- “I Can’t Breathe!”Affective Asphyxia in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric
I found myself unexpectedly overcome with tears, feeling as if finally, after years of being denied some kind of oxygen, I could exhale. Finally, someone in a position to do something was going to hold police accountable for their biases and their transgressions. It is a shame it has taken this long for someone to do the right thing. It is a shame I, and so many others, have lived with this feeling of suffocation for so long.—Marie, commenter on New York Times website; emphasis added
On May 2, 2015, Marie, a self-identified young black woman from New York City, posted the preceding comment on the New York Times website in response to an article entitled “6 Baltimore Officers Charged in Freddie Gray Death.” Her comment expressed relief at prosecutor Marilyn Mosby’s decision to prosecute six police officers implicated in the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015, a death that resulted from a fatal neck injury Gray incurred while in police custody. Marie’s ruminations emphasize time and duration to underscore both the urgency for justice and the “shame” and emotional pain of having to wait “so long” for justice to be realized. Marie had been waiting to exhale, and for her, “hold[ing] the police accountable” meant she no longer had to hold her breath.
Marie’s description of the “feeling of suffocation” is hauntingly reminiscent of Eric Garner’s final [End Page 37] words as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in a fatal chokehold on July 17, 2014. The video of Eric Garner’s chokehold death was captured on cell phone footage and played repeatedly through various news outlets, receiving national attention that recalled the media fervor of the 1992 recorded beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. For many people, Eric Garner’s death exemplified the perverse and pervasive nature of police brutality as well as a disregard for black life, evidenced by the lack of empathy displayed when Garner’s repeated plea, “I can’t breathe,” was ignored. The subsequent invocation of “I Can’t Breathe” by Black Lives Matter protestors brought attention to the chokehold, a technology of publicly disciplining the unruly black body, which may be rightly identified as a modern-day extension of the lyncher’s rope. Furthermore, “I Can’t Breathe” captured the sense of a psychic choke-hold, or what I identify as the condition of affective asphyxia, that characterizes black life lived in the precarious state between life and death. I use this concept of affective asphyxia to theorize the ways that black emotional expression is heavily policed, producing a sense of emotional suffocation, whether self-imposed or externally inflicted. Affective asphyxia results from the expectation that black people must choke down the rage, fear, grief, and other emotions that arise when confronted with racism and racial microaggressions. Black expressive culture is replete with ruminations, musings, and lamentations on how it feels to be black in America, and these expressions, like that of Marie, often incorporate the imagery and language of smothering and choking that signifies asphyxiation. A particularly relevant example of the ways black people learn to choke down their emotions is found in Brent Staples’s canonical essay “Black Men and Public Spaces.” He reflects, “Over the years, I learned to smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal. Not to do so would surely have led to madness” (20; emphasis added). In reflecting on community expectations around suppressing dangerous emotions in the apartheid South, bell hooks similarly observes, “we learned to choke down our rage” (13).
In my interrogation of affective asphyxia, I turn to Claudia Rankine’s 2014 Citizen: An American Lyric, which maps the affective landscape of black life. Upon its 2014 publication amid escalating police violence and the growing fervor of the Black Lives Matter movement, Citizen: An American Lyric seemed both testimony and prophecy. Documenting the horrors of American racism with a rare lyricism that is delicate yet raw, Rankine writes with poignancy and purpose. Rankine examines the [End Page 38] mundane...