Published three times per year by Indiana University Press for the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, Transition is a unique forum for the freshest, most compelling ideas from and about the black world. Since its founding in Uganda in 1961, the magazine has kept apace of the rapid transformation of the African Diaspora and has remained a leading forum of intellectual debate. In issue 117, Transition presents new short fiction from writers with Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Liberiaand the diasporain their veins. Also in this issue are: selections from Transition's online forum, "I Can't Breathe," a venue for discussing the recent murders by police of unarmed black Americans; selections of poetry; and an interview with the architect and curator of the opening exhibit at Harvard University's new Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.
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The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora
By Alejandro de la Fuente
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2015 Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University
All rights reserved.
I CAN'T BREATHE
Transition hosts an online forum for responses to the murders of unarmed black Americans by police. The responses are raw and unedited. The following is a selection of submissions from that site. Please visit, and add your own voice.
Kangsen Feka Wakai Can't Breathe
I Can't Breathe
I can't breathe because I watched the news and saw myself, crawling on a pot-holed filled street from Monrovia to Conakry by way of Freetown. I am the other. I named my last born Ebola, but I still can't breathe.
I am Eric, Mike, and Tamir. My grandma calls me Amadou, and my friends Trayvon. I inhabit your dreams. I am the night to your day. The bad to your good, and the cry to your laughter. So I laugh to breathe. I laugh to let the air swim in, but I feel an arm grabbing me. I am humid like a New Orleans summer night. I gasp. Grasping for the Bayou's wind, yet I can't breathe.
Yemoya, abeg o!
I see you. I see her. I see him. I see them but I barely see myself in the cracked mirror on the pavement. I can't breathe.
Sir, I just can't breathe.
So I drift above like air on a Chicago Fall morning. I hug the clouds, spit out rain, shine like the sun, then I see myself lying on a concrete pavement. I smell the powder. I dive to the pile of spent shells. I hear the chorus humming. I am asleep but still can't breathe.
Kwifon, you fit see me so?
I sleepwalk through Heathrow, De Gaulle, and O'Hare in a layer of soot, which all can see but me. I can't breathe.
I smoke a joint for Fela, but still can't breathe. I chew khat and read Achebe, but still can't breathe. I shave my locks for Madiba ... I try to resurrect Sankara ... I say a prayer in Lingala. I can't breathe, so I am booking my next trip alongside Sun Ra.
Colin Dayan Can't Breathe
Hard to write what I want to say. Knowing that my words can't even get close to righteous response.
I remember Birmingham and Jackson and being a child in Atlanta in 1963. What is happening now is different. It might be more pernicious, more lasting, less easy to combat. No Civil Rights Act can stop it.
Trying to put into words what these murders of blacks—by any white person, police or not—tell us, I sense a desire to repeat the racial tags of our American history, a litany of law that seems like a series of death announcements that always precede and continue to haunt the bodies left lying on the street losing blood unable to breathe talked over and done in.
But instead I can only say what I keep thinking about: How the most well-intentioned and reasonable folks end up abetting the state of fear and atrocity, terrifying because commonplace—easily as tactful as de Blasio's call "for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things that we will talk about in due time." I remember Nina Simone's words in "Mississippi Goddam," "Keep on saying 'go slow.'" Who has to slow down? How long is due time?
Real terror plucks us by the sleeve and comes along naturally, forever just occurring, always perceptible just at the edge of our vision. What terrorizes is this casual but calculated disregard. A terror relayed not by the dogs, hoses, and bombs in the new South of the sixties, but by the near nonchalance of legal murder anywhere in the United States today: as if these living breathing black citizens, now dead, were not supposed to go about their lives, walk down the street, stand on a corner, put their hands in their pockets, take a toy gun to the park, go down the stairway of their own building—breathe.
Metta Sáma Can't Breathe
Realism: a poetics
"Imagination! who can sing thy force"—Phillis Wheatley
The woman's fingers are alternately
two praying mantes in mid fight alternately
the skittish legs of a rock crab blue
limbs swishing left and back to blue
mirages of packed sand untrammeled hole
Free No life forms around the small world a hole
waiting to be dug or alternately
the world is a giant fissure of blue
music classical notes plinking hole
after hole into a theory of What
What does the mantis pray for What
does the crab skirt from What
is this life A force of What
will happen to this child
I want with its child
thoughts and its ways naïve
untouched Is that naïve
to think a child I could birth
could be untouched by the world before its birth
I think I want to at the least imagine
that tiny world is somewhere I can imagine
many days with this naïve child
its kewpie face a successful imagined birth
It gets hard I will not lie to you
to keep it up The dream I will not lie to you
is hard to keep up Who is in this imagined world No one
In this invented world it is me my safe babies that is no one
Where in this world can I have babies safe
Not me not my lover we can not have babies safe
from this world The woman's fingers are alternately
praying and prayer is a fight a flight alternately
I resent this blond child and her blondish mother
and I hate this resentment but god this mother
imagines a safe world for her daughter
and she will be granted it Her daughter
in a safe world I can only imagine
God I grow weary of the imagination
Tennille Allen Can't Breathe
I am on a table. Cold ultrasound gel on my distended, pregnant abdomen. "You're having a boy", the technician tells my husband and me. "You're having to raise a Black boy in America" is what I tell myself. My head throbs. My heart races. I can't breathe.
I am on a table. Cold ultrasound gel on my distended, pregnant abdomen. "You're getting a baby brother", the technician tells my son. "You're having to raise two Black boys in America" is what I tell myself. My head throbs. My heart races. I can't breathe.
I walk my nine-year-old son to the bus stop, holding my two-year-old son's hand. Hearing their laughter and questions in the wind, I smile. Looking at their heads, covered by hoodies worn to guard against the fall wind, I see Trayvon Martin and wonder who will see them in their 17-year-old bodies and see threats and not boys. I wonder who and what can guard them against this threat that comes with being Black in America. My head throbs. My heart races. I can't breathe.
My baby is five now. His doctor's height and weight charts can't contain his presence. My little boy in a big boy's body. Mike Brown. Eric Garner. Big boy. Big man. Big bodies. Their presence made bigger by their blackness. I see my little boy in a big boy body. How soon before his blackness makes his presence bigger? I wake up that night and watch my sons sleep. I see Tamir Rice in their rounded brown cheeks. In the morning, I drop my 11-year-old son and 13-year-old nephew off at school. I see Jordan Davis in their lean brown bodies, sliding into manhood. My head throbs. My heart races. I can't breathe.
They breathe. They will breathe.
Rae Paris Can't Breathe
Strangled: Letter to a Young Black Poet for D. A.
A zombie is a technological soldier
ingrained in race
trying the spirits of beautiful folks like you.
A zombie moves in the same moment wrong
together with other zombies sluggish,
the apex of not feeling.
This is all to say: you are not a zombie.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
You are not a zombie.
You are tired.
What you feel is valid.
Speak this insane ass country.
Slap the shit out of privileged spaces.
Study the hiatus of hermits.
Be a moving arbor, thankful.
Meet the words of loving others.
Understand respect is not love.
Work through talking rage.
Weep blocks of wood.
This is all to say #blackpoets love you.
#blackpoestspeakout to and for you.
This is all to say I myself love you.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
I love myself loving you.
Kellie Carter Jackson Can't Breathe
Why I Can't Breathe and Why I'm Fighting Back
We benchmark history with violence. So often the watershed moments of historical record are steeped in violence. Classes are taught from slavery to the Civil War, from the Civil War to the Iraq War, from WW1 to WWII. We have classes for the time "in between the wars." We teach on Vietnam and the Cold War. We teach post-colonial classes which often become nothing more than a study on the uses, consequences, and lessons of violence. Even when we teach about the Civil Rights Movement, we are not teaching about nonviolence, but about an orchestrated response to violence. Violence at the voting booth. Violence at the lunch counter. Violence that bombed churches and killed four little girls. Violence that left a bloated boy in an open casket. Violence that left a husband and father murdered in his driveway. Violence that became the "War on Drugs." Violence against our struggle to accumulate wealth. Violence against our environments and health. In black America, we benchmark our oppression with violence. Indeed, violence has become the fluid that propels us along from moments to movements, from funerals to fury.
In the timely words of Franz Fanon, "We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe." I'm fighting back because, when they told me, "It's a boy!" I realized I couldn't catch my breath. I'm fighting back because sometimes being black is a suffocating experience. I'm fighting back with my writing. I'm fighting back with my purchases. I'm fighting back with what I create and produce. I'm fighting back because I understand that racism is violence. I want to breathe. I need to breathe. We need to breathe. And years from now when we historians evaluate this moment, this movement, they can judge us by our responses to violence.
Charles K. Nfon Can't Breathe
I'm black and proud, James Brown sings.
And we sing along, being proud at the moment, hoping it will last.
Then a black life is taken at its prime.
Taken for the "crime" of being black and walking, speaking, breathing.
So the euphoria of "black and proud" fades.
What we said loud is replaced by what we say softly or don't say at all.
And that is, I am black and afraid.
I am afraid of the police.
I am afraid of the vigilante.
I am afraid of the white man with a gun.
He's gonna shoot me and get away with it.
I am black and every stepping stone is like egg shells.
I am black and afraid.
I am black and scared I am a target for shooting.
The horns sound like music when I walk down the upscale street.
But it is not music, it is them making sure their cars are locked.
The old woman grabs her handbag tightly as I walk by.
The other crosses the street as I approach.
They look behind nervously as I stand in line at the shop.
Or walk faster if I am behind them.
They are suspicious of my color without knowing me.
They are scared of me for being me.
And so they shoot when in uniform.
Prosecute me when in robes.
Lie against me when on the witness stand,
Find me guilty when on the jury and they are always the majority on the jury.
It is here to stay if prejudice doesn't end.
I am scared but not broken.
I am gonna live on, as honest and law abiding as I can.
That much freedom I have.
And if I say I can't breathe hopefully they will listen.
Jenny Korn Can't Breathe
Digital Revelations from "I Can't Breathe"
I see people mocking White privilege out of ignorance, forwarding images on Facebook that state that White privilege does not exist and is a claim made only by people that dislike White individuals. I see the number of "shares" of this infuriating image rise to over 670. I see the increase in the number of people agreeing with the racist image below, as more and more Whites drop their "likes" on this image, totaling over 710.
I see your truth. Facebook has changed the way we relate to each other. Beliefs you had, I might not have learned of until we had a candid conversation in person. Now, you are emboldened by online social media. You know that when you post, you will undoubtedly find others that share your racist values. Your community, full of White privilege, will affirm that race does not matter, through their clicks, likes, forwards, shares, retweets, and mentions. In your rhetorical stance, you assert that we should not criticize cops. In reply, we state that police officers are not above reproach. We need to hold them to a higher standard than the one that allows them to go on record as dehumanizing Black men, calling them "beasts" and "demons," and even videotaped while using banned chokeholds on a Black man gasping for his life, pleading eleven times as he was choked to death under the hand of a White police officer:
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
I can't breathe.
Your behavior reveals your beliefs, especially online, and now, I see who you are.
Danielle Legros Georges Can't Breathe
The impossible task of breathing
Near guns, breathing and running,
Breathing and standing as still as
Death is when it closes you off,
When it wraps its arm around you.
If breathing is living, if breath is
Spirit, what spirit lifts you off
The earth, not seeing itself so.
Death, be not proud. Behold your
-Self here as the fear you are.
As the falling stripe. As the falling
Nicholas Rinehart Can't Breathe
On Élie and Eric
The Montagne plantation on the island of Martinique was founded in 1810 by two brothers for the harvest and refinery of sugar. One of the brothers, Saint-Catherine Clauzet, shared with his slaves the toils and duties of the plantation. He relied especially on the assistance of skilled foreman Jean-Baptiste and expert refiner Élie. When Clauzet died in 1839, his son-in-law Marie-Louis-Joseph Havre assumed complete control of Montagne, initiating his own reign of terror.
When the plantation's sugar crop began to spoil, Havre blamed Élie. The refiner was confined in shackles to the garret of a plantation building—later to be joined by JeanBaptiste and an enslaved woman named Angèle—where he died of deprivation soon thereafter. Both Jean-Baptiste and Angèle gave witness testimony against Havre when their illegal confinement and torture came under investigation years later. The official report of Judge Hardouin's inquest was reprinted in the second volume of L'Histoire de l'esclavage pendant les deux dernières années, published by French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher in 1847.
Jean-Baptiste recalled Élie's dying moments thus: "Élie, feeling about to die, asked for nothing but water; but I didn't have any to give him; he suffered greatly from thirst. I saw him take our jug, I heard him breathe the freshness from the jar, but it didn't have any water." Angèle, too, echoed this image: "Élie asked, several times, for a little water; none was brought to him. He brought to his lips his water jug, there was nothing inside and he breathed it like that!"
Any glimpse of Eric Garner's quick murder immediately recalls Élie's death. In the brief moment that Eric gasps desperately for breath and reaches out his tensed hand, Élie grasps in vain for the empty water jug—the two images superimposed like a photographic mishap.
It may seem an epic trudge separating Élie and Eric. Yet no matter the great distance between, time has a way of snapping it shut. Past and present coil in history's brutal warp.
Renée Stout Can't Breathe
I can't breathe because I was born in a Godless country. How else could my slave ancestor's bodies, minds and spirits have been used to forge a nation that will never honor what they were forced to sacrifice? We've fought wars against enemies who are not our own, for a "freedom" that wasn't meant for us. No apology forthcoming and no remedy for the post-traumatic stress disorder that continues to reverberate through each new generation of those first African Americans' descendants. We were never supposed to thrive here. Rosewood and Tulsa's "Black Wall Street" taught us that.
Damned if we do and damned if we don't: poor = lazy, successful = uppity. As a young woman, my father told me that no matter what I chose to do in life, I'd have to be twice as good. I needed no further explanation. I've been working twice as hard ever since and now I'm getting tired. I'm tired for all of us who've come to the realization that you can work ten times as hard, become the president, and when it's all said and done, you'll still be treated as a foreigner on land you were born or something less than human.
Excerpted from Transition 117 by Alejandro de la Fuente. Copyright © 2015 Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsI Can't Breathe,
New African Fiction,
Transition presents new short fiction from writers with Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Liberia—and the diaspora—in their veins,
To Be Where We Are,
Bras-Coupé by Louis Armand Garreau, translated and introduced by Sarah Jessica Johnson,
Over Seas by Peace Adzo Medie,
Welcome to the Big Apple by Marame Gueye,
The Smell of Fear by Prudence Acirokop,
Rumors by Vincent Ikedinachi,
100,000 Men by Fafa Foofo,
An Unexpected Gift by Ifeanyi Chi,
The Dragon Can't Dance by Sheree Renée Thomas,
Breweries by Jekwu Anyaegbuna,
From That Stranded Place,
John Warner Smith,
A Letter from John D.,
Reply to the Letter from John D.,
My Father Drops his Larynx,
The Coffin Maker and the Poet,
The National Identity Card,
Ali Mazrui (1933–2014),
Remembering Ali Mazrui by Wole Soyinka,
A Tribute to Ali Mazrui by Seifudein Adem,
Luminous City, Luminous Gallery,
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