Laymon's essay collection covers themes ranging from life as a black man in Mississippi and Pennsylvania to Michael Jackson and hip hop music while never shying away from controversial themes and complicated race politics.
I've always loved essay collections. Something about an essay and the way the short piece gives you space to breathe, consider, and collect your own thoughts before moving on makes for a perfect art form.
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is an essay collection that gives you space to breathe. Laymon writes short pieces that hit you hard with straight-to-the-point discussions on being black in America-- a subject that would do many people well to read at this time in history. (cough president cough) A few of the essays-- the title piece, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, The Worst of White Folks, and Our Kind of Ridiculousness-- left me feeling both illuminated and like I had a lot to stew about. There is one section in particular from the title essay that I want to share:
Laymon spends a lot of time discussing his time living in Mississippi. In this story, he and his girlfriend at the time were walking to work across their university campus when they encountered a group of fraternity members dressed in black face, Afro wigs, and Confederate capes. As Laymon and Shonda approached, they began to call them names, including the n-word. This blatant display of racism created an altercation between the two groups. The resolution is as follows:
"The college decides that two individual fraternity members, Shonda, and I will be put on disciplinary probation for using "racially insensitive language" and that the two fraternities involved get their party privileges taken away for a semester. If there was racially insensitive language Shonda and I could have used to make those boys feel like we felt, we would have never stepped to them in the first place." (p. 40)
This paragraph is one of the most stunning and important explanations of race in America I've read in years. It explains so much about the state of racism in America today, why we don't live in a post-racist society, and it also transported me into a position I've never been in personally. The final sentence highlights the inequality of race relations and demonstrates how that inequality persists even now. Laymon handled this explanation with honesty and courage, and I am very glad to have read it.
That being said, I have a few things to point out in the interest of a well-rounded review. The Author's Note could have used a hard edit and, towards the end, there were a few essays that didn't strike the same inspirational chord and, instead, read as filler for the collection. However, the good of those beginning essays far outweighed the fall-out of the later couple.
In conclusion, this is an important essay collection. Laymon's work never reads as self-indulgent or over-written. His recollections are straight-forward and anyone interested in understanding race politics in America from a narrative perspective should pick up a copy of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and follow along as a young black American struggles with the long history of his country and its constant effect on his present.
PUBLICATION DETAILS: Agate Bolden, 978-1932841770, 08/13/2013, Non-Fiction-> Essays