Our Kind of Ridiculous: Yous, Me and Blackness as Probable CauseS

When I was twenty-four, I flew paper airplanes past the apartment of a thirty-two-year-old white boy named Kurt in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Kurt rocked a greasy brown mullet, bragged about ironing his bleached Lee's, and said the word "yous" a lot. Even with caked-up cornbread sealing the cracks of his teeth, and a raggedy mustache that looked like it was colored by a hyper six-year-old, Kurt always reminded me of somebody cute.

Kurt, whose apartment was directly above mine, lived with two women. One was his girlfriend. She could see. One was his wife. She could not.

Three little boys lived in the apartment with Kurt and his two partners. The youngest boy was Kurt's girlfriend's child. This miniature Viking loved to run his muddy hands through his blond hair and grin when he wasn't growling. The other two boys looked like they rolled around naked in a tub of melted tootsie rolls before coming outside to play.

I was in Pennsylvania working on my graduate thesis while Nicole, my girlfriend at the time, interned at Rodale Press. Though I spent most of my life in Mississippi surrounded by black folks who were thirty cents away from a quarter, that summer in Emmaus, Pennsylvania was the most intimate I'd ever been with white folks who barely had a pot to piss in.

After paying our rent, food and utilities, Nicole and I had about $140 left in disposable income every month. That $140 had me feeling quite bougie.

It was the first summer I hadn't worked as a phone book delivery man, a waiter at Ton-o-Fun, a health care assistant at Grace House, a knife salesman at Cutco, a bootleg porter at the Buie House, a counselor at Upward Bound, or a summer school teacher at Indiana University. I was on fellowship, which meant for the first time in my life, my job was simply to collect a small check in exchange for not wasting reading and writing's time.

During the day, when I wasn't reading and writing, I made paper airplanes and talked outside with Shay, our eight-year old neighbor; Barry, her six-year old brother; and Kurt's kids. For most of the summer, Kurt's kids looked into our empty apartment through a huge sliding glass door. At first, they would stand about a foot from the door, looking directly at their reflections and our empty living room. A week or so into the summer, all three of Kurt's kids started smashing their faces against the door and running their muddy hands up and down the glass.

Shay and Barry had what Grandma called good home-training. They simply watched Kurt's kids watch us from a distance and whispered in each other's ears.

We had one chair, one desk, a blow-up bed, a fridge covered in word magnets, and a cranky Mac in our apartment. While Kurt's place spelled like fried meats, thin gravy, sticky fruit punches, and carpet that rarely got vacuumed, our place smelled like new paint and feet. Miseducation, ATLiens, Aquemini, and the greatest hits of Joni Mitchell and Curtis Mayfield worked to shield our ears from Kurt's mash-up of Zeppelin, short people screams, laughter and that gotdamn Cartoon Network.

One July weekend, someone was shot in the building next to ours. As soon as the police left, Kurt and I walked over to see what we could.

As we walked, Kurt asked me how to pronounce my name. He'd heard his kids call me "Keith" and Nicole call me "Key" or "Kiese."

After I told him that "Keith" was fine, he asked me if he could borrow ten dollars. I told him I'd give it to him when we got back to our building.

Kurt and I kept walking and talking about his odd family arrangement and money a little while longer before he asked me if people got shot a lot where I was from.

I stopped to look him in the eye and see if he was asking a question he really wanted answered. He wouldn't look back.

I didn't tell Kurt anything about missing Mississippi, or how I was reckoning with the fact that a friend had taken a young woman into Central Mississippi woods, blown her brains out, and was now serving a life sentence. I ignored Kurt's question completely and asked him about Pennsylvania amusement parks, Italian ices and when he planned on getting a job.

After he answered all my questions, Kurt got really close to my face. He looked up at me and didn't run from my eyes. "Keith, yous should move here," he said. "I'm serious. Yous are different. Yous ain't like your kind."

He kept saying it too, absolutely sure he'd given me that gift that a number of white folks I'd met loved to give black folks at the strangest times, the gift of being decidedly different than all them other niggers. Kurt wanted a pat on the back for not saying the word "nigger," two pats for distinguishing one nigger from another nigger, and three pats for inching closer to the realization that black Americans were never niggers to begin with.

On the way back from the murder site, Kurt walked ahead of me. I gripped his bony shoulder before we got to the hill leading up to our building. I asked him if his greasy mullet, his two in-house partners, his caved in chest, his white BeBe's kids, and his belief in niggers made him different than his kind.

"I ain't racist, Keith," he kept saying.

"That's sweet," I told him.

Kurt wiggled free of my grip and walked up the hill to our building. I caught up with him outside of our glass door. I told him that the problem was that the niggers he believed in knew so much more about his kind than even he did, and that the niggers he believed in were taught to never ever be surprised by the slick shit that came out of the mouths of white folks. Then I got all graduate school on him and spouted some mess about dissonance, dissemblance, white absolution, and how it might be impossible for him to know if I was different than my kind if he didn't know himself.

Kurt turned his back on me and my big words.

He walked upstairs to his family and slammed his door. I walked into our empty apartment, partially disappointed that I didn't slap the taste out of Kurt's mouth, and mostly ashamed that there was so much more I wanted to say to him.

If white American entitlement meant anything, it meant that no matter how patronizing, unashamed, deliberate, unintentional, poor, rich, rural, urban, ignorant, and destructive white Americans could be, black Americans were still encouraged to work for them, write to them, listen to them, talk with them, run from them, emulate them, teach them, dodge them, and ultimately thank them for not being as fucked up as they could be.

That's what I learned in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

Kurt avoided me the rest of the summer, but his kids still banged their muddy hands on our sliding glass door every morning. A few days after Kurt said I was different than my kind, his youngest child walked into our apartment and started playing with the word magnets on our refrigerator. I placed the words "wash" "your" "dirty" "face" "and" "hands" "sometimes" "boy" in a line and asked him to read that sentence.

Kurt's son looked at the words, moved them around, smiled and clapped his muddy hands like he was lightweight touched before proudly saying, "Nope. I can't even read, Keith. Nope. I can't. I can't even read!" The little muddy joker said it the way you would expect a white child to say, "Gee! I found the treasure. Yep! I really found the treasure."

I laughed in that child's face for a good minute and a half.

Deep. Terrible. Sad laughs.

And he laughed back, thinking I was laughing with him.

For worse, never better, nothing I saw, or heard, or smelled, or touched, or felt from Kurt and his family surprised me that summer.

I can't say the same thing about myself.

***

A month or so later, two of Nicole's friends came to visit. I don't remember much about Nicole's friends except one of them was the roundest short adult I'd ever met and she tried too hard to not sound like she was from rural West Virginia. Every few seconds, she managed to throw in the words "ridiculous" and "totally" into something that wasn't ridiculous or totally anything.

Nicole drove a tiny Green Geo Metro that I couldn't drive because it was a stick, and my license was suspended. The four of us piled in that Geo and headed to a Lilith Fair concert in Hershey. The concert wasn't Fresh Fest, and I didn't love the wet fog of patchouli and weed, or the lack of my kind at the show, but it ended up making me smile and feel a lot.

When it was over, we stopped at a gas station before leaving Hershey and heading back to Emmaus. A few minutes after we got on the interstate, I reminded Nicole to turn on her headlights.

Seconds later, we heard the siren.

A young white cop came to Nicole's side and pointed his flashlight at me in the passenger seat. I asked him if I could open the glove compartment to get her registration. He told me to keep my hands in plain sight.

I laughed at him. "See?" I said to Nicole.

Another older white cop pulled behind us and came to my side. They both walked to the front of the Geo, talked for a second, then told me to get out of the car.

"For what?" I asked, now fake-laughing.

"Because we saw you throw crack out of the window."

I sucked my teeth. "I'ont even drink," I stupidly told the PoPo.

I pointed towards the field and told both cops again that I didn't throw shit out of the car and that we could all go look if they wanted to.

When I raised my arms, the bigger cop put his hands on his gun and told me to put my hands on the car. He patted me down and handcuffed me while Nicole watched from the driver's side and her ridiculous round friend sat quietly in the back of the car talking to the girl whose voice I can't ever remember.

***

Blackness is probable cause, I tell myself. They got me.

I'm standing handcuffed in front of the flashing blue lights of a parked police car and a green Geo Metro. I've had guns pulled on me before and I was never afraid.

This is different.

The handcuffs hurt more than the thought of bullets. Two cops with deep frown lines place me in the back of the police car "for my own good" as a parade of mostly drunk white folks, on their way home from Lilith Fair, drive down the highway looking in our direction.

Shame.

I am guilty of being too much like my kind, which means I am one mistaken movement from being a justifiable homicide, or a few planted rocks from being incarcerated.

This is American law. In Hershey. In Jackson. In Compton. In Oakland. In Brooklyn.

This is American life.

I'm wondering what will happen if I ask the cops, "Do y'all still drink Kool-Aid? Does it make your tongue purple? Remember Tang? Would you ever want us to do this to you and your kids? I'm serious. Don't you think police, teachers, doctors and dentists should be more just and compassionate than the rest of us? Who protects us from you?"

I'm wondering if Nicole, who is now standing at the back of her green Geo Metro talking to one of the cops, will think I could have actually thrown drugs out of her passenger side window. This, I tell myself, is why Mama and Grandma got so mad when Nicole's white stepfather disowned her for talking to me. Grandma and Mama believed if anyone should have used disowning as a tactic to protect their child, it should have been them. But they never did. They never would. They simply said, "Don't get caught riding in the car with white girls" in the same speech that they told me, "Don't fuck anyone you can't imagine raising a child with."

I'm wondering if Nicole is wondering if she ever really knew me. I'm thinking I should have asked myself that question long before we decided to move in together.

From the backseat of the police car, I'm watching this blinking blue field where my kind has thrown lots of invisible, and not so invisible, rocks of crack cocaine. I convince myself that Mississippi is on the other side of that field.

I want to run home.

For a second, though-truth be told-I'm wondering if I threw rocks out of the window. Sitting in the back of that police car in handcuffs that had been wrapped around the wrists of many of my kind, I'm wondering if there's any chance that I am what, not who, they think I am.

I'm watching the police search Nicole's car. They pull out my backpack from the trunk. The older cop reaches in the bag and pulls out what looks like some condoms they gave out at Lilith Fair. He holds the backpack up in Nicole's face and shakes his head. He comes to back of the police car I'm sitting in and tells me to get out.

"Thought you said we wouldn't find anything in your bag," he says.

I get it.

As calm as I can, still water cradling my eyes, I say, "You should find that crack you saw me throw or you should let me go." The cop makes some comment about my mouth and takes the handcuffs off.

I don't feel free. I want to run home.

"All the people that you could've stopped, and you chose us?" I say with my hands pressed against my thighs. Cars filled with white folks keep passing us. They're all watching, mostly knowing, what my kind is capable of. I wonder if Kurt is in one of those cars. I wonder, too, how many of my kind saw me handcuffed on the side of the road that night.

They want to help, I tell myself. But they already know.

"You'uns safe tonight," the older officer says. "We're just doing our job."

They got us, I tell myself. They got us.

"That was so ridiculous," Nicole's friend keeps saying from the back seat as we head home. "That was so totally ridiculous."

No one else is saying a word. Nicole is driving 8 MPH below the speed limit.

As we get closer to Emmaus, Nicole's friend starts replaying what happened from the beginning of the concert to the cops saying I threw crack out the window.

She nervously says "totally" and "ridiculous" a few more times. She never says "afraid," "angry," "worried," "complicit," "tired," or "ashamed."

***

We got out of the Geo and saw the blue flickering of the TV on the upstairs balcony of Kurt's apartment. Kurt and his family were watching something with a loud laugh track. Our sliding glass door was covered in the new muddy smudges.

I walked in the smaller bedroom of our apartment. While Nicole's friend kept replaying what happened for the third time in the living room, I dug my feet into the carpet of the bedroom and tried to push myself through the wall.

Nicole knocked on the door.

"You OK?" she asked me.

"I'm good," I said. "For real. You should spend some time with your friends before they leave."

Nicole looked at me like she wanted to say everything was going to be okay. I wanted her to say that we were the collateral damage of a nation going through growing pains. Part of me wanted us to hug and agree each other to death that we were better people than we actually were. But most of me was tired of lying to myself and really tired talking to white folks.

Nicole kept staring at me through silence when we heard some thumping and screaming upstairs. I told her that I was sorry for being a dick, but I just wanted to read and write before going to bed.

As emo as it sounds, I grabbed my notebook and told myself I was going to use that day as fuel to finish a chapter I was writing about four black children from Mississippi who time-travel through a hole in the ground. The kids think time-travel is the only way to make their state and their nation love the kids coming after them. I scribbled away at a chapter before getting stuck on these two sentences one of the characters sees written in sawdust in a workshed around 1964:

We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.

We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.

We are real black characters with real character, not the stars of American racist spectacle. Blackness is not probable cause.

We are real black characters …

After what happened that day, all that really mattered was making it to those two clunky sentences. Everything else—including Kurt's intentions, Nicole's nervous friend, and my shame at getting niggered by two perverted police officers—was as light as the paper airplanes I threw past Kurt's apartment. And making it to that point, as quiet as it's kept, felt like the most one of my kind could ask for, a few minutes from some invisible crack, not that many miles from Mississippi, directly beneath the apartment of an American white boy who needed to say "yous" and "your kind" just as much as some of y'all could ever imagine.

Contributing editor Kiese Laymon is the author of the novel Long Division and the essay collection How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, of which this is an excerpt. Gawker is running a personal essay every weekend. Please send suggestions to saturdays@gawker.com.