Our latest Exclusive is an essay by Namwali Serpell with illustrations by Lauren Tamaki. This story is co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with Topic, which publishes an original story, every other week. Sign up for Topic’s newsletter now.
White men, white men, white men. They’re everywhere these days. Young ones leering, old ones Lear-ing. A white man sent me a message on a dating app the other day—an initial parry, if you will, a hello—about his penis, my fully-clothed photo, and my presumed “submissiveness.” An older white male colleague once told me he didn’t understand the “ontological difference” I had experienced in being a brown woman. The same man sexually harassed me for three years. There are white men to kill left and right. It would be so much easier to hate them if I hadn’t loved one from birth.
My father is a white man. In my country Zambia, where he moved as a young Brit eager to conduct research, he’s called a muzungu. He met and married my black mother there in the sixties. They made brown me, and my two brown sisters. We moved to the States in 1989. Maybe it’s because my family was already mixed, or because we now lived in the American suburbs, but it never felt weird to me to date white guys. Read more…
Late on a Tuesday afternoon in January, while I was at my therapist’s home office in Portland dissecting and disseminating a recent holiday visit with family, my elderly father was sitting in his Lazy Boy in New Jersey watching television, his brain slowly bleeding into his skull. I was anxious, unsettled. We were expecting a snowstorm and I now had to make the trek across the Willamette River from the Southwest Hills and back to my Northeast enclave. Right before I left my house, I had received an urgent phone call from my older brother: our father had taken a spill earlier in the day.
“I just spoke to Dad and he said that he fell today,” my brother told me. “He’s upset with himself and doesn’t sound right.”
“What do you mean he doesn’t sound right?’ I asked.
“He said he hit his fed, not his head,” my brother said. “And he hurt his hand,” he said.
A hot wave of energy ripped through the core of my body. The same sensation like when you almost get into a car accident. My father was in his mid-eighties, but had only recently begun showing signs of frailty.
“Have you spoken with Lee and John yet?” I asked my brother.
“Not yet. I’ll call them right now.”
My three older siblings all live within driving distance of our extended family back in Jersey.
“Listen, I have an appointment for the next few hours, but I’ll check in after,” I said. We hung up. But then I phoned him right back. “Someone needs to go over there and check on him right away!” I yelled. “And why the fuck is he not at the hospital?”
“I have no idea, Frances,” my brother said. “I’ll get on it right now.”
“And what the hell does Barbara think?” I asked.
“She thinks he’s fine,” my brother said. “Dad said she iced his wrist and gave him soup.”
My brother and I did not trust our stepmother to take proper care of our father. They had not been on the best of terms during the past few months. They hardly spoke to one another. And if there was a transaction, it was most likely her yelling at him about leaving something out of place in the house, and then him firing back. I had to go to my therapy appointment. There was so much on my mind, mostly around my recent visit to Jersey. I hadn’t been this concerned about the state of my family since our mother underwent cancer treatment almost ten years ago. Now it was our father; he was having a hard time of life.
There was already a benign layer of snow carpeting the ground when the session ended and my therapist, a sturdy woman in her fifties who I have been seeing for over two-and-a-half years–and whom I would describe as tough and unconventional and kind (a Mack truck filled with marshmallows)–walked me out her back door. She lives and works out of a cozy Keebler Elf-type bungalow in a hilly, leafy Portland enclave. “It’s so pretty,” I said looking up at the dark sky, letting the thick wet flakes fall onto my face. I could tell she was concerned about me. Of course I’d shared with her that my father had fallen earlier in the day, and she knew he was having a difficult time in his marriage.
“You okay driving in this?” she asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll just take it slow.”
She knew I did not feel safe, that I was scared not only about driving through a snowstorm, but that I was worried about my dad. And she was right. I wanted to be alone, with nobody there to witness the distress.
When I got into the car, I found a thirty-something deep text message conversation between my siblings. Ambulances, hospitals, MRI’s, confused speech, unrecognized faces. It felt as if my whole body had been wired with electrodes.
“Sorry, I’ll be home in about an hour,” I wrote back. “It’s snowing hard here.” Then I found my way out of the now hardly recognizable neighborhood, then crawled through the white-out storm in the relative safety bubble of my Subaru wagon. Read more…
The Rikers Island jail complex, built on an island just off the borough of Queens in New York City, has been described as the world’s largest penal colony. It has seen its share of controversies, many of them involving issues of race. Rikers is no exception to the disproportionate and mass incarceration of Black and Latino people in the United States.
Over the past year, an independent commission, led by the former chief judge of New York, has studied the jail, and on April 2nd, it released its recommendation: shut down Rikers. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also backed the recommended course of action, which aims to have the last inmate depart the jail within 10 years.
In place of Rikers, the plan proposes building smaller jails inside New York City’s boroughs to eventually house half its current number of inmates. At the heart of this proposal is the view that people who are sent to jail are from the community, not “other.” This view dictates that they should stay in the community during their jail term. That is, people who have been arrested or convicted should not be cast away on an island, out of sight, mind and empathy.
It’s an idea once espoused by the writer and activist Grace Paley in “Six Days: Some Rememberings,” the story of her time in prison, during which a fellow inmate tells her: “That was a good idea… to have a prison in your own neighborhood, so you could keep in touch, yelling out the window.” It’s also an idea in keeping with racial justice: Black and brown lives matter, and cannot be so easily discarded when they are seen.
In the following essay, originally published in March 2015 on The Butter, I explore these ideas by comparing Rikers to another racially charged penal colony that has already been closed down: Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. That island was once infamous for imprisoning Apartheid-era political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela), but is now a museum and tourist destination.
By commingling my journeys to both islands in this essay, I question what it means to banish our “unwanted,” whether because of crime, politics or disease, across the sea, far from the safety of our mainland. Is this impulse truly part of our nature? Using my experiences of these two places, I confront questions of nature, both of the land and of people, and how that nature collides with questions of race.Read more…
The winter that I leave, the desert nights become so cold that cactuses uproot beneath the weight of ice. Old saguaros the size of trees lay like fallen men in front yards and on medians. Under the ink sky, it is so dark that the mountains disappear—even the wall of the Catalinas to the north—and I lose my compass entirely.
I am standing at the door, my breath freezing in punctuated wisps beneath the porchlight. The sky is a low-hanging ceiling, and the city lights have swallowed up the stars. If I could, I would make a bed from the clouds. I would turn like a dog in a rounding ritual before lying down.
Don’t go inside, thrums my heart, and so I stand, idling, inspecting bricks and mortar, the very bones of the house. I do not know it, but the thought of leaving has made a home in my body. It is an animal scratching toenails at the walls.
The lady at the Motor Vehicle Department has done-up fingernails stamped with tiny chevron lines. I feel underdressed. She says I need to take the car to the emissions testing center, even though the check engine light is illuminated and we both know it will fail. But she needs proof that it will fail so the car can be transferred out of the ex-husband’s name and into mine. Besides our children, this is the last thread that connects us, and the rope will not fray.
There are inspection and penalty fees, extra paperwork, countless people meddling in one 1998 Volvo station wagon. I am consumed by the work of untethering. I consider giving up, abandoning the car on the side of the road, gifting it to someone in need of a dry place to sleep.
The seat belts snap apart while driving. The driver’s side door panel falls off. The glove box is secured by a jumbo paper clip. The rearview mirror will not adjust. Everything in this stupid car is coming loose. When I clutch the steering wheel, mine are the white knuckles of vulnerable mothers. Read more…
Last year in New York City, a 19-year-old engineering student named Nayla Kidd went completely off the grid. She changed bank accounts, cell phone providers, shut down her social media, and ditched her Ivy League college to move to Bushwick and become an artist and model, all without ever informing anyone in her life. Social media jumped all over the story, and then news outlets followed suit. Kidd was a missing person for around two weeks when the police finally found her.
I remember reading her post-discovery missive in The New York Post, complete with discussions about her fancy boarding school, full scholarship to Columbia University, calculated plans, the loving mom who had clearly sacrificed for her, and thinking it was a story of the ultimate callousness. She’d had everything, but she said the pressure was entirely too much, that she’d wanted to run away and have the fun life she saw in an East Williamsburg loft she was thinking of renting. I remember reading it, sitting there and staring at the the words while thinking of my own picture plastered across subways and bus stations. How could she do such a thing intentionally? Didn’t she understand what it was like to be truly lost, to need help? Didn’t she understand that so many people were, that it was not some game?
Perhaps I was jealous. When my mental illness made me a missing person in 2010, the NYPD suggested to my friends who reported me missing that I had run off to follow a band. Though my friends set up a cross-country network of activists looking for me in any of the places they thought I might have been, the NYPD did little. Had the cops accessed my bank account, or even looked at my Metrocard swipes (an investigation practice well-established by law enforcement by 2010), they’d have easily figured out that I wandered around the city aimlessly for days before taking a bus to my hometown and checking myself into a hospital. When I saw Kidd’s story, I thought of all the resources that had gone into her “case,” and all of those of us who really were lost, unhealthy, and scared, who were given little to no help.
Alone in a hospital bed that year, unknown, technically still “missing,” my head still a wash of paranoia and confusion, I began to entertain a fantasy. What if I moved to the Midwest? Changed my name? My gender? Grew a beard? They were thoughts I couldn’t remember ever before having had, but they seemed exactly like what I should do in that moment. I had a vision of myself, flat-chested, wearing a white Hanes T-shirt, a genderless pair of Levis, and combat boots. What if I disappeared from all the people in my life? Started over as someone new? I was not well at the time — I was also standing in front of the mirror thinking about a bug I was certain had entered into my skin and had been living in my bloodstream for years, something I now know is obviously not true — but having disappeared from everyone in my life successfully, I began to wonder, “What if I really need to disappear?”
Years later, it wasn’t until I remembered this fantasy that I began to empathize with Nayla Kidd.
I wrote 300 Arguments when I was in a bit of a midlife funk. I was thinking about certain types of failure that just sort of collect at midlife. The idea of midlife is itself a sort of a cliché; it’s a very conventional mode of thinking about the human lifespan. It’s an assumption, to start, that everybody has the same life span. But there really is something to getting to a point in life where major decisions have been made—maybe they’re not permanent but they feel permanent. You choose a vocation and the thing that you do all day long. You choose your people, and if you have a family you’ve chosen the people to include in your family. What felt really sharp to me at the time that I was writing this is that there’s this experience of failure that seems fairly generally applicable to being in one’s midlife. All of a sudden there are these desires that felt obsolete to me that I thought would always feel necessary. There were thwarted ambitions. You sort of realize that failing is a skill of general utility.
“Wait, so your ex called your boss and tried to get you fired?”
This is me.
This is Andy. We are on a break from German class, 15 minutes between the future tense and the subjunctive. He’s from Baton Rouge and I’m from Seattle, but we’re speaking German, for practice. We are not very good.
“Er ist ein … Fucker,” Andy says. “He told my boss I was reading ebooks at my desk instead of working—which I totally was.”
“So, did you get fired?” I ask.
“No, my boss already knew I was a super shitty employee. But then I called up my ex’s boss and got him fired.” Andy’s former boyfriend is in Amsterdam; he’s a mechanic. A few months ago he told a customer that her car was totaled, bought it off her for a few hundred euros, then sold it the next week for two thousand.
“Es ist nicht so gut,” I say, my German failing, as always, to reach the correct level of emphasis. We are both going through breakups. It’s been a week since mine and six since his. This is what we talk about every day, 15 minutes at a time.
Two weeks ago, Andy’s ex visited him here in Berlin. They had dinner, then sex, then Andy asked him to leave, told him he shouldn’t sleep over now that they’re not boyfriends anymore. Three days later, the cops called. His ex is filing charges for attempted murder. He says putting him out on the street in middle of the night in February is an act of violence. Andy has to be in court next week.
He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.
I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.
I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…
The land of the free, I began to understand, was also the world leader in imprisonment, just as the first country to embed inalienable human freedom in its Constitution was also founded on the brutal enslavement of an entire race.
America was, I realized, an idea, but it was also, in many ways, a contradiction that was somehow compelled to try to resolve itself again and again. This was a country of profound newness, and yet it has repeatedly failed to replace the dollar bill with a coin. It was a place of staggering wealth, yet it contained scenes of public destitution and poverty and decrepitude I’d never seen in Europe. It pioneered space travel, but its trains seemed relics of the early-20th century. It was a country made possible by the automobile, yet it could barely tax gas. In the cradle of modernity, it was still common to hear the phrases “Yes, sir!” or “Yes, ma’am!” — which sound, to a modern Brit, like something from the 19th century. It had a Congress, but no one seemed actually to debate there. It had a capital city, but its inhabitants had no voting power in Congress. Its founding, murderous racism — encoded in its very DNA — still segregated and marginalized so many, but it had also paradoxically created some of the most sublime moral movements in human history.
Conservative political commentator Andrew Sullivan recently became a United States citizen. In New York magazine, Sullivan reflects on how he learned to embrace the U.S.’s flaws and virtues as he watched the country go through social and political shifts over the last three decades.
When Fingal points out that D’Agata, far from revealing the meaning of Presley’s life by sifting through its particulars, is inventing and imposing his own meanings on it—this is during an exchange about tae kwon do, which Presley practiced and for which D’Agata concocts an elaborate originary legend involving an “ancient Indian prince”—D’Agata replies that there is something between history and fiction. “We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.” The “emotional truths” here, of course, are D’Agata’s, not Presley’s. If it feels right to say that tae kwon do was invented in ancient India (not modern Korea, as Fingal discovers it was), then that is when it was invented. The term for this is truthiness.
Yet D’Agata, as Fingal notes, is not presenting Presley’s story to the reader as something that has been “poetically embellished” (Fingal’s phrase), or as the chronicle, as D’Agata insists, of his own search for meaning. He is presenting it as a work of nonfiction. D’Agata clearly wants to have it both ways. He wants the imaginative freedom of fiction without relinquishing the credibility (and for some readers, the significance) of nonfiction. He has his fingers crossed, and he’s holding them behind his back. “John’s a different kind of writer,” an editor explains to Fingal early in the book. Indeed he is. But the word for such a writer isn’t essayist. It’s liar.