a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
PROLOGUE DRAFT #1
I’m a young, southern, black round runaway character, and all things – big and tiny – happen because runaway southern black characters make them happen.
Do you believe what I just said? I’m not one of those swolehead southern black characters. So I’m not 100% sure that I’m a young black round runaway character, but I’m damn near positive. Those five mighty ambiguous quotes on the first page, let me tell you why I picked them. First, my Grandmama approved of all those quotes. And like most young, southern, black round runaway characters, I’d be nothing without my Grandmama. Second, there’s a whole lot of wisdom and right-minded stuff in those quotes. But neither of those reasons are the real reason those quotes are there. The main reason those quotes are there is because of the unwritten law of the black dirty southern literary landscapes.
It shall now be decreed that hardheaded black runaway bastards from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, parts of Texas and Florida, have a 84% better chance at being classic, read and free if, after introducing their work with some biblical verses, they opt to introduce the rest of their work with four different kinds of quotes:
1) one weird quote that can mean almost anything from dead dopefiend and/or alcoholic white boy geniuses.
2) one insightful quote that tickles the naked nether regions of your mind and the rhythmic beat-conscious parts of your soul from light skinned black men warrior-writer types born before 1928.
3) one short catchy thump fleshy thump quote from raw, beautiful black blueshead goddesses who were mistreated and misunderstood by a whole lot of black and white folk.
4) one lengthy quote from Faulkner, though this might be the same as 1.
PROLOGUE DRAFT #2
Four minutes before dropping me off in this hole, Uncle Lonnie Lee told me that every classic southern black American character gets their start underground. You’ll learn a bit more about my uncle later. Right now, all you need to know is that Uncle Lonnie Lee just got out of a special kind of rehab and decided that my underground writing thing was something he wanted to be a part of. Claimed he was looking for a little redemption; said he could damn sure understand why going underground in the middle of Mississippi for seven days was the only choice I had if I really wanted to survive and know how the underground tastes. More than anything else, though, he said he really wanted to be part of something that lasts.
After going to North Jackson, Mississippi one night and interviewing forty-two well-read white folks, he came back with the pseudonym Willie Fakenah. “Baby boy, you should think about the name, Willie Fakenah,” he said. “I always thought that name rolled off the tongue better than William Faulkner. Softer vowels, more soul, you know? I’m telling you, J, these white folk think that drunk peckerwood is a gotdamn god.”
More important than that bootleg name, he came back with something he called The Gotdamn Classic Southern Black Boy Writing Rule(s). Please don’t dismiss him yet because in some rather ‘flicted ways, the blood, clear snot, imagination and alienation running through that jaundice-eyed joker’s body are this underground’s inspiration.
I guess I should tell you a few more things about me before we go on. I’m a nineteen year old round runaway character with a name you can’t pronounce. I love my Grandmama and I’m scared of death. Even though I almost beat death’s ass into submission when I was a nine-year-old fat black youth, I’m still scared of it. To tell you the truth, forget what you heard, messing around with death is like the scariest part of going underground in Mississippi to write, search or or heal for seven days.
PROLOGUE DRAFT #3
As quiet as it’s kept, I’m not only a round runaway character with a name you can’t pronounce. I’m also a 19-year-old murderer, a husky citizen of the imagination and quite possibly, the most full-fledged Mississippi nigger you ever met. Please don’t get it twisted. Even though I’ve murdered, I’m scared shitless of death and destruction. As a matter of fact, I’m down here in this hole trying my hardest to fake out death and destruction, or at least beat it into some kind of submission like I did when I was ten years old. If you’ve ever messed around with death and destruction, you already know this, but if you haven’t, I swear to god that going underground in the middle of Mississippi to remember for seven days is the most frightening experience in the world.
Four minutes before dropping me off in this hole, my Uncle Lonnie Lee took his video camera from his lazy left eye and told me that every classic citizen gets their start underground. His voice sounded like a big old Ford truck going over jaggedy gravel as his red-webbed, yellow eyeballs zeroed in on the space beneath my forehead. I could tell you crazy stories about Uncle Lonnie’s Lee’s eyeballs, his voice and his sagging V-neck T-shirts, but that would be a waste of time, especially since the detail you just couldn’t forget was my Uncle’s right hand.
Grandmama said that before Uncle Lonnie Lee picked up the crack pipe, he was an alcoholic.
You’ll learn a bit more about Grandmama and what landed her in penitentiary later. Right now, all you need to know is that Uncle Lonnie Lee just got out of Parchman and decided that my underground writing thing was something he wanted to be a part of. Claimed he was looking for a little redemption. Said he could damn sure understand why going underground to write for seven days was the only choice I had if I really wanted to survive, know how the underground tastes and finally get through that death thing. He told me I was doing something my Granddaddy would have done if he knew how to write. More than anything else though, Uncle Lonnie Lee said he finally wanted to be part of something Southern and black that really lasts.
PROLOGUE DRAFT #4
I really ain’t trying to brag, but my Grandmama is the thickest brownest Grandmama you’ll ever see. I’m not even lying. I know she’s the thickest brownest Grandmama in Mississippi, and thickest brownest Grandmama in the history of the penitentiary. She’s probably 6 feet tall and her nose and mouth and whole body are super thick. You know what I’m talking about? All parts of her body are so thick that nothing looks thick. But her stuff is symmetrical too. Sometimes you see folk with all thick parts, but one of their eyes is bigger than the other one or maybe there’s too much distance between eyes and nose. For example, my Mama — who’s up in Wisconsin trying to finish school — has this rounded thick mushroom style nose, but her lips are kinda … well, I hate to talk about my own Mama like this, but Mama has lips like the white folks on Dallas and Dynasty. There’s no ripeness or bouncy pinkish brown hang to Mama’s lips. You see thin poofy lines and you see teeth. Snake lips. I don’t how in the hell that happened. But all of Grandmama’s in perfect proportion for a thick person. You wouldn’t even know she was six feet tall until you walked right up on her. All of this might be besides the point.
Dot. Dot. Dot.
PROLOGUE DRAFT #5
You know what I realized near the end of the summer of 84? I realized that the eyes of white folks could make my Grandmama do some strange things to protect me. I also realized that I was like my dead Granddaddy in a thousand and one ways, especially the way I loved touching my Grandmama. I hope you don’t think that makes me sound like a supa freak or one of those juvenile lunatics. It’s just that my Grandmama had to be the thickest Grandmama in all of Melahatchie, Mississippi. I ain’t saying Grandmama was perfect either, but even the annoying stuff about her, like how she was completely swinging from the scrotum of the Lawd or how she tried to white out her thick style when she talked and moved in front of certain folks, was rooted in something resembling a thick flavor. You know what I mean?
I really ain’t trying to brag when I say this part either, but, besides being the most religified Grandmama in Central Mississippi, I realized my Grandmama was the thickest, finest, brownest Grandmama I’d ever seen. She had to have been the thickest, finest, brownest Grandmama in Melahatchie, Mississippi. She was probably six feet tall, and her nose and mouth and arms and whole body were supa thick. All parts of her body were so thick that nothing looked thick. But her stuff was symmetrical, too. Sometimes you’d see folk with all thick parts, but one of their eyes was bigger than the other one or maybe there was too much distance between eyes and nose.
For example, my Mama, who was still in grad school in Maryland and who sent me to stay with my Grandmama after I stole a pleather green Bible from our landlord’s daughter, had this rounded, thick, mushroom-style nose, right? And she kinda looked like the early version of Weezy on the Jeffersons, the Weezy with the Afro and the poly-stretch pants, not the Weezy with the perm and silk scarves. Anyway, Mama looked like Weezy, but Mama’s lips were kinda … well, I hate to talk about my own Mama like this, but Mama had lips like the white folks on Dallas and Dynasty and Mid-South Wrestling. There was no thickness or bouncy pinkish brown hang to Mama’s lips. You saw thin poofy lines and you saw teeth. Snake lips, I called the fat beneath her nose. I don’t how in the hell that happened to Mama. But all of Grandmama was in perfect proportion for a thick person. You wouldn’t even know she was six feet tall until you walked right up on her. And even then, even if you were from our part of Mississippi, you had to touch her to really feel it.
Kiese Laymon is the author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Long Division, the forthcoming memoir Heavy and the novel And So On. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. The piece “I Know How the Underground Tastes” is a compilation, or progression, of five drafts of the prologue to his first novel, Long Division.