The following correspondence between Brian Alsup and Kiese Laymon took place during the week of August 31, 2015. As John Callahan once wrote of the decades-long exchange between Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters, it is “the bounty of a rare and spontaneous friendship in which each taps into the deepest experience of each other.” Together, Alsup and Laymon reckon with black love, liberation, and shouldering the weight of white terror in America.
What’s good, Kiese?
I need help. This shit ain’t going be that long cause I hate writing about politics, white folks, America, and black death, which are all interchangeable things. For real, for real.
But I just had to say that America be on some shit, I swear. Some Frankenstein shit. America will create and cultivate the fuck out of a monster and then gasp and point when their creations do Incredible Hulk shit. America has been taking chunks out of niggas. Dark meat. Large, meaty chunks of black excellence, black rigor, black mental, emotional, and physical wholeness. For centuries. I’m tired of walking around and seeing partial people. Partial-ass black folks with chunks missing and blood oozing because America likes us medium rare. Partial-ass black folks trying to keep from killing a nigga or a cracker on a day-to-day basis. And Vester Lee Flanagan was one of those partial-ass black folks.
America likes to talk about gun violence in black communities, but conveniently neglects to talk about how it is the largest exporter of defense weaponry in the world. The world. These are the same muthafuckas who, since 2010, have given Saudi Arabia 90 million dollars in defense efforts to execute mass death in Yemen, then got the nerve to call brown folks terrorist.
These muthafuckas love that black/brown domestic/foreign death parallel. The country’s preoccupation with the taste of black and brown flesh is cannibalistic. But when that death is white and wholesome, two more interchangeable American terms, black grief and guilt (and death) is demanded. Whites asking, “Where are the Black Lives Matter people when [white person killed by police/black person] died?” Like, we owe them tears. Like we need to sacrifice one of us to make it right.
There have been hundreds of black folks killed by police since the start of 2014. And you got white supremacists calling for the extermination of black folks like it ain’t already happening. Yet we’re supposed to collectively offer ourselves to console white supremacy? White supremacy just let Officer Joseph Weekley, the man who killed seven-year old Aiyana Stanley Jones, walk free. They need consoling!? Fuck that. Forgive us and turn the other cheek like y’all tell us to do when y’all take one of ours.
America spends more on defense than they do healthcare. In recent years, almost 40 percent of tax dollars went to military and defense-related spending. Combined, less than 30 percent went to healthcare, education, and housing. They would much rather have people know how to kill than for them to be mentally, emotionally, physically whole.
My family, though they’ll never admit it, is more invested in doing the work of anti-blackness than any actual loving of black folks. My grandfather, a man who has shared stories of stealing meat from grocery stores to feed my mother and uncle because his job didn’t pay black folks livable wages, talks about how we always want a handout. I swear; I feel like I’m in the fucking twilight zone sometimes. My grandfather was stealing chunks of meat while white supremacy was taking it out of him. Maybe black folks got their hands out cause we ain’t got shit. I know black people that work every day but have to use their stoves for heat because the electricity is off. You know how damaging, just on a psychological level, that is? Shit is enough to make you wanna kill a muthafucka. Man, capitalism itself is a fucking hand out. And it, in tandem with white supremacy, is killing me slowly. Every. Day. All this is shit killing me. It’s fucking with me.
Is what Vester did fucked up? Yeah. Is what America did and still does to black folks fucked up, also? Hell yeah. There’s no comparison. You can’t plant seeds in shit, water it with piss, and expect flowers. You can’t.
But you already knew that,
What’s good, Brian?
I’m thankful for your words. They’re wide-eyed, wandering, and wonderfully black as Toni Cade Bambara. I need help, too, man. I can’t wholeheartedly disagree with anything you’ve said. Nothing. I wonder, though, if it’s possible to recognize and target white folk’s structural and personal obsession with making us “partial” while asking ourselves how we become obsessed with making ourselves whole. And if not whole, how do we black folk practice more care and compassion for each other while targeting white supremacy and heteropatriarchy?
Do you know what I mean?
At our best, we’ve refused, or at least, remixed American notions of beauty, style and grace. How do we do the same thing with American notions of violence, masculinity, gender performance, memory, forgiveness, health, and time?
Can we? Are we?
I’m really asking. I know we’re reeling from mass incarceration, predatory educational practice and policy, layers of rape culture, and generations of poverty pinioned by white folk maniacally stealing and undervaluing our labor, but how do we practice a different kind of black love that accepts the abuse we’ve suffered, the abusive roles some of us have played, while pushing back on every single thing this nation has taught us about intimacy, violence, memory, patriarchy, blackness and love?
And, honestly, if we don’t do this, do we have a chance to morally be anything other than them? Shit, are we morally any better than them? When I read your letter, brother, I wondered if you thought we were destined to partial lives of death and destruction?
I completely hear what you’re saying when you write, “You can’t plant seeds in shit, water it with piss, and expect flowers.” And while I don’t believe in that reactionary shit about us being goofy kings and queens, I do believe that I come from Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, and my grandmama. These are southern black women workers and lovers from Mississippi. I know that a lot of white folk have been educated to believe that those black Mississsippi women, and their children are pitiful, and, as you say, partial niggas.
But fuck them, and fuck anyone else invested in limiting the healthy choices and second chances of cis, trans, and gender nonconforming black folks.
We know that we come from the greatest, most complicated Americans to work and walk this nation. Our folk sang together, prayed together, reckoned, lost, won, and imaginatively organized direct mass action to get themselves and us a little bit more access to good love, healthy choices, and second chances. And hell yes, the nation made sure they, and we, suffered for their work. But they worked for us. And right now, around this country, various black liberation movements are working in the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells and my grandmama.
So I guess I’m asking, Brian, if you think these black love movements for black liberation are doomed because white folks and whiteness and white supremacy are so good at horrifically dismantling black lives, are we more than what you called seeds planted in shit and watered in piss?
I’m really asking because I love you. I’m asking because I trust you, young brother. Thank you for talking to me, Brian. Thank you for honoring and respecting your rage. This feels like black love. Let’s keep talking.
Goddamn, bruh. Thank you for asking me these hard-ass questions. Thank you for loving me. Honestly, it gets hard to do that shit sometimes. A lot of the time.
You may think I hate black folks for being partial, or we need white folks to make us—or let us be—whole. I used to. I talked so much shit about white people in that first letter and, while all true, I just hate centering whiteness in my writing. I hate writing about, as you call it, the worst of white folks. They know what they did, and still do. Because when I do, I neglect the best, and worst, of black folks.
It’s like that time you told that corny white dude in high-waters at Columbia about James Baldwin: “When you center whiteness in your writing, you have to think about who’s being left out.”
To answer your question, yes, I know what you mean. I think the first step is for us to stop asking white folks for permission to love each other. Black folks truly swear we got this love shit on lock. But white supremacy has made us the most wishful group of partial niggas ever. We’re good at envisioning love, thinking about health, thinking about care, about what that shit could look like and how much better we could be. But when it comes to practicing it? Very few of us really know how to do it. Even fewer are honest about not knowing how to.
I’m one of them.
I would add that we also need to wrestle with American notions of responsibility, (dis)honesty, fear, failure, sacrifice, (un)imaginable change, and right and wrong. If we don’t do that we can just wrap it up. And I get why we don’t. I get it. It’s hard to live in a nation that requires your destruction and then hold yourself accountable for being (un)consciously destructive.
I promise I didn’t mean that we ain’t shit. Fuck; thank you for letting me know what I said was destructive. I think that as good as white folks are at terrorizing black efforts of love, health, time, and care, that we are twice as good at doing the work of love, as you say.
We got us. We ain’t doomed. We ain’t shit seeds. We got work to do, though. We are partial and whole and presently complicated and righteously fucked up and good and not so good and capable and broken and beautiful as fuck. I love you. I trust you. I trust us. Please, let’s talk more about this soon.
I’m thankful for the work, big brother.
Brian Alsup is a young, fat black boy from Baltimore, Maryland trying to be better. Kiese Laymon is an old, fat black boy from Jackson, Mississippi trying to be better.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]