On Reckoning with White Privilege and the Black Struggle to Survive
new york: simon & schuster, 2018. 208 pages, hardcover, $20.80.
new york: scribner, 2018. 256 pages, hardcover, $18.58.
I grew up with privilege. Don’t look at the bone china or the sterling silver with good hallmarks—those are just artifacts of my privilege. Ignore my mother’s Volvo station wagon, a 1975 245 DL. Certainly do not consider the silver Lancia coupe driven by my father as anything other than a mode of transportation. Instead, look at the reason any of this was even possible: my mother’s English, Irish, and Scottish genes and my father’s Polish, German, and Lithuanian genes.
In other words, we were white.
The kind of white people automatically assumed to attend college. The kind of white, suburban people only 32 miles from 1970s Oakland, California, who never considered why Huey Newton and Bobby Seale might have to monitor the Oakland Police Department and challenge police brutality in the city. In other words, we were not woke, despite our proximity to Oakland.
I mean “The Jeffersons,” a family wholly different than my own, was on television and the series lasted 11 seasons, one of the longest running sitcoms to date. George and Louise were moving on up—as if examples in a television sitcom could deliver equity and justice. What was left for my family and me to [End Page 229] consider now that people of color—a term not used then, of course—“finally had a piece of the pie,” as the Jeffersons’ theme song claimed.
In the new memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, Saeed Jones shows my current and former self what it is that might have been considered—that a piece of the pie is nothing. Full stop. But especially so when you can’t play outside in the summer because the white kids will beat you up, or you spend the summer at your grandmother’s going to Wednesday night Baptist Bible study or Sunday services in order to pray away the “worldly” ways of your teenage self. Jones shows us how it feels to be black, and male, and gay in the late ’90s South.
In quiet, lyric chapters that move through the summer heat of Lewisville, Texas, and Memphis, Tennessee—a structural device that keeps the reader grounded in time and space so that she cannot deny or wish away what happens to Jones and his family—Jones shows us the fear of growing up with a secret, especially when you are the only child of a single mother.
You never really forget your first. Where and when and who you were: sixteen years old at the football game, twenty-six outside the bar, twelve on the playground … you never forget your first “faggot.” Because the memory, in its way, makes you. It becomes a spine for the body of anxieties and insecurities that will follow, something to hang all that meat on.(39)
By circumstances of birth Jones already has three strikes against him. Add to that a single mother working two jobs to provide for her son, a devoutly Christian grandmother who believes her grandson can pray away the gay, and that Jones and his mother live in Lewisville, Texas, only 252 miles from Jasper, Texas, where three white men murdered James Byrd when Jones was just 12 years old, and you begin to understand some of the struggle to survive. But Jones’s prose pushes the reader on, and even though Jones surely must have hurt reviewing and rewriting horrific incidents, he relays the facts of his life in writing that borders on beautiful even as it simply reports a reality many white Americans do not believe exists in the land of the free. Jones shows us otherwise, as in one scene as he worries after Byrd’s murder.
But then I was a black boy in America again, curled fetal in his twin bed, a bloody stone in his hand, ears ringing with the rattle of chains. . . . Just [End Page 230] as some cultures have a hundred words for “snow,” there should be a hundred words in our language for all the ways a black boy can lie awake at night.(24)
How We Fight for Our Lives is a craft lesson about what is not on the page. The emotion is restrained, the subtext there in plain sight, even as I call it subtext—if you look closely—the story of coming out and coming of age rendered in plain prose that keeps the reader’s attention, and never distracts from the story of being a black man in America, the story which is heavy and hard. It is this lack of big emotion, Jones’s understatement that gives the writing its gravitas. The story had it all along—to be able to convey it, that’s the art of the writer Saeed Jones.
In the fall of 2016, the Oakland Museum of California featured a photographic retrospective of the Black Panthers, showing many pictures never before seen of the Panthers’ free breakfast and lunch programs, organizing to get out the vote, immunizing young black children whose parents weren’t able to afford healthcare for their kids. The exhibition sought to show a different side to the complex organization and included first-person accounts of former Panthers, as well as how the Panthers still influence and inspire action.
I went to this photo retrospective because, by 2017, I’d come to realize I’d led an insulated life of privilege, in which all (and I do mean all) of our institutions allowed me to thrive—even as a fat, genderqueer butch—because I was white. As I looked at the pictures, the parallels to Ferguson and Black Lives Matter couldn’t be dismissed. Both the Black Panther Party—forerunners of Black Lives Matter—and today’s activists were considered a “threat to the internal security of the country” according to the FBI—because both organizations insisted that black lives be “no longer systematically targeted for demise.”
I stood in front of those pictures with two college degrees from schools that didn’t teach me a thing about racism. I drove a green Kia Soul with a missing headlight and a broken mirror that I wasn’t afraid to take around town—none of these mattered next to the color of my skin.
In his memoir Heavy, Kiese Laymon writes:
There were so many things we needed in those classrooms, in our city, in our state, in our country that our teachers could have provided if they would [End Page 231] have gone home and really done their homework. They never once said the words: “economic inequality,” “housing discrimination,” “sexual violence,” “mass incarceration” . . . “neo-confederacy.”(114)
So many things white people—I, myself—got just by the happenstance of birth and life in a country whose institutions and practices keep racism alive.
Where Jones’s prose is understated and the tone and structure accrete upon a reader, Laymon comes out swinging and never stops. Swinging at his mother, at the culture, at institutionalized racism that we have little hope of eradicating because so many of us can’t or, even worse, won’t see it. His book opens:
I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie. I did not want to write honestly about black lies, black thighs, black laughs, black foods, black addictions, black stretch marks, black dollars, black words, black abuses, black blues, black belly buttons, black wins, black beens, black bends, black consent, black parents, or black children. I did not want to write about us. I wanted to write an American memoir.
I wanted to write a lie.(1)
Laymon’s memoir, which jumps between first-person and second-person direct address, made me flinch so many times. The physical and sexual abuse, the blatant disregard shown by white people towards Laymon, his family, his friends—literally what the weight of racism and abuse, and of not talking about it, did to Laymon’s body. As Jones anchors the reader in place, Laymon anchors the reader in weight.
I asked Grandmama if 218 pounds was too fat for twelve years old. . . .
“Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough.”
“Heavy enough for what?”
“Heavy enough for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”(60)
The refrain of weight continues as Laymon starves himself to fit himself into his highly educated, abusive mother’s idea of him, the culture’s idea of him, his own idea of acceptableness—and then regains his weight, only to starve himself again. [End Page 232]
Near the end of my senior year, I went with you to the house of your mentor, Margaret Walker. I was six-one, 230 pounds, I had $208 in my pocket after delivering phone books in Jackson.(104)
No matter how much weight I lost, small, smart white boys would always have the power to make big black boys force them into buying our last kilos of cocaine. . . . And some of us, if we were extra lucky, would get to teach these small, smart addicted white boys and girls today so we could pay for our ailing grandmama’s dental care tomorrow.(195)
I wish I could claim to be a fully woke white reader, but Laymon’s and Jones’s memoirs show me I’m not, else their sentences would not have caught my breath except with their style and beauty—rather than with the pain of their content. In their raw humanity, these personal narratives detail our national failure to discuss and dismantle racism. They bring about a reckoning, forcing me to confront again my own time of believing everyone had an opportunity to “get a piece of the pie” if only they wanted it. Forcing me to look and see a full-sized struggle to survive—not just one-dimensional community, but vulnerable interiors as well. [End Page 233]
Kate Carroll De Gutes is a wry observer and writer who started her career as a journalist and then got excited by new journalism, which then became creative nonfiction and is now called essay (well, you can see where this is going). She is the author of two award-winning memoirs and her essays have been widely anthologized. Her work centers around sexuality, gender presentation, and questioning cultural norms of femininity and masculinity.