I Am a Big Black Man Who Will Never Own a Gun Because I Know I Would Use It
I’m wondering, while sitting on a sturdy porch across the road from William Faulkner’s house in northern Mississippi, if President Trump and the Mississippi Legislature really want big black niggers like me to carry guns into our classrooms. As a black child from central Mississippi, I was encouraged by my mother and teachers to imitate the work of William Faulkner. Mama thought imitating Faulkner could protect me, ironically, from white men, white men’s power, and all men’s bullets. By the time I was 15, I’d read everything Faulkner had written. I knew my Faulkner like I knew my Ice Cube, my Voltron, my En Vogue, my Good Times, my banana-flavored Now and Laters. I loved knowing that Faulkner’s literary virtuosity was inflected by his real and imagined experiences with black Mississippians. Somewhere around 11th grade, though, my body tired of imitating white writers who simply could not see, hear, love, or imagine black folk as part of, or central to, their audience. I especially tired of white writers from Mississippi who, in my estimation, had enough deeply Southern home-training and proximity to the ways of black folk to know—and be—better.
When Callie Barr, a black woman paid to clean up after the Faulkner family, died in 1940, Faulkner delivered her eulogy. He said, “From her I learned to tell the truth, to refrain from waste, to be considerate of the weak and respectful to age. I saw fidelity to a family which was not hers, devotion and love for people she had not borne.”
Of course, black fidelity and devotion to white families that are not our own are a terrifying part of our story in this nation. And, of course, there was a lot Faulkner could not see in Callie Barr’s work because white Americans, regardless of region, often have no clue about the shape of stories told and the depth of truth concealed under the timbre of our voices and the greased creases of our smiles. Still, I always believed that Faulkner’s lessons learned from Callie Barr’s supposed devotion and fidelity were foundational to any national or individual reckoning with American violence.
Tell the truth.