"We Can't Breathe" ... ; or, Remembering Ronald Fair

In the essay Remembering Ronald Fair, published in Common Reader, 29 September 2020, author Cecil Brown (the bestselling novel The Life and Loves of a Jiveass Nigger (1969) and Stagolee Shot Billy (2003), about the legendary ‘badman’) remembers encounters with Ronald L. Fair and argues that “the Black expatriate’s novels, Hog Butcher and We Can’t Breathe, are more timely than ever.”

He quotes Chicago critic and editor Richard Guzman’s reaction on his website to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020: “Another ‘I-Can’t-Breathe’ incident.” A phrase Richard Guzman borrows from the title of Ronald L. Fair’s 1972 novel We Can’t Breathe, Fair’s most autobiographical, rich with details about the lives of transplanted Black southerners (like Fair’s parents) and that of their children who grew up in Chicago during WW II and after.

Brown first met Ronald Fair in Chicago in1966, just after he had published his second novel, Hog Butcher, his most successful book commercially, filmed in 1975 as Cornbread, Earl and Me.

At that meeting Ronald Fair – disillusioned with his experiences as a scriptwriter in Hollywood and what legal scholar and civil rights activist Derrick Bell would some years later call “the permanence of racism” in America – had announced to a shocked Cecil Brown, still a graduate student at the University of Chicago: “I’m leaving this motherfucking country – and I’m never coming back!”

A few years later, on a promotion tour to France for The Life and Loves ..., Brown would look for his friend Ron in Paris. The surrealist poet Ted Joans – “who knew where everybody was” – said: “He’s in Zurich.” So Brown went to Zurich, found a phone number, called, but got no answer.

Years later, Northwestern University Press asked Brown to write a foreword to a reprint of Hog Butcher, the story of a police cover-up after shooting a young Black basketball star, and its legal aftermath. Shortly after it was reissued in 2014, Brown received a phone call from a young Black woman, Ronald Fair’s granddaughter. She knew very little about her grandfather, not even that he was a writer. After reading Hog Butcher, she was now flying to Finland to meet her grandfather.

A week later Brown got another phone call. She had Ron on Skype. Fair had left America in 1971 for Europe, in 1977 settling down in Finland, becoming a sculptor, marrying Hannele, the sister of his Finnish art dealer, fathering five children – and completely cutting his ties to America.

In 2020, after the killing of George Floyd, begging for his life on live television, Brown sent an email to Ronald Fair. It was Hannele who answered:

“Dear Cecil, I’m sorry to tell you that Ron passed away February 2018 … As I read of the events taking place in the United States I can hear him saying: it is still the same. Nothing has changed since I left. His books are still current. I have many of his unpublished manuscripts with me that deserve to be published. Just don’t have the means to get it done. Maybe you have some ideas …” ­With best regards, Hannele

UFI // 24 March 2024