…I wanted to produce a book with a Mississippi blues and gospel ethos. And I wanted to shape the book in the form of some of my favorite albums. I thought of the essays as tracks. I thought of some of the pieces in the book as songs with multiple voices and layered musicality. I thought of ways to bring the ad lib, riff, collaboration, and necessary digression to the page. I wanted a book that could be read front to back in one sitting. I wanted to explore the benefits and burdens of being born a black boy in America without the predictable literary rigidity. And I wanted young black Southerners, particularly, to generate art in response to this text while working with the essays at being human. The hardest part, of course, is that I wanted to be honest about my family, my nation, my region, my memory, and me.~~ Prologue
I can see the music album form of this book: the essays take different forms, different moods; they use overt collaboration in the form of a series of letters between family, and between artists who bring a different view to the same theme of growing up with something to say and not a lot of permissible room to say it in. Like some of my earlier reads, this essay collection was published in 2013, a time before the current era; now it seems prescient, but if anyone had been paying attention back then, we would’ve seen that MAGA has always been part of this country, waiting in corners where most of America didn’t bother looking for the day when it could again take center stage.
The collection is rooted in family and tours through music, literature, politics, and growing up amidst it all. We start out with a prologue, a letter to the now-dead Uncle Jimmy, who served as inspiration and bright warning light on the road that goes nowhere good: “I didn’t want you to know that I wanted you to be better at being human…. I knew that you were slowly killing yourself. And, predictably, I knew that I would become you. I hated you and me both for that.”
In “The Worst of the White Folks”, everything is set in apposition: a schoolmate is the picture of “American responsibility” one day and a bratty kid the next; the country debates the violence in Chicago on Twitter in 2012 while cousin Jermaine’s sister is murdered and he’s found guilty of manslaughter. The title essay recounts Laymon’s college years, from Millsaps to Jackson State to Oberlin, and how close he came to dying on so many occasions, how many guns were aimed at him, including by his mom and himself:
I know that as I’ve gotten deeper into my late twenties and thirties, I have managed to continue killing myself and other folks who loved me in spite of me. I know that I’ve been slowly killed by folks who were as feverishly in need of life and death as I am. The really confusing part is that a few of those folk who have nudged me closer to slow death have also helped me say yes to life when I most needed it. Usually, I didn’t accept it. Lots of times, we’ve taken turns killing ourselves slowly, before trying to bring each other back to life. Maybe that’s the necessary stank of love, or maybe — like Frank Ocean says — it’s all just bad religion, just tasty watered down cyanide in a styrofoam cup.~~ The Worst of the White Folks
“Our Kind of Ridiculous” recounts a period Laymon spent writing his Master’s thesis in Pennsylvania and meeting white poverty in the person of Kurt who gives him “that gift that a number of white folks I’d met love to give black folks at the strangest times, the gift of being decidedly different from all them other niggers.” Oh, yeah the “you’re one of the good ones” thing. It comes in flavors other than racism – gender, queerness, nationality, religion, even career choice – but it’s never so pernicious as when bestowed by the root and cause. Then we hear of the incident outside Hershey, where Laymon and his girlfriend are pulled over on the way home from a Lilith Fair concert while driving a Geo Metro, for god’s sake. It’d be funny if people weren’t dying in circumstances like this.
There’s a chapter on hip hop that completely goes by me. Hey, what can I say. I stopped paying attention to popular music in 1970 when the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel broke up, and the only contemporary music I hear these days is on TV and movie soundtracks. Yet “Eulogy for Three Black Boys Who Lived”, the triptych on Michael Jackson, Bernie Mac, and Tupac, was greatly moving. “Echo” is exactly that: a reverberation of letters between five black men – five highly successful black men from a variety of fields and backgrounds – talking about family and love and figuring out how to heal. I found it interesting that they disagree with the “it’s the lack of fathers” narrative; they focus more on the need for love, in the home, the community, the country.
While not really about music, “Kanye West and HaLester Myers Are Better at Their Jobs…” looks at how the music industry affects how the community views women. He points out the conundrum that is Kanye: while he’s standing up for Beyoncé and the drowning people of NOLA, he’s also making millions off misogyny, an attitude that’s contagious and seeps into the lives of real woman. The essay rotates around a rhetorical question: does he, does any man, deserve to ever have his hand held by a woman?
“Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012” is another of those prescient moments, but it’s only prescient because some people have been here before; it’s part of their culture, the culture white people want to forget and gloss over. From Laymon’s mom, a PoliSci prof, to the corner barbershop, they know the game is fixed:
Mama eventually sighs and says again, “Kie, people who never learned to lose will do anything to see us not win. When they lose to Obama, they’ll figure out a way to win anyway. It’s just too much.”
…I’m playing it off, imagining the celebrations that will follow the election of our first black President. But not even deep down, though, I know Mama is right.
We know Mama is right.
Obama will win. We will win. Then we will continue to lose. And the right questions will never be honestly asked or answered. And it’s all just too much.~~ Reasonable Doubt and the Lost Presidential Debate of 2012
And then there’s “You are the Second Person”, the most directly writerly essay in the book. This essay is, by the way, the reason I chose to read this book; I read it some time ago. I was drawn to it by my appreciation for the second person voice, and discovered a layer of word play (throughout the story, several overheard conversations start with “You are the second person who…”. But it’s really about the nasty side of publishing, the exploitation, the whitewashing, the eagerness to jettison artistic intent and execution in favor of a bland work that reaps profits. It’s how voices of color, of queerness, of otherness, get muted. It’s the story of Laymon’s first novel, Long Division, which languished on agents’ desks for a couple of years while he was pressured to rewrite out the racial politics, to make it more palatable to the projected audience of white readers, because southern black boys don’t read fiction. Maybe they don’t read it because nobody’s writing anything they want to read. The novel was eventually published intact, time travel, metafiction, racial politics, and all. I’m very curious. His memoir Heavy is set for release this October, but I think this novel is the one I’ll add to my list for the next reading round.
And we end near where we began, with letters to family, this time between Laymon and his mom. I like that technique of circling back to finish off a piece; I like the sense of closure, of wholeness and unity it brings to a work that, because it’s a collection, could seem fragmented. This reads like a single work; yes, the style changes throughout, and there is variety, but all in the service of a single theme: moving from slowly killing himself and others in America, to health. May the journey continue – for all of us.