pym-mat johnson

it’s supposedly winter right now in canada. pshaaaw. some people deal with the weather by reading books about the opposite climate, it’s distracting or something…i’m really talking in a circle that stops at the fact that i can’t remember reading any other frozen tale than a day in a life of ivan denisovich. i read it during a hockey game fifteen years ago, which also goes to show that i’m a bad canadian for being so unamused by hockey that i’d rather be reading about the gulag archipelego. that said, i’m going to a marlies game on saturday with all the knitters in the city-puck and purl, muthafuckas! one chapter into this book, i fell in love. three chapters into this book, i asked for its hand in marriage. its author “favorited” the tweet, so i suppose that is as modern of a way that a father can give his blessing as any. i was kind of sleepy and almost late for work, but when the connections were made between mahalia jackson, the jackson family of gary, indiana, and the late entertainment lawyer, charles mathis in my brain on the subway train, i beamed in the realization that mat johnson is the devil. i mean that in the most affectionate way possible, since all my friends are the devil, and he would fit right in at a dinner party around my way, and that is amazing. i can’t even deal with carleton damon carter and his gay lover jeffree (2-for-1 roc-a-fella fresh prince reference!) and a teeny bully named james baldwin. there are no things lost in the translation of medium here, in fact it feels like a million gained-the gutters are flushed out so effortlessly, bigups. my final comment is that a regular guy buying his own freedom at the price of his comrades with lil’ debbie cakes is a future/past reworking of the reality of comrades selling marcus garvey for rice. even the fact that a completely synthetic “food” with absolutely no culture except that of destruction is substituted for an original food that is the staple of so many civilizations just works so flawlessly. i fucking loved this book, so i put a ring on it.

“Still, even for her the broken grammar she used to tell me this message was exaggerated, and I heard another meaning within it. That I, like her, would have to overcompensate for my pale skin to be accepted. I would have to learn to talk blacker, walk blacker, than even my peers. Or be rejected as other forever.
Going to the library was excellent advice, it turned out. The library was open for another hour after school, the byproduct of an academic initiative long since forgotten. Hiding in the library immediately after dismissal allowed the tsunami of juvenile violence that occurred at the end of each day to ripple on beyond me, clearing the area for a safe retreat to my apartment once it was gone. So I went every afternoon from that day forward. The only one not pleased with my new routine was Mrs. Alexander herself, who’d grown accustomed to leaving in time to watch her stories. But after a week or so of missing General Hospital for my sake, Mrs. Alexander showed me how to turn out the lights and lock the door behind me, and then we were both happy.
Alone there, wasting the hour, I couldn’t bring myself to read the real James Baldwin. I wouldn’t read the man until college, another thing I blame on my abuser.” (136-7)

“That is not to say that at the moment I cut a stunning figure myself, but even in the real world I was known to let myself go for the sake of a good book with more than three hundred pages.” (195)

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3 thoughts on “pym-mat johnson

  1. i wonder if my invisible husband felt like this:

    “When you get denied tenure at a college like this-intimate, good but not great-your career is over. A decade of job preparation, and no one else will hire you. If you haven’t published enough, people assume tenure denial means you never will. If you have published and were still denied, people assume you’re an asshole. Nobody wants to give a job for life to an asshole. And they didn’t have to in this economy. Outside of a miracle, after denial I would be lucky to scrounge up adjunct teaching at a community college somewhere cold, barren, and far from the ocean.” (9)

    “There was a guy down the hall, a Romanticist, who had been denied tenure ten years ago. Approved by the faculty committee, just as I was, only to be shot down by the same president in the same manner. And he had, in his grief, approached the all-powerful boss man, and he had repented all of his sins, real and imagined, and was granted a permanent teaching gig. It made sense too, for as Frederick Douglass’s narrative tells us, it is more valuable to a master to have a morally broken slave than to have a confident one. That Romanticist’s story had always seemed humiliating to me before this moment, but suddenly it became inspirational.” (12)

    “And our fists bumped in blackademic bliss. Mr. Johnson was a younger man than I, in both years and manner. Dressed like he was straight out of Compton, but clearly straight out of postdoc instead.” (17)

    “Always let them be the last to contact you when you split, even when they dump you and say they don’t love you anymore, so that you both know that you are the one who never called them back.” (79)

  2. hungry:

    “For an hour this morning, I riffed on the Europeans’ fascination with cannibalism, citing their use of the act in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century writings as the defining difference between savage and civilized man. All this despite the fact that their largest church practiced ritualized cannibalism daily in the form of a sacramental cracker and glass of wine. From there, I went off on a rant about how this unique cannibalistic nature was at the center of European American culture, citing their devouring of black culture and regurgitating it for sustenance. ‘So you telling me hip-hop culture is any better?’ Garth asked me. It was the longest sentence I’d heard from him in over a week. To this I told him, ‘No.’ I hadn’t realized I was not only being absurd but also talking out loud.” (320)

    “The issue of starvation in American slavery was a central one, for the slaves. For the slavers, not so much. But for the slaves starvation was /extremely/ important. In modern America, most of us have never had to endure the constant hunger that was once commonplace among our people, but the legacy of centuries of starvation is still present in our culture. Before the stereotype of the black man running down the street with a TV under his arm existed, the same racist archetype was carrying a stolen chicken, or a watermelon. Similarily, the stereotypical embodiment of black masculine superiority, with his ripping muscles and flat abs, owes much to a slave history of endless toil fueled by little food, lifestyles no modern diet and exercise plan could compete with. All this is to say of the crew of the Creole that, after three weeks under the ice, at least we looked good. In the modern era, Americans starve with full belllies, starve on high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, carbohydrates too complex for our bodies to bother deciphering. We starve and yet are fat as shit at the same time, morbidly obese and vitamin deficient, hands shaking if we take too much time in between pies. That was a much more desirable form of starvation than our current situation, if you had to pick, but an anemic existence nonetheless. Ironically, both forms of starvation can cause diarrhea, which shows you how limited the human body is in its range of defenses. There are those who say that it is important to ‘listen to your body,’ that ‘your body knows what it needs.’ If your body knew what it needed, it would listen to the brain, the only part of it worth a damn when it comes to thinking. Diarrhea is the worst possible reaction to not having enough food to digest. It’s mutiny. It’s everything inside you trying to get out while it still can.” (190-1)

    “The sounds it made, the groans, were loud, vulgar. They were appreciative too, and the now excited snowman gathered over his buddies. The international sugarcane trade that fueled the colonial world-these beings had obviously missed that. I watched, struggling to be culturally relative and hide my revulsion, as they moved the crumbs around in their mouths, their alabaster tongues glistening.” (127)

  3. trading burdens:

    “I used to complain that the only things the white literary world would accept of Africa’s literary descendants were reflections of the Europeans themselves: works that focused on the effects of white racism, or the ghettos white economic and social disfranchisement of blacks created. I still think that, I have just come to the understanding that I am no better. I like Poe, I like Melville, I like Hemingway, but what I like the most about the great literature created by the Americans of European descent is the Africanist presence within it. I like looking for myself in the whitest of pages. I like finding evidence of myself there, after being told my footprints did not exist on the sand. I think the work of the great white writers is important, but I think it’s most important when it’s negotiating me and my people, because I am as arrogant and selfish a reader as any other.” (27)

    “Taking the subway from Penn Station, unable to get a seat, I stood up with the firmly packed crowd and attempted awkwardly to record a thought on Peters’s saga as the local train swayed violently to and fro. The lights went out, and I kept writing. When the lights came back on a few seconds later, what I saw on the page stunned me. There I was eerily greeted with an exact duplication of Dirk Peters’s own hand. /He was writing the manuscript at sea/, I realized. Beneath the rocking deck, in little if any candlelight.
    Another probable factor in the Peters manuscript’s obscurity was its timing. After a little old white lady published her lengthy melodrama about the evils of slavery in the American South in 1838, /Uncle Tom’s Cabin/ changed the dialogue of African American literature dramatically. Overnight, African American autobiographical storytelling became antiquated, and fiction, with its ability to directly manipulate the emotions of the white masses, proved a far more effective political tool. While the majority of Dirk Peters’s manuscript was written before 1837, for a variety reasons it was not quite ready for publication then, and truly never was.” (43)

    “It was out of empathy that I removed a pad from my pocket and began taking notes, half convinced that I might just write an essay about this, that maybe I could play at being a pop psychologist. If this Negro in a Rick James jacket could call himself a war chief, then why not?” (55)

    “Jeffree and Carlton Damon Carter are just two guys who make dirty water clean again, guys who share the same little Lefferts Garden apartment, where they sleep in the same marriage bed. Poetically, the last image that the ever silent Carlton Damon Carter films of Jeffree on that day is of the water engineer handing water out on the street to those last survivors straggling from the World Trade Center.” (76)

    “In that moment, silently, we agreed that we were indeed in the presence of an exceptionally delusional white man-which is of course one of the most dangerous things in the world.” (140-1)

    “I am bored with the topic of Atlantic slavery. I have come to be bored because so many boring people have talked about it. So many artists and writers and thinkers, mediocre and genius, have used it because it’s a big, easy target. They appropriate it, adding no new insight or profound understanding, instead degrading it with their nothingness. They take the stink of the slave hold and make it a pungent cliche, take the blood-soaked chains of bondage and pervert them into Afrocentric bling. Parroting a vague ‘400 Year’ slogan that underestimates for the sake of religious formality. What’s even more infuriating is that, despite this stupidity, this repetitious sophistry, the topic of chattel slavery is still unavoidable for its American descendants. It is the great story, the big one, the connector that gives the reason for our nation’s prosperity and for our very existence within it. But still, aren’t there any other stories to tell? So many have come to the topic of slavery because they think the subject matter will give them gravitas, or prizes, or because they find comfort in its familiarity. To be fair, something so big (nearly 20 million slaves kidnapped), for so long (from A.D.1441 until the end of the nineteenth century) is nearly impossible to dance gracefully with. but still. That is the source of my love for the slave narratives: they are by their nature /original/, even when they draw on the forms of earlier literary sources. They are never duplicitous, because they all have one motivation: to document the atrocity of chattel slavery and thereby assist in ending it. Their artistry is surprising, considerable, devoid of pretension and with passion in its place.
    Turns out though that my thorough and exhaustive scholarship into the slave narratives of the African Diaspora in no way prepared me to actually become a fucking slave. In fact, it did quite the opposite. The amount of real manual labor these prehistoric snow honkies expected me to do was insane.*” (159-60)

    “I’ll carry him. He’ll be my burden.” (215)

    “That is how they stay so white: by refusing to accept blemish or history. Whiteness isn’t about being something, it is about being no thing, nothing, an erasure. Covering over the truth with layers of blank reality just as the snowstorm was now covering our tent, whipping away all traces of our existence from this pristine landscape.” (225)

    “Speak no ill of the successful black male sellout, for he has achieved the goal of the community that has produced him: he has ‘made it,’ used his skills to attain the status that would be denied him, earned entry at the door of the big house of prosperity. His only flaw is that he agreed to leave that community, its hopes, customs, aspirations, on the porch behind him. It is a matter of expedience as much as morality. I say this to forestall any judgement on Nathaniel Latham, who given the state of the world, just might have been the last sellout in history.” (271)

    “He’d taken his hood off, and given the smell, I couldn’t blame him. Still, the patches of white toothpaste on his face made him look like he had a mutant strain of vitiligo.” (301)

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