My favorite book is How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, a book of essays by Kiese Laymon that I read often, memorizing paragraphs like scripture. I was introduced to this book that, if I’m telling the truth, felt like it mirrored some infinite part of my childhood, of my aesthetic, and every time I finish it, I suffer quick heart palpitations because I know that he knows me in some southern, neck-bone-eating way, as if he was raised in my uncle’s church with me.
Laymon, this black man who loves words and hip-hop and family and country living, while also grappling with the nuances of a very particular upbringing in the Deep South and what it means to be southerly rooted in a very modern, New York-state-of-mind world, does so in a fluent, unapologetic language that reminds me of who I am currently trying to bloom into. In How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, he shows that it is music and men we love who shapes us, that it’s race and mamas who fuel us in these segregated spaces where deep American whiteness is always colliding with deep American blackness. He shows how these collisions bruise us as well as how these bruises become catalysts for building us back up.
By the time I read “Our Kind of Ridiculous,” one of the essays in the book, I was already out of my small Texas landscape of schools filled exclusively with black and brown folks and into my new Chicagoan PWI life. It was a culture shock to say the least. There were no more Kool-Aid pickles and elotes, there were no more late night runs to The Waffle House. I was now in a sea of sameness, looked upon as a deciding factor of whether or not I was any different from the rest of us.
After I discovered “Our Kind of Ridiculous” a year after feeling ridiculous, I used it as a guide on how to feel better. In this essay, Laymon is talking about his neighbor Kurt, a poor white man who lived in the apartment above him while he studied in Pennsylvania. He’s talking about how at the age of 24 and coming from Mississippi, this is the most intimate he’s ever had to be with white folks in his entire life.
I’d be lying if I said I knew any white folks on a personal level prior to my eighteenth birthday. In fact, a lot of my southern living consisted of me staying away from said folks. My schools were always exclusively Mexican and black. I can’t say that I had many white teachers growing up. If I did, I don’t remember them. My family always lived in some area where everyone looked like us. When we moved and finally had white neighbors, they acted like they were scared to speak to us, like they were wondering how we got there.
Growing up in Dallas, I can’t say that I was eager to engage with Texas as a whole. Dallas is filled with Cutlasses and organized sports. The rest of Texas, on the other hand, is filled with redneck republicans who sit on slave plantations with their guns. I’ve always known its history, but the actuality of it remained an enigma to me. Most of my friends and family’s consensus was that white people are crazy, and as I grew into an older version of myself, as I stood inside of ice cream shops and was refused service, and as I had run-ins with officers in small cities like Cleveland, Texas, this consensus became more solidified by the second. These lists of bad encounters never made me want to know more. It was when I moved into my dorm room with two white girls and one Asian girl that I learned the severity of my private school choice. This was when I realized the next four years of my life would be either a lot of conforming or a lot of isolation.
I wish I had Laymon to be my teacher because no one I knew had dealt with this many white people on this level. They worked for them, but they didn’t have to converse with them. They didn’t have to learn together, and they most certainly didn’t have to live together.
I didn’t know how to communicate with them—I never had to. They didn’t know how to communicate with me—they never had to. I didn’t know how to smile nicely as they stood around me, watching like a hawk in the sky, like I was a social experiment, as I permed my hair and they asked questions like “oooh so that’s how you get your hair straight” or “I’ve never seen a black girl with straight hair.” I didn’t know how to react when one of them asked me if my cocoa butter lotion would make her skin dark. I didn’t know how to say anything without coming off as the angry black girl.
And these people definitely weren’t the worst of white folks; they were good people. But they definitely had the prototype of blonde hair, blue-eyed, smooth-sailing living, who had never been confronted with their ideas of what they thought black folks were until I came along, who have never understood the concept of microaggressions and how they feel like attacks just the same.
In “Our Kind of Ridiculous” Laymon and Kurt have this encounter where Kurt projects all of his black man stereotypes onto him. He’s asking him how to pronounce his name, if people get shot a lot where he’s from, and when he’s done, he looks Laymon right in the eyes and says “I’m serious. Yous are different. Yous ain’t like your kind.” My entire college career has felt like I’m under a microscope to not be like my “kind.” Although I am exactly, if not passionately, like my “kind,” and that being like my “kind” is the best thing that I have ever been.
I usually fight back in my writing, but Laymon fights back in the flesh as well as in the prose. So when he grips Kurt’s bony shoulder and asks him if his greasy mullet, his two in-house partners, his caved-in chest, his white BeBe's kids, and his belief in niggers made him different than his kind, and when Kurt replies with “I ain’t racist,” I know that this is something that will never go away and I know that Laymon has worked hard on speaking up, too.
The way he interacts with white folks is way better than mine. It may have been my youth that caused me to withdraw. Or it may have been me knowing that if I didn’t withdraw, I would have exploded.
Those times he reacted with force, I wish I had the nerve. Those times he reacted with tears after he was embarrassed by white cops and white girlfriends, I wish I were as strong. He spends a lot of time in this book educating in ways that I’ve never had the patience for. He discovers elements about who he is through a linear theme that has embedded itself into his lifestyle, and through these revelations, he shows us that “blackness is not probable cause.”
For a long time, I felt like it was. I felt like I could not speak the way I spoke because a) I would be meeting the “urban” expectations the majority has placed upon me and b) I didn’t feel like explaining what something I said means. I was tired of repeating myself. I was tired of not really being listened to. I represent a very particular, often overlooked part of black American existence, and I’ve had to work hard at not compromising myself. I spend a lot of time wondering whether what I am saying resonates with home, and most importantly with black folks back home who I left and came back to with open arms. These are the only people I want to make proud. I know home is a place that can never be erased from my words. And I am reminded when I read this book that “We black Southerners, through life, love, and labor, are the generators and architects of American music, narrative, language, capital, and morality.” And I know that I have to keep going because no matter how I am confronted with my reflection, “I am a black Southern artist. Our tradition is responsible for me, and I am responsible to it.”