In the Fall of 2015, my university intends to discuss a summer reading book of amazing essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon. I spent the most beautiful Saturday sipping a sunrise and vanilla latte while reading this book. The book explores identity, manhood, love, race, and racism in America. One day, I would like to go into further depth reviewing the book, but that isn’t the purpose of this post.
In hearing that my school would take on this book and pose it as the first introduction first years would have to my university, I was ecstatic. I was happy that for once, my vote counted, and I looked at my university with new hope of what it could be especially after dealing with a tumultuous year of battling exclusivity. Slowly, as reality set in, I began to worry about who may be equipped to do justice with this book about love, pain, and seemingly invisible and visible violence against the body, mind and spirit. I became depressed with also worrying about whether the first-years themselves were equipped to have these conversations seriously.
A dear professor of mine brought her own worries of how we would begin these conversations with incoming first years when even the professors and staff were not having these conversations. The big question was clear: “Are we ready?” At first, I was frustrated with the hopelessness of it all. I hated the assumption that first-years couldn’t handle it. My mistake was assuming that everyone, including professors, could handle it. I kept thinking about this journey as solely an intellectually emotional endeavor, which would make it seem like professors are equipped with more analytical capability than an 18 year old and therefore can handle more. Well folks, this endeavor has little to do with intellect and more to do humanity and feeling.
There I said it. Many, not all, people gripping to the empirical symptoms of the loss of humanity and the inability feel wholly hate to talk about feelings. It is something that can’t necessarily be measured, perhaps analyzed chemically, but in most classrooms, no one wants to bring it up. Constantly invalidated and seen as an intellectual threat, feelings are cast aside because they do indeed threaten intellect, since intellect is regarded as only skill and knowledge that contribute to the continuing murder of humanity. If your knowledge and skills puts money in the pockets of conglomerates murdering and bankrupting billions, your knowledge is valued. If your knowledge and skills justifies such murder and bankrupting and spreading of suffering and misery, your knowledge is valued. If your work banks on the existence and static model of power, your knowledge is considered superior. Feelings, humanity, and the maintenance of humanness does none of that, which is why when most people step out of the door and make the decision that feelings are a weakness, cash is king, and knowledge is colonial power… they effectively die and they have probably been dead for a while.
This book pushes against the lie we tell each other and ourselves, which is that we are not enough and that feelings are weakness. And the huge thing is that the truth is excruciating and beautiful. Because to truly live and be alive, you would have to detach yourselves from or at the very least consciously acknowledge the system of death that makes you think dulling the pain that circulates this world is normal.
This past semester I consciously chose not to feel. I didn’t cry not once for months. There were so many times I should have, but I couched it until I could get out the view of others because daddy said, “Never let them see you cry.” The worst was knowing something was wrong and either not having time or being too anxious to fix it. I was sick and I knew it. I was slowly killing myself and had been for the better part of two decades. Only now do I have time to face the fact that I was looking for something and I only have time now after deciding to cut a few ties with academic and professional death.
So what was I looking for? Love. Not romance, but it certainly got in the way. I was looking for care, affection, commitment, responsibility, trust, respect, and knowledge. I was looking for spiritual growth, or at least that is what I needed. What I confused love with was superficial recognition and validation. So maybe the first question you ask these students and yourselves is “Have you ever felt unworthy? Not enough?” Even in the times when you are exceptional did you ever question “What is exceptional and can I be it?” Also ” Who do you hear, see and feel and who do you not see/hear/feel? The bigger question that I am taking time to contemplate is “Do you even SEE yourself?” There is so much dialogue this book can spark like why is the world so embarrassed and uncomfortable with love? Why have we all been socialized to believe only women can deal with these issues? With that question, I’ll just say somewhere along the road we did forget that we are all human. Somewhere along the road we decided that some people are granted the unearned privileged of being treated like a valued human life with rights and some are not based on physical, biological, and behavioral characteristics that engender painful realities. All this to say, that no one person, regardless of their inaccurately assigned at birth sex, is more or less equipped to think about the questions of love and humanity.
This book is perhaps suppose to mark the beginning of a university trying to become a more loving community. I know you can’t control some of the undercover and overt white supremacist, sexist, classist, ableist, and racist fools that will no doubt be a part of the 2019 class. All I ask is that you are excruciatingly honest. That is the only way you get there. Sure you can drop your statistics and cling to them, but the truth is not in a number. People and their stories are not statistics and numbers. The minute you ask someone to validate their knowledge, life, and story with the same device that perpetuates violence every day is the same minute you start slowly killing yourself and others. You are going to need to be honest and they have to be honest with you. They are going to need support. They will need to see what responsibility and accountability looks like. In other words, we all need to realize that admitting when you have made mistake is the most revolutionary thing in a world where deceit is the day to day. We don’t know and they don’t know. Surely, we can cooperate and show each other.
I think that was what so amazing about Kiese Laymon’s two visits to my university. He was so honest and vulnerable, it hurt. He made me realize that I had not been honest with myself in a long time, if not ever. And what does honesty look like? That means cracking open that story and that feeling of pain you didn’t want to talk about. Of course it’s all challenge by choice but know this… our challenge is to remind them, remind ourselves, and remind each other what it means to be human. They and we have forgotten what human looks like. It’s why many of us love memoirs, documentaries, and dare I say….bodies. We are looking for humanity. Everything else is a distraction.
Remember this is a beginning and that love is a practice.