04 September 2014

 

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America By Kiese Laymon

 

Many fine authors hail from the South, that most distinctive region in the country. It seems that southerners have voices and story telling skills like no others in America. Kiese Laymon, a son of the south, joins the long line of southerners who have dazzled us with their literary skills.

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America isn’t a book about suicide per se; it’s a collection of searing essays about the daily, slow death and dying marginalized people go through as they come to grips with the harshness and hopelessness of their lives.

Laymon’s personal story has a slightly different twist: although he was born and reared in Jackson, Mississippi, the city in which Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963, his parents were college students when he was born. His mother was a college professor of political science at historically black Jackson State University–she literally carried him on her back while she finished college–by the time he was applying to colleges. But while he lacks the somewhat stereotypical experience of growing up black, impoverished and embittered, he displays a keen understanding of it just the same.

The essays in Laymon’s book cover a number of topics, including making mischief with his classroom buddy, edging his way–not always carefully–through life as a black boy in Mississippi, his days as a student at the formerly all white Millsaps College, his time at the predominantly white and liberal Oberlin College, hip hop culture and the beginning of his teaching career.

In the title essay he describes how he was dismissed from college for taking out and returning a book from the library without going through the checkout process. Indeed, he brags about how he looked straight into the eyes of the security camera while doing so, and is sure he must be the first black man to be dismissed from school for reading a book. His mother was so angry at what she saw as his refusal to take life seriously that she threw him out of the house.

I recognized a lot of what I experienced growing up in the black community: the daily warning about how black people have to be ten times better than white people just to get up in the morning; patronizing whites who are willing to befriend you because you’re not like “other” black people; admonishments against all kinds of behavior from talking too loudly to wearing bright colors lest you embarrass the race; and a nagging feeling that regardless of what one does or how well one does it, it won’t make any difference because we will never overcome.

While someone described him as a black Mark Twain, Laymon is more like James Baldwin on steroids–gifted, proud, black, angry, and a furious truth teller. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is in the tradition of The Haygoods of Columbus: A Love Story by Wil Haygood, and Men We Reap: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward: full of love and affection for the his extended family, neighbors and friends, but clear eyed about their flaws and failings.

Those who read How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America will finish the essays impressed by Laymon’s talent and grateful for his tenacity in fighting to publish the book he wanted us to read.