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We Can't Breathe


A Mother and Daughter Read


This issue focuses on books and their power to shape our view of the world. Gayatri Patnaik’s essay, “On Finding Meaning and Creating a ‘World House,’ reflects on her journey to becoming the editorial director of Beacon Press. Stephanie Krehbiel and Paul Tiessen each reflect on Miriam Toews’ latest novel, Women Talking, based on a real-life travesty of sexual abuse in a conservative Mennonite community in Bolivia. And the mother-daughter team of Kimmie and Linda Wendling reflect on We Can’t Breathe—On Black Lives, White Lies, and The Art of Survival, a book of essays by Jabari Asim, journalist and editor for the Washington Post. In so doing, they share aspects of their mother/daughter story that shape the perspectives of their conversations on race. We plan to make the Wendling reviews of contemporary books on race a quarterly feature of the Journal, opening much-needed conversation and offering words that shape and sharpen our perceptions of the world we live in.

It’s five years ago, in the middle of hot August afternoon in a quiet, artsy St. Louis neighborhood, and my daughter Kimmie, a young, black, widowed mother, carries a grocery bag home from the market. It holds milk, tomatoes, and a raw roasting chicken. As she approaches her corner, two younger white girls step out of a café and immediately one of them beams at her.

“OMG!” she says. “We have the exact same shoes!”

Kimmie looks down and gasps, and the girl says, “Aren’t they just the best?”

The three laugh and the talk turns to shopping because—well, you know: shoes. And girls.

A passing police car stops.

Kimmie: Both officers get out. They ask me where I live. I point across the street to my apartment, my pretty new curtains above the salon.

“I don’t think so,” one of them says.

It’s hard to not start shaking, and I’m thinking, What is this? What did I do?

I offer to introduce them to the salon’s white owner, who can vouch for me.

But they say, ‘No. We need to take you in because sometimes black women recruit white girls as sex slaves. We have to check you out.’"

At this point, you should know two things:

My daughter usually walks with a cane because of a degenerative disorder; hardly the gait of a kidnapper. But one thing is working against her here: she happens to be quite beautiful. I mean, it’s not just me, her mom—strangers remark on it.

One cop guides her into the back of his car.

She goes quietly, scared, humiliated, the white girls staring after her, thinking how they’ve just had this big adventure.

Kimmie: And I know—whatever happens now that I’m in this car, if I get out alive, who’s going to believe what I tell them? Who’s going to listen to me?

In his new book of essays, We Can’t Breathe—On Black Lives, White Lies, and The Art of Survival, Jabari Asim, prize-winning editor and columnist for The Washington Post, writes, “African Americans move through space fully aware of this fact: Police officers [and white vigilantes] break the black body with the reliable blessing of the state.”

Asim presents a slender, power-packed, beautifully readable collection of essays that range from the need for authentic voices telling black stories, to a transcript of George Zimmerman’s fears of an unarmed child with a bag of Skittles, to the almost constant need to discipline one’s own black body to not give others an excuse to crush it out, to the age-old debate on how best to end this ongoing oppression and the cheap easy killings of so many black humans.

A significant portion of Asim’s new book is dedicated to what he calls “the Elements of Strut”— a celebration of the black body’s beauty in movement juxtaposed with the constant, unpredictable looming threat of its being cut down for nothing more than walking. Or breathing.

My daughter’s lone walk home from a grocery store was reason enough to detain her, limping or not. “Racism,” Asim says, “and its accompanying cruelties have shaped me to police myself, to restrict my own movement through spaces.”

Kimmie: Reading Asim’s book just brings it all back: I shouldn’t have to worry about who’s watching me walk, or how I walk, or if I’m being nice enough to two young white girls who approach me first. I shouldn’t have to stay on speaker while driving and black and female just in case someone might decide to take me out of my car and drive me out somewhere and rape me just because he can.

After Trayvon Martin was killed, schools began giving black students lessons in how to stay calm when a cop approaches “…because the police are scared.” It is now the child, not the officer, who must be trained to stay calm and talk in a soothing tone.

That Tuesday in August was just one incident out of a life of police harassment against just one beautiful young woman. Just one more moment of trying not to get hurt because her skin has drawn attention.

I asked my husband, “Shouldn’t the fact that Kimmie walks with a limp be enough to prove she was no threat?” But this only brings us to a key question in Asim’s book: Since when should being good enough be the criterion for earning one group’s right to walk and breathe and live? Asim respectfully challenges Michelle Obama’s famous proclamation “…when they go low, we go high.” He writes: “It remains a profound and…interminable paradox that African Americans are constantly striving to prove themselves worthy of citizenship in a country that has not proved itself ready for democracy.”

Kimmie: At the station, the police escorted me into the vestibule between the doors and the station, then just stood and watched me. I was not charged or even questioned. I was not put into a cell.

“Am I under arrest?’ I said.

No answer.

“May I go?”

Nothing.

“I have to collect my little girl soon.”

Nothing.

For a long time they only grinned as I stood there, the milk, the chicken, the tomatoes, all growing warm in a soggy bag.

“You want money?”

Now they found their voices.

“How much have you got?” Friendly, almost gentle smiles.

I reached in my purse and gave them all I had for the privilege of opening that door.

Asim concludes:

“‘Going high’ often seems designed to tiptoe around the sensitivities of sympathetic observers…it creates the unintended consequence of lowering the bar where the support of white ‘progressives’ is concerned…When they say, ‘I’m doing all I can,’ what does that mean? Unless they’re challenging the tradition of unearned advantage every day at every opportunity, they are not doing all they can…not as long as there is hunger and other people have knowledge of it, as long as there is wanton killing not only by cops but also by ‘terrified’ private citizens and self-styled vigilantes…as long as citizens remain silent while watching their nominal leaders build fortunes on the backs of the poor and defenseless.”

We are out of time. To retain polite silence in the face of racism is to choose the side of hate. We have to speak out when it is most uncomfortable to do so, even when it puts us at risk.

Because that’s why we’re here.

And because not everyone can.

Kimmie did stop me from reporting those cops.

“Why?” I said.

“Because my baby girl still lives here, Mom, and now they know her windows.”

I can (and do) get loud and mad. I can unpeel my imperious White-Woman Rage and someone may “unfriend” me, but they are not very likely to “stand their ground” and shoot me (not and get away with it).

But for my daughter, every breaking of silence is weighed first against its consequence, as she wonders who knows where her little girl lives; as she stands wary guard by a window all through a hot St. Louis night to watch her little girl sleep.

About the Author

Kimmie Wendling-Johnson has done public speaking at fund-raising events to support Project COPE in St. Louis, which helps newly released ex-offenders start again within a community of faith. As a child abuse and childhood trafficking survivor, she was wrongfully convicted at 15 years of age for defending herself against a would-be rapist. Released from prison after 10 years, she chose to start her life over again by choosing for herself a new family and a new start, joining the already biracial Wendling family. She has faced down and escaped the bullying and stalking influence of a dangerous, abusive, extended biological family. She is daily fighting to conquer PTSD, addiction (from early childhood), agoraphobia, and several debilitating disorders, and most of all, dangerous people—to build a completely different life for herself and her child. Together they have become a household of two strong young women, including a young scholar and athlete who has won a phenomenal number of academic, athletic, and citizenship awards. Today Kimmie and her daughter have shared their unique, ever-changing stories with organizations including Humans of St. Louis, the American Council of Caregiving Youth, The Old Newsboys Organization of St. Louis, and Big Brothers-Big Sisters Organization. She has recently recruited her adoptive mother Linda to help her share her story. "I'm done hiding. I'm done running away. I'm strong now," she says, "and I want others to see what I have seen." Linda Wendling is a writer whose fiction and essays have won a variety of prizes and publications including Best New Stories from the South (Algonquin), Heartland Fiction Prize (New Letters), Norton Anthology of Microfiction, the Milton Fellowship, Starr Fellowship, finalist in both the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize and the Bellwether Prize for the Novel, Guest Editor of the anthology Peculiar Pilgrims: Stories from The Left Hand of God (Hourglass Books), and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is honored to now be a collaborator to help Kimmie share her story. Kimmie and Linda are both members (Linda in absentia) of the St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship (St. Louis, Missouri).