water.” We are getting strangled.
Once upon a time, the story was (and still is being told) that white citizens were always on the brink of being overrun by the dangerous, darker others. Borders, gates, jails, guns, prisons, and even nations are built around this idea. This is the lie at the crossroads of empire and capitalism. Because these corporations and their cronies are the ones destroying our water, our land, and the air we breathe. Our problems aren’t caused by pestilential human presence, but rather by pestilential ideology.
The recklessness of history and habit mean you simply cannot steel yourself against disaster. I have heard through scuttlebutt that wealthy Americans are planning to purchase property in the middle of “flyover” country so that they might be the last people standing as the world dies. Will they bring their Pelotons with them? Who will make the almond milk lattes? That might be a joke if the prospect weren’t so harrowing. This is what I think it is like to drown. To believe the driftwood can keep you afloat until you realize your arms aren’t strong enough to keep holding on. Or maybe like feeling secure on that driftwood before realizing sharks are circling in the water.
This, too, is a bad metaphor, I realize, because with each storm season I am reminded that drowning isn’t at all a metaphor but a true story. Remember when Hurricane Katrina happened and the news media referred to foraging Black citizens as refugees? That moment seemed to teach something about the politics of race and the nation state. But now, in retrospect, I think it teaches something about the elusiveness of this language we have. We don’t have the right words for being without sanctuary or security as a matter of socio-environmental fact, regardless of citizenship status. Or maybe we do. “I can’t breathe.”
“Blow into this”
I do it. The doctor looks puzzled. “That’s as hard as you can blow?” I am dizzy from the effort.
An inhaler and an oxygen tank were prescribed. I used them daily until I didn’t. I could make do. The oxygen-tank company threatened to send me a multi-thousand-dollar invoice if I didn’t get it back to them. Some other things went wrong that required more attention. But every time I turned my attention to that tank, I forgot where it had to go. I lost that piece of paper a dozen times under all the other papers. My credit went south for a while. Now it is all a foggy memory.
A regular shallow breath, unlike an asthma attack, is not panicked. With it, one learns to take just a little, going smaller and slower. Living is a deliberate and focused matter. You still your body. Survival feels like a luxury. And there is the danger of selfishness in that: “I’m ok. I’m ok.” And no, I don’t mean it’s dangerous for me, I mean the danger is of me, of you, of us, in relation to the word.
I will confess: Every time I fill a recycling bin, a latent anger balls up in my chest. I am a private citizen. Pretending at environmental piety will save me as lobbyists lean on politicians to keep killing us all. I peer at my air purifier sadly. Is it any less of a palliative than internet activism? Knowing that there are fewer toxins inside this room, knowing what fresh violence is being done around the world, believing that knowing is enough, isn’t that just living with shallow breath in the meantime?
Breath is necessary but insufficient.
This time in history is an associative one. One morning I am heartened by mutual aid and the persistence of sociality. Another, I am weeping and texting friends, “Is this how capitalism will finally kill us all. Is that the lesson of COVID?” I laugh to tears at the many millions who trust in pseudo-science yet sustain deep skepticism toward the pharmaceutical industry, because it is at once completely nonsensical and wholly understandable. Even the best things we have available to save our lives are made by companies that already kill in other ways. I mean, just walk through the badlands or whatever they call the opioid dens in your town, and you can see the bounty of the pharmaceutical industry. Do you know what happens in an opioid crisis? About the dizziness, convulsions, inflammation, and a shortness of breath? What a world…
I guess my point of desperation is this: I know why the caged bird sings. But I don’t know what to do when the air is gone.