You were parked at an auto shop in Brandon, Mississippi, hoping a mechanic would fix your Subaru on credit while I was sleeping on the floor of my new office in Poughkeepsie, New York. I was a 180-pound black adjunct professor at Vassar College. I had 6 percent body fat and a few hundred dollars to my name.
When I told you where I slept, you said in order to embody black excellence, especially at a place white northerners deemed elite, I must maintain healthy distance from my colleagues and never let them see me ‘disheveled.’ I heard, that first week, from more white colleagues than I could count how lucky I was to be at Vassar. When you were my age, you’d been teaching at Jackson State for two years. I was six years old. I wondered if your black colleagues, who were your professors a few years earlier, called you lucky to be back teaching at Jackson State.
I remember watching you give everything you had to your students those first few years we were back in Mississippi. Nearly all of your first students were black, first-generation students from Mississippi. You spent sixteen-hour days meeting students on weekends, talking to worried parents on the phone, helping students with their financial aid forms, finding food for them when we didn’t even have enough money for food ourselves. We talked more when I got to Vassar than we’d talked since I was twelve years old. I lied a lot and kept the personal surrounding my professional life a secret, but you loved when I asked you questions about how to navigate my life as a young black professor.
‘The world was out to smother me and my kids,’ you told me a week after I arrived at Vassar. ‘My job as a teacher was to help them breathe with excellence and discipline in the classroom. The ones that love you, they become what you model. Don’t forget that. Help them breathe by modeling responsible love in the classroom every single day. The most important thing a teacher can do is give their students permission to be loving and excellent.’
I realized that first week of teaching I had far more in common with my students than my colleagues, most of whom were white and older than Grandmama. Even though I was the youngest professor at the college, I dressed that first day like the excellent, disciplined, elegant black man you wanted me to be. I rocked a baggy brown wool suit and shiny Stacy Adams loafers. The suit was way baggier than when you gave it to me for graduation from Oberlin. By the end of the first week of classes, the suit was gone. If I wore a blazer, I wore it on top of a T-shirt and jeans. Being comfortable around my students made too much sense.
My first week of class, I understood that none of my students, especially the black and brown ones who gravitated to me, wanted to be treated as noble exceptions to their communities. They wanted to be loved, inspired, protected, and heard. They didn’t want to be punished or unfairly disciplined for navigating the craziness that came with leaving home to sleep, eat, and drink with people they didn’t know while learning in haunted classrooms and dorms. Like nearly every black professor I knew from the Deep South, I expected to protect my students from security, police, and malicious administrations. I expected to pick them up from police stations, train stations, and emergency rooms. I didn’t expect to fail them as much as I did. I misgendered my students when they asked if I could help push the college to cover the cost of transitioning because they’d been disowned by their parents for being transgender. I made my students engage with art that attacked them for being queer, femme, black, and poor. I came into my James Baldwin lecture after the Virginia Tech shootings and told the one Asian American boy in the class, who happened to be Vietnamese, I was free if he ever wanted to talk about violence. I asked one of my Chicana students who told me her family had been deported if she knew when they’d be back, and if she wanted to publish an essay about it.
I found more ways to fail and harm my kids than I ever imagined. Every time I failed them, I knew I thought I was doing something you would never have done.
When I told you about security coming in my office, asking to see my ID when pictures of you and me sat on my desk, you said, ‘Terror looks like this.’ I laughed off your comment and told you how happy I was to have access to a copier, printing paper, one of the most beautiful libraries on earth, unlimited smoothies, a meditation spot called Shakespeare garden, and a make-out spot called Sunset Lake. I knew the job would be challenging, but I was essentially getting paid to teach, serve, and write for seven months of the year. I tried to convince you that my relationship with students at Vassar was home, and the two rooms of that home were our classrooms and my office. You told me to learn from your mistakes and understand that pain awaited any worker in this country who made a home of their job.
I should have listened to you.
On September 11, 2001, a week and a half after school started, I learned I was as far from home as I could be and still be within the United States. On September 12, I watched my Pakistani neighbors plaster their Corollas with i love the u.s.a. bumper stickers and dress their newborn in a red, white, and blue outfit I’d seen at Marshalls.
I didn’t understand.
Three days later, on September 15, I decided to take the Metro North down to New York City to volunteer at Ground Zero. The Poughkeepsie station was packed with slack-faced soldiers holding M-16s next to ignorant-looking German shepherds. When I got on the train, a dark-skinned South Asian family was seated in front of me. The entire family wore clothing in variations of red, white, and blue. The father placed a suitcase above their seat; on it a sticker proclaimed proud to be an american. I saw that his keys were held together by an American flag key chain that still had the tag on them.
Now I understood. Terror looked like this.
‘If they reach in that bag, I know something,’ a young black man wearing green wristbands said to his friend.
‘What you know?’ I asked.
‘I know they better not try to blow up this train,’ he said, loud enough so everyone in our car could hear. ‘That’s what I know.’
A white man whose chest hair looked like it was soaked in curl activator nodded affirmatively across the aisle from us and gave the young brother a thumbs-up. ‘USA, right?’ the white man asked.
‘You already know,’ he shot back. ‘USA.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘These white folk got you tripping,’ I whispered for the family in front of me to hear, and then added more loudly, for everyone, ‘These people ain’t trying to blow up no train.’
For the entire hour to Grand Central Terminal, the family in front of me sat still and erect, barely tilting their heads to speak to each other. Every time the child, who looked like he was six or seven, tried to move, his parents held him in place. For the first time in my life, I experienced not having the most fear-provoking body in a contained American space. Of course, folks on that train were still afraid of black bodies like mine, but they were more afraid of brown folks who ‘looked’ like Muslims. I kept thinking of your directive to be excellent, disciplined, elegant, emotionally contained, clean, and perfect in the face of American white supremacy. ‘I gotta pee,’ the boy whispered to his mother, but she wouldn’t let go of his arm.
When the train pulled into Grand Central, the father grabbed their suitcase from the bin and the boy stood next to his parents. The mother placed her body and the suitcase in front of the child, shielding our eyes from his piss-darkened red shorts.
‘Thank you,’ the mother said as she walked by me. ‘You’re welcome,’ I said. ‘Y’all have a good day.’
I wondered if this feeling I had was what ‘good white folk’ felt when we thanked them for not being as terrible. As I walked deeper into New York City that day, I saw and heard black, brown, and white men in a Lower East Side bodega filled with mini American flags talk about harming ‘the Moozlums who blew up our city’ and speculate about where they would attack next.
Thirty minutes later, I stood dizzy in a cathedral near Ground Zero, passing out bottled water, sandwiches, and blankets to tired firefighters still looking for survivors. For the first time since I left you six years earlier, I knew you and Grandmama were safer back in Jackson than I was up north. Your safety had nothing to do with airplanes torpedoing skyscrapers filled with people just doing their jobs. Y’all were safer because you knew exactly where you were in the world.
I’d been forced, since I left you in that driveway six years earlier, to accept I didn’t understand much about any part of the country other than our part of Mississippi. I assumed all black folk in the nation were from the Deep South. I had no idea how many black folk there were in the nation from Africa and the Caribbean.
That day in lower Manhattan, inside the cathedral, you would have seen so much generosity and patience in the face of absolute fear and loss. Before leaving, we held little American flags, gripped coarse American hands, and thanked each other for bringing the best of our American selves out to help. I assumed, though, everyone in that loving space knew what was going to happen next. I didn’t know much about New York, but I knew what white Americans demanded of America. White Americans, primarily led by George W. Bush, were about to wrap themselves in flags and chant ‘USA!’ as poor cousins, friends, sons, and daughters showed a weaker, browner, less Christian part of the world how we dealt with loss.
When I took the train back to Poughkeepsie that night, I remember feeling sad there were no ‘Muslim-looking’ folk in my car whom I could feel good about defending. I imagined the looks of awe on the faces of my students when I told them I volunteered. I looked out at the Hudson River and thanked God the attacks of 9/11 hadn’t happened while a black president was in office. I wondered, for the first time in my life, what being an American, not just a black American from Mississippi, really demanded of my insides, and what the consequences were for not meeting that demand in the world.
I waited in the parking lot of my apartment for a white woman walking out of the complex to get in her car so I wouldn’t scare her. On the way into my apartment, I saw and heard an airplane. I remembered some of the Jamaican men in an NYC bodega talking about a nuclear facility thirty miles from me called Indian Point. According to them, Muslims were going to fly four planes into Indian Point in the next few days, causing hundreds of thousands of Americans to die from acute radiation syndrome and cancer.
I ran into my apartment, called you, called Grandmama, did some push-ups, weighed myself, ran six miles, came back home, locked the bedroom door, did more push-ups, got in bed, and listened for loud booms brought on by terrifying Muslim-looking folk who supposedly hated us because of our freedom.
A few months later, a senior white colleague suggested I direct Cole’s thesis. Cole was one of his thesis advisees who lost people close to him on September 11. He told me he was sure I ‘could connect with Cole’ in ways he couldn’t. While I appreciated Cole’s dirty fingernails and the reckless way he went after loose balls during pickup basketball games, I never had Cole as a student. Cole, whose thesis was on Dante’s Inferno, was a slim, wealthy, Jewish white boy from Connecticut who’d wrestled addiction since he was a sophomore in high school.
Cole and I spent hours in my office that semester, pushing through theories of immersion in Dante’s Inferno on Wednesdays and talking through his experiences of abandonment and addiction on Fridays. In addition to talking to me, Cole made use of the counseling services on campus, and a private counselor off campus.
One day when Cole was leaving my office, Heedy ‘Douglass’ Byers, whom I was introduced to by my friend Brown, was waiting outside my door. Folk in Poughkeepsie called Heedy ‘Douglass’ because he had a blown-out Afro and a massive combed-in part like Frederick Douglass. Douglass called me ‘Keys’ and he said it at the beginning and ends of his sentences. As Cole and Douglass passed each other, I watched them make that exchange I’d seen hundreds of many times in Jackson, Forest, Oberlin, and Bloomington.
I pulled Douglass into my office after Cole turned the corner, and closed the door while six black, South Asian, and Filipina students waited outside my office. ‘You moving shit right in front of my office like that?’
‘Keys,’ he said. ‘If you ever need anything, trust me. I got you, Keys. Whatever you need, let me know, Keys. You and Brown trying to ball after work?’
I taught two courses a semester for eighteen thousand dollars a year after taxes. Even though you and Aunt Linda made more money, I somehow had more disposable income than anyone in our family. When I got my job, I imagined doing all kinds of stuff with my new money, like going to IHOP once a week, buying three new albums, three new books every month, and buying a new pair of Adidas at the end of every semester.
It didn’t take me long to realize my eighteen thousand a year wasn’t close to rich, especially when you told me you needed eleven hundred for the air conditioner, four hundred to fix the plumbing, and three hundred for new tires on the car. That same day Cole and Douglass made the exchange, you called and asked me if I could send eight hundred dollars home for Grandmama’s new dental bridge. You said she was in excruciating pain and she was too proud to ask me for the money. I told you I would send all the money I could by the end of the week.
‘I love you, Kie,’ you said. ‘Thank you for always helping the family when we need it.’
When I got off the phone, Douglass looked at my fingers lightly tapping the faded wood on the desk. I watched him watch the mountains of books covering the wall, the peeling blue Baldwin poster behind my door, a vinyl version of Jay Z’s Blueprint, the warped picture of Grandmama holding her chin on the windowsill. ‘Keys, what you wanna do, Keys. You wanna invest in this work?’
Ever since I was twelve, I was surrounded by Mississippi black boys for whom slanging was a side hustle. My friends didn’t call themselves ‘hustlers’ or ‘dope boys.’ They were black boys who wanted to augment money earned at primary jobs by selling a product that made people feel better about being alive. Lots of us were grandchildren of hardworking bootlegging grandparents who shared the importance of multiple side hustles and varied streams of income. So even if we slang, we were going to deliver phone books, bus tables at Applebee’s, mow someone’s lawn, or teach.
It wasn’t complicated.
You, Uncle Jimmy, and Boots from the Coup convinced me drugs distorted our work ethic, weakening our body’s ability to imagine, resist, organize, and remember. You claimed that weakened bodies and weakened imaginations made us easier prey for white supremacy. I didn’t disagree with you but I never knocked my friends’ side hustles. All I ever said was, ‘The longer you slang, the higher the likelihood white folk gone hem you up.’
None of us were the grandchildren of grandparents who passed money or land down to our parents. Even those of us whose parents were part of this shiny black middle class knew those shiny black middle-class parents were one paycheck away from asking grandparents or us for money we didn’t have the week before payday, and two paychecks away from poverty. There was no wealth in our family, you told me more than once. There were only paydays.
By nineteen, when I finally accepted Uncle Jimmy’s addiction, I decided that if I ever slang, I’d only slang to white folk. By twenty, I realized there wasn’t one white person on earth I trusted with my freedom. The problem with slanging to white folk was that, rich or poor, they already had way too much influence on whether we ended up in prison or dead. Giving white folk even more of that absolute power always felt like side hustling backward.
Still, thinking about the inflamed nerves in Grandmama’s mouth, and knowing you needed more money for some reason almost every week, I wondered if this was the one time in my life I could get away with ‘collaborating.’ Douglass told me a few weeks after we met that he ‘collaborated’ with other Dutchess County professors in endeavors that were ‘financially beneficial to both sides, Keys.’
I asked him if any of those professor collaborators were black.
‘Not yet, Keys,’ he said. ‘Not yet. You could be the first.’
When Douglass left my office, waiting outside were Adam, Niki, Bama, Ghislaine, Matt, and Mazie. Instead of coming into the office one at a time, my black and brown students often came in together and sat in a half circle. Nearly all of the students who made a second home during my office hours had been targeted, disciplined, exceptionalized, and fetishized because of their race, gender, and/or sexuality, in and out of classrooms, on and off campus. They dealt with neo-Nazi groups targeting them, antiblack iconography etched on walls; some got suspended and expelled for infractions white students were rarely even written up for; campus security and local police routinely questioned their identities and the identities of their guests.
Three hours after my students walked in, they all walked out of my office except for Mazie, a tall, queer black girl from Arkansas. Mazie’s talent as a writer and scholar were frightening. A semester earlier, Mazie was kicked out of school for allegedly threatening her roommate after she disrespected Mazie’s mama. I served as Mazie’s faculty support during her hearing. When the judicial board suspended Mazie, we protested and appealed the suspension. Mazie was allowed back on campus but not allowed in the library or dorms after dark. I knew, after Mazie’s suspension, I needed to get on that judicial board to make sure what happened to Mazie never happened to another vulnerable student.
After an hour and a half, the sun started to go down and I told Mazie I should probably go get ready for this student judicial hearing.
I turned the light off and walked out behind her. ‘You friends with that white boy, Cole?’ she asked me in the parking lot.
‘Friends? Nah. He’s my thesis student.’
‘Good. That white boy and his friends, they be slangin’ so much of that shit on this campus.’
‘How you know?’
‘I just know,’ she said, before dapping me up and walking toward Main Building.
I thought about the older colleague who suggested I work with Cole, the same colleague who insisted on letting me know how lucky I was every time he saw me. He had no idea what my work was on, no idea what I wanted to do with language, no idea who or what I was before getting a job at Vassar. We both knew Cole, a dealer of everything from weed to cocaine, could be a college graduate, college professor, college trustee or president of all kinds of American things in spite of being scared, desperate, and guilty.
By my third semester at Vassar, I learned it was fashionable to call Cole’s predicament ‘privilege’ and not ‘power.’ I had the privilege of being raised by you and a grandmama who responsibly loved me in the blackest, most creative state in the nation. Cole had the power to never be poor and never be a felon, the power to always have his failures treated as success no matter how mediocre he was. He literally was too white, too masculine, too rich to fail. George Bush was president because of Cole’s power. An even richer, more mediocre white man could be president next because of Cole’s power. Even progressive presidents would bow to Cole’s power. Grandmama, the smartest, most responsible human being I knew, cut open chicken bellies and washed the shit out of white folks’ dirty underwear because of Cole’s power. She could never be president. And she never wanted to be because she knew that the job necessitated moral mediocrity. My job, I learned that first year, was to dutifully teach Cole to use this power less abusively. I was supposed to encourage Cole to understand his power brought down buildings, destroyed countries, created prisons, and lathered itself in blood and suffering. But if used for good, his power could lay the foundation for liberation and some greater semblance of justice in our country, and possibly the world.
I just didn’t buy it.
I loved my job, and I understood the first week of school it was impossible to teach any student you despised. A teacher’s job was to responsibly love the students in front of them. If I was doing my job, I had to find a way to love the wealthy white boys I taught with the same integrity with which I loved my black students, even if the constitution of that love differed. This wasn’t easy because no matter how conscientious, radically curious, or politically active I encouraged Cole to be, teaching wealthy white boys like him meant I was being paid to really fortify Cole’s power.
In return for this care, I’d get a monthly check, some semblance of security, and moral certainty we were helping white folk be better at being human. This was new to me, but it was old black work, and this old black work, in ways you warned me about, was more than selling out; this old black work was morally side hustling backward.
The judicial case we were tasked with looking at that night was sad and simple like most of the cases we heard. Security came into Cole’s best friend’s dorm room. They saw and took pictures of felonious amounts of cocaine, little scales, and Baggies on the table. Cole’s best friend, a small, smart white boy with massive eyebrows, was being charged with possession and intent to distribute. I never really understood how or why college judicial boards were hearing potential felony cases, but I had more trust in the college judicial boards to fairly adjudicate these situations than actual jails, judges, juries, police, and prisons.
During the small, smart white boy’s opening statement, he talked about being at a club in the city of Poughkeepsie and being approached by a ‘big dark man’ who made him buy cocaine. I sat back in my chair and looked around the room. Everyone in the room was white. And every white person in the room was transfixed by the story of the small, smart white boy being made to buy cocaine by a nigger on the floor of a club in Poughkeepsie. I breathed heavy through the student’s opening statement, through security’s statement, and through the student’s closing statement. I kept thinking of Brown, the first person I met in Poughkeepsie. He was in prison for violating parole, and he went to prison the first few times for selling less coke than was found in this small, smart white boy’s room. I thought about how even when we weren’t involved in selling drugs, big, dark folks like us could be used to shield white folk from responsibility.
Brown was five-seven, 220 pounds. Big and dark.
I was six-one, 179 pounds. Big and dark.
Mazie was five-nine, 158 pounds. Big and dark.
I’d looked like a big, dark black man since I was an eleven-year-old black boy. I’d been surrounded by big, dark black men since I was born. I never met one big, dark black man who would make a white boy buy cocaine. Apparently, there was one such big, dark black man in Poughkeepsie, New York.
The rest of the disciplinary committee said we couldn’t hold the small, smart white boy responsible for possession because the details of what led to his possession of cocaine were so frightening. We don’t know what it’s like to be as small as this kid, the professor next to me said, and be forced to buy coke from a scary person in a downtown club.
‘We don’t?’ I asked him.
We don’t know what it’s like to go through what he went through, another administrator said.
I asked both of them why any man who could make a person buy cocaine would not just take the person’s money and keep his cocaine. The professor started talking to me about transformative justice. I told him that I knew well what transformative justice was, and asked again how anything transformative could be happening in this room if it’s predicated on us believing a big black dude made the small, smart white boy buy cocaine.
Everyone in the room looked at me like I had hog-head cheese oozing out of my nose. He never said the guy was black, another member of the committee said. If the small, smart white boy did not technically possess the cocaine, the small, smart white boy could not be held responsible for intent to distribute cocaine. If the small, smart white boy was found not responsible for distributing cocaine, he would have to be let free.
No disciplinary probation.
I kept looking at the black-and-white pictures of felonious amounts of cocaine, the scale, the Baggies. Apparently, I did not see what I saw because a big black man in the city of Poughkeepsie, a nigger, made me see it.
I didn’t have my own computer or Internet at home, so I walked back to my office after the hearing to e-mail Cole. I believed in prison abolition. But I wasn’t sure how fair it was to practice transformative justice on the cisgendered, heterosexual, white, rich male body of someone who’d been granted transformative justice since birth. I didn’t want Cole making a home in my office anymore. I didn’t want his little skinny white self talking to me about drugs he’d never be guilty of consuming or selling in Poughkeepsie. I asked Cole over e-mail if we could meet in the library from now on.
I leaned back in my chair and looked at my office.
I picked up a chewed pen, a green spiral notebook, and I wrote the names of every person I knew in jail or prison for drug-related offenses. I filled that white piece of paper with black friends, black cousins, black uncles, and black aunties. Some of those black names were serving upwards of thirty years in prison for far less cocaine than the small, smart white boy who was forced to buy cocaine in a club. Then I wrote the names of young people I met in Poughkeepsie who were locked up for drug-related offenses.
Cole responded to my e-mail a few minutes later, saying he’d really appreciate it if we kept meeting in my office because it was the only place he felt safe on that campus.
‘That’s fine,’ I wrote, ‘if that’s what you want to do.’
I threw my notebook across my office, yelled ‘motherfucker,’ and texted Douglass.
This Keys. I ain’t doing that thing. We ballin at 8 tomorrow if you can make it. I can scoop you.
I didn’t want to waste any of my phone’s minutes so I used the department business code to call you back before leaving my office. I told you I was sorry for waking you up and asked if I could wire half of the money this month and half of the money next month.
‘Thank you,’ you said. ‘Wire what you can tomorrow, Kie. Please know that we need it as soon as possible.’
I hung up the phone, grabbed my keys, unlocked the English faculty lounge, and stole some colleagues’ Fresca, a blueberry-vanilla yogurt, and granola from the office fridge. I left my car at work, ran to my apartment, did some push-ups, weighed myself, ran six miles around Poughkeepsie, came back home, locked the bedroom door, did more push-ups, said prayers, got in bed, and accepted no matter how much weight I lost, small, smart white boys would always have the power to make big black boys force them into buying our last kilos of cocaine. Then some of us would watch them watch us watch them walk free after getting caught. And some of us, if we were extra lucky, would get to teach these small, smart addicted white boys and girls today so we could pay for our ailing grandmamas’ dental care tomorrow.
This is an excerpt from Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon, published by Bloomsbury on 1 November (£16.99)