A History of Black Violence

As several people have pointed out Kiese Laymon's essay on his escape from Mississippi is pretty brilliant. We've talked a lot about the way in which violence works in many African-American communities, or really among communities where the options seemed relatively capped. 


But what I love about the piece is the liminal space it lives in--that point where you're in college, and on the road to something better, and yet the old ways, and the old forces, are still pulling at you:

Shonda and I are walking from Subway back to Millsaps College with two of her white friends. It's nighttime. We turn off of North State Street and walk halfway past the cemetery when a red Corolla filled with brothers stops in front of us. All of the brothers have blue rags covering their noses and mouths. One of the brothers, a kid at least two years younger than me with the birdest of bird chests, gets out of the car clutching a shiny silver gun. 

He comes towards Shonda and me. 

"Me," I say to him. "Me. Me." I hold my hands up encouraging him to do whatever he needs to do. If he shoots me, well, I guess bullets enter and hopefully exist my chest, but if the young Nigga thinks I'm getting pistol whupped in front of a cemetery and my girlfriend off of State Street, I'm convinced I'm going to take the gun and beat him into a burnt cinnamon roll. 

The boy places his gun on my chest and keeps looking back and forth to the car. I feel a strange calm, an uncanny resolve. I don't know what's wrong with me. He's patting me down for money that I don't have since we hadn't gotten our work-study checks yet and I just spent my last little money on two veggie subs from Subway and two of those large Chocolate Chip cookies. 

The young brother keeps looking back to the car, unsure what he's supposed to do. Shonda and her friends are screaming when he takes the gun off my chest and trots goofily back to the car. 

I don't know what's wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.

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. 

In each case I was extremely polite and deferential. This is very, very new for me. I have been in similar situations and reacted with the kind of anger that made me think it was someone else. I do not know what was wrong with me.

When you are young, black and male, you have several unfortunate inheritances converging at once. There is the myopia of youth, the inability to understand how much you have to lose. It's very hard to imagine that you may be risking, say, your chance to go to Provençe because you don't even know what it's like to want to go to Provençe. And you live around people who, generally, don't know either--even if they're adults. On top of that you come from a people who for most of American history have not been able to secure the safety of their own bodies. This is not so much said, as it lingers in the air around you. The result is that even if you are not out in The Street, it's very hard for none of The Street to live in you.

The fact that The Street is insane--and you know it's insane--doesn't really change anything. You don't have anything save respect, and you will do a lot of crazy shit to preserve it. People who laugh at young boys who shoot each other over Nikes have not thought hard enough about what it feels like to be the bottom of everything.

I didn't react to the toll-booth guy because it would have been unseemly, and because I have much more to lose than to gain. I'm actually not the bottom anymore. I feel like somebody who actually does something of value. I have more to protect than my ego. And when I think back on all the times I risked that future over a perceived slight, or an inability to control my anger, I feel like Kiese. I have no idea what was eff was wrong with me.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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