OCTOBER 19, 2016
ASHON CRAWLEY’S STUDY of breath and blackness, Black Pentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, opens with the statement, “I can’t breathe.” How could it not?
“I can’t breathe” were the last words uttered by Eric Garner, an African American resident of Staten Island who, on July 17, 2014, was put in a deathly chokehold by plainclothes officer Daniel Pantaleo. Garner’s words turned into a rallying cry in December of that year, when a grand jury decided not to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo, a white man. Garner, like many others before and after him, was killed for “being black and breathing,” a phrase that Tony Medina used, prophetically, in his 2003 poetry collection, Committed to Breathing. “I can’t breathe” has become a striking expression of the devaluation of black lives in the United States today. It has become an expression of the asphyxiating atmosphere in which activists declare that Black Lives Matter.
Breathing is, more than ever, in the air. Of course, breathing is in the air. But it specifically is, now, in the ethos. Variations of breathing’s intensity — being out of breath, deferring the exhale, breathing in sync — constitute a popular nomenclature for expressing experiences of hostile environments and efforts to make life within them more livable.
African-American writers have developed a repertoire of breathing modalities in their criticism and poetry. In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a sigh carries the baggage of microagressions; and breath is a measure of collective memory. For Fred Moten, in The Little Edges, “breathing and black” are sources of preoccupation. And in his lecture, “The Blur and Breathe Books,” breathing spawns an affirmative space for improvisation, choreography, and entanglement. In another lecture, “Breath and Precarity,” Nathaniel Mackey moves from breathing that indicates trauma to the intoxicating, circular breathing of jazz. Across these texts, breath and breathing, even though they don’t have a stable meaning, fulfill a relatively consistent role. They show the somatic repercussions of racism while conveying an impulse to create and sustain human relationships under this condition.
Before Rankine, Moten, and Mackey, Frantz Fanon had used breathing to negotiate experiences of subordination and collective feelings and actions. In his 1952 Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon, a psychiatrist, maps out the black unconscious shaped under colonial domination and imagines, through a series of cases, a collective release from enslaved bodies and minds. “It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt,” he specifies, “It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe.” In late 2014, Fanon’s claim was widely shared on social media, as an extended version of “I can’t breathe.” By then, the subject of the claim had switched from the Indo-Chinese to a more general “we:” “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
Blackpentecostal Breath compellingly extends this tradition that occupies breathing as a site of racial politics. Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” Crawley suggests, refuses the conditions from which it conveys physical strain. The statement at once points to an injury inflected by a racism that is ambient-but-not-only and speculates a breathable otherwise. Crawley’s project in Blackpentecostal Breath is, in a sense, modeled after Garner’s statement. Both document, and enact a break from, experiences of violence. And as the book’s subtitle, The Aesthetics of Possibility, makes evident, Crawley is adamantly optimistic about the ethical and political potential afforded by this break.
Crawley’s optimism comes from an investment in Black Study. “I believe in Black Study,” he announces early in Blackpentecostal Breath. Crawley distinguishes Black Study, a collective intellectual project that disrupts the ideas and practices of a world wherein, as he puts it, “black flesh cannot easily breathe,” from black studies, a disciplinary formation tied to universities. Of course, Blackpentecostal Breath can’t be abstracted from institutional dynamics; Crawley teaches in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. But his choice to affiliate himself with Black Study above black studies reveals his intention to generate intellectual breathing room beyond the confines of the university.
The collective practices that Crawley explores include whooping, shouting, tarrying, and speaking in tongues. All of them entail a modulation of breathing; all of them are aesthetic. If Crawley focuses on breath — rather than on, say, action, movement, or voice — it’s because of the “radical sociality” implied by sharing breath and air. Blackpentecostal breath, a breath produced communally, releases what Crawley terms “black pneuma.” A riff on the Stoics’ concept for the breath of life that animates sentient beings, black pneuma enunciates a life at once “exorbitant, capacious” and “structured through and engulfed by brutal violence.” Crawley argues that breathing practices belong to the aesthetic realm, although he doesn’t establish fixed criteria for determining what does and what doesn’t count as aesthetic. The practices he gathers all impact people’s moods and are visible or tangible. He approaches aesthetics otherwise, and while he doesn’t entirely reject the beautiful and the sublime, the prestige concepts in aesthetic theory, he favors undertheorized, ambivalent aesthetic phenomena. He focuses, for instance, on the act of joyfully making noise, a celebration of what “doesn’t belong” or can’t be subsumed under order or logic. Elsewhere, Crawley looks at the practice of dancing until exhaustion, which, in Blackpentecostalism, is contingent on the “inexhaustible breath, inexhaustible spirit” of a social environment. Crawley also draws our attention to the otherwise implicit in linguistic idiosyncrasies — for example, in the present perfect progressive with which Solomon Northup begins his 1853 narrative:
Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State — and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years — it has been suggested than an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.
“Having been,” Crawley says, heralds a set of questions: “Having been, what are you? Having been, what will you be?”
The neologism “Blackpentecostalism” amalgamates blackness’s tradition of resistance with Pentecostalism’s emphasis on beginning anew. Even though Blackpentecostal Breath features Pentecostalism in its very title and suggests an intellectual, political, and ethical project from the start, Crawley insists that Blackpentecostal practices are “atheological-aphilosophical.” Blackness, an abolitionist and decolonial project, generates an “extra-subjective mode of being together” that interrupts philosophical and religious thinking premised on an individual, self-contained subject. What’s more, Blackpentecostal practices produce a shared affect or breath that induces relations and contacts independent of any given religious belief. Pentecostalism might bring people together, but it doesn’t “own” the force of this gathering. Practices must in fact be “given away” to constitute communities. As such, Blackpentecostalism’s transformational energy “does not belong to those Saints called Pentecostal.” “I still am agnostic!” Crawley even quips in his acknowledgments.
Crawley’s distinction between Blackpentecostalism and “normative theology and philosophy,” then, isn’t simply taxonomical. Granted, the abundance of new concepts in Blackpentecostal Breath is initially overwhelming. In addition to Blackpentecostalism, atheological-aphilosophical, and black pneuma, let’s note centrifugitivity, a fugitive refusal of the center that ensues from the simultaneous enactment of centripetal and centrifugal forces. Crawley devotes so much space to defining, redefining, and comparing and contrasting terms that it’s difficult, at first, to figure out how these lexical interventions might add up. And that’s the point. Blackpentecostal Breath continuously reroutes our intellectual habits, keeping us from jumping prematurely to the big picture (call it “religion” or “philosophy”) and compelling us to attune ourselves to the ebb and flow of definitions and examples. Crawley’s web of concepts serves not only an argumentative function, but also a performative one: it disorients us and makes us receptive to an otherwise. The book slowly grows richer and more complex, like a common breath that more and more people enact.
Crawley’s prose is attentive, loving. It’s round and sweet. It’s generous in associations. Anecdotes and personal emails populate the book. In one memorable anecdote, Crawley relates information that a colleague, an OB/GYN, received from a midwife:
The midwife told my friend that screaming while in labor merely restricts airflow into and out of the body, whereas moaning would allow her a bit of physiological reprieve, how moaning would, indeed, let her labor with less discomfort. Though the pain is sharp, screaming blocks airflow, it is literally sound without the exhalation of air, sound without the operation of breathing.
This brief excerpt not only frames moaning, a breathing practice, as an antidote to pain. It also produces a horizontal model of expert knowledge, one in which a professor conveys what a doctor herself learned from a midwife. Elsewhere, Crawley transcribes emails that provide a social vernacular for illustrating the intricate concepts he puts forward. Personal tales of intimacy and attraction are no longer anomalies in academic studies; they’re part of the very fabric of feminist, queer, and critical race theories. In Blackpentecostal Breath, tales and anecdotes equip us with tools to decode the book’s argument while also allowing us to pause and breathe. They infuse what would otherwise be an Airtight Academic Argument with occasions for contemplating the problem at hand in different stylistic registers.
Blackpentecostal Breath is a book of its time, but it’s decidedly future-oriented. Breathing, after all, is sequential: each breath, however strained, carries the hope of another one, and another one.