Last week, writer Kiese Laymon published an essay, “You Are the Second Person,” chronicling his experience getting his novel, Long Division (which hit shelves earlier this month), published. Laymon’s thought-provoking, powerful, and inspiring work centered on exchanges between him and his former editor. Laymon’s former editor, described in the piece as a 54-year-old black man, not only suggests that Laymon isn’t a “real black writer,” but perpetually attempts to goad Laymon into writing a novel that will appeal to white readers by decentering blackness and, in turn, jettisoning black readers the editor doesn’t believe exists. The editor suggests that Laymon write a more indirect “race novel” moored in whiteness. Frankly, the essay is incredible and worth the read. Of the many intriguing elements is Laymon’s discussion of his editor calling him “bro”–long o–in several conversations, of which Laymon wonders, “what kind of black man would write the word “bro” in an email.”
Flash forward several days after Laymon’s piece began making the rounds on the internet. NPR’s blog, Code Switch posted an article about the difference(s) between bro and bruh. The post hinted at the racial semantics at work before digressing into an infographic illustrating the different kinds of (white) bros, perfectly exemplifying how counterintuitive–and, frankly, really weird–it is to discuss the nuances of race speech by writing an article that works as the set-up man for a Venn diagram of young, white male archetypes. (Like, seriously, what does that have to do with anything?) Now, the inspiration for the NPR article is sourced as a conversation between contributors to Code Switch. Yet, with nearly everything on the internet, particularly those things that address race, being seemingly six or fewer clicks away, it seems likely that that conversation may have been spawned by Laymon’s piece, although there is no link or acknowledgement to the essay. So, you know, perhaps it’s just coincidence.
However, I can’t help but connect those dots. And doing so perturbs me. After all, on one hand we have Laymon’s piece simultaneously centering, arguing for and proving the existence of a black (literary) audience, while subsequently–and probably consequently–Code Switch is talking about the difference between (white) bros sans (black) bruhs. Such maneuvers not only obscure and evacuate Laymon’s metonym for the opportunity to engage in a rather asinine discussion about the likes of Ryan Lochte, but does so in a way that undermines the crux of Laymon’s argument. In an instance of irony, Code Switch, presumably inspired by Laymon, writes an article his former editor would approve. Somehow, a conversation that more than likely began after engagement with an essay about the dynamics between black men got corrupted and became a less remarkable filtration system tailored for clicks and/or white audiences presumably uninterested in the actual nuances of–get this–code switching. Blackness gets uprooted for a conversation about race rooted in whiteness. And this act of filtering, this translating service done by some blacks and whites who write about and discuss race for the masses, attempts to render the blackness at the root invisible, while undermining and ignoring the very sources of the topics for discussion for the appeal of (white) audiences who may or may not know any better. Most unfortunately, we no longer consider or move more deeply inside Laymon’s rather serious–albeit hilarious–wondering about his editor’s choice of words. Instead, we wax over silly infographics of white boys with backwards ballcaps and Magnum P.I. ‘staches. And since it’s NPR, that becomes stationed inside the national conversation about race. While Laymon is being awesome somewhere offstage.
Though expected, this is disappointing. After all, the sobriety NPR connotes means that many might take the Code Switch post as a serious object in the American race archive. What’s more, the much more provocative antecedent gets buried somewhere only those in search of “real black writers” might look. It’s unfortunate, but not unprecedented. Just as the (white) internet began paying attention to (black) Twitter’s response to Paula Deen’s bigotry in a manner that did not properly acknowledge the ingenious, satirical black thought at work, the full thrust of Laymon’s equally genius essay got distorted and co-opted for a (rather fetishistic) white audience. And such occurrences compel me to yearn for a version of Ellison’s jug that allows its inhabitants to see out while preventing those who circulate on the outside, the interlocutors especially, from seeing in.
But perhaps I should just chill(, bro,) on comparing these two diametrically different ruminations on the same topic. Even with the internet, coincidences happen, right? Nah, bruh, I don’t think so.