My grandmother married a beautiful brown troll named HaLester "Les" Myers 20 years ago. The Christmas before last, Les slumped across from me in Grandma's gaudy pink throne while she finished making supper. I watched the still water flooding the gutters of Les's sleepy eyes, the way his nappy gray chin folded snuggly into the top of those musty blue overalls, and I knew that the dusty joker really believed what he said the night before about Kanye West and the importance of treating females like cats.
"Look at Les over there faking sleep," My Aunt Sue said from the doorway. "He sleep? Get up, Les! Time to eat. Wake him up, Kie."
Les's sweaty face didn't move. His chest didn't heave in or out. But his fingers, which doubled as raggedy overstuffed cigars, dug deeper into both arms of Grandma's favorite chair.
HaLester Myers was preparing for takeoff.
The night before, on Christmas Eve, I joined Les outside in his Runaway spot. No matter the time of day or night, Les was likely to clutch his yellow folding chair, and lumber out to the right side of Grandma's porch. Really, unless he was drunk, Les's Runaway spot was the only place my Grandma allowed him to do the 2.5 things he'd mastered in 83 years on earth: 1) sipping that Crown Royal Black, and 2.5) balancing a dangling Newport on his bottom lip while telling the loudest lies you've ever heard in your life.
I'm convinced Les tells so many loud lies not because he's necessarily deceptive, but because he has no inside voice and Grandma rarely lets him talk over volume five inside her house. When Les is lying about being a 49th degree Mason, his voice sounds like flat tires rolling over jagged gravel. When he's lying about what he did to the dog, cat, or car of the white man who "ain't know how to pay a Nigga right," his voice sounds like burning bubble wrap. No matter what Les is lying about, all of his lies have an acidic slow drip to them and nearly all the lies carry stories rooted in what "the black man" deserves.
This Christmas Eve, like every Christmas Eve in Forest, Mississippi, I grabbed a chair from the kitchen before we lit our fireworks and walked out to where I knew Les would be sipping that Black.
"Les, you know who Kanye West is, right?" I asked him and sat down under some droopy white Christmas lights.
"Kanye!" he said. "Say do I know Kanye?" Les stood up like he did whenever he told lies in his Runaway spot. When he stood up and you stayed seated, Les could look down at you and say one of his favorite lying sentences — "Look up here, man" — with more precision.
"Look up here, man," he said and lit another Newport. "I been known Kanye. His Mama come over to the Public Museum when I was working security in Milwaukee around 1986, I believe it was. I been told her little Kanye was gon' be a prophet. On one hand," Les slang out his right hand, "you got Kanye telling the white man the truth about what the black man deserve, see?"
He put down the Black and slang out his other hand.
"On the other hand, look up here, you got Obama deciding who deserve to get what in America. White man can't stand that. Obama and Kanye, they the same, though, son. Yes they is."
I was confused. "Wait," I told him. "So Obama is deciding what white folks deserve and Kanye is telling white folks what black folks deserve? And you're saying white folks hate both of them for that?"
On one hand," Les slang out his right hand, "you got Kanye telling the white man the truth about what the black man deserve, see?"
Les tapped me on my knee and bended his waist until he was inches away from my face. The Newport smoke, his Crown Royal Black breath and that 83-year-old tartar confused me even more. I couldn't figure out whether to breathe through my nose or my mouth.
"Fifty years ago," he said, "I'm saying that the white man woulda hung both of them Niggas over yonder in that field just for thinking about doing what they did. Yes he would, too!"
It wasn't until Les asked the question, "Kanye sang them songs, don't he?" that I knew for sure that Kanye West had never sculpted a beat, never sung a hook, and never rapped a bar in the mind of HaLester Myers. Les had never heard of Taylor Swift. He didn't know Kanye's mother passed and definitely didn't know that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye's most acclaimed album, had just been released a few weeks earlier.
To Les, Kanye West was simply the young black man with the goatee and the boxed jaw, who told the world that black folks drowning in poisonous water deserved more from the president of our country.
"The white man give Kanye that microphone ‘cause he ain't think there was no way he could tell the truth," Les told me and sat down. "After all them Afghanese that Bush killed, now he claim Kanye the worst thing that happened to him in eight years? White man'll say anything, you hear me?" Les said, and stood up again. "Look up here, man. Anything! He believe everything he say, too. Just like Brett Favre..."
At this point, even though it was cold for Mississippi, Les started to sweat. I knew I was supposed to ask Les another question about Brett Favre but I'd heard the Brett Favre set of lies two Christmases in a row. I wanted the Kanye West set of lies for Christmas.
Les put his Black down and pulled a rag out of the front pocket of his overalls. I watched him wipe from the middle of his George Jefferson all the way down to the base of his thick neck.
"You okay?" I asked him.
"I reckon I am," he said and picked up his bottle again. "You ain't hot, son?"
"I'm good," I told him. "Back in the day, you think the white man would hang a black woman for saying the same thing Kanye said?"
Les looked up at me, took a few more drags off that Newport. "Naw," he said in his best inside voice that was both formal and afraid. "Naw. I don't reckon he would, but you never know. I ain't one for guessing what a female gon' do."
I wasn't sure how Les moved from never knowing if a black woman would have been lynched, to guessing what a "female" would do, but I just nodded and kept listening.
"You got a better chance of winning every dime they got off in them Indian casinos." He blew the smoke towards his work boots. "Expect the unexpected from a female, son. Care for them like you care for your cat. Just don't never trust nan one if you can help it. If you do, that's the end of you..."
I stood up and looked down at Les. He kept his slowly blinking eyes directed at the Mexican trailer park next to Grandma's house.
I felt like smacking Les in his heart for implying that my Grandma should be treated like a cat. But mostly, I felt a healthy heaping of something else, a superbly satisfying something else that I hadn't needed to feel since the day Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was officially released.
The day the CD dropped, I was invited to Columbia Law School to give a talk on black literary imagination for Kimberle Crenshaw's class, "Colorblindness and the Law." I had the bootleg of the CD for two weeks, but my friend Hua and I still darted to Best Buy in between classes to get two originals.
On my way to the train station in Poughkeepsie, I play the first minute of the actual CD in my car.
Then I replay it.
Shit is just too good.
I play the last minute of the album in the parking lot of the station. And I replay it.
I love that Kanye West, the self- and society-anointed international asshole, not only frames his album with the questions, "Can we get much higher?" and "Who will survive in America?" but also borders his fantasy with the faux British voice of Nicki Minaj and the grainy revolutionary voice of Gil Scott Heron. Within this frame, with all the guest verses and distorted vocals, it's obvious Kanye West believes that plenty of voices, other than his own, also deserve to be explored in his beautiful dark twisted fantasy.
I step on the Metro North and folks are in their usual pre-New York states of mind. Heads are nearly down. Fists are almost clenched. Purses, backpacks, empty McDonald's bags and pleather briefcases are damn near snug against puffy coats, blouses and suit jackets.
Unusually though, lots of downward-turned heads bob as familiar static comes from a few headphones. Different tracks from Kanye's twisted fantasy compete for space and time on that train.
I get into a dollar cab at 125th and I'm shocked that the driver looks like he could be one of my students named Jacob or Seth. I'm even more shocked that JacobSeth is bumping "Blame Game."
"This Kanye shit is unreal," JacobSeth says.
"Yeah," I tell him, more weirded out that JacobSeth is driving a dollar cab than the fact that JacobSeth assumes I love Kanye West, too. "It is kinda crazy."
By the time I get to the law school, Chris Rock is asking the voice formerly known as that of a real woman, "Who reupholstered your pussy?"
I get out of the cab, Yeezy's reupholstered pussy behind me, wondering if this is really still Harlem and thankful that I'm from little ol' Jackson, Mississippi. I make my way upstairs.
Kim's class is beyond gratifying. We break. We listen. We build. We wonder. I bounce.
On the way out, Kim asks two of her students, one a Korean American woman and one an Iranian American man, to hail a taxi for me. It's a loving, pragmatic gesture, she assures me, because cabs ain't got no love for black men going up town.
Once we're out on 116th street, Kim's students decide they can be more effective if each goes to either side of the street. I think about "Blame Game," "Runaway" and "So Appalled," and I ask the woman what side I should go to. I'm wondering if she thinks my talk was typical bullshit. I'm hoping the woman remembers the comment I made about packaged misogyny being more lucrative than rhyming about slanging dope if you're a rapper and nearly as lucrative as uncritically using guns, gunshots and criminal tactics to sell movie tickets if you're not.
The woman tells me to stay on her side of the street. I can't tell if she's giving me rhythm but I'm leaning towards maybe. I look across the street at the Iranian American cat, then look down at her one more time.
"I should probably wait over there with him," I tell her.
It feels so good to walk away from this woman, believing not only that she thinks I'm slightly dope, but that she also thinks I'm unlike all those other men when it comes to spitting game.
Across 116th, the Iranian American cat and I wait. And the taxis pass. And we wait. And I wave and smile at the Korean American woman. I act like it doesn't all sting and feel so good at the same time.
Finally, I'm in a dollar cab headed back to 125th and ultimately back to Poughkeepsie wondering how to explore with colorful profundity the absurd privilege and policing that exists around the delicate shadows of grown American black boys. It isn't until the next day in front of a computer screen that I realize intentionally and unintentionally, just maybe, Kanye has done that and so much more with his beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy.
Instead of standing up and saying all that to Les that night, I continue looking down on him, watching his chest heave in and out. I want to tell him that if he really listened to Kanye West, he would hear that Kanye wants maligned folks to get what they deserve.
Poor black folks from New Orleans deserved more so Kanye said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Beyonce deserved more so Kanye said, "Taylor, I'ma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the greatest videos of all time."
Queer brothers deserved more so Kanye said, "I been discriminating against gays … and I wanna come on TV and tell my rappers, just tell my friends, Yo, stop it, fam ..."
Black kids in Chicago deserved more so Kanye said, "Man, killing's some wack shit."
Listeners of American popular music deserved more than formulaic noise so Kanye West offered us eight years of GOOD music. In those eight years, Kanye managed to collapse, carve and distort disparate sounds rooted in the black musical traditions into newly shaped inescapable musical experiences. His work did more than challenge conventional composition. Whether it's College Dropout, Late Registration, 808s and Heartbreak or Watch the Throne, Kanye's work literally dared us to revise our expectations of sound.
Precisely because Kanye is able to give us so much more than we actually deserve, I need to tell Les that Kanye West, that box-jawed American virtuoso who told the white man the truth, is eons better at his job than Les is at lying and I am at writing, but when it comes to exploring women (you know, "females," "cats," "bitches," "hoes," "pussies," "Kelly Rowlands," "hood rats," "good girls," "sluts," "light skinned girls," and now "Perfect Bitches"), Kanye West ain't really using his voice or his art right.
This actually makes him just like almost every other virtuoso and mediocre American man I've read, watched or heard.
Kanye West is better than those jokers, though.
He's good enough, brave enough, conceptually genius enough, compassionate enough and now rich enough to use his voice to explore with prickly honesty, and dramatic irony, what black women deserve and the ways he encourages, and is encouraged to, obsessively dismember, soulfully mutilate and straight diss the fuck out of women in order to move units and feel like a manlier man.
At what point does listening to artists obsessively encourage manipulative relationships, sociopathic deception and irresponsible sex with women doubling as accessorized pussy become not just destructive, but really, really boring? If Kanye West won't, or maybe even can't, explore the meat of that question, isn't he too great to exploit it?
That's some of what I wanted to tell Les after he said that thing about treating females like cats. Instead of saying any of it, I just hovered over Les in his Runaway spot, feeling extra good about myself for wanting to say any of it at all.
A month or so later, I sat in front of a computer screen in New York and wrote a piece critiquing Les for reducing my Grandma to a cat and Kanye for the destructive gender politics in his art. I ended the piece with what I thought was a harpoon to Les's gizzard: "I should have asked Les if he deserved to ever have his hand held by a woman."
The essay generally, and that sentence specifically, helped me run away from truth, reckoning and meaningful change. I don't want to run any more.
I am better at fucking up the lives of women who have unconditionally loved me than Les is at lying and Kanye West is at making brilliant American music. And even worse than the bruising parts of Kanye's art, the paranoid femiphobia of HaLester Myers, or the pimpish persona of Stevie J, the abusive gender politics of Paul Ryan and Todd Akin, the thousands of confused brothers out there who think "misogyny" is the newest Italian dish at Olive Garden, I have intimately fucked up women's lives while congratulating myself for not being Kanye West, Les Myers, Stevie J, Paul Ryan, Todd Akin or the brothers who like that misogyny with a few breadsticks.
Even before the essay, I wanted the fact that I've read, and taken notes, on everything ever published by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Imani Perry, dream hampton and Rebecca Walker to prove to everyone — especially women I'm interested in — that I'm way too thoughtful to be a dickhead. I wanted folks to know I've made my male students reckon with being born potential rapists, that I have defended black girls in need of abortions from rabid pro-lifers at abortion clinics in Mississippi. I wanted women to know I was a man who would always ask, "Are you okay? Are you sure you want to do this?"
I couldn't wait to tell some men –- but only when in the presence of women — how sexism, like racism and that annoying American inclination to cling to innocence, was as present in our blood as oxygen. When asked to prove it, I'd dutifully spit some sorry-sounding mash up of Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West and Mark Anthony Neal. But just like them, I never said that I know I'm sexist, misogynist and typical because I routinely fuck up the lives of women in ways that they can rarely fuck up my life. I never said that I've used black feminism as a convenient shield, a wonderful sleep aid, and a rusted shank to emotionally injure human beings who would do everything to avoid emotionally injuring me.
I am a wannabe black male feminist who is really bad at loving women who are really good at loving me.
Of course, it's more complicated than that. And of course there are all kinds of qualifications and conditions I want to explore, but beneath all of that conditional bullshit lies a lot truth, a bit of reckoning and the possibility of change.
This is what I refused to admit not only when I looked down at Les for making his comment about females and cats that night, but also the following day on Christmas when Les sat across the room from me in Grandma's pink throne and wouldn't wake up.
Grandma looked up at me with a fear I'd never seen in her eyes as I rubbed melting ice cubes on Les's temple and his bottom lip.
As Les lies on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, his eyes didn't open but huge tears dripped slowly into his ears. With his eyes still closed, Les cried that cry that comes from way deeper than hurt.
He cried all the way to the hospital.
After we were at the hospital a while, the doctors said Les's blood alcohol level was almost .35. He had nearly drank himself to death. When Grandma went in the room with him, she told Les that she had a strap in her purse and she was going to whup his ass if he ever scared her like that again.
When Grandma left the room, I hugged her as tight as I could. She kept saying into my chest, "I don't know why, Kie. I just don't even know." Then I went in the room and gripped Les's thick fingers. He mumbled something about a "seven" and clutched the front of his overalls that were now drooping around his belly button.
"You gotta pee?" I asked him.
"Three-fif sheh-bilm," he said.
I reached for the front of Les's overalls and slowly opened the pocket. "Hide it from the white man," he slurred.
I pulled out a loaded .357.
I put the gun in my coat pocket. Even after all he'd said the night before and all he'd done this night, it fucked me up that Les was still worried about the white man.
"Les, gotdamn, man," I said to him. "You gotta do better than this."
"I know," he mumbled in the smallest, most terrifying voice I'd ever heard him use. "I know." Then he pulled me closer and whispered in my ear, "I'm shorry, man, for what I shed."
I pulled away from Les and just looked at him. He wasn't in his right mind, but even in his wrong mind I wondered if he knew that what he said the day before about females being like cats was wrong. Maybe he actually knew that part of me wanted to bust his head to the whitest of white meat for indirectly talking mess about Grandma. Or maybe he really knew that most of me was an opportunistic coward always in search of instant deliverance.
The next night, my Grandma, the complicated, hardheaded, tiny woman responsible for whatever integrity and freedom I have, fell into a diabetic coma. The same white EMT's came to the house, took her to the hospital and placed her one room down from where Les was the night before.
When Grandma finally regained consciousness, I lied to Les and told him that she wanted to see him. I sat in the chair next to Grandma while Les, in those same blue overalls, came in and held one of Grandma's hands in between both of his.
"Doctor say you ain't doing what you supposed to do," he told her.
"I did what I was supposed to do," Grandma said with a weak voice and slow twitching eyes. "Mary and them had something to say about everything I ate so I end up not eating enough."
"Okay, okay. Just telling you what the doctor said to me," Les told her. "That ain't my voice. That's the doctor."
HaLester Myers wasn't lying.
And with that, Les stood there in those same stanky blue overalls, shamefully looking down in the eyes of my Grandma, a supposed cat, an untrustworthy female, a blamed bitch, a few babies' mama, a ho who should runaway. Les stood, not saying a word, knowing right there that my Grandma deserved every bit of whatever care he had left and every ounce of what he'd yet to imagine. I sat there, too, looking at Les, trying hard to shake my head in slow motion.
It wouldn't move.
If I had any guts, I would have asked Les if he was holding the hand of Catherine Coleman, a human being he loved, a human being who ruggedly loved him better than anyone on earth. If I were less of a man, I would have asked Les if Kanye West, he or I deserved to ever have our hands held by a woman.
HaLester Myers would not have told a lie.
Kiese Laymon is currently an Associate Professor of English and the co-director of Africana Studies at Vassar College. He is the author of two forthcoming books: On Parole: An Autobiographical Antidote to Post-Blackness, and Long Division, which will be released in early 2013. A version of this essay was originally published in Mythium.