A Short History of "I Can't Breathe"

"I can't breathe," a phrase that has become a slogan, signifies more than Eric Garner's final, exasperated words. 

The phrase is powerful; it depicts Mr. Garner's final words, but also reflects an attitude in minority populations (black, brown, yellow, red, mixed-color) of being suffocated by the structures of power--laws, penal codes, erected on principles of racism and bigotry so ingrained in our culture they have become invisible. 

I couldn't help but feel that I had heard the phrase before, in slightly altered form. The phrase and its connotations beyond the literal have their roots in Richard Wright's seminal book on racial injustice and inequality, 1940's Native Son. 

In the beginning of the novel, Bigger Thomas, the novel's anti-hero, stands on the corner chatting with Gus, his friend and nemesis. They are smoking, joking, pretending at playing white, ruminating on the impossibility of achieving the same things that white people have power to achieve. Success, wealth, equality, are forbidden them, not because they lack intelligence, work ethic, or talent, but because of their skin color. At one point, Bigger asks Gus where white folks live. 

"Over across the 'line'; over there on Cottage Grove Avenue."
"Naw; they don't," Bigger said.
"What you mean?" Gus asked, puzzled. "Then where do they live?" 
Bigger doubled his fist and struck his solar plexus.
"Right down here in my stomach," he said. 
Gus looked at Bigger searchingly, then away, as though ashamed.
"Yeah; I know what you mean," he whispered.
"Every time I think of 'em I feel 'em," Bigger said. 
"Yeah; and in you chest and throat, too," Gus said. 
"It's like a fire."
"And sometimes you can't hardly breathe. . ." 

That final line is telling.

No one will ever know if Mr. Garner was channeling Bigger Thomas when he spoke his final words and I can't help but find a striking allusion between his brief life and the fictional life of Bigger Thomas. In some sense, Mr. Garner seems the living embodiment, a symbol of every poor black man denied opportunity because of this nation's racist attitudes, attitudes that see black and brown, yellow and red and people of mixed race, as objects that deserve oppression. 

Mr. Garner was a big man, over six feet tall and three hundred plus pounds, and his physical presence caused in the five or six white officers fear, distrust, and opportunity to test their manhood against his (a superior force). Mr. garner's fictional counterpart was named Bigger, and both men, the fictional and the real, described their relationship with the white world as being choked. But whereas Bigger spoke metaphorically about his inability to breathe, Mr. Garner's statement occupied that space between the literal and metaphoric, allusive and real, that has made it out of the lexicon of literature into public discourse.    

"I can't Breathe" has become a powerful slogan. It is worn on T-shirts by sports figures, Reggie Bush, Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving being the latest. It is a slogan that, I am afraid, is being commodified. On redbubble.com, you can buy a plain white "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt for $22.40, or a fancier one (choose your own color) complete with thought bubble outlined in red, for $26.54. On etsy.com you can buy one for $14.99, complete with Eric Garner's name emblazoned on it. It was only a matter of time. What's next? coffee mugs, surely, baseball hats, scarves (how fittingly ironic), you name it. Someone will profit from it, but not Mr. Garner's family. They have already suffered the indignity of injustice. 

Later in the novel, Bigger appeals to the white race. “I want to tell you about all the Negroes in America. I want to tell you how they live and how they feel. I want you to change your minds about them before it is too late to prevent a worse disaster than any we have known. I speak for my own people, but I speak for America too.” His words come as if choked out of him, like Mr. Garner's final words.  

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