Living Under The Gun

Kiese Laymon is now a university English professor. But his path to the halls of Vassar College was marred by the reality and threat of gun violence. Host Michel Martin talks with Laymon about some of the hard-won wisdom he shares in his essay, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made an impact through their work.

Today, we're speaking with someone who has some hard-won wisdom to share, even though he's only in his mid-30s. It's on the subject of violence - not exclusively, but particularly among and directed toward young black men.

Now, the presidential candidates touched on the issue of gun violence in last night's debate, but Kiese Laymon has seen it and lived it firsthand. He's now an associate professor of English at Vassar College, but he wrote an essay about how guns intruded on his closest relationships and most difficult moments. The essay is called "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance." The piece was featured on the website Gawker this summer, and will be included in an upcoming book. And Kiese Laymon is with us now.

Thank you so much for joining us.

KIESE LAYMON: Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited.

MARTIN: Do you have a copy of the essay with you?

LAYMON: I do.

MARTIN: Can you read the first paragraph for me?

LAYMON: (Reading) I've had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies: once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. I'm not sure how or if I've helped many folks say yes to life, but I've definitely aided in a few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.

MARTIN: Which gives you a sense of what you're about to talk about in this piece. What made you want to write this piece?

LAYMON: Oh, man. I've been writing this piece for about 12 years in different forms, and I think the thing that really crystallized the piece for me was obviously the Trayvon Martin case, the killing of all those kids in Chicago, and just the way I think gun culture is being talked about, or really not talked about in our culture today.

MARTIN: This is not, you know, a "Boyz 'n the Hood"-stereotype piece. I mean, I think, a lot of times, people think that when you talk about violence, you're going to talk about kids who are growing up in really deprived circumstances with, you know, not a lot of resources, not a lot of education. But that is not you. In fact, your life seems to me to be pretty middle-class.

LAYMON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: The mom who you say pulled a gun on you is actually a political science professor.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: So what do you think is the animating issue, here? I mean, do you think it's - that, if you are a young black man, that violence, being exposed to a lot of violence, is just normal?

LAYMON: When I wrote this piece, I didn't actually think about 1994 in Mississippi. But, you know, when I went back and looked, that year was the most violent in our state's history in terms of murders, in terms of reported rapes, and that what I was trying to do in this piece was bring to life a lot of the pressures that a lot of us felt because of this culture.

And I'm really glad you brought up the point about, you know, this not being a typical "Boyz 'n the Hood" narrative, because what I think is really important is that, you know, I was in college, right. So those first few months at college, first two years, you think you're free. And so a lot of this essay is kind of dealing with the strange paradox of being free, but not clearly being able to feel the freedom that you thought you would feel because it's really because, you know, gun culture and, like, this soulful kind of malaise, I think, affects everybody, every human being. Maybe it's specific, also, to African-American young men.

MARTIN: One of the things that you talk about in the piece is that it's very both-and. I mean, for people who are hearing our conversation and feel like it's going to be about, oh, you know, boy, black people are messed up in the head. It's not that.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: Or for the people who are thinking, oh, it's going to be about how this country's racist and, you know, it's all about bringing the black man down. It's not about that.

LAYMON: Right. Right.

MARTIN: But it's very much about the - sort of the interactions which become very combustible. You talk about the fact that...

LAYMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...the first college you went to, Millsaps College - you name it in the piece.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: You talk about the fact that the - I assume these were the white fraternities that were...

LAYMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...pledging. And some of them - the fraternities were receiving their new members.

LAYMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: They'd been up drinking all night. Some of them had on black face and afro wigs and confederate capes, and then...

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: ...some of the N word gets said and you and a friend of yours - they're calling you the N word. So you guys decide to call the local television reporters...

LAYMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to get them to capture what's going on, here.

LAYMON: Right.

MARTIN: You wind up getting suspended, for what?

LAYMON: My girlfriend, the woman in the piece who also got in a fight with these boys, asked me to check out a book for her brother. She was at work. And I went to check it out. I didn't have my ID with me, so I dropped the book underneath the sensor, the scanner, and I picked it up and I looked right at the camera. And I wasn't - I don't really know what was wrong with me at the time. I just was - I don't know. And then I brought the book back, I think, the next day, and then they called a meeting maybe a few days after that.

As I say in this essay, there are a lot of things they could have kicked me out for, and I think there's a lot of things you can kick, you know, 30 or 40 percent of college students out for if you really want. But taking a library book out of a library and bringing it back is not one of those - should not be one of those things.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with writer Kiese Laymon. We're talking about his recent essay. It's titled "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance."

You also talk about the fact that your mother pulled a gun on you. And I mean I'm setting aside a couple of the incidents, like the fact that this drunken - and you do point out the fact that he had been drinking.

LAYMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: This white undercover cop pulled a gun on you. He'd been drinking.

And the fact that some kid tried to rob you for your work study check. So those are things that I think have been talked about kind of in other places. But you also talk about the fact, your mother pulled a gun on you.

LAYMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Have you talked to mother about - well, first of all, has she read your essay?

LAYMON: Yeah, she read my essay.

MARTIN: And have you talked to her about what happened between you since then? How does she feel about it?

LAYMON: Yeah. I didn't send my mother a draft of this before it went out. So I guess two or three days after it was out, you know, I talked to her about different things and then she sent me a message, I mean like Ki, can you call me? So I called her and she said, so, I hear this essay you wrote is getting cited a lot online. And I was like, yeah. Yeah, I say. And then she's about to hang up. You know, she's saying all these beautiful things about me, and she's saying she liked the writing of it. And I said, Ma, Ma, you can talk about what you want to talk about. And she just said Ki, I just want you know, whatever I did to you as a child I only did because I wanted you to survive. And I said, Mama, I get it. That's what, that's - anyhow, and she got really sad and she's like, you know, I regret a lot of things, I shouldn't have done it. Mom was dealing with a lot of economic issues. She was trying to deal with her relationship issues and, you know, it's hard to raise children. It's definitely hard to raise, I think, young black man in Mississippi - particularly if there are not a lot of people around to give you support. And you know, she pulled it on me. She told me to get out of the house. And I know my mom regrets that, but at the same time I understand why she did it at the time.

MARTIN: And then there were the two times you pulled the gun on yourself.

LAYMON: Right. And the first time happened right after my mom kicked me out of the house and pulled a gun on me. And you know, I just felt the sadness kind of pulsing through my blood. I had been kicked out of school and, you know, the thing was I just felt so embarrassed.

MARTIN: What pulled you out of that place?

LAYMON: One of the things, I think, that brought me out of that funk, love of my grandmother. I actually remember sitting in that bathtub thinking if I'm embarrassed of my grandmother now by getting kicked out of school and being all over the newspapers and the television and whatnot, imagine what she would feel if I wasn't here. I just thought like the absolute dread and horror that my grandmother would feel wasn't really worth it. So I actually do remember just thinking a lot about my grandmother and that helping me at least accept the potential beauty and a lot of the terrible situations that at that point in my life I had experienced.

MARTIN: The numbers around some of these issues that we're talking about are pretty well-known for people who think about these issues. I mean the fact that something like two per 100,000 white people are killed by guns.

LAYMON: Right. Right.

MARTIN: Last year it's like 2009, and that compares to 15 per 100,000 black people killed by guns.

LAYMON: It's crazy.

MARTIN: But if you compare the suicide rate and the homicide rate, they're kind of equal, if you get my meaning.

LAYMON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Some people would argue that killing people is kind of another way of killing yourself. Given that you've had both of those experiences, you know, you have felt the kind of rage that makes you want to hurt somebody else and you've felt the kind of depression that makes you want to hurt yourself, I just wanted to ask what your thoughts are about the kind of violence that we continue to experience in this country - recognizing you're not, you know, you're not holding yourself out as an expert, just based on your own experiences.

LAYMON: There's no tangible proof from my point of view that the country actually cares about the health and the healthy education of all of these young kids, and particularly young black and brown kids. There's no proof. And I think that, you know, obviously when you don't care for the health and education of young people or the children of your nation, what you actually are doing is you are killing those people slowly. And what you're also doing is you're encouraging them to kill each other slowly - or as you said, you know, maybe even faster. But then we punish them for doing what we encourage them to do in the first place. We're so far from even admitting that there's a problem. And I blame writing. I blame writers. I blame politicians. I blame teachers. And I think we do have to give thanks. But at the same time, I guess what I'm trying to say is I don't think occupations are shields.

MARTIN: I'm going to try to end this conversation where it began, which is with the essay. I'm going to have to edit a little bit your language because I'm trying not to lose my license.

LAYMON: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But...

LAYMON: We need you. We need you.

MARTIN: Thank you. Well, thank you. But I'm going to work around...

LAYMON: OK.

MARTIN: This is how you end it. This isn't an essay or simply a woe-is-me narrative about how hard it is to be a black boy in America. This is a lame attempt at remembering the contours of slow death and life in America for one black American teenager under Central Mississippi skies. I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don't want to lie.

I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry or blogs or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths, and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.

Why do you think that that's so important?

LAYMON: I'm one of these fools that really believes that art along with structural transformation, reformation, can just change us. And you asked earlier like why I'm here and what I think and, you know, in this very sentimental way I guess I really thank art. And I thank the artists that have come before me that have told me and shown me that it's OK to feel, you know, despair and it's really OK to feel joy, and it is like absolutely necessary that we express that blues, that joy, all of that stuff together to other people in hopes that they'll kind of throw it back to us. So it's important to do what you read in that passage.

MARTIN: You're looking back at a time of real intensity that a lot of people are in fact experiencing. So I want to ask, do you have some wisdom?

LAYMON: When you lie...

(LAUGHTER)

LAYMON: ...as we all do, to ourselves, to other people, I think at some point it's OK to own up to those lies, right? Because invariably I just think that those lies ultimately do destroy. They destroy us and they destroy other people. And nationally I think that's something we need to do and individually that's something that I'm working on doing. And I think that we need to work on confronting and accepting why we lie, to whom we lie, and we need to see honesty actually as a way of healthy living. And I think we also need to accept people's honesty when they have enough courage to tell us the truth.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with Kiese Laymon. He is a professor of English at Africana Studies at Vassar College. His essay will be included in his forthcoming book "On Parole: A Literary Antidote to Post-Blackness." The essay that we've been talking about was published on the site Gawker, and it's called "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance." And he was kind enough to join us from Katonah, New York.

Kiese Laymon, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LAYMON: Thank you so much for having me, Michel. Appreciate it.

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