Kimberly Bain, *20

Department of English

On Black Breath (2020)



 I can’t breathe. At once: the wheezing out of a singular reality. And: a hailing of the social, political, economic, and environmental phenomena surrounding Eric Garner’s loss of breath. On Black Breath locates the singular character of Garner’s utterance among a larger and longer singularity of Black breath, inviting readers to consider breath as shaping Black life, death, and knowing in the United States.

The project indexes the logics of modernity as a project of value extraction; racial, sexual, and gendered violence; colonial and imperial schemes; and disciplining in the name of Order. Simultaneously, the project indexes alternative modes of Black being, living, knowing, and making. Centrally, it offers the heuristic “Black breath” as a lexicon through which we can read together new histories, theories, and philosophies of Black life and Black death. I trace a physics of breathing that emerges from the racialized and Black(ened) body: how it is socially, politically, environmentally, legally, and economically managed. At the same time, I also concern myself with the metaphysics of Black breathing: how vulnerability to loss of breath has been a formative figure in the Black performative, literary, and lived tradition, one that provides if not a praxis of liberation, then a kind of radical sociality.

On Black Breath sojourns with four phenomenologies of Black breath. Chapter one, “Fugitive,” places race science in conversation with the liberatory conception of breath and air in 19th century fugitive slave narratives. Chapter two, “Labored,” asks how labor becomes ontologically entangled with Black breathing in the 20th century. Chapter three, “Ecstatic,” interrogates how Blackqueer breathlessness creates pleasurable temporalities that remix definitions of the self. Chapter four, “Exhaustion,” considers sighing as a political tactic deployed by exhausted Black women. “Conspire,” my coda, takes conspiracy—literally translates to “to breathe together—as an analytic to rethink coalition and solidarity in the contemporary moment. Ultimately, Black breath figures as more than subjection under capitalistic, heteropatriarchal systems, or as resistance to these systems. Rather, Black breath is a way of knowing the world, oneself, and one’s relation to the world, and interrogates Black phenomenology and ontology.

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