How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance
July 28, 2012 10:17 PM   Subscribe

This is powerful writing. "This isn't an essay or simply a woe-is-we narrative about how hard it is to be a black boy in America. This is a lame attempt at remembering the contours of slow death and life in America for one black American teenager under Central Mississippi skies. I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don't want to lie."—A piece by Kiese Laymon, an Associate Professor of English and co-director of Africana Studies at Vassar College.

Over at Gawker.com, there is the following preface:
I've had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I've helped many folks say yes to life but I've definitely aided in few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.
posted by Moody834 (57 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite

 
That is one of the most amazing things I've ever read. Thanks Moody.
posted by emjaybee at 10:44 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


That was great. Thanks.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:19 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is a searing piece of writing.
posted by Malor at 11:28 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The content is interesting but the writing is awful.
posted by shivohum at 11:30 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


The content is interesting but the writing is awful.
If this is all you have to say - and truly, this sort of statement is deeply impoverished of substance - it would be better to hold your peace.

And no, I do not need to hold positive and negative sentiments to the same standard.

Deeply considered criticism is important and difficult work.

Registering appreciation for something is not difficult or important, but it's also not disruptive.

Stating your negative, subjective opinion as objective fact is lazy and disruptive.
posted by kavasa at 11:55 PM on July 28, 2012 [30 favorites]


Metafilter: your favourite writing sucks
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:55 PM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


The content is interesting but the writing is awful.

So you like to hear about how worthless and conflicted black Americans feel but you'd rather they didn't describe it artfully. Got it.
posted by gompa at 12:13 AM on July 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


[It would be really great to now discuss the post subject instead of one person's opinion of it. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 12:54 AM on July 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Azikiwe Kambule, the guy in the car during the murder of Pam McGill--a murder mentioned here--was one of the many people granted a pardon by former Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour in early 2012. These pardons created enormous controversy within the state and were given extensive coverage nationally. For what it's worth.
posted by raysmj at 1:54 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


What an interesting time we live in.

A brilliant piece of writing come out hot off the press, and if you want you can say something and the author will probably respond.

It kills the passive quality of reading, because there's the potential there for an exchange with the author. Still, it's much different from a conversation in person, because the statements are much more composed, and the original statement (the piece of writing) is so complex, well-crafted, and weighty that it makes replying somewhat daunting. This guy is pouring his heart out, he's seen some serious stuff and this is a serious discussion.

When I take the time to step away from my life and read an involved piece like this, it's passive and it's a way of hiding. I don't expect any eyes to be on me and my thoughts - I just want to see other people's. All of a sudden there's a suggestion that I might write back, and it makes me feel like I have to step up my game. There's also a tendency for some of these discussions to fill up with comments really quickly because, if you're seeing it, a lot of other people are probably seeing it too. I wonder if these aspects of the current situation will continue to become more pronounced until one sits down at the computer ready to go to battle. Instead of reclining back with a piece of writing, you're hyping yourself up to jump into the fray, like a kid about to jump into a double dutch. You've got to respond now.You push yourself to do an excellent reading. And you want to push yourself to speak, because you want to be recognized for your contribution -- because to truly contribute requires superior understanding. In the end this is all an exercise or even a contrivance to gain understanding. Reading and responding online is an avoidance of my real life, but a relatively benign avoidance, considering. Especially since one can rationalize after the fact that it's for the sake of understanding.

As a white male in the US, I can't relate to having people hate me like Kiese Laymon has had. But I still feel his challenge to remember. Self-examining ourselves and our lives, particularly the ways we abuse ourselves, seems profoundly important. This self-examination is in some ways at odds with the avoidance that is Metafilter, Reddit, Facebook. Laymon is grappling with the facts of his life with a much deeper engagement than I usually find myself feeling as I interact in online forums. I'm usually here at the end of the day, blowing off steam, or shielding myself in the middle of some other task that's making me feel overwhelmed. Maybe if I sat down purposefully, almost as a practice, things would be different and I would feel better for having made the effort to try and understand my true self.
posted by victory_laser at 2:21 AM on July 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


you'd rather they didn't describe it artfully. Got it.

Artful's fine. Not sure if saying he's going to 'surmise something into something else' is so much artful as clumsy, though. I'm all about repurposing words, but that just seems like a mistake. Which is odd coming from a professor of English, even an associate one, regardless of their ethnicity.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:12 AM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Surmise" jumped out at me as being weirdly wrong as well. I would hope it was due to some overzealous wordprocessor autocorrecting a mistyped "summarize".
posted by smcameron at 6:16 AM on July 29, 2012


Thank you for posting this.
posted by lillygog at 6:56 AM on July 29, 2012


If, somehow, you've never felt the despair that you'll never be good enough no matter what, or the fearful desperation of being 'on parole' about something with the authorities just waiting for one little slip-up from you, perhaps you'll find this hard to relate to. Maybe it's just been a long while.

This whole piece feels like it was written quickly, as if on a dare; and if he wrote some things weird he couldn't fix them without taking the whole thing back, because it'll never be good enough no matter what. He feels they're out there still, waiting for just one little slip up from him. I'm glad he swung with it.
posted by wobh at 7:23 AM on July 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


I was a little puzzled by the artfulness.

I'm not sure I understand his point when he says that the Trayvon Martin murder "boldly speaks to the... privileging of black boys in our nation." In what way was Martin privileged?

Is he drawing a connection between the night his own mother pulled a gun on him because he wouldn't type his college application ("One blue night") and the night he and his friend run across the raped woman ("One black night"), or was that coincidental phrasing?

Early in the essay, he is mugged by "a kid... with the birdest of bird chests." The kid wields "a shiny silver gun." In contrast, his mother's gun is "raggedy, small, heavy and black" and he imagines the gun as "an old dead crow." With the bird references tying the two gun-related instances together, does a description of "shiny" for the youth's gun, and "raggedy" for his mother's gun indicate a rejection of the older generation and their ways?

Similarly, his grandmother is mentioned many times. She's the reason he didn't shoot people on his college campus, he's sad he's disappointed her, and she's the reason he didn't shoot himself. Yet towards the end of the essay, he concludes that although he wants to be who his Grandma thinks he is, he is not. Instead, he's continuing to "kill" himself and others. He then turns to a memory of his partner, who's been locked up for murdering a Dept. of Human Services worker for her car. He wonders, "Were there mental health issues left unattended?" Is the focus on a killer instead of the killed just an underscoring of his theme that he's been killing others and himself? Or, what does he mean by the irony that a person might have mental health issues unattended, and yet killed a person who works for a department that provides mental health services?

If we are meant to make a connection between him and San Berry, what does his musing indicate?

In what ways are his hotlinked photos enhancing the story? Are they a sly reference to "stealing all those Lucky Charms, Funyons, loaves of light bread and over a hundred cold dranks out of the cafeteria"?
posted by Houstonian at 7:26 AM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Good essay. I get why there is a lot of anger behind his experience and race issues generally in America, but from a pragmatic point of view I don't think anger will ever fix the problem. In fact, in my estimation it's the source of the thanatos he talks about in the article. King had it right: literally fighting back won't end racism in the U.S., only changing attitudes will. This has, and will, take time and effort. There are a lot of hateful, ignorant folks out there.

Of course this personal essay stands just fine on its own two feet without a tiresome discussion of this larger issue.
posted by nowhere man at 7:36 AM on July 29, 2012


If we are meant to make a connection between him and San Berry, what does his musing indicate?

I took it as a kind of "it coulda been me."

He's dealing with rage and impotence and, most importantly, the strong effect of internalizing the hate projected at you. He sympathizes with people who succumb to those effects, but is trying to take ownership of his own behavior.

There are some big,strong ideas here.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:50 AM on July 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


What a tremendous piece. Thanks for sharing it.

I have a difficult time finding compelling writing these days. So much of what's published is oriented towards entertainment and void of deep thought. We have need for all types of writing and style and purposes. I happen to like to read things that make me think.

This piece certainly did that.
posted by legweak at 9:09 AM on July 29, 2012


Back when the forest still stretched in an unbroken expanse from Scandinavia to the Urals, the Vikings who inhabited its northernmost reaches wrote down their own stories about war. Their legends may have been garish fantasies -- cursed rings and enchanted gold and dragon slayers and the fall of the realm of the gods -- but when they wrote about battle, they were unsparingly exact. Their sagas still offer the subtlest and most rigorous accounts of the unique psychology of combat. The anonymous authors knew that the experience of being on a battlefield is fundamentally different from everything else in life. It simply can't be described with ordinary words, so they devised a specialized Old Norse vocabulary to handle it. Some of their terms will do perfectly well for a world war fought a thousand years later.

The Vikings knew, for instance, that prolonged exposure to combat can goad some men into a state of uncontrolled psychic fury. They might be the most placid men in the world in peacetime, but on the battlefield they begin to act with the most inexplicable and gratuitous cruelty. They become convinced that they're invincible, above all rules and restraints, literally transformed into supermen or werewolves. The Vikings called such men "berserkers." World War II was filled with instances of ordinary soldiers giving in to berserker behavior. In battle after battle soldiers on all sides were observed killing wantonly and indiscriminately, defying all orders to stop, in a kind of collective blood rage. The Axis powers actually sanctioned and encouraged berserkers among their troops, but they were found in every army, even among those that emphasized discipline and humane conduct. American marines in the Pacific became notorious for their berserker mentality, particularly their profound lack of interest in taking prisoners. Eugene Sledge once saw a marine in a classic berserker state urinating into the open mouth of a dead Japanese soldier.

Another Viking term was "fey." People now understand it to mean effeminate. Previously it meant odd, and before that uncanny, fairylike. That was back when fairyland was the most sinister place people could imagine. The Old Norse word meant "doomed." It was used to refer to an eerie mood that would come over people in battle, a kind of transcendent despair. The state was described vividly by an American reporter, Tom Lea, in the midst of the desperate Battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific. He felt something inside of himself, some instinctive psychic urge to keep himself alive, finally collapse at the sight of one more dead soldier in the ruins of a tropical jungle: "He seemed so quiet and empty and past all the small things a man could love or hate. I suddenly knew I no longer had to defend my beating heart against the stillness of death. There was no defense."
Lee Sandlin, Losing the War
posted by wobh at 9:26 AM on July 29, 2012 [20 favorites]


That was the best piece of writing I've read in a while.
posted by milarepa at 10:27 AM on July 29, 2012


Regarding grammatical mistakes and what have you, let us first remember that grammar and even spelling are sets of guidelines, no more and no less. Keeping that in mind, consider the following quote, with my emphasis added:
Really, we’re fighting because she raised me to never ever forget I was on parole which means no black hoodies in wrong neighborhoods, no jogging at night, hands in plain sight at all times in public, no intimate relationships with white women, never driving over the speed-limit or doing those rolling stops at stop signs, always speaking the king’s English in the presence of white folks, never be outperformed in school or in public by white students and most importantly, always remembering that no matter what, white folks will do anything to get you.
Have you ever heard a white person describe a black person as "so articulate!"? I have.

Have you ever heard a white person be ever-so-carefully scornful of black linguistic markers such as using "ignorant" to mean something akin to "foolish"? I have.

Is there a place on the internet that is not "in the presence of white folks"? Not really.

I highly doubt that the writer's use of non-standard usages and meanings can easily be assumed to be a mistake, and honestly even that distinction is a fairly uninteresting one. Authorial intent has no real primacy over any other reading, in my opinion. So while I think it almost certain that the author's departure from standard, formal English guidelines was deliberate, I wouldn't really care if it weren't.

When you object to the usage of "surmise" as seen in the piece, do you also object to the usage of "dranks"? What about the non-standard grammar of "that Filet-o-Fish grease straight cradling my lips"? The use of "ain't"?

More importantly, standard or not, did you feel that you understood what was meant by "surmise"? Do you think the fullness of that meaning would have come through if stated in the King's English?

Because I don't.
posted by kavasa at 11:41 AM on July 29, 2012 [26 favorites]


This was an outstanding, gut-punch of an essay; it connected with/raked up a lot of my own ancient, half-smothered--but all-too similar--fury and despair. Thanks for linking to it.
posted by skye.dancer at 12:50 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and yeah, basically what kavasa said above. To hell with the King's English. Sometimes the neat, white-washed picket fences of grammar and dictionary definitions are too frail contain the misery, pain, and wrath of our lived experiences.
posted by skye.dancer at 12:59 PM on July 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Jeez. Ok, I'm a word nerd at times too, and words being used incorrectly is damn irksome, but language is fluid, and at times, especially in emotional times, one's passion outpaces your vocabulary and in your rush, you sorta stab at what you think the word might be or mean, and when you're pedantic about it, especially in the face of all that, you sorta come across as a dick.

Interrupting or responding with "Actually, that word means this,, blah blah", especially in the face of someone trying to express something important to you, comes across as a coach blowing a whistle and throwing a flag on the play. It's story time now, and it's time for you to listen and add to the conversation when welcome to. Grammar lessons can come afterwards, or never.

Here's how my retarded-ass overcame this:

Even one-sided conversations often have a rhythm, where the listener acknowledges the talker with responses such as "I see" and the like, generally at the end of a sentence or after introducing a new idea, or revealing something important. If you're used to writing on the internet, conversations happen letter for letter, word for word, where as in real life, they happen with this rhythm. If you feel you must correct someone on word use, don't break the rhythm by interrupting, and don't sidetrack the conversation:

Try this:
instead of responding with "you said [x] when actually [x] means blah. You meant [Y]" just say "[Y], but I get what you're saying", and then eventually just shorten that to "I get what you're saying". Congratulations! Human Relations +10!
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 2:17 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dumb-ass, but I get what you're saying.
posted by Houstonian at 4:16 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re linguistic accuracy, 19th-century white dude Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote this poem:

Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoals chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.


He wasn't being strictly grammatical either and had a thing for weird accent marks, but his meanings are perfectly clear.
posted by emjaybee at 6:08 PM on July 29, 2012


I'm good with the descriptivist view of language. Rules ossify. Language is a living thing, evolving, always changing. I'm aware of that. Language is something I love. I gestured at that in my original comment. Part of the pure joy of speaking English as my native language is the mad flexibility of it, and anybody familiar with my written output here and elsewhere knows that playing with words is something I enjoy and appreciate.

But my response to gompa's comment, which seemed intended to paint criticism of Mr Laymon's writing skill as somehow crypto-racist, was and remains quite strong.

I understand and sympathize with the idea that a stirring story well told can and perhaps should incline us to overlook mechanical aspects of how proficient its teller is with his or her tools. I understand and sympathize with the idea that it is good for everyone to read things like this, things that help us inhabit the lives of people who may have lived different lives than us, and whose voices have been under-represented for far too long. I understand and sympathize with the idea that this is just a blog post (and a great one), for chrissakes, and we should cut the guy some slack.

I understand that picking a single example of what I described as 'clumsy' and 'possibly mistaken' wasn't really fair -- although there were any number of other examples in the piece itself, I thought. I chose it because it was the most glaring one because it was used in the pullquote for the post here.

We have two choices here, I think. We can assume one of two things -- that Mr Laymon made a mistake, and didn't deliberately choose to use 'surmise' in a nonstandard way, or that he did in fact deliberately choose that word, knowing that he was using it in a way that would strike people who are familiar with the word and its useage as unexpected or odd.

Let's think about each of these possibilities.

The first option, that it was just a mistake, seems to me, as it does to kavasa, as perhaps unlikely. After all, he's an associate professor of English, and as such, would presumably have enough command over vocabulary not to make such a slip. On the other hand, I've done similar things many times, and I taught English for many many years myself, and have written an awful lot, some of it actually half-good, in my day.

Hell, I remember back in the stone age -- 25 years or so ago -- when I was wandering the planet, and I used to send these handwritten dispatches back to Discorder magazine in Vancouver, which they always obligingly published, always with big splashy illustrations that thrilled me, when I finally got to see them, because of the way they illuminated my little essays. In one humorous piece, I used the word 'tonsure' as a throwaway word to evoke the idea of... nonstandard haircuts popular among young folks of the day, but also to light up in my readers' minds the concept of monasticism. That was the 'wrong' way to use it. I has a quite specific meaning -- the kind of monkish haircut that leaves the crown of the head bare. When I finally got to see the finished article in the magazine many months later, I was mildly horrified that the cartoon painting that their artist had done literally showed me with a tonsure. So it goes.

So, yeah, in the heat of writing something that pours out of us, we all make mistakes with slightly unusual words sometimes.

So, even if it's a little unlikely, it is possible that Mr Laymon just make a mistake with his useage of 'surmise' and that's fine. In that scenario, it wasn't artful, it was just clumsy.

The other scenario, which kavasa suggests:
I highly doubt that the writer's use of non-standard usages and meanings can easily be assumed to be a mistake, and honestly even that distinction is a fairly uninteresting one. Authorial intent has no real primacy over any other reading, in my opinion. So while I think it almost certain that the author's departure from standard, formal English guidelines was deliberate, I wouldn't really care if it weren't.
means that Mr Laymon knew that 'surmise' wasn't the 'right' word to use in that sentence, but deliberately chose to use it anyway. I think the distinction between these two scenarios is actually a very interesting one.

Why, if the author chose 'surmise' deliberately, considering and rejecting other words that would express his intended meaning, would he have done so?

Well, a couple possibilities come to mind. kavasa's question
When you object to the usage of "surmise" as seen in the piece, do you also object to the usage of "dranks"? What about the non-standard grammar of "that Filet-o-Fish grease straight cradling my lips"? The use of "ain't"?
suggests that he (kavasa) understands the author to be using 'surmise' in a colloquial way, to evoke that way that people actually speak (although I've never in my damn-near 50 years met someone who has actually said the word 'ain't' out loud unironically, let alone describing grease as 'cradling my lips'). Or perhaps kavasa is pointing at two different things with those examples -- 'real' speech and a 'literary' metaphorical mode (although I must admit that I find the cradling thing to be clumsy, too).


(I have serious reservations about the postmodernist demotion of authorial intent, but that's another discussion for another day, perhaps)

But my problem with either of those possibilities is that a) 'surmise' is not a word, I'm pretty sure, that people use in their everyday speech. It is one of those words almost exclusively reserved for written language. It is unlike 'ain't' in that, at least as far as I know, people don't go around talking about 'surmisin' stuff'. So that seems out, to me, as a rationalization for the (deliberate, in this scenario) choice. In the case of (b), that the author is using it in a kind of literary mode (and we assume at this stage, that given Mr Layson's professional standing, and the scenario we are in, where he has chosen his words carefully and deliberately, he is familiar with code-switching and all the other tools in the toolbox), playing with language, trying to evoke connections in his readers' minds that a more apt word would not trigger.

That may be, but to me, it's clumsy, and the choice does not illuminate so much as create a stumbling block for someone who is familiar with the word and its standard useage. It actually serves to lessen the impact of his message, precisely because it is clumsy, by switching us from empathetic-experiencer to critical-evaluator. Or at least, it did me.

So I would argue that, even in this scenario, where the choice was deliberate and it was meant as wordplay, it failed -- like other examples (the 'cradled lips' that kavasa mentions, say) to achieve its author's aims.

Do you think the fullness of that meaning would have come through if stated in the King's English?

Oh, and yeah, basically what kavasa said above. To hell with the King's English.

I am not in any way suggesting 'the King's English' as a model to be followed here. I tried to innoculate against accusations of that, and failed, it seems, in my original, short comment. It is interesting that bound up in those mentions is the idea of a kind of linguistic imperialism, which is, of course, germane to my interlocutors, because they assumed that I was somehow making comments about the piece that were tied to the ethnicity of the writer. Not at all, I suggest, although I understand, given the subject of the piece, how such ideas got mixed in.

So I guess it comes down to this, which is perhaps a matter of taste, about which, so it goes, there can be no dispute. Others have suggested that the way Mr Layson uses language helps to illuminate the story he tells, helps to draw us in and deepen our engagement in it, which would be all to the good. For me, the way he uses language actually does the opposite. That's not because I think he should be using the King's English, or anybody else's English other than his own. I just found his choices (again, if that's what they are, but I am willing to accept the suggestion that they were choices) distracting and clumsy, and I would feel that way regardless of his 'race' or language community. For writing to be 'powerful', at least for me, the tricks that the author uses should invisibly support his or her story, not distract from it. But again, de gustibus etc etc.

Now that's way too many words about a very small thing, and I have to go back to debugging some recalcitrant CSS over at Mefightclub. ;-)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:28 PM on July 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hmm. It seems that blockquote tags are now being stripped. Odd.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:37 PM on July 29, 2012


stavros - thanks for typing that out! This is the sort of trade of posts that I think is actually pretty awesome.

So, I think it's relevant that in the "straight cradled my lips" quote, you actually misidentified the word that I was trying to draw attention to: straight. That particular non-standard use of the word is, along with dranks and surmise, a cultural marker.

Compare it with "we already been here a minute," which actually means "we've been here an indefinite but lengthy and probably boring amount of time."

And while you haven't heard everyday use of "surmise," I can tell you that in my time in the Army I heard all kinds of ten-dollar words in everyday conversation, sometimes used in the standard way and sometimes not. The Army being what it is, that sort of thing was pretty common regardless of skin color, but I would argue that black urban culture has had a profound impact on the shape and form of enlisted military culture.

Put differently: I could choose any number of black voices to hear that sentence in, in my head.

Put yet differently: people really do go around casually surmisin' stuff.

So even if it is a mistake (which I doubt), I don't think it's one that detracts from the voice and power. This is an essay that is, in part, about rebelling against the crushing weight of white culture (every time he stands up for himself even as he characterizes it as an inexplicable response he knows he should repress) and the sideways use of "surmise" is part of that.

He's well aware that the shivohums of the world will dismiss the writing as "awful" or clumsy or whatever, that's part of what he's writing. There's no corner of the internet that isn't in the presence of white folks and he's still using a deliberately black choice of words and phrases.

At the very least, he avoids having anyone call him articulate.

ps man alive is it not just the funniest that mr mcwhitersons me is writing these comments?

Also:
test blockquote
posted by kavasa at 6:55 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Put yet differently: people really do go around casually surmisin' stuff.

Huh. Well, there you go. I've lived all over the place, but never really spent much time in America, so I'm missing a pretty big sample I guess.

I don't think his writing is awful, by any stretch. And like I said, I'm willing to admit that it might just be a matter of taste on my part to find some of the choices he makes clumsy. But there are far worse things than being clumsy.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:59 PM on July 29, 2012


He's well aware that the shivohums of the world will dismiss the writing as "awful" or clumsy or whatever, that's part of what he's writing. There's no corner of the internet that isn't in the presence of white folks and he's still using a deliberately black choice of words and phrases.

I don't dislike his writing because it uses a "black choice of words and phrases," but because it's stilted and displays painful, clunky effort, as if it were typed for days on some keyboard his fingers could barely reach.

I get the sense that a lot of people here admire his work because they should. A "black choice of words and phrases" in a piece about racial trauma must mean the writing is powerful, and thus the only appropriate response is reverence. Conversely, anyone who disagrees is cussing during the sermon, and is therefore a racist, as has now been suggested multiple times.
posted by shivohum at 7:20 PM on July 29, 2012


shivo - again, you're making claims without any evidence. We can set aside "racist" and settle on "lazy" without any real problem here.

If you look at the way I'm talking about the essay, I'm linking a recurring theme in the essay (moments of defiance and their associated baggage) with the word choice and phrases used in the essay (black) with another sentence (needing to use the King's English around white folks) with external facts (1. all parts of the internet are around white folks and 2. the essay is criticized here in this thread on exactly the grounds that made his mom demand the King's English).

To contrast, you've said that it's "awful," which is frankly about as meaningful as if you'd said it was "mauve". You tried to clarify with the words "stilted," "painful," and "clunky" as well as the, I guess, imagery of "as if it were typed for days on some keyboard his fingers could barely reach."

I mean, what does that last bit even mean? Surely the content of a written piece - semantic, emotional, or otherwise - is entirely separate from the means with which it was produced? Is a piece better or worse if written with a pen on the back of birch bark, on a selectric, or I guess at a slow pace using an inconveniently placed computer peripheral?

Actually, this is a neat little example!

See, I think it would be fair to characterize your own little image there as stilted, clunky, and so on. In support of my opinion, I presented the above evidence (to wit: it doesn't make a lick of sense). This process of supporting my subjective opinion with evidence from the text that I am criticizing is what gives my criticism some value. Ok?

Let's take a look at one of the bits that stavros (who also did you a good ten or twenty better by using evidence to support his far less contentious and judgmental position) found cumbersome:
I walk out of McDonald’s, that Filet-o-Fish grease straight cradling my lips
I've actually been thinking more about this particular sentence. It comprises the second paragraph in its entirety, and is made notable by that fact alone.

Second, it centers on his lips as a locus of a kind of gustatory afterglow. That is intense.

The racist's caricature of black people, and especially of black men, is that they're these kind of bestial brutes, ruled by their animal hungers. Further, the extent to which these hungers rule them can be seen in their physiques, unlike the refined features and proportions of the white man. Their lust is reflected in their big black dicks, and their gluttony is reflected in their big fat lips.

Right? This is the caricature. Here's a quote from The Goophered Grapevine, by Charles Chesnutt, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1887:
One end of the log was already occupied by a venerable-looking colored man. He held on his knees a hat full of grapes, over which he was smacking his lips with great gusto, and a pile of grape-skins near him indicated that the performance was no new thing.
Here's another:
"Now, ef dey's an'thing a nigger lub, nex' ter 'possum, en chick'n, en watermillyums, it's scuppernon's. Dey ain' nuffin dat kin stan' up side'n de scuppernon' fer sweetness; sugar ain't a suckumstance ter scuppernon'. W'en de season is nigh 'bout ober, en de grapes begin ter swivel up des a little wid de wrinkles er ole age,--w'en de skin git sof' en brown,--den de scuppernon' make you smack yo' lip en roll yo' eye en wush fer mo'; so I reckon it ain' very 'stonishin' dat niggers lub scuppernon'.
Ok.

So the writer has darn-near opened his essay with just the most elegant little gesture to that particular racist stereotype. Yes he liked his greasy sandwich from McD and yes he's referring to it with relish, and yes he's doing so by way of his lips.

Do you see how this ties in with the overall theme of defiance that I see? Do you see how your limp adjectives - your awfuls, your stilteds - could not possibly carry any water with me? It's not just that you forgot to bring a bucket: you're not even trying to cup your hands under the faucet here. You're instead trying to tell me that the water is somewhere else.

Finally, I suppose I'll address the tired playing of the reverse racecard. Your dismissal of the essay was both reflexive and unreflective. I assume you're working with a narrow definition of "racist" which reads something like "only those persons are racist who say that populations are genetically superior or inferior and that these differences can be detected by means of skin color."

There are vanishingly few such racists any more, and most of them know well enough to attempt to conceal those beliefs.

What are far more common are people who like to think that they are "race blind," and thus there can't possibly be any racially motivated component to their dislike of hip hop, their denials of racial inequality's persistence in modern society, or their instant dismissal of an unapologetically and defiantly black essay as "awful".

I mean at the very least wouldn't you glance at the comments here and on the blog itself and go "huh, other people were affected by this, why wasn't I?"

But no, you have no such curiosity about yourself. You do not understand that the question isn't "should I or should I not like this piece" but rather "what are the specific reasons that I'm calling this awful?"
posted by kavasa at 8:05 PM on July 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Authorial intent has no real primacy over any other reading, in my opinion.

I think it depends on what kind of reading you're doing. When reading letters from people I know personally, finding out what they think and feel is really the entire point. I tend to read memoirs like this in the same way, because they seem to call for compassion, and I find it difficult to get a compassionate effect out of any kind of academic reading. YMMV.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:27 PM on July 29, 2012


I mean, what does that last bit even mean? Surely the content of a written piece - semantic, emotional, or otherwise - is entirely separate from the means with which it was produced? Is a piece better or worse if written with a pen on the back of birch bark, on a selectric, or I guess at a slow pace using an inconveniently placed computer peripheral?

It's a metaphor. If you were writing something on a far away keyboard, your writing might be tense and blocky. You would strive to get the words down, but perhaps lack the patience to make them elegant.

So the writer has darn-near opened his essay with just the most elegant little gesture to that particular racist stereotype. Yes he liked his greasy sandwich from McD and yes he's referring to it with relish, and yes he's doing so by way of his lips.

Wow. Talk about bending over backwards and reaching under yourself and over the other side to attribute artistic merit and profound thought to this sentence. I don't buy it.

Finally, I suppose I'll address the tired playing of the reverse racecard. Your dismissal of the essay was both reflexive and unreflective.

I don't need to be reflective about it. Why would I spend lots of time analyzing why bad literature is bad? Bad literature isn't worth reading in detail. That's what makes it bad. Plenty of people say bad literature's bad, and they aren't treated as bad people for it. They often make snap judgments, too.

I'm glad you admit that you were playing the race card. I hope you realize it's really a detestable way of trying to silence critics.

You do not understand that the question isn't "should I or should I not like this piece" but rather "what are the specific reasons that I'm calling this awful?"

Nonsense. People do not need to provide specific reasons to dislike art. Bad literature is bad primarily because it is bad, not for adducible reasons. Badness, like goodness, is largely ineffable. You know it when you see it.

But, since you ask, here's some evidence...

It’s the summer after I graduated high school and my teammate, Troy, is back in Jackson.

present tense is awkward more often than not, and this story demonstrates that awkwardness perfectly.

A few minutes later, we’re driving down I-55 when John Deere drives up and rolls his window down.

driving down... drives up... window down... The repetition here is not poetic; it's redundant and confusing.

all kinds of clever “motherfuckers.”

strange use of quotes

frantically trying to drive his Mama’s Lincoln away from John Deere

makes it sound as if it's a new type of Lincoln, a "Mama's Lincoln"

parks his Mama’s long Lincoln

How many times does the Mama's ownership need to be explained?

My heart is pounding out of my chest, not out of fear, but because I want a chance to choke the shit out of John Deere.

A strange mix of diction. "out of my chest" is banal and then is annoyingly repeated in "out of" fear; "but because I want a chance to" is wordy and strangely genteel; "choke the shit" jerks away to a cliched anger in a way that cuts against the tone of the other clauses.

“Fuck you,” I tell him and suck my teeth. “I ain’t going nowhere.” I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

"I don't know what's wrong with me"? What bizarre wording after that dialogue. it sounds like a patient describing something to a doctor. It's suddenly so sterile and weak.

Cleta is up front trying to reason with the man through her window

"man through her window" sounds like there's a man somehow stuck in the window. And which man? John Deere is the only cop we've met so far.

when all of a sudden, in a scene straight out of Boys in the Hood, a black cop accuses us of doing something wrong. Minutes later, a white cop tells us that John Deere has been drinking too much and he lets us go.

Where are these new cops suddenly coming from? They have not been transitioned in correctly; their appearance breaks the steady visual flow of the story.

And on and on.
posted by shivohum at 8:44 PM on July 29, 2012


I am moved to wonder, if having grown up in the frosty wastes of Northern BC where there were literally no black folks at all, and not having spent much time in America since, I am just so unsteeped in the word choices and cadences of the African American language community (if such a thing can be said to exist), that I don't have 'ears' well-trained enough to 'get it' in terms of language choices, and that's why Layson's writing sounds off to me, somehow. There might be clunkiness in the writing, of course, but maybe less than I thought. Huh. That's interesting.

I mean, I've watched The Wire a coupla times, but I don't think that counts.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:12 PM on July 29, 2012


LogicalDash - fair. I've referred to intent a few times in the course of the thread, been sort of waiting for someone to pick up on it and scold me, but no one has yet. I guess I'd go back to my statement that it has no special primacy, which I still think is true. It can definitely hang in there though, especially (as you say) depending on what you're reading.

shivo, first:
Nonsense. People do not need to provide specific reasons to dislike art. Bad literature is bad primarily because it is bad, not for adducible reasons. Badness, like goodness, is largely ineffable. You know it when you see it.
This is lazy horseshit. I don't know opera from two chimps in the trees, but I do know that something called "perfect pitch" is somehow important. I don't know much of anything about renaissance painters, but I do know that I remember charlie don't surf damn near derailing a thread here with an in-depth comparison of the technical merits of Caravaggio vs. other painters. And I know for damn sure that if you're going to make the claim that something is objectively awful you have to back that shit up like it's at the loading dock.

Wait, let me amend that: you have to back it up if you want anyone to give half an old poop about what you think. And if you don't want that, then keep your weak, lazy, opinions to your self.

If you just wander in and go "I didn't like it, hrrdfgdfg" and puke on the table (like you did), the best response is to tell you to get out.
I don't buy it.
On what basis smuggley smugsworth III? Do you deny the existence of the stereotype? Do you think the line doesn't allude to it, either consciously or un? If not, how so not? The shit is right there, dude.

Also, as we would expect from your attitude to reading comprehension in general, you did not understand what I meant by "reverse racecard." Here's how this works:

1. Person dismisses something made a person of color as awful/stilted/ugly/whatever, makes no attempt to elucidate or support this opinion.
2. Someone else disagrees.
3. First person goes "you're not calling me a racist are you? I hope you realize it's really a detestable way of trying to silence critics."

Seems familiar!

Your litany of petty complaints basically reads to me like you suck at reading? Girl was talking to the first cop through the window because he told Kiese and only Kiese to get out of the car. She was still in it. Duh. Other cops showed up later because that's what they do.

It's funny that you think a sentence being sterile and weak is a criticism. I suppose you've never felt the weak, impotent, useless rage spawned by the slights of society, small and large. Which is honestly pretty strange - have you never even been dicked over by a bank or something?

The idea that "Mama's Lincoln" is somehow unclear is baffling. To begin with, no one says "Towncar's Lincoln" to refer to that model of the car. No one says "Fiero's Pontiac" or "Taurus's Ford". There is no reasonable person on the planet that would read that as anything other than that the car is owned by the dude's mom. And it continues to be relevant that it's her car because it's his mom's car and he doesn't want it banged up.

He drove down the freeway then rolled the window down. Do you typically drive up the freeway? Or roll your window sideways? Were you seriously confused?

Anyway, you can respond if you want, I guess? Seems pointless, though. You've basically described yourself as someone incapable of understanding plain language and unwilling to expend any effort trying to rectify that, or even grasp your own opinions. To be honest I'm not even sure why you're here, I'd think you'd be happier somewhere you're never challenged.

stav - I'm pretty sure "African American language community" is an Official Linguistic Term? But I am not a linguist, so I could be wrong. But yeah, it definitely squares with my experiences.
posted by kavasa at 9:26 PM on July 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


If the use of "surmise" was deliberate, then it comes off as a failed attempt to write in a "sophisticated" way, and is eye-roll inducing at the very least, and utterly unforgivable at worst, and this is mightily exacerbated when it comes from an "Associate Professor of English".

If accidental, fine, whatever, mistakes were made.
posted by smcameron at 10:56 PM on July 29, 2012


I get the sense that a lot of people here admire his work because they should.

I didn't "admire" the work, I had an experience with it.

The author took me into some of his life, gave me an appreciation for some challenges I don't have, and some perspective on some that I do, and maybe even leveled a personal moral challenge about how I'm spending my life, not to mention the social moral challenge.

I'm not really sure how to evaluate the technical merits of his piece, but I know that he wielded the written word effectively enough that he accomplished these things for me. I don't especially care about much else.
posted by weston at 11:11 PM on July 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Plates of beanz, we haz them.
posted by deborah at 11:12 PM on July 29, 2012


I wouldn't be surprised if "surmise" there was a bit of a riff on Keats' "wild surmise" from On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, especially as that part in the poem is basically a moment of transformation and discovery, and the whole sonnet is about epiphany... and the power of "vigorous and earthy paraphrase" as opposed to the formal and elegant translations that were considered canon. Playful layering there, possibly.

At any rate, I'd be more surprised if he actually meant to use "summarize." That would have seemed clunky to me, but that just my 2¢ worth of beans! I really, really liked the essay, by the way; thanks for posting.
posted by taz at 11:27 PM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


If "summarize" is less clunky than "surmise" in the given contect, then English is not your strong suit, despite your ability to cite Keats.
posted by smcameron at 11:58 PM on July 29, 2012


And, FWIW, I really liked the essay, much more so than I would have thought given the clunky paragraph that was posted by the OP as a way of introduction.
posted by smcameron at 12:01 AM on July 30, 2012


I dunno, I'm pretty sure dickering over the misuse of a single word in an otherwise strong essay is a perfect example of how we slowly kill ourselves and other people.
posted by Ritchie at 12:12 AM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


It must be very very slowly. I've never known anybody to die of an argument about diction. Politics, sure. Diction? not so much. But maybe I'm just not hanging around the right crowds.
posted by smcameron at 12:17 AM on July 30, 2012


If a white professor of English had used some interesting turns of phrase, or used slang and informalities in new and exciting ways, we'd wax lyrical about how marvellous his or her choices were, and wonder what messages he or she was trying to convey, because surely those oddities were clues to some deeper meaning. Breadcrumbs. White pebbles to shine by the moonlight. We should examine them closely, because we might learn something extra.

If a black professor English uses some interesting turns of phrase, or uses slang and informalities in new and exciting ways, we'll wonder what kind of professor that man really is, because, I mean, come on, 'surmised'? 'Dranks'? Can't he toe the line? Can't he talk like I talk if he wants to communicate with me? How did he get through college in the first place? There's no deeper meaning here, just sloppy phrasing that really, totally honestly lead me to believe that a man might have been semidefenestrated.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:02 AM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's hard for me to come back after my comment early in the discussion and not feel like this thread has been a bit derailed. shivohum, a lot of the awkwardness you're picking up is just not there for me. stavrosthewonderchicken and kavasa, your intense discussion about diction is not that interesting. There are a lot more interesting places a discussion about this essay could have gone IMHO.
posted by victory_laser at 1:46 AM on July 30, 2012


maybe replace my use of 'interesting' above with 'important'
posted by victory_laser at 1:51 AM on July 30, 2012


stavrosthewonderchicken and kavasa, your intense discussion about diction is not that interesting.

We weren't talking about diction. If you don't understand the topic, I'd suggest you stand clear in future, friend.

maybe replace my use of 'interesting' above with 'important'

Well, it's not a complete loss. Your commentary about it, I'm sure everyone can agree, is scintillating and unmissable.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:41 AM on July 30, 2012


Ah fuck it, never mind. No need to be mean. Sorry you didn't find our conversation interesting or important. You may find such situations a frequent annoyance at Metafilter; I find it is usually best to just ignore it when that happens, or even make an effort to steer things in a direction that you do find more interesting and important. Kinder, gentler wonderchicken, kinder gentler wonderchicken.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:50 AM on July 30, 2012


cheers, mate.
posted by victory_laser at 5:03 AM on July 30, 2012


I really liked this essay. It spoke compellingly and powerfully about racism in America without resorting to the usual "blame white people" tropes. Sure, the author's dialectic may have been forced at times, but I thought it was a very good piece of work.

Shivohum, I strongly disagree with Kavasa that you shouldn't state your negative opinions: I just wish you had qualified those opinions somewhat. For example, instead of saying "The writing is awful" you could have said "The writing is awful because..." and then provided some examples. That would probably have contributed a lot more meaningfully to the discussion.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:00 AM on July 30, 2012


wolfdreams - that was actually exactly what I was saying. I realllllly dislike people showing up merely to register their dislike of something, especially if they state it in objective rather than subjective terms. If they're willing to give some decent reasons, I'm much more amenable to that. That's consistently been my position throughout the thread. =)

victory - taking stavros' lead, by all means, take the conversation in those directions. That said, I disagree strongly with you and think that the word choice played a strong role in the essay and that, without it, we would have read a substantially different (and lesser) work. I can talk about why I think that is, if you like.
posted by kavasa at 11:04 AM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this, Moody834. The article let me have a tiny glimpse of a life very different from my own; and I enjoyed the discussion about how the King's English would have been the wrong choice for this particular piece.

Everything else I have to say about the content of the article... well, I'm not all that articulate when it comes to complex issues that are outside my experience. I'd like to hear from anyone who's got a closer, more lived-in opinion on it.
posted by harriet vane at 1:51 AM on July 31, 2012


Ta-Nehisi Coates: A History Of Black Violence
There's a refrain in Laymon's piece--"I don't know what's wrong with me"--that's really affecting, and one I know really, really well. The other day I was catching a commuter train. I needed directions, and asked one of the Metro North employees. I don't know if he was having a bad day or what, but he basically proceeded to berate me for even asking. A few days later I was driving upstate to see my son at camp. I made a wrong turn and ended up having a toll-worker do the same thing.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:31 PM on July 31, 2012


Dumb-ass, but I get what you're saying.
posted by Houstonian at 7:16 PM on July 29 [1 favorite +] [!]


Clearly, you do not.

Unless you think this is a witty turn of phrase, then yeah, I can see why this guy's "artful" language confused you.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:31 AM on August 1, 2012


Uther Bentrazor, using "retarded" when not talking about the mentally handicapped is offensive. You chose to use "retarded-ass" while chiding another member to say "[Y], but I get what you're saying". I took your advice. So, are you standing in defense of your use of the word "retarded"?
posted by Houstonian at 2:31 PM on August 1, 2012


I wasn't calling myself a dumb-ass, I was referring to mental issues I have that prevent me from socializing easily. However it was an improper use of the word, and I withdraw it.

I'd like to believe that you were actually bothered by this word-use and taking a stand against its use, and not just using the plight of the mentally handicapped as a pedantic 'gotcha' towards me out of offense.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 11:40 AM on August 6, 2012


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