“These white folks, they think the world belongs to them,” Grandma told me 12 hours after Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depyane Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson were murdered in a black Charleston church by a cowardly white American thug. “White folks been misusing us since I been in this world, if you wanna know the truth, Kie. If you expect any thing more after all they done, you the world’s biggest fool.”
I am one of the world’s biggest fools. I am also a fat black boy raised by a village of fat black women practiced in surviving, forgetting and forgiving the raced and gendered violence of holy American rooms. One of these fat black women – my grandma – taught me how to outlast southern white folks, how to serve, pray, read, write, cuss, listen, laugh and how to properly fear and praise Jesus Christ.
When I was a child, Grandma and I spent hours in Concord Baptist Church in Forest, Mississippi, at revival, in Home Mission and in Sunday school, hoping that we’d learn to walk with Jesus and protect our insides from what white folks had done, were doing and would do. But in far way more ways than either of us want to admit, in our healing spaces in Concord – the place where we were taught to love, honor and remember humungous parts of ourselves – we were also taught to become the world’s biggest fools to and for white folks and white supremacy.
We members of Concord were supposed to love white folks because they knew not what they did. We were supposed to heal them because they knew not who they were. We were supposed to forgive them because salvation awaited she or he who could withstand the wrath of the worst of white folks. We were supposed to pray for them, often at the expense of our own healthy reckoning.
Grandma and her church taught me that loving white folks in spite of their investment in our terror was our only chance of not becoming them morally.
As a child, I wasn’t sure I could question Grandma’s God, or the white picture of Jesus hanging in Concord, but I knew I could question Grandma’s Bible. Grandma never shut my questions down. She’d ask me to read verse after verse, and fill college-lined notebooks with all the biblical questions that fit. By 12, I knew my Bible like I knew every episode of Good Times.
Still, I hated actually going to church. My slacks were too tight on my thighs. My shirt choked my esophagus. My clip-on tie looked like a clip on tie. No matter the temperature, Grandma made me wear a polyester vest. My feet grew so fast that my penny loafers never fit. Plus, she stopped me from putting dimes or nickels in my penny loafers because was something only mannish boys did.
I was 12-years-old. All I wanted to be was mannish.
Inside Concord Baptist church, I loved the attention I got for being a fat black boy from the older women: they were the only women on earth who called my fatness “fineness”. I felt flirted with and, like most fat black boys, when flirted with, I fell in love. I loved the organs bended notes, the aftertaste of the grape juice, the fans steadily moving through the humidity, the anticipation of somebody catching the Holy Ghost, the unsure lawd-have-mercy claps after the little big head boy who couldn’t read so well was forced to read a greeting to the congregation.
But as much as I loved parts of church, and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t love the holy word coming from the pulpit. The voices carrying the word were gaspy, slick, directed and sure of themselves in ways I didn’t believe. There were no black men in my immediate family and the word at Concord was always carried by the mouths of Reverend Weathersby, deacons or other visiting preachers who acted like they knew my Grandma and me better than they did.
The village of black women who raised me conjured words like yesterday’s magic, and those black women, like the other black women in the church, made up the majority of the audience. But their voices and words were only heard during songs, in ad libbed responses to the preacher’s word and during church announcements. While Grandma and everyone else amen’d and well’d their way through shiny hollow sermons, I just sat there, usually at the end of the pew, sucking my teeth, feeling super hot, super bored, and really resentful because Grandma and her friends never told the long-winded sorry preachers to shut up and sit down.
My problem with church was that I knew what could have been. Every other Wednesday – and Grandma took me with her most of the time – the older women of the church had something called Home Mission: they would meet at alternate houses, and bring food, their Bibles, notebooks and their testimonies. There was no set music at Home Mission, but those women, Grandma’s friends, used their lives and their Bibles as primary texts to boast, confess and critique their way into tearful song every single time. They revealed the partial truths of their lives, connected those partial truths to everyone in that room, wandered in some of the closets of those partial truths, and wondered if those partial truths held for women not in the room. They made space for everyone listening to share.
Long before I wanted to write like Morrison, Baldwin or Andre 3000, I wanted to write like the women in Home Mission spoke to each other. Their word was black love.
Sometimes, Kie, at five in the morning, we had to go to white folks’ house and wash they clothes outside, no matter how hot or cold it was. Sometimes they might pay in you in some change. Most of the time, they pay you in a little cornmeal. Anyway, we sometimes would be behind they great big houses washing they clothes in the tub out there, and hanging them up before school. And the little white children who was no older than us would be in the house pointing and laughing.
Grandma paused and I heard the beginnings of unspoken words pushing against the back of her throat. “We would walk to school after doing all that work, and every single day, a school bus of white folks would pass us and some of them same kids who was laughing at us in they backyards would be on that bus pointing and laughing at us because we dressed like we just got done working, and because we was walking to school instead of driving.”
I asked Grandma if she wished she could be on that bus too.
“Naw,” she said. “That’s what breaks my heart. The truth is that we ain’t never even thought being on that white folks’ bus, or not cutting that cane, or not picking that cotton, or not washing them white folks’ clothes. We knew that was the kind of work niggers had to do. Our thing was that we knew that the white folks didn’t need to be laughing at us for trying.”
Trying what, I asked her.
“Well, trying to make it to tomorrow with food in our belly, and clothes on our back. Shit, trying to not hit them upside they head. That’s when I knew something wasn’t right with the insides of them folks. How you got damn near every man-made thing we wish we had, and you laughing at us for trying to get less than a thin slice of what you got? It makes me sick,” Grandma said.
“And let me tell you one more thing about these folks. Sometimes, we do the same work for them on Sunday mornings,” she said. “And instead of driving by and laughing while we walking home so we could put on some church clothes, the white folks would drive right by us, slow down, say hello, and keep driving while the kids in the back steady laughing.”
Laughing at what, I asked her.
That’s what I’m saying. You supposed to be on your way to church. What you laughing at? Church don’t mean nothing to these folks, Kie. Nobody in they cars, or on they buses told them to stop laughing. Do you hear me? They love to watch the devil. If church meant something to them, they would have made them stop laughing. They would have paid us right. They wouldn’t be throwing us off in jail for doing the same thing they do. The education would be different, too. That boy over in Charleston, he wouldn’t walk up in no church and killed those folks either if they believed in church. They just wouldn’t treat us like they do. Why they ain’t blaming that boy’s parents? Or his community? If you shot up one of they churches, those white folks woulda killed you as soon as they found you. And every nigger in America, at least the ones who got some sense, would be ashamed. These folks ain’t never ashamed of themselves, Kie. Hard to be ’shamed when you think you own the world. It makes me sick.
I’d never heard my Grandma talk like that. I asked her why she made us spend so much time in church, why she was so kind to white folks, if she really felt this way.
“Well, I try to take it to God,” she said.
And what does God say, I asked her.
“God says you must forgive them for they know not what they do. Shit. Maybe God says something else. I haven’t been to church since I they got my foot in this boot. It’s hard for me to get to church and feel good about myself now that I’m this wheelchair. I like to look good in church, you know. So I just sit up under this TV, watching the news and eating whatever ain’t nailed down.”
We both laughed.
Grandma grabbed an apricot off the counter and did something she’d only done three other times in my life: she asked me what I thought about what she is saying.
“Am I making sense to you?”
I told her that loving white supremacists in the face of white supremacy is a hallmark of American evil, and a really a fundamental part of the black American experience in this country.
It’s what we’re supposed to do, I said.
Many of us have made a life of hoping to get chosen for jobs, chosen for awards, chosen for acceptance from people, structures and corporations bred on white supremacy. We’re hoping to get chosen by people who can not see us. Knowing that they hate and terrorize us doesn’t stop us from wanting to get chosen. That’s the crazy thing. Everything about this country told Grandma, a black woman born in Central Mississippi in 1920s, to love, honor and forgive white folks. And this country still tells me, a black boy born in Mississippi in the 1970s, to titillate and tend to the emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of white people in my work.
I told my Grandma that we should have chosen ourselves. I tell her that we should have let us in. We should have held each other, and fallen in healthy love with each other, instead of watching shame make parts of us disappear.
What do we make of the shameful work of being chosen? Our family eats that shame, quite literally. Other families drink the shame. All the work that we put into forgiving white supremacy, white power and white people, and then hoping to be chosen by those people, should have gone into talking about – and collectively reckoning with – our familial experiences with sexual violence, food, and trauma.
Shame strangles, I told Grandma; truth sets free. But what does any truth set free look like? I know that I don’t know.
What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do. At my worst, I know that I’ve wanted the people that I’ve hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them.
Like good Americans, I told Grandma, we will remember to drink ourselves drunk on the antiquated poison of progress. We will long for “shall’s” and “will be’s” and “hopes” for tomorrow. We will heavy-handedly help in our own deception and moral obliteration. We will forget how much easier it is to talk about gun control, mental illness and riots than it is to talk about the moral and material consequences of manufactured white American innocence.
We will lament the numbers of folks killed in mass murders in the United States. There’s a number for that. We will talk about the numbers of people killed in black-on-black murder. There’s a number for that. We will never talk about the number of unemployed and underemployed hard-working black folks living in poverty. We will never talk about the numbers of black folk in prison for the kinds of nonviolent drug-related offenses my white students commit every weekend. We will never talk about the number of human beings killed by young American military men and women draped in camouflage, or the number of human beings murdered by drones across the world. We will never talk about the specific amount of money this country really owes Grandma and her friends for their decades of unpaid labor. We will never talk about the moral and monetary debt accrued by the architects of this Empire. There are shameful numbers for all of that, too.
I know that President Obama knows all those numbers.
I know those number keeps him up at night. I also know that President Obama wakes up every morning afraid of what white people, white power, white supremacy will do to him and his family, and what they have done to this country.
He knows how he has encouraged it. In this twisted way, we all know.
Tomorrow, President Obama will smile and sit down with white people, white power and white supremacy. I know that, like most of us, he will let them in again and again because was elected to have faith in tomorrow. He was elected to have faith in tomorrow. And even after he is no longer president, he will still want to be chosen as someone who represents a better tomorrow for people who hate him.
I wonder sometimes what he does with his pain and his shame.
A day after Charleston, I asked my Grandma directly about her experience with using food to cope with the aftermath of sexual violence in our family. She asked me to wheel her around to the side of the house. Pushing the wheelchair, I realized that Grandma was heavier and shorter than I remember: she has gone from 5’9” to 5’4” [1.75m to 1.62m], from 188 pounds to 284 [85kg to 129kg].
I kneeled down. “Grandma, I’m still recording this,” I told her. “Can we talk about another kind of violence?”
Grandma let go of my hand and rubbed the sides of her head. “Baby, I can’t hear this right now,” she said. “We remembered enough for today. I just can’t. I’m sorry for not protecting you better. I don’t even know what to do with the shame.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing.
Instead, my grandma and I held each other like our lives depended on it. We held each other because we are afraid of what happened at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, afraid of the familiar thug who murdered us, afraid of the thugs who watched. We know those thugs sadly better than we know ourselves. Those people are cowards with blood in their eyes, absolution in their guts, and the wind at their backs. We have hoped to be chosen by them. We know that they are way closer to us than we let on. We let them in. We hold each other because we are in love. But not even that deep down, we are afraid and ashamed of where and who we’ve been with these people, and we are tragically hopeful that tomorrow our shame won’t weigh so much.
Kiese Laymon is the Author of the forthcoming memoir, A Fat Black Memoir (Scribner 2016), the essay collection. He also penned How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and the novel Long Division. Kiese Laymon is an Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College.
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission. We thank the Author, Kiese Laymon for his kindness and for sharing his heartfelt wisdom. We are grateful for what we believe invites vital reflection. Perhaps, each of us will look at our lives and remember, as well as ask questions.