The Worst of White Folks
Way back in the day when Twitter was a bootleg reindeer name, David Rozier invented farting during Mass. A few minutes before we marveled at the six Catholics at Holy Family Catholic School sipping out of one gold goblet, and right after Father Joe suggested we offer each other “a sign of peace,” David tapped me on my shoulder, swung his right arm around his back and farted in his hand. Father Joe rolled his eyes from the pulpit as David proceeded to shake the hands of Ms. Bockman, Ms. Raphael, and all the other sixth-and seventh-graders in our row.
Side by side, David and I looked as different as two Mississippi black boys could look. He reminded me of a shorter version of my cousin Jermaine, who lived up in Chicago. David had the forearms and calves of a wiry point guard, with the teeniest head you’d ever seen in your life. He had bright, curious, clear eyes, a voice that was octaves deeper than you’d expect, and these elephant ears that Angela Williams would pluck on field trips. David wasn’t the flyest dresser in the seventh grade, but he—like our boy Lerthon—came to school fabric-softener fresh with just a whiff of fried eggs and canned biscuits. I, on the other hand, was slightly less husky than the Human Beat Box and smelled like stale sweat and off-brand dishwashing soap.
The day David offered us his sign of peace, Ms. Bockman, who initially thought David was finally being respectful of Catholic tradition, went off on me in homeroom. When I wouldn’t tell her why I was laughing, she walked me into the hallway and pointed down to the principal’s office.
“Kiese, you’re not giving me a choice,” she said. “Move it!” As I walked down the hall to the principal’s office with Ms. Bockman at my side, our homeroom door opened behind us. “Hold up!” It was David Rozier. “Kiese ain’t do nothing,” he told Ms. Bockman. “It’s my bad he was laughing. I’m responsible.” I looked at David and waited for something more, something familiar.
I got nothing.
David just stood there swaying with his peanut head tucked into his chest. He wouldn’t stop tracing the brown splotches on the floor with his toe.
Since fourth grade, David Rozier and I had spent every day calling and responding, daring each other to revise all the rules of Mississippi juvenile delinquency. We were the Run-DMC of bad behavior at Holy Family Catholic School, and Lerthon was our Jam Master Jay. But in that second, I was a spectator, a confused fan. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t understand the movement, language, and work of American responsibility, especially coming from the mouth of David Rozier.
“I made Kiese laugh in Mass,” David told Ms. Bockman.
“But you didn’t laugh,” she said.
“I passed gas in my hand and I spread it,” I remember David saying without a smirk. I busted out laughing again. “Kiese wouldn’t be laughing without me. I’m saying I’m responsible.”
While we sat outside the principal’s office waiting for the secretary to call our mamas, I joked that I saw Ms. Bockman smell her hand. David wouldn’t laugh. After a minute or two of forced yawning to break the silence, I asked David why he’d accepted responsibility for my acting a fool.
“I don’t even know,” I remember him saying. “Coach Stanley said we gotta be more responsible for our team, and my grandma said I gotta start acting responsible, too. I forgot at first. Then I remembered.”
I couldn’t understand.
David and I got suspended from our rickety black Catholic school that day. Later that evening, in our black neighborhoods, our mothers called their mothers. Under our grandmothers’ guidance, our backs, elbows, knees, necks, and thighs were destroyed.
We now knew that the worst whupping you could get was the playing-fart-games-in-Catholic-church whupping. We figured it was our mothers’ way of keeping us out of black gangs, black prisons, black clinics, black cemeteries and white neighborhoods. We knew it was their way of proving to our grandmothers that they were responsible.
The licks, during my whupping at least, were in sync with every syllable out of Mama’s mouth.
At least twenty-five solid syllables. At least twenty-five stinging licks.
Near the second half of the whupping, Mama, who was usually reckless with her belt, channeled the precision of Grandma and dropped ten licks to the words, “don’t...you...know...white... folks...don’t...care...if...you...die...”
Even as a juvenile delinquent who didn’t fully understand what “responsibility” meant, I understood that when Mama said “white folks,” she meant the worst of white folks. I knew this literally because there were so many different types of white folks on television, and the only white folks I knew personally at the time—Ms. Bockman, Ms. Jacoby, Ms. Raphael, and Lori Bakutis—were complicated, caring white folks who didn’t want me dead. The truth was that you didn’t have to know white folks personally to understand what the worst of white folks nudged your family to feel and do.
The worst of white folks, I understood, wasn’t some gang of rabid white people in crisp pillowcases and shaved heads. The worst of white folks was a pathetic, powerful “it.” It conveniently forgot that it came to this country on a boat, then reacted violently when anything or anyone suggested it share. The worst of white folks wanted our mamas and grandmas to work themselves sick for a tiny sliver of an American pie it needed to believe it had made from scratch. It was all at once crazy-making and quick to violently discipline us for acting crazy. It had an insatiable appetite for virtuoso black performance and routine black suffering. The worst of white folks really believed that the height of black and brown aspiration should be emulation of its mediocre self. The worst of white folks inherited disproportionate access to quality health care, food, wealth, fair trials, fair sentencing, college admittance, college graduations, promotions and second chances, yet still terrorized and shamed other Americans who lacked adequate access to healthy choices at all. White Americans were wholly responsible for the worst of white folks, though they would do all they could to make sure it never wholly defined them.
I didn’t know a lot as a seventh-grader in Mississippi, and I had far fewer words to describe what I actually knew, but the worst of white folks I knew far too well. David Rozier, Lerthon Carlisle, Henry Wallace, Tim Brown and I all did.
It passed through blood.
Up in Maywood, Illinois, which is about ten miles west of downtown Chicago, my first cousin, Jermaine, was just as familiar with the worst of white folks as we were in Jackson. Though the winters were colder, the vowel sounds shorter, the buildings taller, and the yards a lot smaller, the Chicago I visited as a child always felt like an orange piece of Mississippi that had broken off and floated away...with one major exception.
Whereas the mid-twentieth century saw millions of black Americans leave Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi for Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Gary, and Detroit, by the mid-1980s we were in the midst of a much less concentrated reverse migration. Chicago’s Vice Lords and Folks had made their way into Jackson and Memphis. When David and I started the seventh grade, we heard rumors that rocking your hat tilted to the left or right, doing twisted things with your fingers, and wearing the wrong colors were grounds for a beatdown. But by the end of seventh grade, the rumors became full-fledged law in Jackson. As much as this law immediately altered the way David, Lerthon, Henry Wallace, and I moved through space near the end of seventh grade, this law sadly governed Jermaine’s entire life in Chicago.
My father took me to visit my aunt, Jermaine, and his siblings the summer I turned fourteen. We didn’t stay long, but the whole time I was there, I kept hoping that Jermaine would come back to stay with me in Jackson. I figured that girls like Marsha Middleton, who wouldn’t give me much rhythm, would have to pay attention if they knew I was cool enough to have a cousin like Jermaine.
Jermaine carried himself like the quarterback Coach Stanley wanted Henry Wallace to become. It’s crazy to say that you knew any boy or girl would grow up to become a leader of men and women, but you only had to watch how Jermaine patiently observed you with those clear, slow-blinking eyes to know that one day, he would be followed. We both walked the earth with clenched fists, but Jermaine’s fists seemed more likely to open and offer you whatever you needed to get by.
Less than ten years after I visited my cousin in Chicago, Jermaine’s little sister was murdered. Months later, Jermaine was incarcerated for manslaughter.
A little over a year ago, Jermaine got off probation, which meant he could finally leave Illinois. After exchanging a few texts about how sure he was Derrick Rose wouldn’t let his Bulls fall to LeBron “KANG” James, Jermaine texted me, “Cuzzo I just want to be somewhere where I have some healthy choices. Can you help?” I texted him back, stating that I’d do whatever it took to get him and his little girls to New York so they all could breathe a different kind of air. I meant every word I texted, too.
Jermaine never asked me when he could come to New York. Instead, he sent periodic text messages praising his team, the Bulls, and questioning the bench production of my team, the Heat.
“Win or go home, cuzzo” was his favorite text message. I’d get this text whenever his team played a great half or Rose bent laws of physics. Jermaine and I found joy in knowing that black boys from places like Jackson and Chicago were using their athletic genius to obliterate expectations.
That was more than a year ago. Jermaine is still in Illinois, piecing together work here and there, and I wake up every morning in a world distinguished by rolling hills, manicured meadows, potbellied squirrels, aged gnomes, and a make-out spot called Sunset Lake. Not only have I not sent for Jermaine and his family to join me, I haven’t even asked him to come out for a weekend.
The worst of me, I understand, has less power than the worst of white folks, but morally is really no better. The worst of me wants credit for intending to do right by Jermaine, for sending him a few dollars, but honestly has no intentions of disrupting my life for the needs of a cousin I always looked up to. The worst of me wonders how am I supposed to adequately do for my cousin when the worst of white white folks makes it so hard for me to do for myself. I am no more equipped to use or understand the language and work of American responsibility as a grown-ass man than I was as a seventh-grader in the halls of Holy Family Catholic School.
A few years after David Rozier indirectly tried to show me the language and work of American responsibility, he and Henry Wallace were dead. The truth is that half the boys in that seventh-grade class at Holy Family died before reaching thirty-five years of age. I used to spend hours daydreaming about David, Henry, Roy Bennett, Tim Brown, Kareem Hill, and Jermaine while playing behind Lerthon’s house. Roy, Tim, Kareem, Jermaine, Lerthon and I were seventeen-years-old in my dream. David and Henry were not.
As our nation shamefully debated Chicago’s murder rate during the summer of 2012, folding complicated human lives into convenient numbers that were shared, “liked,” discussed, and neglected all around the country, I spent more time talking to Catherine Coleman, my grandmother.
I told her that I might attend this “Peace” basketball tournament in Chicago to promote an end to all the violence. I asked her what she thought of my inviting Jermaine to come with me.
Grandma was quiet for a while. Then she asked me whether the Chicago mothers and grandmothers of kids living and dead would be attending the game.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Probably some will.”
“Tell those folks at the game that it would help to get the mamas and grandmamas there,” she said. “And tell everybody watching them boys play ball that they need to listen to what the mamas and grandmamas have to say.”
It made too much sense. Though my grandmother worked from the time she was seven years old, our nation forbade her from registering to vote until she was deep into her thirties. She has lived under American apartheid longer than she’s been technically “free.” Our nation told her she would enter the chicken plant as a line worker and retire as a line worker, no matter how well she worked. Our nation limited the amount of formal education she herself could attain and patted her on the back when she earned enough to buy her daughters and son a set of encyclopedias. Our nation watched her raise four black children and two grandchildren to become teachers, all the while responsibly arming herself and her community against the worst of white folks and the destructive tendencies of neighbors.
Last month, after burying her brother Rudy, Grandma bent her knees and reckoned with burying her son, her sisters, her mother, her grandmother, her father, and all four of her best friends. She asked her God to spare her the responsibility of burying any more of her children or grandchildren. A few weeks later, an irresponsible American aspiring to be the leader of our nation, who got a majority of the vote from the worst of white folks, called her a “victim” who feels entitled to health care, food, and housing.
Catherine Coleman, along with my Grandma Pudding, and David Rozier’s grandmother, have never been allowed to just be victims. They’re rarely even allowed to be Americans. They don’t get invited to panel discussions. They aren’t talked to by the DNC or RNC. No one asks them what to do about national violence, debt, or defense. They have too many scars and frightening memories to be American super-women, but they are the best of Americans. They have remained responsible, critical, imaginative and loving in the face of servitude, sexual assault, segregation, poverty, and psychological violence. They have done this hard, messy work of committing to life, organizing and justice, so we might live more responsibly tomorrow.
There is a price to pay for ducking responsibility, for clinging to the worst of us, for harboring a warped innocence. There is an even greater price to pay for ignoring, incarcerating, demeaning, and unfairly burdening those black and brown Americans who have disproportionately borne the weight of American irresponsibility for so long. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers have paid more than their fair share, and our nation owes them and their children, and their children’s children honesty, a life time of healthy choices and second chances.
That would be responsible.
When David Rozier came back to school the day after we were kicked out, he started playing this game where he would fart every time Henry mispronounced “strong” like “skrong,” and “straight” like “skraight.” David had me dying! I put my head down on my desk so I wouldn’t get kicked out of school again and laughed into my forearm until I cried.
At recess, I asked David, “What happened to all that responsibility you were talking about?”
“Oh,” he said and took off running a post pattern in the school yard. “Nigga, that was yesterday!”
I threw David Rozier a bomb, and as the ball half-spiraled through the air, neither one of us wondered about tomorrow or yesterday. We were the children of an irresponsible nation, the grandchildren of responsible grandmothers, and we were just happy to be in the moment, so happy to be alive.
Kiese Laymon is a contributing editor to Gawker. This post was adapted from his forthcoming collection of essays, How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, which will be published by Agate Bolden next month. He is also the author of the novel Long Division, and is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College.
[Image via Getty]