1. Mississippi: An Awakening, in Days MISSISSIPPI: AN AWAKENING, IN DAYS DAY 1
22 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and Donald Trump tweets, “We have a perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan at the White House for our attack on CoronaVirus.”
I hear from Joe Osmundson, writer, friend, and scientist, that I should not attend the Association of Writers Programs, a conference I say I am too tired to attend, a conference where I will not be paid for attending. “The government is way behind on this,” Joe writes. “Experts in our community are the best we have. I’ve been talking to a lot of friends working on this, and I trust them a lot.”
“Should I fly, fam?” I ask him.
“It’s not ‘US’ we’re doing this for,” he texts back. “The risk for you is still low, but it’s kinda like what do we owe our elders and the folks with compromised immune systems.”
“Thanks for this,” I write back. “I’ma sit my ass at home and not go to these other events on my schedule.”
These other events are paid readings I’m supposed to do in Ohio and West Virginia. These events are where I make most of my money. The first event in Ohio is sold out, but I tell myself that I’m sure they’ll postpone before the tenth. I assume the same thing about West Virginia.
I am lonely. I am afraid.
And/Yet/But/Somehow I drive to the casino in Tunica, Mississippi, one of the poorest counties in the United States, and lather my hands in sanitizer.
It could all be so much worse.
31 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and after meeting with Republican leaders, Donald Trumps says, “It’s about twenty-six deaths, within our country. And had we not acted quickly, that number would have been substantially more.”
These paid events I am booked to attend have yet to be canceled. It took Grandmama, the person who will get most of the money I make for these trips, a year working in the chicken plant to make the kind of money that awaits me for these two events.
Grandmama is one of the elders Joe talked about. She is a ninety-year-old Black woman from Mississippi, and her immune system is severely compromised. She believes she is still alive because of hard work and Jesus Christ.
I have my agency tell the folks in Cincinnati that I will not under any circumstance be signing books or shaking hands at the event.
We all have to be safe.
Later that night, I sign books. I shake hands. I hug people. I feel love. I lather my hands in sanitizer. A monied man at the event gives me a ticket to see Lauryn Hill, who is also in Cincinnati. I tell organizers of the event that I’d rather go to the Lauryn Hill show than go to dinner.
I skip Lauryn Hill.
I skip dinner.
I congratulate myself on skipping both, on looking out for elders, and people like my Grandmama with compromised immune systems.
It could all be so much worse.
38 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and Donald Trump says, in his address to the nation, “The virus will not have a chance against us. No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States.”
I am outside of my hotel in Cincinnati, waiting for a car service to drive me to Marshall, West Virginia. When the lanky old white man with large knuckles pulls up, I place my bags in his trunk. I do not shake his hand. Neither he nor I have on a mask or gloves. I am headed to West Virginia to get this money in the backseat of a new black car driven by an old white man.
I lather my hands in sanitizer.
Barely out of Cincinnati, the driver tells me he is a preacher. We talk about his church, his calling, his time living in the Bronx, his wife’s abusive upbringing, all the powerful men he’s driven place to place. He stops talking for a bit, and I look at the land we’re zooming by. I am a writer. I should be writing about land I’ve never seen. I lather my hands in sanitizer, open my phone to type a sentence.
“It could all be so much worse,” I write.
I get to West Virginia two hours before I’m supposed to have dinner with the organizers of tonight’s event. Kristen walks me from the hotel around the corner to the restaurant. There is a long table of around ten folks already sitting down.
“How y’all doing?” I ask, faking a laugh. “I guess we’re not doing handshakes, huh?”
I am forever a fat Black boy from Jackson, Mississippi. I hate to be trapped in white places where I do not know anyone Black. My mama and Grandmama rarely sit with their backs to doors. I choose the seat at the end of the table, next to a young brother whose hairline makes me remember Mississippi.
Under the table, I lather my hands in sanitizer.
I am sitting across from two powerful white people whose rhythms I cannot pick up. I cannot tell when they will laugh, when they will fidget. I cannot tell if they have actually laughed or fidgeted. The white woman in front of me does not want to be there. I find out that the university is preparing to suspend in-person classes and begin distance learning.
No one is coming to this reading tonight, I tell myself. That’s definitely for the better, as long as I can still get my check.
I order a Thai cauliflower wrap and fries. There is no way I’m eating that wrap. Or the fries.
I have eaten all but one of the fries when the brilliant brother with the familiar hairline offers me some sanitizer.
“You think we could shake hands now?” he asks.
“Oh absolutely,” I say, and shake the hands of all the incredible students, thanking everyone for wanting to come out in such a scary time.
I ask for a to-go box for my wrap and say that I hope to see y’all at the reading. On the way to the reading, I stop back by the hotel because I don’t need my backpack smelling like old cauliflower. White people treat Black people who smell like old cauliflower like Black people.
I’m scared. I’m tired. I’m lonely. I need my check. I don’t want to be treated like a Black person by white people while trying to dodge coronavirus.
It’s hot in my room. I’m sweating way too much. I take off the shirt beneath my Meager hoodie. It’s drenched. I place the cauliflower wrap on the counter.
I think I have coronavirus.
Or I’m just fat. Or I’m just nervous.
I think I have coronavirus.
I get to the venue. The white woman who greets me walks with a limp. I walk with a limp. She kindly takes me to the green room. A gentle tall white man knocks on the green room door and pulls out a huge bottle of sanitizer.
“Your agency told us you needed this.”
“Oh wow,” I say, trying to act like I had no idea. “That’s weird. Thanks.”
After the reading, some of the astounding students whom I had dinner with come on stage and ask me to sign their books, take pictures, shake hands. I sign their books, take pictures, shake hands. I walk out to the foyer, sit at a table, and sign more books. After all the books are signed, I walk out and meet the gentle tall white man who gave me the sanitizer. He is going to be taking me back to my hotel in his truck.
We talk about coronavirus. We talk about Randy Moss. We talk about Jason Williams. We talk about coronavirus.
As we get to my hotel, I’m wondering whether I’m supposed to shake his hand since I’m convinced both of us have coronavirus.
The tall gentle white man keeps both hands on the steering wheel and tells me bye.
“Thanks,” I say out loud.
My room smells like old cauliflower. I take two showers, lather my hands in sanitizer, and I try to dream.
40 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and Mississippi governor Tate Reeves is cutting short his European vacation because of Donald Trump’s European travel restrictions.
At five in the morning, another white man picks me up to drive me to the airport. He does not speak. I give him a big tip when he drops me off. He holds the money like I’d hold a boogery Kleenex given to me by a white man driving me to an airport.
“Thanks,” I say out loud.
I am wearing a black hoodie, a black hat, a black Bane mask, black headphones. Hanging around my neck are two dog tags. One, a quote from James Baldwin, says, “The very time I thought I was lost my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” The other, a quote from Lucille Clifton, says, “they ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories and i keep on remembering mine.”
I take a selfie on the plane and place it on Instagram with the caption: “Strange times when you have to be on the road to make money to help care for a miraculous 90 year old woman who you won’t be able to touch for 14 days… Kindness. Tenderness. Generosity. We can do this.”
Fourteen days, I tell myself. It could all be so much worse.
“The virus will not have a chance against us,” Donald Trump says later that afternoon.
413 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and Donald Trump will not say, “I am sorry.”
Governor Tate Reeves decides that the one abortion clinic in Mississippi is not an essential business that should remain open, but gun stores are. I’ve written around Tate without saying Tate’s name for eight years.
In college, my partner, Nzola, and I got into an altercation with two fraternities on Bid Day. Some fraternity members wore Confederate capes, Afro wigs, and others blackened their faces. I’ve written about how they called us “niggers.” I’ve written about how they called Nzola a “nigger b—.” I’ve written about that experience and guns. I’ve written about that experience and bats. I’ve written about that experience and how my investment in patriarchy diminished Nzola’s suffering.
I have never written about the heartbreak of seeing the future governor of Mississippi in that group of white boys, proudly representing the Kappa Alpha fraternity and its Confederate commitment to Black suffering. I have never admitted that after playing basketball against Tate all through high school, and knowing that he went to a public school called Florence, not a segregation academy, like so many other white boys we knew, it hurt my feelings to see Tate doing what white boys who pledged their identities to the Old South ideologies were supposed to do.
When I saw Tate in that Confederate cacophony of drunken white boyhood, doing what they did, I knew he could one day be governor of Mississippi and President of the United States.
That is still the most damning thing I can ever say about a white boy from Mississippi.
9,400 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and Donald Trump will not say, “I was wrong.”
Mama is scared because the nurse we pay to take care of Grandmama will not wear her mask for fear that it could hurt my Grandmama’s feelings.
I am scared because Mama will not stop going to work. She sends me a eulogy she wants me to read if she dies. The eulogy confuses me. There is so much left out. She wants people to know her dream was to be of use to the world, and particularly Mississippi. But the eulogy is more about the places Mama has been than the justice work she’s done. I do not argue with Mama. I tell her that if she dies before I die, I will read the eulogy as it is written.
It could all be so much worse.
I get an email from the writer Cherry Lou Sy, saying that one of those dead 9,400 Americans is my former student Kimarlee Nguyen. Kimarlee and I shared a classroom at Vassar College. Long before she was my student, Kimarlee would greet me with this raspy offering:
When we finally shared a classroom, I was unable to adequately protect Kimarlee from the phantoms haunting most American classrooms. Phantoms need hosts. Many white hosts need phantoms. These phantoms encouraged Kimarlee to write her Cambodian self out of her writing. They disciplined her for not erasing her family’s rememories of Khmer Rouge.
Kimarlee accepted her sadness, her fatigue, her anger, and then along with James and Charmaine, she willed herself to write more deeply into the historic imagination of ancestral spirits.
I always assumed coronavirus would take my Grandmama, my mama, my aunties, my friends, me, possibly in reverse order.
I never ever assumed it would take my students.
104,051 Americans are dead from the coronavirus, and Donald Trump will not say, “I am sorry.” After Darnella Frazier, a seventeen-year-old Black girl from South Minneapolis, courageously films police executing a survivor of coronavirus named George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, an EMT tasked with aiding those with coronavirus, is shot by police five times in her own house, uprisings begin in the United States.
The week before savvy, young, mostly Black folks longing to breathe and break fill Jackson, Mississippi, streets, a lone white Jewish teacher in Oxford, Mississippi, cuts his hands and places bloody handprints all over the biggest Confederate monument on the campus of “Ole Miss.” The Jewish brother spray-paints “spiritual genocide” on all four sides of the monument before being arrested.
Instead of covering the monument, workers are told to cover “spiritual genocide” with what looks like swaddling cloth.
I help bail the Jewish brother out. I help bail out folks in Mississippi, in Minneapolis, in Louisville.
I go home alone.
I am forty-five years old, the exact age Grandmama was when I was born. Just like Grandmama at forty-five, I live alone in Mississippi. Yet unlike Grandmama, I have no children, no grandchildren. I own no land, no garden, no property, and I am afraid of walking in my neighborhood under the light of a moon or sun.
This should not haunt me. But phantoms move at their own speed.
I sit in this house, once the site of a Confederate mansion, alone, afraid to go outside, afraid to let anyone outside see me.
I am more successful than I’ve ever imagined. Yet, I am terrified of sleeping because my body no longer knows how to dream. I know that people die in their dreams. I am not afraid of death. I am afraid of being killed while dreaming. Driving while Black. Jogging while Black. Dreaming while Black. Fighting while Black. Loving while Black. I wonder if movement, mobility, love are the features of Black life the worst of white Americans most despise.
108,278 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and Donald Trump will not say “I am sorry” or “I was wrong.”
It is my mama’s birthday. I planned to be with her today but I cannot. She is up north. I am down south. It is also Governor Tate Reeves’s birthday. I wonder how he celebrates with the phantoms that hover around the Mississippi state flag I assume he keeps somewhere in his house.
113,774 Americans are dead from coronavirus. I wonder why so many white folks are contacting me today. Half are asking me if I’m okay. Half are telling me that they are ready to learn.
I drive by the two massive Confederate monuments in Oxford. Black officers are guarding them both. I want to ask the brothers if they are humiliated guarding monuments that commemorate our destruction. When they start answering, or radioing for backup, I want to say, “Oh, one sec, bruhs.”
Then I want to blast the first verse of “Fuck tha Police.”
I imagine the brothers, parked in the shadows of the armed monuments, banging a beat on top of their cruisers, and all of us rapping “Fuck tha Police” until backup arrives.
When the white officer arrives, I imagine getting all bougie Black professor on them, explaining that white Mississippians cling to the confederacy not because they lost the Civil War, but because they cheated in a rigged battle against Black Mississippians. Their monuments are memorials of our suffering at the hands of folk who never had to pay, play, live, or fight fair.
But they already know that. Every Mississippian, whether they admit it or not, knows that.
What they don’t know is that “Fuck tha Police” was one of our memorials, one of our most evocative monuments. And every member of N.W.A had roots in the South. I wanted to play it so badly as I watched that police precinct in Minneapolis burn and when Trump sicced his National Guard on peaceful protestors so he could get a photo Beelzebub would be jealous of.
I want to bump “Fuck tha Police” right now.
The existence of the song is proof that even if we could not bring as much material suffering to white folk as they did to us, we could memorialize and channel the spirits of those beaten and killed by nasty-ass cheaters. Mama’s greatest worry is that I will be shot out of the sky by these cheaters. She is right. One day, I will not get up off the ground. Mama knows that in my dreams, we soar, bulletproof. And often, we crash. In my actual dreams, I run like Ahmaud. I shoot midrange jumpers like George. I heal like Breonna. I rap every lyric to “Fuck tha Police” in a Monte Carlo packed to the brim with them and Mignon and Tim and Henry and David fiending for new ways to love each other.
I fantasize about doing to white folks and their police what they do to us. And more than fantasize, I remember and relish publicly rapping words Grandmama could never whisper outside of her house.
But there is a way to commemorate our losses and our wins without humiliating queer folks, and subsequently morally debasing those of us who are not queer. Those who we seek to humiliate, we eventually seek to destroy.
And that first verse of “Fuck tha Police” does not fairly memorialize or commemorate the lives of queer folks. I had to stop rapping to it over two decades ago. I had to stop listening to it in 2015. As absurd as it sounds, the only thing harder than giving up “Fuck tha Police” was giving up lying to people I purported to love, giving up disordered eating, and giving up gambling.
Queer antagonism, like trans-antagonism, like anti-Blackness, is an addiction broken only by honest reckoning, consistent practice, and the welcoming of radical spirits.
Like most Mississippians, I am an addict. Like most Americans, I am a coward.
I wave at the Black officers guarding the Confederate monuments. They wave back. Adia Victoria’s “And Then You Die” churns in the background, and I drive myself home.
125,039 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and Donald Trump has not publicly worn a mask. The tired, tender nurse we pay to take care of my Grandmama has contracted coronavirus, and the Mississippi legislature—pressured by young people’s power and the threat of losing money—has finally agreed to take down the Mississippi flag. Though it would have been politically devastating, Governor Tate Reeves could have stopped or slowed the flag from coming down.
I want to believe Tate did right for Mississippi because he remembers how wrong Black Mississippians have been done by white folks in Mississippi.
And/Yet/But/Somehow I cannot substantiate my belief.
126,929 Americans are dead from coronavirus and the virus is surging in Mississippi. Governor Tate Reeves vetoes a bill passed unanimously by the legislature that grants relief and forgiveness to residents in Jackson who cannot pay their water bill.
I tell myself it could all be so much worse.
128,761 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and according to civil rights icon Frankye Adams-Johnson, it doesn’t matter if Governor Reeves or President Trump makes masks mandatory, says “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.”
The Awakening, she says, has begun.
The Mississippi flag no longer exists, and Ms. Frankye Adams-Johnson says that these times are biblical. Growing up in Jackson, Ms. Adams-Johnson was one of our civil rights superheroes. She grew up the child of sharecroppers right outside Jackson. Frankye marched with students from Brinkley High School to support protesters doing the lunch counter sit-ins downtown. Before they could get downtown, the high school students were arrested. Since there were too many students to fit in the paddy wagons, the police put the Black children in garbage trucks and took them to jail. An officer hit Frankye in her back with one of his rifles, then cocked the rifle and aimed it at her head. Frankye was seventeen years old the week Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death in Winona and her youth leader, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, was assassinated in his Jackson driveway. Four years later, Frankye left Mississippi for New York.
I lather my hands in sanitizer before asking Frankye what she thinks of the young people who are risking it all for freedom during a pandemic, what the fall of the Mississippi flag means to her, and if it could all be so much worse.
“That rag sheet coming down won’t erase history, but let me tell you something, Kiese, it sure helps release some of the pain I carried.
“When we sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ out in front of the Black Masonic temple, those crackers would be out there with that rag sheet talking about ‘We shall keep the niggas down.’
“Mississippi sent me running for freedom in New York in 1967. My son was born there. Thirty-three years later, New York sent me running back to Mississippi to breathe. The young folks are experiencing what we experienced. They are awakening to the smells of freedom.
“It’s an awakening. Call it what it is.
“They know this thing is rotten. They see that America, as we know it, is crumbling. You know who the hippies were? They were the master’s children who’d turned on their parents. I don’t care who you are, once you get that awakening, you will risk it all for freedom.
“The coronavirus is just terrible, but it has a biblicalness to it, you know? It’s a rich time for writers to write. It’s a rich time for awakenings. It’s forced me to sit still and consider my own memories.
“The young people are working their way to the eye of the storm so we can all be free.
“They have given me so much joy. I worry though, about the battle scars, the trauma, the crumbs they will be given. You have to know yourself better than you know your enemy.
“That is what we didn’t do.
“This is an awakening. But there are prices to be paid for awakening in this country. That’s really all I can say.”
I wipe the sweat from my neck, the tears from my eyes, and I lather my hands in sanitizer.
It could all be so much worse.
130,646 Americans are dead from coronavirus. Mississippi is surging, and President Donald Trump and Governor Tate Reeves have failed to make masks mandatory, or say, “I was wrong. I am sorry.”
Here’s what I want to believe:
Tate Reeves and all these white Mississippians who, just like us, immediately smell the difference between a collard and a turnip, who come from sharecroppers, who hear that bended brilliance in the blues, who hate the way Northerners use the South as a convenient shield against their trespasses, who feel the daily grace Black folks from the Deep South have offered white folks from the Deep South in the face of unrelenting humiliation, are being played by a devilish, desperate Northerner who has allowed his daddy issues—and inability to honestly revise—to ruin and eventually run his marriages, businesses, friendships, soul, and now his nation further into hell. There is a part of these white Southerners—like Tate Reeves, our white cousin by blood and culture, who refuses to heed the spirits of awakening—that is not evil or irrecoverable, but just easily seduced by power, inferiority complexes, and a longing to be accepted by a manipulative maniac who glided into the presidency with the cowardly winds of white American resentment at his back.
Here’s what I know to be true:
Tate Reeves and most of these white men of Mississippi are no more regionalists, or lovers of Mississippi and the Deep South, than Donald Trump is a patriot and lover of the United States of America. They are not haunted by phantoms. They are dedicated ghouls, spirit-repellant patriarchs who use each other and a muddled understanding of Jesus Christ to ensure the suffering of the most vulnerable. Abusive power tastes, touches, smells, sounds, and feels really good to gobblers of grace. They are not nineteen-year-old boys trying to decide between right and wrong; they are grown men who have chosen to model meanness for their posterity. They will torture and humiliate everyone close to them to maintain the power to abuse. They will never ever say or mean, I am sorry for making living harder than it needs to be. I am sorry for feeding off your humiliation. I am sorry for never confessing my actual sins to the world. I am sorry that your life means less to me than my ego. They will never say, I am sorry. They will only remind Americans and Southerners foolish enough to listen that it all could be so much worse.
The truth is, were it not for this awakening led by our young people and old spirits, they would be absolutely right.
131,870 Americans are dead from coronavirus, and I am turning in my piece to the editors at Vanity Fair. I know there is no incentive, credential, or subsidy for the spirits that guide us. Every dime of the money I make from this assignment will go to help residents of Jackson who cannot pay their water bills.
We are awakened, I want to believe.
Seventy-five miles from the armed Confederate statue in Oxford, Emmett Till’s childish body was destroyed. Seventy miles from that armed Confederate statue, Fannie Lou Hamer was nearly beaten to death. A hundred and sixty miles from that armed Confederate statue, Medgar Evers was murdered as he entered his home. Eighty miles from that armed Confederate statue, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis.
I am wandering around the spiritual consequences of materially progressing at the expense of Black death. I want to be courageous. I wonder, though, when courage becomes contagious—when courage is credentialized, subsidized, and incentivized—if it is still courage at all.
Today, as I prepare to push send, and I lather my hands in sanitizer, it feels a bit too much like cowardice.
Maybe I’ll wait to send tomorrow. Maybe I won’t send at all.
The Lafayette County Board of Supervisors, a group of white men, unanimously vote to keep the armed Confederate monument in the middle of Oxford, the town where I live, teach, and write.
The worst of white folk will not be persuaded; they can only be beaten. And when they are beaten, they fight more ferociously. They bruise us. They buy us. That is why we are so tired. That is why we are awakened. We are fighting an enemy we’ve shown exquisite grace, an enemy we’ve tried to educate, coddle, and outrun, an enemy that never tires of killing itself, just so it can watch us die.
I lather my hands in sanitizer and google gun shops in Lafayette County on my phone. I do not believe in guns. I do not believe in prisons. Yet I know I need a gun if I am to continue living alone in this Mississippi, American town.
I look at the grizzled cotton fields outside my truck window on Highway 6. I think of the underpaid essential workers in Oxford who call this town home. I want to ask, Where am I?
But I know.
This is not home.
If this is home, it is not healthy.
I do not want to humiliate. I do not want to be humiliated. I do not want to kill. I do not want to be killed. I want us to be free. I’m thinking about Malcolm’s quip, in 1965, “Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border.”
Malcolm was so right.
Malcolm was so wrong.
Mississippi is here.
I reach out to Theron Wilkerson, one of the young Mississippians Frankye says has been awakened. Theron graduated from Jackson State and teaches African American studies at Murrah High School in Jackson. I ask Theron what he thinks of Frankye’s proclamation and acceptance of awakenings.
“My daddy was forced to pledge allegiance to the Confederate rag in Carthage, Mississippi, from elementary until he received his diploma from Carthage High, way after this nation said the civil rights struggle was over.
“He was called a nigger on the same sidewalk he bagged groceries as a teenager, in the same town that his father’s head was slammed with a hammer while taking a young Black mother and her newborn to the hospital, the same square county that routinely closed down business to pull a Black person out of jail to kill them on the courthouse lawn.
“It is no mistake to me this nation is the same for me as it is for my daddy and his daddy. My aunt and her peers flipped a mail truck over to protest the integration of the all Black O. E. Jordan High School. My father talks of destroying businesses on the square after viewing Roots in the segregated Carthage theater.
“My students talk of guns, power, and intervening on behalf of Black life and integrity. This nation’s sin is its commitment to being the same, in any generation, as Black people are ushered into pent-up living and pent-down death.”
Theron’s students are right.
Theron is right.
Theron’s father was right.
I must buy a gun if I continue to live in Oxford, Mississippi, so I cannot continue to live in Oxford, Mississippi, no more. It took way too much Black death to get here. And/Yet/But/Somehow here is where I’d love to live without guns, without prisons, without monuments of humiliation, without insistent desecration of indigenous life, without the undervalued expected sacrifice of essential workers, without unattended cowardice and addiction, without the worst of white folks.
Here is where I’d like to tenderly, honestly, radically, responsibly live and love with you.
And/Yet/But/Somehow here, will one day, be Mississippi.