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  • On Reckoning with White Privilege and the Black Struggle to Survive
  • Kate Carroll De Gutes (bio)
Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir
new york: simon & schuster, 2018. 208 pages, hardcover, $20.80.
Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir
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.


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...


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pp. 229-233
Launched on MUSE
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