New England winters are brutal affairs, with dry, driving winds that lash at those walking from here to there. On this night, but not just this one, anyone who spied me exiting one of Central Square’s liquor stores near the MIT campus with a large brown bag might well have thought that I had found some graduate-school comrades with whom to spend an evening, warming ourselves from the inside out with cheap alcohol. But it was all for me.
I returned to my grad-student apartment near campus and entered my bedroom, with its extra-long twin bed across from a wooden desk. I closed the door and got busy. One wine cooler, another, some straight swigs of whiskey, and there it was: release—a numbness leading to a drowsiness that would end the evening in dead-to-the-world sleep. The trouble with sleep, though, is that it is a pause button, not an undo button. Awake, I faced again the crushing loneliness that hit me the first year of my doctorate program in political science. It wasn’t just that I was the only black person in almost every room I entered. What hollowed me out was the feeling that I couldn’t connect with others in a way that made sense, certain as I was that they were tap-tap-tapping their feet—waiting for me to show how the hell I’d made it into the room in the first place, all the way from the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a family with a history of unemployment benefits and food stamps.
This is not a story I’ve shared publicly before. Where I come from in America, the vulgar edict “Fuck your feelings” holds an ethical status on par with that of the Bible’s Golden Rule. I would probably never have shared it if not for the time I have spent with two stunningly honest memoirs that demand a reader’s unflinching attention. Kiese Laymon and Casey Gerald made it into elite university rooms, all the way from poverty in the ever-present shadow of violence, and their pages are propelled, as Laymon writes in Heavy, by a “desire to reckon with the weight of where we’ve been”—to stop “paying for white folks’ feelings with a generic smile and manufactured excellence they could not give one fuck about,” in the parlance of his 17-year-old self.
Laymon, now 44, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, with a single mother, a college teacher often barely able to cover the bills, whose preferred brand of love had a way of slipping into the too-tough sort. Struggling early on with a heavy body—physically coping with the social weight of being young, black, and poor in America—Laymon went on to finish college at Oberlin, and after teaching at Vassar, he became a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi. Gerald, who saw his family crumble during his youth in inner-city Dallas, ended up at Yale in 2005 and later went to Harvard Business School. Along the way, he heard again and again, “Casey, you are the embodiment of the American Dream!” from white liberals eager (as their predecessors had been with James Baldwin) to congratulate themselves on such a striking rise. Instead of continuing to smile and say thank you as he did for so many years, he has written There Will Be No Miracles Here. Both books take on the important work of exposing the damage done to America, especially its black population, by the failure to confront the myths, half-truths, and lies at the foundation of the success stories that the nation worships. In the process, Laymon and Gerald dramatize a very different route to victory: the quest to forge a self by speaking hard truths, resisting exploitation, and absorbing with grace the cost of being black in America while struggling to live a life of virtue.