The Black Recovery Stories Speaking to Individual and Collective Wellness

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“Heavy,” while addressed to Laymon’s mother, has its sights on a broader horizon, as well: It’s subtitled “An American Memoir.” Throughout the book, Laymon details the lies he and his mother have told each other — lies he suppressed through restrictive eating, excessive exercise and gambling. But the truth-telling doesn’t cure him. Instead, he follows the lead of rappers like MC Lyte and Scarface, who, in his understanding, depicted addiction and recovery “not as sites but as cycles.” Where Allen’s memoir concludes with her glorious sobriety, Laymon gives us the win only to reverse it. Toward the end of the book, he and his mother leave a casino together after a cathartic exchange. Laymon explains, “This is what y’all want in these books. ‘Look, it’s over, we’ve had the conversation we’ve been waiting our whole lives to have.’” But then you turn to the next page: “I’m going back up in that [casino], because that is much more how my life has been and will be.” This isn’t defeatist, he says — “it just means that the progress narratives they inscribe on all of our lives weren’t inscribed by people who love our insides.” He refuses to reproduce that kind of success story, that kind of “American memoir,” and risk shaming readers whose lives don’t conform to that script.

But the false victory is not the only American thing about the book. Laymon is invested in national recovery, too. He issues a vexed prophecy: “We will find churches, synagogues, mosques and porches committed to the love, liberation, memories and imagination of Black children.” Or, he writes, we won’t: Instead, “we will lie like Americans lie. We will die like Americans die.” He links his recovery with that of the broader group through an honest uncertainty — he doesn’t even know if he can get better, never mind what his efforts might mean to the nation at large. But he has to try. As he tells me, “I don’t think that anything better is going to happen in this world unless something better happens in my relationship with my mama.”

Reading and speaking with Laymon, one comes to feel that Malcolm X — a figure who, in the course of his egregiously short life, got sober, converted to Islam and led a movement — is no longer the best icon for the power of Black recovery. What Laymon relays instead is a lesson from ’70s-era Black feminists such as the writer Toni Cade Bambara (whom he cites in the epigraph to “Heavy”), who located the roots of social change in cherished relationships — prioritizing family and community over direct combat with the white world — and Bambara’s contemporary Angela Davis, who reminds us that “freedom is a constant struggle.” This elastic, relational, long-term approach to recovery is suited to a contemporary movement culture defined by a heavy inheritance: the knowledge that the question “if not now, when?” was also asked by some of the brightest and boldest members of prior generations, whose gains in equitable housing, health care, education and voting were not only left unfinished but were often actively reversed. This recognition can be depressing; but it might also serve as a lovingly realistic form of collective self-care. It acknowledges that individuals, like nations, don’t simply recover; they are always in recovery — working vigilantly and vulnerably in the service of a future they might not live to see.

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