These Are Your Memories

Dear Kie,

In my warped imagination I would have been a habitually good mother had your daddy and I remained married.  Your daddy had strengths in my weak places and I had strength in some of his.  This is just my way of saying that while not all Moms need good husbands and daddies to help rear and give children sustaining values, I did.  Alone, my maturity and, especially, my ability to manage cash finances and exude patience, were grossly insufficient. 

I could offer many reasons for that, but as you know all too well, I am not inured with the rear view mirror.  I do not use the rear view mirror because I cannot change the past.   Your hope is that this remembrance will mobilize me, our family, and the nation to reckon honestly with the past.   What I know for sure is that I am determined to be and do better today than yesterday.

During the first five years of your life, I cannot recall a time when despite college and graduate school and life—Daddy’s drowning-- we were not attentive, protective, and happy parents.  My point here is simple: I was not a good single parent; luckily, I knew that I needed and you deserved better and Mom’s support and unconditional love were there when the bough broke.

The bough broke too soon and often.

I will say this: the penchant to not look back taught me quite early to take “failure” and “success” in stride; I was never one easily overwhelmed by either, as they are sides of the same greasy spoon. 

When I received your book, I was proud that you had finished a project—but saddened because remembering can bring as much joy as pain. In writing this work, you retriggered and reengaged a good bit of sadness.  Enthralled in work up to my eyeballs, I scanned the pages and found myself sick to my stomach.  I called a friend—sought a life line-- scribbled a drafty letter to you, and regained my composure.  In addition to regretting that I harmed you and was unable to protect you from harm, I have to work hard to reckon with you and myself—to love myself and learn to use the rear view mirror critically.   

Not only do I love you; I am forever grateful for your love and your life (with all of its beauty, ebbs, and flows).  I am also grateful for my spotted and checkered life and for the fact that I will never give up on anyone I love—not even those I do not love or like.  I believe in regeneration—my own, yours,  and others.

These are your memories—your renderings.  I will not dispute them. What I know is that I should not have whipped you (or to use your favorite word, "beaten" you).   For those who are curious, no, I did not grow up with parents who beat their children. My father never laid a hand on me and Mama whipped me once or twice that I can remember. She whipped my brother, Jimmy, an awful lot.   And Linda, my eldest sister, and Jimmy fought too much.  The siblings’ wrangling invariably led to dysfunctional Daddy-step-son tensions in Mom’s absence and in Mom’s house.

Much like you, as a kid, I lived in the world of books and prose. I lived with parents and in a stable community with those who loved me unconditionally; even when some were awkward in their expressions of love or behaved toward each other in ”over the top” emotional displays, I grew up affirmed and protected. I owed that world to you. I wished I had delivered day in and out.  Day in and out I saw Mama balance the family’s finances even when Dad gambled his away. So, whoever I am, please know that I wish with all my heart that I had done better and been more understanding and competent in those years.   

I have always loved you and nothing you ever write or say will ever change how much you mean to me. You are my child and I love you unconditionally and cheerfully.

In my remembrance, I hear our laughter, our arguments, my incessant worry about your safety, your good grades through fifth grade; all your Basketball ball games in rural outposts, your choices in girlfriends, the New Orleans and Memphis trips, the underdogs, and yes, the fear that I’d lose you too early, either because you would turn your back on me or be shot from the sky.  I lived in fear, when, perhaps, I should have willed myself to live with more courage, less tough love, and more conviction. I took some of the wrong chances.

I hear you!  Thank you.


Y’all Mean

I liked to think about big ol’ girl booties as long as DeVante and Ella Staywoke knew me. And DeVante and Ella Staywoke liked to think about big ol’ boy booties as long as I knew them. That’s just how we were.

Ella Staywoke’s real name was Ella Steward but we called her Ella Staywoke because she stayed saying woke things when DeVante and I least expected it. DeVante was probably the most gifted fourteen year-old in the history of Jackson Mississippi, next to Ella Staywoke. I was right next to him when he tried to invent wearing matching wristbands the first time you kissed someone, and bootleg Jordans the first time you had sex.

DeVante’s greatest invention, though, was calling people “Ol’ blank-blank-blank ass Nigga.”

Like if you ate an apple too fast, DeVante would call you an Ol’ eating-apples-like-they-plums ass Nigga” or if you failed a test, he’d call you an “Ol’ watching –Dragon-Ball-Z -when-you-shoulda-been-studying ass Nigga.”

If one of y’all called DeVante a name he didn’t like, DeVante could slap the taste out of your mouth better than any kid, except for Ella Staywoke. Slapping the tastes out of folks mouths, and staying woke and memorizing everyone’s pass codes to their phones were just three parts of what made Ella Staywoke the second most gifted kid in Jackson.

Last week, DeVante got jumped by two old sixteen year olds Vice Lords from West Jackson and I haven’t talked to Ella Staywoke since..

It all started when DeVante went out of his way to embarrass this great big Vice Lord who was also named DeVante. We called him Mean Ass DeVante. Mean Ass DeVante called DeVante transgender and a transgender activist in the parking of church. It hurt for a lot of reasons but really because no one had ever dissed someone by calling them any kind of activist before. DeVante was pissed but he appreciated how fresh Mean DeVante was with his disses.

When everyone looked his way, DeVante said out loud that he never knew a sixteen year old could smell like nut-sack, urine, dookie and rotten rutabagas through his church clothes. Then, as loud as he could, in front of the whole church parking lot and the one white person who went to church, DeVante called Mean Ass DeVante an “Ol mean wiping-yo-ass-when-you-need-to-be-scrubbing-yo-stank-ass-ass Nigga.”

It wasn’t the most dynamic diss DeVante has ever deployed but it did its job. Even Mean Ass DeVante’s own Mama started laughing. And when the Mean Ass DeVante got in DeVante’s face, DeVante slapped Mean Ass DeVante across his mouth twice with both hands.

That’s four slaps right in the middle of the church parking lot.

Then he ran to tell Ella Staywoke and me what he did. The sad thing is that when he ran up on Ella Staywoke and me, I was just starting to finally spit my game I’d been practicing for months. I had on matching wristbands, bootleg Jordans, and that new flavor of Axe body spray. Ella Staywoke said she wanted me to stop spitting game. But she only said it once, and she held my hand when she said it.

So I did not stop.

Anyway, when DeVante found Ella Staywoke and me in the woods, he told us what happened. Ella Staywoke did this strange thing where she grabbed his hand, thanked him, and then she started crying. DeVante grabbed her other hand and he started crying. I wanted to cry too but I didn’t know what we were supposed to be crying about.

That’s when DeVante told us that his Mama and Grandmama were most definitely going to beat his ass for saying the word “nigga” in front of the one white person who attended that church on a Sunday.

Ella Staywoke and I told DeVante we had to leave him in the woods because Uncle Robert said we could play “Call of Duty” in his old feet-smelling room at 4:00 that afternoon. Uncle Robert was in the top thirty of good singers in Jackson. Uncle Robert couldn’t really sing, but his lyrics were fake deep in a way some basic folk appreciated. Uncle Robert didn’t allow DeVante in his room because he said DeVante was “too girlish and too confused sexually” to be around his stuff.

Before we left, DeVante hugged me for the first time in our lives. “Don’t ever be mean to folk who would never be mean to you,” he whispered in my ear. “It’s okay to be scared of hurting folks.” Then he hugged Ella Staywoke and whispered something in her ear too.

Ella Staywoke and me waited for an hour in Uncle Robert’s room, but Uncle Robert never showed. While Ella Staywoke was playing “Call of Duty” I was going through Uncle Robert’s diary. He kept the turquoise diary at the bottom of a box of shotgun shells. The diary was covered in duct tape, and it had a lock on it. I asked Ella Staywoke if we should read his diary. Ella Staywoke helped me take the duct tape off the diary and let me use her pocketknife to break the lock.

“What are you gonna say if Robert finds out you broke in,” Ella Staywoke asked me.

“I’m gonna lie,” I told her. “Listen to this. Uncle Robert think he so smooth.” I commenced to read the lastest diary entry to Ella Staywoke.

“When she talked with me about sad memories, I would ask her why she rested her memory in sad places. When she said she was not afraid of sadness, I would pick at her for being a kid who was never beaten by her mama. I would call kids who were never beaten by their mamas spoiled. She would resent me for that. When she confronted me for my lies and cheating, I would focus instead on insignificant times when she didn’t tell me whole truths I had no business asking. Truths about boys at her school, truths about her body. I told her that the real offense was her going in my phone when she promised me she never would. She said her body knew something was wrong. I would ask her to listen to me, not her body. She said that she didn’t need to listen to me just because I was fifteen years older. When I was her age, I would have felt the same thing. She would learn to hate me more than I’d ever been hated. She would hate me for telling so many lies. She would hate me for making her a secret. She would hate me for making her wait. She would hate me for asking her to do things with her friend she did not want to do. And she would not hate me enough. She would call me a lying piece of shit. I would tell her that I was sorry for my preferences. I would tell her that I knew she deserved so much more. She would tell me to never, ever tell her what she deserved. No, she would say when I asked her if she could help me. No. And fuck you.”

After I finished reading the letter, Ella Staywoke’s eyes started crying but the rest of her face didn’t make a sound. I didn’t ask her why she was crying. I told her again that kissing me might be better than she thought. Ella Staywoke fake-laughed and started biting the nail of her left thumb. When she got a nail sliver off, she used it to clean the dirt out of the nails on her right hand. “Mean DeVante and those three other boys, and your Uncle,” she said, “they were really mean to me and DeVante.”

“Mean how?” I asked her. “What did DeVante whisper in your ear?”

“They just, you know, wrapped themselves up in this meanness,” she said. “And they made me and DeVante be mean to each other.”

I asked Ella Staywoke if “wrapped themselves up in this meanness” was a new phrase DeVante made up.

“Naw,” she said. “It’s not new. It’s just all of what they did. I don’t really want to be in this room no more. Can we leave?”

“How come?”

“It’s too familiar.”

Later that evening, Mean DeVante, the boy who got slapped four times in the church parking lot, and another one of his friends dragged DeVante back in the woods. DeVante slapped, punched, kicked, and bit the best he could but they ended up beating DeVante down with t-ball bats. They didn’t ever hit him directly in the head but they crushed his larynx. DeVante’s body stayed spread out in those woods all night before we found him. We only found him because one of the boys put a video of the beating up on facebook live.

I told Ella Staywoke about my plan to kill Mean DeVante and his friends for what they did to DeVante. But she wasn’t interested in killing anyone.

“They did what all yall do sooner or later,” she said.

“Who is yall?” I asked her. “And why don’t you ever say my name?”

“Yall learned that mean from some boys who learned that mean from some other boys,” she said. “And those boys learned that mean from some men who learned that mean from some other men who were scared to tell they fathers and they uncles and they grandfathers to kill that mean. Y’all mean.”

Ella Staywoke starting biting on the fingernail of her right thumb for what felt like two whole minutes after her speech.

I tried to hold her hand.

Ella Staywoke jerked back, and slapped the taste out of my mouth. “Please just stop being so mean,” she said. “Please. I don’t want you to touch me the way you want to touch me. Why is that so hard for y’all to understand. I just want to go home.”

That night, the night of DeVante’s funeral, I walked home knowing I’d lost my two best friends in the world to a familiar mean I was too afraid to name. I remembered how Uncle Robert made his way to Ella Staywoke at the dinner. I remembered how he laughed without opening his mouth even when Ella Staywoke didn’t say anything funny. I remember how Ella Staywoke kept her head down,  and tried to move every time Uncle Robert got closer to her. I remember Ella Staywoke eventually laughing and looking up at Uncle Robert as he walked her home. And I knew that wasn’t fair.



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