A black mother and her son talk about language and love in the South.
Image by Jennifer Packer, Mario II, 2012. Courtesy the artist
Hey Mama, I’m feeling alone this morning. I miss Mississippi. I miss you. How you feeling?
Hey Kie, I’m tired. I’m wearing the pearl bracelet that you gave me. It is so beautiful. This morning I managed to get it locked alone. Did you hug yourself this morning?
Mama, you always say that. How am I supposed to hug myself?
You hug yourself by not allowing haters to distract you and by believing in yourself. You hug yourself by practicing the speech of respectability.
Oh, lord. Mama, some people theorize about the politics of respectability but the crazy thing is how that’s literally your theme music. How are you gonna sing your own theme music, though? I don’t care about the speech of respectability. Respectability ain’t got nothing to do with me.
Don’t say “ain’t got” Kie.
Or nothing. Just don’t say “ain’t got.”
Nah, I’m serious. Or what? I know the language, Mama. You know I know the language. I know the rules. I know how to break and bend the rules, too. Plus, who would win in a contest between “doesn’t have” and “ain’t got”?
It depends on the judges.
Mama, how have we been having the same conversation about language for thirty years?
You are a grown man, but you’re still a black boy from Mississippi to people that want to hurt you. Speaking and writing in a respectable way is just one small way to protect yourself. How do you not understand this?
I have pictures of the look on my grandma’s face the first time she held my first two books. Grandma smiled until she cried. I haven’t had those kinds of moments with Mama. I do know that she wishes I’d share less in my work and that I’d never write anything with the words “nigga” and “ain’t got” in it. She has been sending me titles for the books she wanted me to write for over twenty years. I think she knew I’d write something, but I don’t think she imagined, or wanted, my first, second, fifth, or tenth book to be what Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America became.
Hiding won’t protect us.
I’m not talking about hiding. Public and private are different words for a reason. If you had children, I bet you wouldn’t talk or write the way you do. Maybe you should refrain from that Twitter and Facebook for a few weeks.
I don’t even really do Twitter, Mama. If people follow me, I follow them, and if they read my stuff, I tell them thank you. What do you even know about Twitter?
My friends tell me you write crazy-talk on that Facebook, and that Twitter. I hear something in your voice that’s worrying me. Whenever I hear this, you end up doing something destructive. Are you okay? Have you written about Jordan Davis yet?
Mama. Both of my books are about Jordan Davis’s life and death. Wow. I’ve been thinking about Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
They’re trying to fix black boys on the cheap, without reckoning with white supremacy.
What have you been thinking?
I’ve been thinking too much. If the president isn’t willing to even say the words “black love” or “white supremacy” or “patriarchy,” he can be a black boy’s keeper, but he can’t be an honest lover of black boys. They’re trying to fix black boys on the cheap, without reckoning with white supremacy. You fix a “what.” You don’t fix a “whom.” What really needs fixing? It’s dishonest and violent to focus on black boys when black girls are catching hell from everything under the sun, and catching hell from black boys and black men. Don’t get me started. I get the restraints Obama is under. I get that his job is to lie to a nation of liars. But don’t bring black boys up on stage and lie to them in front of the world. In front of Bill O’Reilly? I hate when folks use us as props. And then they had the little brothers dressed in the same outfits. It was so shameful. I’m wondering, do you think the nation or our state has ever, or will ever, loudly and lovingly focus on the lives of black girls and black women?
It hasn’t. And it won’t. Black girls and black women don’t really buy the president anything in this country, though we supported him with a higher percentage than any other group in both of his elections. But do we really want black girls added to what you called “cheap initiatives”? The state generally works to dismantle our right to dignity. That work of valuing our lives, sadly, has always, and will always, be done on the local level.
Actually, I woke up this morning thinking about Fannie Lou Hamer and Margaret Walker Alexander. I don’t know why, but thinking about them, and your relationship to them, and the lives they lived in Mississippi, just made me so sad. Usually, thinking about them is a way of hugging myself, like you say. But today, I just feel the worst part of the weight they experienced as black women activists and artists living in Mississippi.
I learned about Mrs. Hamer from Leslie. Leslie had been a young student activist and had worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Mrs. Hamer. I learned how she embraced young people and the SNCC folk who recruited her in Indianola, and how she joined the movement realizing that she would be kicked off the plantation and left homeless. I hurt for her all over again when I read and reread how she was sterilized and beaten in Winona, and how she did not have good healthcare during her bout with cancer. Even after all she did for our state, she died painfully, poor and penniless. She matters to me even now because she fought to help the nation and our state get closer to its creed. You love Mrs. Hamer as well. Why is that?
I didn’t have a choice. You made me love her, Mama. I felt loved by Fannie Lou Hamer the first time you made me watch this documentary about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. I didn’t have the words back then, but I just felt so loved when she said, “White Americans today don’t know what in the world to do because when they put us behind them, that’s where they made their mistake…They put us behind them, and we watched every move they made.” She made me believe in time travel and believe I was a part of a team of time travelers. Wait, Mama. Can you tell me more about your relationship with Margaret Walker Alexander? I remember you always being at her house. She was the first real black writer I ever met. Did she ever talk about her time in the black arts movement?
Margaret was a very complex woman. My best memories of Margaret are visits to her home, where she invited me to help her sort out materials for a book she wanted to write on Aaron Henry. I had taught her son Sigmund and knew her daughter-in-law and her elder son. So, I knew her well and enjoyed her stories. She, like you, was not fond of flying. Margaret and Eudora Welty were both Jacksonians and I always had the sense that Welty got the better end of the royalties and national attention because she was white. I often wondered how Margaret and Welty might have fared as friends and why the gulf was impermeable.
Mississippi is the home of the best sentence creators in the world.
Yeah, for a long time, I hated on Eudora Welty’s narrative abilities because my teachers made us read her every year from seventh to twelfth grade, and I knew that Ms. Alexander’s Jubilee and “For My People” were way better or at least as good as anything Ms. Welty did. Ms. Welty was dope. She was. She layered her stories, and did white Southern characterization better than almost anyone ever. But Mississippi is the home of the best sentence creators in the world. How come Ms. Welty was the one who got all the shine when I was in school? Plus, I hated how it sounded when she said “nigra” on tape. What’s a “nigra”? A mix between a “nigga” and a piece of okra?
You are so crazy.
I’m a crazy nigra. My irrational hate of Ms. Welty’s work eased by the time I went to college. But then one of my teachers worked with Ms. Welty and this teacher accused me of plagiarizing because I used the word “ambivalent.” It was the second week of class and this woman literally said, “Ambivalent isn’t a word I can see you using.” When I went back to Millsaps to give a talk last year, I let her know that I was a better writer than her and she should be happy that I’m not ambivalent about talking to her wack ass.
You are so crazy.
Maybe. People on Facebook keep asking me what you think about Chokwe’s death. I say that you’re not ready to talk about it. I know that he meant so much to you and my father.
Have you talked to your father since Chokwe’s passing? My first date with your father was to the Republic of New Afrika House on the corner of Lynch and Dalton streets. I was eighteen. Across the street was my favorite chili dog restaurant, The Penguin. In any case, Chokwe was much respected and admired by your father. I was very new to the conversation but found it interesting. Inside the RNA House were tons of books, the smell of incense that I mistook for the smell of weed, and lots of candles. Later I would meet Chokwe and the late Imari Obadele. I actually adored Imari. The police raided the House around midnight and our date was over. Chokwe loved the name that we gave you. “Kiese Makeba.” We were so proud of that name. Chokwe spent his entire life using his skills to help dispossessed black people in the South and the Mid-West…
Black folks loving black folks in the South causes so much literal terrorism, yet black love is also the only place we could go to soothe the terror. Mama placed Mayor Chokwe Lumumba in a larger context of complicated freedom fighters committed to freeing the land. This was a part of our conversation that my mother made me promise not to share with the world.
…I do not want to believe that there was any foul play in Chokwe’s death, Kie. The possibility of that so disturbs me—to the point of having an existential crisis. All my life I have believed that people are basically good—this would change that belief.
Mama, I’m not sure how you can believe that people are basically good after all that we’ve seen. Remember when we were playing by Calloway and we ran after that man who just started destroying that woman’s face?
I do not want to talk about that, Kie. I still see that girl’s bloodied face and hear the sound of that man punching her. I think we would have killed him if we caught him.
No question. So how can you still believe people are basically good?
What’s the alternative, Kie?
There’s so much love and history of black excellence in our state, but the state’s structural commitment to black death is unparallelled.
The alternative is to accept that white supremacy and patriarchy don’t want us to ritualize the work of loving each other, which means white supremacy and patriarchy literally want us dead. We ain’t dead yet. We ain’t even got good at really loving each other and we still ain’t dead yet. So we just have to get better at the hard work of loving each other. That means loving at home, loving policy, loving institutions, loving economically, all that. Wait, would you raise a girl or boy in Mississippi or the South if you could do it again?
If I had to raise a child now—no matter the gender—I would probably not choose Mississippi. There’s so much love and history of black excellence in our state, but the state’s structural commitment to black death is unparallelled.
But if that’s true, why did you stay there so long?
I stayed there so long precisely because of the state’s commitment to black death and my commitment to my students. I loved my students because my teachers had loved and believed in me. Like you, I was only a few years older than my first class of students, so I was committed to advancing their life chances. I needed to do my part to ensure their sure-footedness in the next leg of their journey, whether they stayed in Mississippi or left.
What would you think if I moved back to Mississippi next year to teach and learn?
I do not favor this move. Would you be moving without a job? Would you be moving for reasons that could easily change? What’s happening with you? Has Vassar asked you to leave? Is this your decision? Why?
Damn, Mama. Why you trippin’? I’m just asking what you’d think of my moving back home to live and work.
And I’m asking you why you’re considering that after all you’ve been through.
Oh, boy. Okay, next question. Sometimes I wonder if I really had a chance to be anything other than a teacher, a student, and a writer after being conceived, born, and raised on a college campus. When I watched you teach, I didn’t think about how much love students share with you, or how you can really damage them if you’re not attentive, honest, and deliberate. I’ve been my best self when teaching and learning from students. There’s so much I didn’t think about regarding the relationships with students and teachers when I watched you. I remember kids asking me why your students lived with us sometimes. And I never thought the answer was because you loved them. But that really was the answer.
They loved me, Kie.
When I was a kid, I thought you loved them more than you loved me. But after a while, I didn’t care. That’s what I was trying to say in that letter to you in my essay book. I understood that you were changing the world, and being changed, one student at a time.
Let me ask you this: Would you whip me as much as you did if you could do it over again? No beef. Just asking.
I did not want you to destroy your life chances and I did not want racism to destroy you. That’s why I whipped you so much. As a child, you had enormous stubbornness, anger, and rage. And while you were able to channel it through sports and writing, it was never far from the surface. Sometimes I wonder if much has changed with you. I tried to establish rules and when talking did not help, I lost patience. I was nineteen when you were born. I am sorry, Kie. Please forgive me.
I get all of that, Mama. I really do. You were a baby with a baby. I remember men constantly asking me for “my sister’s digits” when we were in the mall. That shit made me so mad. Then you add on living in Mississippi. And being in academia, with all its crazy-making. And all the men who were trying to eat your heart meat. I get it. I’m telling you I get it. Do you think being a young black woman in Mississippi with a child impacted your relationship to money?
I never had a job or a bank account as a young woman and probably never learned to value money the way I should have. In any case, I earned $17,000 the year I began work at Jackson State. I immediately enrolled you in Christ the King. I think your father contributed $250 a month. After rent, your schooling, food, clothing, and utilities, there was very little left for purchases other than books. I feel like I never had enough money to give, spend, or save.
Teach my grandchildren to read, write, sing, and dance. Teach them what you value most—the power of dignity and the complexity of love.
I hear you. Can you tell me why you want to be a grandmother so badly?
Kie, sometimes I think you’re afraid to have kids or get married because of mistakes your parents made. Is that true?
I wasn’t ready to answer that question honestly. Family, community, and my grandmother are central in nearly everything I’ve ever created, but there are huge gaps in my fiction and nonfiction where textured mothers, fathers, and partners are supposed to be. There’s the thinnest line between parental terror, parental shame, and parental intimacy, and I’m trying to understand how my parents drew and toed that line, and what the consequences are for children when those lines blur. I guess I’m mostly reckoning with whether I have the imagination and will to draw something other than scary thin lines for my children, and my partner. Scary thin lines poke. And people aren’t ideas. People bleed. Then they scar. I don’t want to be an abusive parent or partner. I’m not sure people should have kids if they’re unsure whether they themselves are really worthy of love. Anyway, I’m working on it.
If you have kids, especially if you move back home, protect my grandchildren and teach them that life is a series of choices, and whatever we choose, we lose something. Make sure you have children with a woman you’re madly in love with. Don’t ever be a whoremonger. Teach my grandchildren to read, write, sing, and dance. They will probably have a good set of windpipes and great hand-eye coordination. They will also be very beautiful. Teach them what you value most—the power of dignity and the complexity of love. Don’t be afraid that you’ll mess up or that they won’t love you. Loving you is not hard. I wish I showed you that more.
I hear you, Mama. Okay, so are you gonna let me run all that other stuff you said I couldn’t run?
No, I’m not. Why would you want strangers without our best interest at heart to see that?
Thanks for talking to me, Mama.
Thank you for talking to me.
Ain’t got. Ain’t got. Ain’t got.
You are so hardheaded.
I love you, Mama.
I love you, Kie.
Kiese Laymon is a black Southern writer, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He is the author of the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
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