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What we owe and are owed

Kiese Laymon on Black revision, repayment, and renewal.

An illustration shows a man looking in the mirror at another version of himself, like a funhouse mirror. Carlos Basabe for Vox

Part of The Fairness Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Two days after an officer shot Ma’Khia Bryant in the back, and one day after an officer shot Andrew Brown in the back of the head, I asked my friend, Ray Gunn, if he was tired of talking to white folks about Black death. Gunn told me he didn’t understand my question.

I repeated it.

Gunn asked if I was getting paid for these conversations I was having with white Americans about Black death. I told him sometimes. He asked me why I would ever talk to white folks about Black death if I wasn’t getting paid.

“You know,” I told him, “like on social media …”

Gunn shook his head.

“Or sometimes, you know, folks call you because they …”

Gunn sucked his teeth.

“I mean, I’m a teacher and you know, like …”

Gunn looked lightweight disgusted.

He reminded me that he was a teacher too. “But that,” he said, “that’s not Black teacher work. That’s white family work.”

Gunn told me he hadn’t had an actual conversation with a white person in 14 years, not out of protest but because there just weren’t any white folks at his job, in his house, at his church, on his social media, or in his phone. “Now, if the check was right,” he said, “I’d be a grinning, hustling-ass race whisperer. I’d be talking to everything white. Rice. Milk. Pillows.”

I fell out laughing.

Gunn and I met in college in Jackson, Mississippi, 28 years ago. I was a first-year student from Jackson and Gunn was a super-senior from Winona by way of Chicago. The first day I met Gunn, he was posted up in the quad, setting up a picnic for his partner, V.

Later that night, during our first conversation, he taught me how to make sure the ironed quilt you set out for your partner smelled like their second-favorite scent. “That means you gotta ask them what they favorite scents are,” he told me. “If the quilt ain’t ironed and smelling right, wash it and iron it again. Don’t use starch though, unless that’s her second-favorite smell. But you gotta ask.”

Gunn knew he was talking about love.

I thought he was talking about “revision,” a word our professors and high school teachers believed necessitated us reducing all of our Black rhetorical abundance into meager-ass absolutes. In my own sloppy work, on and off the page, I was beginning to understand “revision” as a dynamic practice of revisitation, premised on ethically reimagining the ingredients, scope, and primary audience of one’s initial vision. Revision required witnessing and testifying. Witnessing and testifying required rigorous attempts at remembering and imagining. If revision was not God, revision was everything every God ever asked of believers.

In subsequent months, Gunn and I became boys, coworkers, cousins, forever family. When we weren’t together, we talked about “we” and “us” far more than we talked about “I.” We wrote En Vogue fan fiction. We memorized every word of Menace 2 Society and every syllable of Ready to Die. We invented words that should already have existed and new definitions for words as old as American exceptionalism.

We lived together in a tiny apartment on Capitol Street. We donated plasma for money right off of Fortification. We worked as porters on State Street. We stole white people’s food when there was white people’s food to be stolen. We borrowed massive cereal dispensers filled with Lucky Charms out of our college cafeteria because we were tired of Magic Stars. We jacked light bread off of bread trucks on the Reservoir. We dined, dashed, and left a tip at every Denny’s in central Mississippi. We used Gunn’s food stamps to get scallops and the good ramen to celebrate his little sister moving down to Mississippi.

We were poor. We were happy. We were not happy about being poor. But neither of us longed to be rich. We longed for healthy choices, second chances, and good love.

Then, after getting kicked out of our college for the theft of white folks’ food — sike! I mean white folks’ library books — I left Mississippi for Ohio, Indiana, and eventually New York.

When I returned to Mississippi 20 years later, even though my job was in a much more monied, neo-Confederate part of the state, I looked forward to living an hour from Gunn, who now worked as a teacher in a detention center for kids awaiting sentencing. I couldn’t wait to regularly hear the wavy inflections in Gunn’s voice when he did the opposite of humblebrag about his students and his own children’s grades.

I wanted to act as if nothing had changed in our relationship since we first saw each other as young men. I wanted Gunn to forget the summer of 2010 when he asked if he could bring his daughter up to college where I taught in New York. We hadn’t seen each other in six years. I agreed to take Gunn and his daughter on a tour of campus and then to the South Bronx, home of Gunn’s favorite emcee.

I ended up lying about an emergency when they got to town because I didn’t want Gunn to see that I’d gained more than 120 pounds since we’d last seen each other. I didn’t want Gunn’s daughter, my goddaughter, to look at me with disgust. I didn’t want to be reminded of what I’d allowed my insides to become, nor the heart meat I’d become addicted to eating.

So I chose to harm all three of us. I lied, and I ran from my goddaughter and the one person on Earth I literally had no reason to run from.

Gunn told me he understood what I was saying because he’d lied and run from me, too. “We ain’t young. We ain’t even middle-aged,” he said. “We just straight-up old and ain’t no models of how to be straight-up old and Black and lonely. I lied to you so many times because I was ashamed. We here now.”

I can’t write about Ray Gunn without thinking about fairness and repair. In my laziness, I’ve conflated repair and restoration, just as I’ve lazily conflated pain with trauma, pleasure with desire, progress with liberation, honesty with truth, and fairness with equity. Restoration and repair are something we are worthy of in life and death, in relationships and solo, but they are not the same word.

Being a Black Mississippian means you will spend a lifetime repairing wounds created by the worst of white Mississippians in hopes of some kind of economic or moral renewal. This is not fair, nor is it fair that we are expected to make Black abundance out of that repair. This, however, is a part of our lineage.

The white family in America appears to have a lineage as well. The metastasized, excused unwellness in white families, monied and poor, is responsible for anti-Black terror happening in this nation’s schools, prisons, hospitals, neighborhoods, and banks. This is the work of folks who despise revision nearly as much as they despise themselves. Abolish police, bullets, missiles, and prisons all we want (and some of us truly want!), and most white American families in the US will do everything possible to make more. And in some ways, that’s their business. Cleaning up the messes that seep from these families, we’ve been taught, is what Black folk in this nation do well.

But I don’t want us to clean up the messes of white families. I want them to stop creating and pushing public policy that encourages us to die prematurely. I want them to pay my Grandmama what she is owed for a lifetime of literally, figuratively, and spiritually cleaning up their messes.

We have far too many messes of our own. At my worst, I have run away from our lineage of repair and renewal when I’ve harmed folks I loved. Every time we run away from an abusive mess, a negligent mess, a lethal mess we helped create, we leave something essential for someone targeted for premature death to clean up. That is humiliation.

That is not fair.

Family can help us repair. Family, chosen and by birth, can also significantly aid in helping those who eat our suffering effectively wipe us off the face of the Earth. Repair what you helped break, my Grandmama taught me. Restore what responsibly loved you, I learned from Gunn. And revise, revise, revise with your family and friends. Collective freedom is impossible without interpersonal repair.

I’d hoped this piece could be an extended exploration of the paradoxical economic dimensions of Black friendship during the pandemic. I wanted this piece to open, fold, and crumple the tired ways we talk about revision in this nation. I wanted to write about Gunn’s relationship to the state as a Black man who loves Black people, and a Black man who has found work in a detention center for mostly Black and Mexican young people.

But before I could write that, Gunn and I needed to talk with each other about what repair and renewal mean in our middle-age relationships with each other, with the dead, with the Earth. We have to be as concerned with the question of what we’re owed as we are with the question of what we owe us. I suspect, with rigorous, tender exploration, we will find that the answer to both of those questions is everything.

One morning in the spring of 1995, I woke up to this strange, nasally voice coming from the bathroom of the apartment Gunn and I shared. The voice was overenunciating the “or” sound in “elevatOR.” The bathroom door was cracked and Gunn was in the mirror, not simply practicing talking “proper,” but also practicing verbally and vocally becoming a Black man he imagined white folks might fairly compensate.

“Nigga,” I remember saying to him through the door. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to get this money,” he said.

During our most recent conversation, I asked Gunn if he remembers that day in 1995. After some uncomfortable silence, Gunn answered me. And we talked. And we listened. And we were honest about what we need for repair and what we might be incapable of sharing or accepting in this piece. Before hanging up, Gunn reiterated that Black people, especially poor Black people, need checks for the checks we’ve been shorted since we were brought here. Until those checks are issued, Gunn says again, he has nothing to say to white folks about the failings of white folks when he himself has failed so many Black folks.

I get it.

Near the end of my conversation with Gunn, he answered the goofy question, “Do you have hope in America?” with the only appropriate answer that should ever be given to that trite-ass question.

“I have faith in us.”

When my editor asked me if I could write about “fairness” after the George Floyd verdict, I knew there was nothing new I could say to white Americans about their investments in Black suffering. It wasn’t only that it had all been said, made, and written; it had all been said, made, and written by the greatest sayers, makers, and writers in history. So I started over, and I scrapped the traditional fetishizing portals of entry into anti-racism.

I decided I’d rather write to us and for us about the paradoxes of revision, restoration, and repair in our friendships. Instead of explaining something that has already been explained and making a spectacle of Black death, I decided to write something that makes me feel good about a man from Winona, Mississippi, who has loved me whole and halted my premature death.

Today, that is the most loving thing I can do to my insides and Gunn’s. Today, that feels fair.

Kiese Laymon is the author of three books, including the novel Long Division.

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