Remind Us How It's Done: A Mississippi Commencement Speech

I'd like to thank the Mississippi School for the Arts for having me. I didn’t go to my own high school graduation 25 years ago from St Joseph High School in Jackson Mississippi. I told my Mama that I decided against going because the graduation speaker was the reactionary Republican governor of Mississippi, Kirk Fordice. That was partially true. The whole truth was that I felt a trunk load of shame for graduating five places from the bottom of my class when I easily could have been in the top five if I would have applied myself. I won a few awards for writing in high school, and did well enough on the ACT to get into Millsaps, but my GPA was shameful. I’m talking about shame-ful. Full of Shame. All my friends and family patted me on my back for making a principled decision, except my Mama.

Mama knew.

I’m not here today to give you any dynamic advice. I am here to beg you to love your family, love yourself and love this state by making honest, compassionate decisions in every part of your life, especially when you fail. Whether we’re talking about the President of this country, the current reactionary Republican Governor of our state, or me, I’m not sure we grown folks have given you a healthy model of honesty and compassion. Grown folks, particularly grown men, are really good at justifying horrible, dishonest, decisions. We’re really good at bragging about how we don’t regret anything. I’m here today to tell you that human beings who aren’t good at honesty or compassion aren’t really good at being human. And those are not the kind of human being you want to become or emulate.

When I was eleven years-old, my Mama used some of the money she won at a casino to buy me an extra tennis racket. The first time we played was at Calloway high school in Jackson. We were volleying when the explosive sound of a single M-80 shook us. We looked toward the school and saw a squat pot-bellied woman in a Saints starter jacket on one knee, wiping the blood from her nose in front of a tall slender man in a thick red and black lumberjack.

“Put your hands down,” I heard the man say. “Put your gotdamn hands down.”

The woman in the Starter jacket slowly dropped her hands and the man hit her in the face with what sounded like a damp closed fist. She fell to the ground and covered her face again.

Without saying a word, we cocked our rackets and sprinted toward the couple. “You better not hit her again” Mama screamed as the man pulled the woman up. “You better not hit her again.” When the man saw us coming after him, he dragged the woman off through this dirt path.

On the other side of the building, the man, and the woman in the Starter jacket whose face he exploded, got in a raggedy black Mazda and sped off. We didn’t call the police. We didn’t run back to our Nova and try to follow them. We caught our breath and prayed like Grandmama taught us.

I had no idea what we were praying for that day. I assumed we were praying for the safety of the woman in the Starter jacket. Maybe we were praying for our forgiveness. I knew that we would have tried to kill that man if we could touch him. 

Mama just knelt there on her knees. I kept asking her why she was crying. She wouldn’t say. There were memories in Mama’s eyes that day that she was afraid of telling me.

I realized that day that I was of my Mama. I was her child.

Mama and I had the same thick thighs, the same short arms, the same full cheeks, the same mushy insides, the same minced imagination. We were excellent at laughing until we weren’t laughing, excellent at working until our bodies gave out, and most excellent at allowing shame to mangle our relationships to honesty. Our heart meat was thick, but once punctured, we ran our hearts into fire and waltzed our hearts into war whether we had a plan of escape or not. No matter how terrified we were, we never asked anyone for help. We just actively resented everyone who watched us suffer.

As a child, I remember crying myself to sleep imagining a life where we weren’t together. I remember believing all my Mamas lies were mistakes, and forgetting those mistakes when we went to sleep tucked into each other every night. Every time she said that my particular kind of hardheadedness and white folks’ Mississippi particular kind of pension for black suffering were recipes for an early death or incarceration in Mississippi, I believed her. I was confused, though, about the way she’d grit her teeth when she hit me as hard as you could. Days, and sometimes hours earlier, she touched me gently. She told me she loved me. She called me her best friend. She made me feel like the most beautiful boy in Mississippi.

“I didn’t try to hurt you,” Mama said the last time we spoke. “I don’t remember hurting you as much as you remember it, Kie. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m just saying that I don’t remember everything the way you do.”

I still believe her.

Mama and I had never been a family of cabinets filled with band-aids, a family of consistent bill money, a family of pantries, full fridges, washers and dryers. We had always been a strange black southern family of books. The presence of all those books, and her insistence that I read and write in those books, made it so I would never be intimidated or easily impressed by white space, words, punctuation, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Mama gave me a black southern space from which to work with literature. In that black southern space, I learned to expect more from the page than I was given. Mama taught me how to revise and reread. Mama modeled a rugged love of black children. Mama taught me that our liberation has its bedrock in compassion and direct action, not politeness. Mama gave me home-training. I now know revision, rereading, compassion, home-training and a love of black children are the greatest gifts a parent can share with a child in this nation. Those gifts are why I’m here 20 years later talking with y’all.

Those gifts are also why 25 years ago, I should have walked across that stage for my Mama. No matter how I performed academically in high school, I should have given her the opportunity to see her only son graduate. I eventually got kicked out of Millsaps and graduated from a school in Ohio called Oberlin College before going to graduate school at Indiana University. When I graduated from Oberlin, I invited mama to watch me get my diploma. When I got off stage, I looked in her eyes and traced the new slump of her body. I saw creases under her eyes I’d never seen before. I saw that she needed a graduation ceremony for all she’d been through in the last four years just as much, and probably more, than I did.

 This speech today is written to the graduates in the class of 2017, but it’s also written to the Mamas, fathers, cousins, aunties, uncles, grandparents, friends, guardians and teachers in the audience, who have -- under death drenched circumstance -- done a magnificent job of staying alive these past four years, but who have possibly done a terrifying job of honestly talking to you about their failures. I’m here to tell you that your family supporting you here today needs you much more than they’ll ever admit.

Lucille Clifton has this poem in a book I stole from my Mama’s bookshelf called, “why some people be mad at me sometimes.”

 

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine.

 

When I think of my relationship with my Mama, I think of this poem, not because I feel Mama asked me to remember her memories but because I think my Mama feels like I’m trying to punish her by honestly remembering mine. I know what it’s like to punish vulnerable people for holding onto memories I wish they’d forget. I’m just telling you that one way we might help each other is if we try to share our sad words, funny words, whole stories, half relationships, empty mysteries, and full memories we don’t want to be true. Nothing in America encourages this kind of reckoning or liberating transformation so we have the interior lives, the policies and the president we currently have.

We do not have to be this way.

Suzanne introduced me as a southern writer from Jackson, Mississippi. I am a black southern writer from Jackson Mississippi, and I am here begging you to dare everything you can to change our families, our state, and our nation, one word, one paragraph, one note, one painting, one relationship, one protest, and most importantly one honest memory at time.

Start with your family, though. Start with today. Let honesty, compassion and curiosity guide you today in your relationships with your family. Welcome their failures, and don’t lie about yours. Give yourself a chance to get better. Our generation has not given you a healthy model of honest reckoning. And in that way, we have failed you. Please do not fail us. We do not have to be this way. We can be honest. We can be compassionate. We can be regretful. We can confront abuses of power that target the most vulnerable people and groups in this state and this nation. That is what our state can be known for. At our best, it is what our state is known for. We just need you to remind us how it’s done.

Understanding President-Elect Trump, Mrs. Clinton, and our Nation’s Politics

Written by Mary Coleman, mother of Kiese Laymon

 

How do we understand what we are seeing and hearing as the United States elects its forty-fifth President? What would a Trump or Clinton Presidency mean for the nation? 

Can Trump Be More and Better

If Trump’s self-awareness were keener, his knowledge of civics, political institutions, local, state, and world politics deeper, his temperament and capacity for empathy healthier, it would be okay for him to win the presidency. As Eisenhower and to some extent Woodrow Wilson and Obama have shown, one does not need meaningful prior political experience to run, win, and serve reasonably well in politics.

A Trump victory might teach some important lessons.

Partisan realignment of the white working poor and non-college educated

His victory could show his supporters that despite Trump’s authoritarian orientation, the U.S. Presidency is not a dictatorship. His victory could  also remind Republicans that the party is not just in trouble, but is out of touch with generations of the working and near-working poor of all hues. 

New and Old Membership in the Nation during a Time of Economic Immobility

Included in this year’s mobilized political resentment war are those who actually work hard but are losing ground. Some blame strangers at the gate for cutting the line---when in fact the pathways leading to economic mobility are sticky and some of the rungs that lead to the middle class are actually missing.   Some of those who are resentful feel that Trump could position them within arm’s reach of their strivings and entitlement. They hope that a Trump Presidency will help them elbow their way into the solid middle class and beyond.

Inside Outsider Political Correctness

Some of the working and near-poor support him because he gives the status-quo the middle finger.   The politics of resentment is undergirded by a perception of the newly arrived poor and African Americans as both economic and cultural threats.   Almost overnight it seemed, misogynistic and racist political discourse was back in vogue. Trump seemed to abjure political correctness as he embraced hateful rawness.  He enabled our vilest political instincts as a nation.  He took out the political establishment. His supporters will stay in his corner well beyond Election Day.   

The Capacity of the Caricature   

His evolution in politics can be understood best as a caricature. By definition, celebrity is creative nonfiction—it allows busy as well as not well informed people to idealize and even exaggerate assets---their competence, wealth, goodness, and intelligence. Or, alternately, caricatures stand in for and fill in our presumptions about people, good, bad and indifferent.   Celebrity can sometimes make the images we see seem real—more real than imagined. Think about Cliff Huxtable and Bill Cosby.  Think about O J. Simpson, the running back of the Buffalo Bills and the image of Hertz Rent-A-Car.  We have caricatured celebrities in ways that hide the shadows they sometimes frequent, or mask their bad behavior---sometimes it is hard to pry open these caricatures.   Thus, zealous enthusiasts of Trump’s and Mrs. Clinton’s are not interested in facts associated with their respective business practices, or his relationships with women, or in what appears to be Mrs. Clinton’s learned self-absorption.  

Nationalist Outsider Rhetoric, Scapegoats, and Racial Mongering

Trump has needed to be taken seriously by serious and well-placed people.  This need urged him onward well beyond his level of political competence and understanding of world affairs. It is okay, his avid supporters might have reasoned, because he was (is) better than nothing. His voice was (is) theirs.  He was (is) their mouthpiece, but it would appear that his presidential ambition was tied to his self-interest and self-absorption, not theirs. However, his hubris is in linked fate with racism—of which the crudeness of the Obama birther campaign was emblematic. 

Evolving as Hillary: What Her Near-Victory Teaches the Nation about Politics

What would have happened to the Democrats if they had nominated Bernie Sanders? After all, neither one, Sanders nor Trump, is a resolute partisan identifier. Still, Sanders’s ideas have rejuvenated the Democratic Party and made it possible for the Party to hold together under one big healthy but tension-filled tent. Apart from his ideas, it is not clear what is next for Sanders.  What is clear is that some politicians and some politics evolve well beyond a particular election.  

Mrs. Clinton began her political career and thus politics as a Goldwater Democrat and married a Democratic centric. Her voting record is more hawkish than her party identification alone would predict.   First-wave feminists and many others were drawn to Hillary Clinton’s first campaign for Presidency, largely, I believe, because she is a woman. The Clintons’ inscrutable chase for power and money blemished the campaign as an ode to Stanton, Tubman, and other women and men who fought for women’s equality and opportunity.   Bernie’s campaign pricked at the Clintons’ greed and lack of self-awareness. She looked out of touch.  She struggled for coherence in her campaign messages. Her near-victory will resonate for generations.

Insider Politics can be Exclusionary

There’s more than policy intelligence, hawkishness, and self-absorption in the Hillary Clinton wheelhouse.  The experiences that people discuss as being invaluable seem to be a combination of that of First Lady, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State. In the latter capacity, what would have happened if Mr. Obama had not run foreign policy from the White House during the time of Mrs. Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State?   (I would say the same about the forty-first President’s relationship with Colin Powell.)  What kind of campaign might Clinton have mounted had she been able to say this was my vision for U.S. foreign policy and it aligned with Obama’s here and diverged there. How much better prepared might she be if and when she takes charge as Commander-in-Chief?  

What if she had been able to say this is what we accomplished together and this is why that matters for our future?  If her experiences as Secretary of State had been stronger—well beyond having traveled to hundreds of countries, which does no doubt improve one’s knowledge of the world and our role and collaborators’ roles in it, but does not substitute for a record of achievement—how might she have waged a deeply substantive campaign—a vital public seminar about national security threats and how to thwart them?  When the history of her time as Secretary of State is written, will she be likened to Marshall, Adams, Kissinger, Albright, Baker or Schultz?  If Mr. Obama had trusted Mrs. Clinton to run foreign policy or had actually listened to her foreign policy ideas as a trusted advisor, her bona fides and her time in office, and her campaign, might have caught fire---could have been poised for transformative rather than transactional change.  Experience does not always translate into preparation or strength, especially when political capital from the White House failed to reinforce that potential. Being at the table of power allows one to see how the game is played but does not guarantee that one will actually exercise power consonant with one’s role and function.   Still, she was present and she is intelligent in substantive ways.

Musings

In a conversation with trusted colleagues or historians, Clinton might someday say, “If I had won the Presidency, I would have wanted to shape a foreign policy framework for resolving Middle East challenges, which have broadened considerably since the days of George Herbert Walker Bush or even the first Obama administration. I’ would have liked to forge a one-state plural solution in Israel and through the Palestinian territories.”  I imagine that she would have more to say.  She might continue, “This conflagration has morphed now into the Middle East conflict.  It is time to reassert the role of Secretary of State and align it with the role of Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”   I think she would reconsider how she approached her domestic policy framework as well. Could she have forged a new coalition of the working white poor, people ready to build a more inclusive society, moderate Republicans, and the “traditional” Democratic base? Or was such a goal well beyond the grasp of any Democrat with ties to Obama or the Clintons?  Was the outcome simply an Obama backlash?  An anti-Clinton backlash? Or was the election outcome typical of what we have seen for at least five decades: the inability of either party to win three consecutive election cycles?    

Rebuilding the Nation’s Trust in Political Institutions 

Whom will Trump trust to lead American foreign and domestic policy in a world of state and stateless actors? He will need both domestic and foreign policy ideas and processes of implementation bounded by wise expertise to help understand the World Way Forward and the American Way Forward?  There are many routes to a better America and to a safer world and a more just one. I care deeply about American institutions and how to restore opportunity, dignity, and statesman- and woman-ship to our diverse nation. We must struggle mightily beyond Election Day to become more aware of our possibilities and challenges as a nation. In the roles that we play as members of the nation, we must help leaders protect the nation from the very real dangers of cyber warfare, ecological degradation, racial strife and intolerance, and chronic inequality.  We must strive for equality of opportunity and greater levels of economic mobility for those not born on third base.

One Last Matter

America needs strong and compassionate leaders. Leadership matters to the quality of our political institutions, our discourse, capacity to solve problems, and therefore to our politics and to the viability of this diverse nation--at home and abroad.   November 8, 2016 sent a resounding message—white Americans who voted for Trump perceived themselves and their children and grandchildren as strangers in their own nation.  They vowed to ‘take America back” from Obama’s winning coalition and his governance agenda. I hope we can focus as a nation on who are as Americans and what we can do to usher in and sustain greater economic opportunity for those left behind in the technology economy. 

Hard work and difficult realities await the country.   

We See You: In Response to Attacks on Zandria Robinson and Progressive Black Thought and Culture

We write today as a group of over 100 black writers, readers, artists, thinkers committed to justice and intellectual inquiry. We have taken time away from our scholarship, research, teaching, activism, and other life-affirming practices to assist in smothering the fire that threatens to engulf the entire academic industry. We are wholly aware that the American surveillance and discipline of black bodies and expression extends to cyber space.

This recognition has been reinforced by recent circumstances involving our colleague, Zandria Robinson. We write to thank Zandria for stating firmly and thoughtfully positing that blackness is a critical creative politico-cultural formation, and for pushing us to question the particular ways black southern lives have mattered in the face of brutal physical and discursive violence.

“This is a moment to have a discussion about black southern identity,” Zandria recently wrote, “and not white southern identity, which is remarkably unchanged just like the whiteness upon which it is and has always been and will always be based. This is a moment to center blackness in our discussions of America, the South, freedom, and the future, not to talk about what black people should do, but to learn from what black people have been and are doing in this centuries-long battle against whiteness.”

Some of us teach Zandria Robinson’s work. Others of us actively read her work. She is the now and future of intellectual freedom fighting, for her work is rooted in ritual, black southern communal love and real intersectionality. It is in the spirit of Zandria’s community based intellectual work that we band together in the knowledge that in coming for Zandria, particular forces of white heteropatriarchal supremacy and anti-blackness are coming for all of us. We know that radical surveillance and disciplining are a constituent element of American terror. Like many of our ancestors, and most recently like Bree Newsome, like Zandria Robinson, we will not be afraid to step through fear into justice.

Social media, and particularly personal facebook and twitter pages, are now recognized as but one of the current battle grounds where whiteness as power labors to adversely impact black people’s reputation, finances, access to healthy choice and influence. Not unlike the case of Palestinian intellectual-activist Steven Salaita, the overseers who patrol the public-private thoughts of academics will find, isolate, and publicly interpret snippets of people’s frustrations, thoughts, and theories in an effort to condemn an entire body of work, a literature, a field, a community. This has deep and penetrating consequences for individual thinkers, public fields of inquiry, the academic industry, and, indeed, the very American ideal of freedom of expression and dissent. 

While we welcome conversations about the range of expression teachers can and should offer on their pages, we will not do so in a vacuum. We cannot talk about the responsibilities of teachers and professors until we first scrutinize and hold accountable the policies, practices, and projects of the neoliberal university and its appendages in publishing, media, and government.

We say to any person, publication, organization, institution trying to violently undermine the work of loving, curious geniuses like Zandria Robinson, we see you. We know your labors intimately, as we write and live it everyday. We will not accept these aggressions in silence; we instead will rally our collective energies of exposure and critique, coalition and mobilization, in order to protect our minds and bodies and work toward the ideals that animate our collective visions for justice.

With Love and Justice,

A Committed Group of Black Cultural and Thought Workers

We're not good enough to not practice

We're not good enough to not practice.

I probably shouldn't give writing advice to folks who aren't my students, but oh well. One of the hardest parts of writing is committing to a routine, committing to regular practice. That's crucial. I write and revise almost 4 hours a day because I don't have kids yet, and I'm not good enough not to practice. You probably aren't either. If you don't commit to a routine, you're likely to think everything you finish is good simply because you wrote it. It's not. It's probably really somewhere around just okay, or lightweight bad. But even that lightweight bad work is important because there's likely a sentence, a paragraph, a word or two in the piece that's doing some important work. It's okay to write 3000 words to find 15 that really glow. That is the work.

We're not good enough to not practice.

Be driven. Be curious. Write to connect. Write to explore. Write to make sense of that which you don't know or remember. Write to discover. But never think something is good just because you wrote it. If you link up with an editor or a writing partner who really believes in your vision, look forward to hearing what they say is great and not-so-great. If they show you that they don't get your vision or your people/audience, you might wanna bounce. There are too many editors and writing partners in the world to waste time with those who don't get your vision. But not getting your vision isn't the same as telling you "these sentences or paragraphs don't leave any portals of entry for reader." Don't be precious about your work. It's not good just because you wrote it.

We're not good enough to not practice.

Akiba Solomon, one of the incredible editors at colorlines and legendary writer and journalist, asked me to write something on Trayvon at the end of last year. I turned in this sprawling meta essay/short story/hymn about Rachel and Trayvon. Akiba let me know quickly that the meta essayish/short story wasn't gonna work. So I cut that and realized that her vision complimented my vision and that "less" was way "more" in this situation. One reason I was okay taking her editorial advice was because she's incredible and because I practice everyday and know that everything I have to say on a topic doesn't have to go in one piece. You don't have to cram every idea ever into your pieces. Use leftovers for other pieces.

We're not good enough to not practice.

Last thing. You're a writer now. Please learn how to read as a writer. That means not only that you gotta get your regimen down; it means that reading is a fundamental part of your regimen. You might want to read everything with an eye for "How in the fuck did they do that?" You gotta commit and, as Jamilah Lemieux says, know that this ain't some ol' easy sometimesy shit. Practice. And obliterate the notion of someone hooking you up. When you don't practice, you're expecting editors and teachers to hook you up. When you practice, you're looking forward to inviting folks to your practice sessions with the hopes that they want to practice with you. Love your people and the words you're trying to share with them. Don't be afraid of love. And write and read into your fears. You come from a lineage of wonderful practitioners whose practice eventually saved lives. Even Baldwin, Morrison, and Hurston practiced.

We're not good enough to not practice.

 

-- Kiese Laymon