I never believed a word you said because you hit my mama. I started this letter to you at 19 years old on a Greyhound bus headed to Jackson from New York. I’d been reading, rereading, underlining and listening to James Baldwin. Baldwin, bell hooks, Grandmama and strangely you, forced me to reckon with change. Y’all made me want to explore Black feminism.
“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety,” Baldwin wrote. “And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when one is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream one has long cherished or a privilege one has long possessed that one is set free — one has set their self free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”
“Even though we do not know each other,” I wrote to you on this Father’s Day card Mama made me give to you at the beginning of 9th grade, “Mama does not want us to disappear without finding a way to know where we both been.”
I gave you the card while we sat at the dining room table of Grandmama’s house for dinner. You were, by far, the most present man in my life as a child, but I never saw you as a dad or even a father figure. Every now and then you shot prideful looks my way when I had a good game or when I understood your brand of Black Southern nationalism. But you farted on command, blew enough snot boogers, talked too much about other women’s butts too much for me to ever think Mama and I were safe with you. I’m not sure what makes a father, but I assume it has something to do with the illusion of safety and possibility of love.
We never said we loved each other because we didn’t. You were not my father. I was not your son. I wanted to hurt you sometimes. I never wanted to hurt my father except the days when Mama rattled her hands around in empty mailboxes that should have had child support checks. Even on those days, Mama refused to say one critical word about him. Every single time he didn’t send our money, she blamed it on the post office, or thieving neighbors. Then she asked you if you could help us out. Sometimes you did. Sometimes you didn’t.
Thank you for the times you did.
When I wrote, “I do not want us to disappear without us finding a way to know each other,” I was inviting you into my life, and hoping you’d invite me into yours because Mama wanted it that way.
You were the son of Black farmers. We all came from the land, but your family owned theirs. Your mother did most of the work on that land. Like my father, you were always the hope of the family, and the town, and eventually the state.
This, you said, was the biggest difference between my father and you. “You can’t be a Black man, and be a free human being and work for someone else. You got to own the land under your feet,” you’d say before turning your critique on my Mama. “The White folks in this state get you one way or another if you don’t own yourself. You can’t be a Black scholar and be a free human being unless you’re an independently wealthy. You can’t be free and be anyone else’s labor. If your Mama needs to go to the Conference for Revolutionaries in Nairobi, can she go? Does she have the money? Does she have to ask her job if it’s okay? She can’t go unless I give her the money and her job says its okay. Y’all ain’t free. Do you want to be a free and Black? Or do you think that’s an oxymoron?”
More than anyone in my life, you asked me whether it was too much to ask Black human beings in Mississippi who were made vulnerable by the negligence and bruising of our nation, state, town and families to be wholly present and free? You never said that Black feminism should be a part of that freedom process.
You asked me this at the start of 8th grade why a lot of my friends started to disappear. I said people aren’t gone just because you can’t see them. You asked me why they hardened their insides. You asked me why we were so desperate. I needed to explore those questions. The saddest thing is that you needed to explore them even more.
When you hit rock bottom, Mama came back to you. Not for sex or money, but friendship. Love. The shame of falling as fast as you fell stopped you from accepting her help. I often wondered if Black feminism could have saved you.
After talking to Grandmama this summer about a project, she told me that I should talk with you.
“Give him a chance to do right by you and your Mama,” she said.
We talked on the phone. “I was just trying to f— your Mama,” you said. “That’s it. That’s it. I didn’t mean no harm, Kie. I was just trying to f— your Mama. She was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
I asked you if you could do anything differently, would you change it.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” you said. “I wouldn’t be me if I changed anything.”
I asked if you like who you are today.
“I love who I am today,” you said. “I think I would marry your Mama if I could do it over again. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. I wish I had someone to teach me. There were no radical rich n*ggas who I could learn from. All the n*ggas with money in Jackson liked to kiss White folks’ ass for that money. All the radical n*ggas didn’t have no money. I didn’t have no one to learn from.”
You sound regretful, I said. I told you that you could have learned from my Grandmama, my mother, or your own mother. I want to say that Black feminism could have saved you.
“Yeah,” you said. “I see what you’re saying. That’s what I should have done. It’s not too late for a second career. This time, I got God on my side, too. God never left me,” you said. “I’m sorry for what I did to you Mama. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. I should have married her. Tell her to call me when you can. She won’t return my calls. We should’ve been married by now.”
I’m sitting in the silence waiting for you to hang up. I want to say that Black feminism could have saved you, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t know how Black men and boys radically love ourselves, love the folks who made us, without Black feminism. I don’t know how we embrace regret, embrace other people’s attempts at a life without a Black feminist anchor. I have read a lot of books, listened to a lot of really smart, passionate soulful people in my life. The art, and work that has most profoundly changed the way I talk, listen, build, feel and fail is Black feminist work. But Black feminism has not saved me. Black feminism is not deliverance. It’s not a shrouded club. It’s a political, intellectual, and artful way of seeing and being in the world that reminds us that heteropatriarchy must be confronted and interrogated, and healthy change is impossible without an honest reckoning. The truth is that lots of Black feminists are anti-Black. Lots of Black feminists are complicit in empire. Lots of Black feminists hate Black women. Lots of Black feminists are transphobic. But Black feminism is always pushing us to confront our inclinations towards abuse, and our paths toward survival. Black feminism encourages us to reckon, organize and righteously love.
I did not love you enough to tell you this on the phone so I’m telling you now. Black feminism cannot save you. It cannot save me. It can, and has helped some of us heal and work. I’d like to give you a book. It’s called All About Love: New Visions. In it, bell hooks, writes, “But many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.”
Let’s start there. What do you think of quote? What does it make you feel? What does it make you remember? What does it make you imagine? I’m asking because I want to love you. I’m asking because I want you to love me back. I’m asking because I believe in change.
About Kiese Laymon
Kiese Laymon is a black southern writer born and raised in Jackson Mississippi. He is the author of the novel, Long Division, and the essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and forthcoming memoir, Heavy.
About the Ms. Foundation for Women