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.
White folks—conservative and liberal—have been collectively writing the American Memoir for centuries. It is the story of a nation dedicated to the accrual of personal responsibility for one’s actions and choices. In this story, institutions dispassionately assess citizens as they make their way through them, and in the end, each gets what he or she deserves. Every success story releases the victor from the yoke of history. Every story of failure collapses a universe of unbidden circumstances into an insignificant mote that could have been, but wasn’t, blown away by the winds of personal effort. Undergirding this paean to individual triumphalism is a vision of America as a country that the white Founding Fathers built all by their lonesome, bequeathing their heroic upstart ethic to all of us, no matter what color body we inhabit.
Mostly, the American Memoir is a lie. Black and brown folks know it is. But awareness alone doesn’t diminish the power that the nation’s tall tale exerts over all of us, demanding even greater heroics from outsiders with far fewer advantages. Why, Laymon and Gerald both ask, are people of color who get the chance to go far—and those back home who urge us on—so intent on declaring that we are not defined by our circumstances? That leaves us, as Gerald puts it, being “so defined by running from them that we don’t understand what they mean, what they did and are still doing to shape the way we see and move through the world.” Laymon, too, knows the reflex to “run, deflect, and duck,” he writes, and also the challenge to deliver on his mother’s demands that he “strive for excellence, education, and accountability”—her prescription “for keeping the insides of black boys in Mississippi healthy and safe from white folk.” What proves harder to learn is how to tell “the stories my body told me”—confusing stories about black fears, joys, dangers, hungers that he comes to feel compelled to try to capture honestly.
Laymon’s and Gerald’s journeys through black youth follow a similar pattern, vividly different though their paths are. Each man is acutely aware of the important role black women have played in America and of how much he has relied on, as Gerald puts it, “what women—kin and stranger—have done for me since I was born: [seen] me wandering through the world and grabbed me by the wrist to say C’mon here, boy.” Mothers and grandmothers in particular are at the heart of these memoirs—embattled, unpredictable mothers who enrage their sons yet also demand that they make it to manhood, and grandmothers whose constancy in the face of turmoil is crucial. But Laymon and Gerald refuse to trace a formulaic arc, whether of family dysfunction passed down or of children surging ahead and guaranteeing hope to those left behind.
Instead their accounts explore, in Gerald’s words, “the incredible price that must be paid to be free,” generation after generation, in a nation whose success story is built on a bedrock of antiblackness that has been airbrushed out. Laymon, who has written his memoir in the form of a letter to his mother, has gleaned from her and his grandmother how hard facing up to the full price can be if you’re always “hungry for black wins, regardless of how tiny those wins” are, and never willing to betray wounds. “Like you, Grandmama beat the worst of white folk and the mean machinations of men every day she was alive,” he writes, “but y’all taught me indirectly that unacknowledged scars accumulated in battles won often hurt more than battles lost.”
For Laymon, trying to make sense of that lesson begins early. What is the toll—on themselves and others—as the women in his life labor to claim their human dignity? He watches his grandmother be demeaned by the rich white family she does laundry for (they don’t even call her by her real name). He’s witness to the fearful abuse visited on his mother by a man who parades as a black radical. Meanwhile, Laymon receives more than his share of welts at her hands, along with a fierce regimen of what she calls “redeeming value”: She assigns him books to read and reread and essays to write and rewrite, from which he learns many things, including more about white people than the many white teachers in his lousy schools will ever know about him. He also eats and eats, “to run away from memory,” finding safety but not absolution in food and reaching close to 300 pounds. As Roxane Gay says of her own struggles with appetite in Hunger, Laymon alternates between reaching for a sense of power and reaching for a salve for powerlessness. He is admitted into the largely white world of Millsaps College as a basketball recruit, and publishes an editorial in the student newspaper about the racism of the place. It precipitates just the sort of battle with white people that his mother has reared him to avoid: a battle that he is bound to lose. Laymon is expelled.
Gerald doesn’t start calibrating the price of black success in the land of the false American Memoir until he’s further along in life, a football recruit at Yale—a college he’d never heard of until coaches contacted his high school. The part of Dallas that Gerald grows up in is almost entirely black, from teachers to dope fiends. So as bad as his circumstances are—his mother is bipolar and disappears, and his father, a former football star, turns to drugs—he is spared the problem of two-ness that W. E. B. Du Bois powerfully evoked: Gerald has been told that white folks are racist, but how they see him doesn’t matter, so why bother looking through their eyes? He finds himself singled out at school, less by choice, he emphasizes in retrospect, than by chance. He accidentally impresses a teacher with a memorized speech; by fluke, he plays a recklessly heroic role in a high-school football game that gets him on the varsity squad and then in front of recruiters. He’s disappointed not to be picked by a college with a serious football team, but he’s launched into an elite he didn’t even know existed, swept along by how black folks see him. All urge him onward, because “if I went all the way, then they would go, too,” not that he has any idea where he is headed.
For both Gerald and Laymon, who transfers to Oberlin after Millsaps expels him, going all the way means losing themselves—in Laymon’s case, quite literally: He sheds pound after pound, running miles and miles and barely eating, obsessively weighing himself, as he rises through grad school and onto the Vassar faculty; his alternative to heaviness is a quest for a more bearable lightness of being. From the outside, this looks like what we call around the way “the come-up”—the journey of a person who’s made it. Gerald’s transformation from “one of the most bitter reclusive boys” at Yale (“the loneliest place in the world”) into a hard-driving leader looks like that too. Rather than burrow into a comfortable nook of blackness, he unites a vanguard of young black men into the Yale Black Men’s Union, determined to assert the authority that the Enlightenment, about which they are now learning, promises them they possess. But the group’s ethos—be perfect, and more—is punishing. Gerald, like Laymon, emphasizes the bodily dimension of psychic pain in the pursuit of recognition: He stoically plays football before an injury heals (much as his father before him found heroism in enduring brutality on the field). He’s well versed by now in the calculus of putting one’s body on the line in order to be someone, no matter whether the battering is at one’s own hands or another’s.
The bruising and disorienting experience of navigating America’s unmarked black path to success eventually raises the question I was avoiding those cold nights at MIT: What does it mean to have arrived? Laymon and Gerald, their perspective sharpened by hindsight, insist on blunt answers. They recognize that they ended up in limbo, far from their old world and not really part of their new one, either suspected of being a fraud—as Laymon was by some colleagues when tenure time arrived at Vassar—or, in Gerald’s case, spurred on in a way that left him feeling like a fraud, empty inside. A stellar young man on the superfast track (applying for a Rhodes Scholarship, joining programs to prepare underrepresented minorities for corporate careers, giving speeches), he was saluted and supported at every turn, and expected to spout the story that white people can’t hear often enough about resilience born of hardship. He had become “a liar, if only by omission,” he reflects, hiding what he’d really seen on his journey, “how sad the whole thing is”—and how totally at odds with that vaunted American Memoir. “If you know the right people, they can help you do anything, be anybody, rules and hard work be damned—as long as they like you,” Gerald has learned in the hallowed halls, while “down in my forgotten world,” bootstraps and belts are supposed to count, and welts not to show.
Who needs and wants to hear about the truths he and Laymon have seen—“the real American Dream,” Gerald writes, “the way the country actually works”? Everybody and nobody, white and black: You won’t be able to put these memoirs down, but not because they are breezy reading. They are, in Laymon’s multilayered word, heavy—packed with reminders of how black dreams get skewed and deferred yet are also pregnant with the possibility that a kind of redemption may lie in intimate grappling with black realities.
Laymon is tired of black writers expending “so much creative energy begging white folk to change.” At the same time, he’s tired of black folks avoiding the truths they need to talk about: He chafes at his mother’s view that “white folk do not deserve to stick their nasty hands into our raw. Hiding from them and being excellent are actually the only ways for us to survive here.” Laymon’s Grandmama, I would say, helped him embrace the forthright probing required not just to survive, but to have a chance at thriving. “It ain’t about making white folk feel what you feel,” she told him—advice that Gerald’s Granny seems to have lived by too. “It’s about not feeling what they want you to feel. Do you hear me? You better know from whence you came and forget about those folk.” Unlike the American Memoir, our stories must be honest. That is how we get free.