“I am a Southern black worker, committed to building stank-ass art rooted in honesty, will, and imagination.”- Kiese Laymon
I grew up in a small Brooklyn apartment, right in what felt like the center of the bright but turbulent city of New York with my two sisters, Gabriela and Elvira, and my Mama, Laura. Most days— whenever my sisters and I weren’t in school— were spent at my Grandma’s who fed us a strict diet of huevos en salsa verde, handmade tortillas, and an abundant amount of cariño, while my Mama—who had given birth to my oldest sister at the ripe age of only twenty-two— fervently folded clothes at the downstairs laundromat where she’d work from 6AM till about 9PM, six to seven days a week, to provide for my two mischievous sisters and I. From flooding our tiny upstairs apartment with water after watching The Little Mermaid to completely covering the walls with paint and markers in an effort to make the apartment look like a jungle after watching Tarzan, my Mama would still, in some mysterious way, somehow gather up the energy to wake my sisters and I up every morning, 7AM sharp.
Regardless of the clutter my sisters and I would manage to create the night before, my Mama would sit us down, comb our long, dark brown hair, fix us up with some badass braids, gel back our baby hairs and clip back any remaining strands of hair that might have slipped from her delicate yet robust hands with these ravishing, vibrant flower hair clips that would glisten when the light would catch a glimpse of the tiny rhinestone arranged right at the center of each one. And just in case you were wondering, my Mama would get the majority of our hair accessories from a local beauty supply vendor and I still reminisce over our Sunday afternoons after church mass where she’d converse and negotiate back and forth with the all too familiar lady vendor looking for a better deal. Perhaps it was my Mama’s big, stern, intense brown eyes or her kind and confident demeanor that she would proudly stride, but she would often get her way. Afterwards, she’d pack us our breakfast, which was usually a cup of the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal— the kind every kid dreaded, or at least I did— and as crafty and brilliant as my Mama was and still is, she’d place the cereal drenched in milk in a small plastic bag so we could eat it as we made our way to school. She was the closest thing I ever got to magic, and up to this day, I am convinced that if magic were a person, it would be my Mama. I see it in her dark eyes, in her soft smile, in her fleshy, warm, olive hued skin, in her adamant faith, in the way she carries herself and in the way that she raised my sisters and I to love ourselves and our roots.
(Cindy Castillo left, Gabriela Castillo middle, Elvira Castillo far right)
Despite my deep admiration for my Mama, I never felt or saw her in any of the literature texts I’d be required to read in school. It was not until I discovered black southern writer, Kiese Laymon, that I finally felt as though the woman that I had so passionately admired and aspired to resonate for the majority of my life was finally being represented. I found her essence and her ability to endure and persevere adversity through Laymon’s writing. His eloquent prose and his artistic craft offered a voice to those who felt like they had never been spoken to in novels and I immediately knew that I would have to dedicate at least one of my blog posts to the artist and writer that transformed my belief that any ‘serious’ and ‘meaningful’ pieces of literature were strictly reserved for those that Laymon best describes as “the kind that sat with its legs crossed, reading the New York Times.”
Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Laymon’s work delves into the humility and reality of failures, the chaotic and whimsical journey of identity exploration as a person of color in deep Southern cities, the complexities of diverse families, childhoods, art and friendships in a manner that is both relatable and freeing. Just like Steve Prince, Laymon also aims to curate a community where stories can be used as tools for honest storytelling, for “healing, for memory, mourning and renewal (Mccoy 63).” The parallels of Laymon’s and Prince’s art seem endless, but for now I’d like to focus on their shared technique in embedding and creating images that are both eerie, dreamlike, and surrealist.
Both artists understand the importance of constructing works that illustrate the results of years of racial segregation, ‘urban violence’ and the frustration that comes with the comprehension that they are “outside the protection of the legal system (Mccoy 64).” Laymon does this through his debut novel, Long Division, where he examines the complexities of African-American identity in a post Jim Crow era and the discrimination that follows after years of slavery. The novel, set in the year 2013, follows the story of young, black, fourteen-year old named Citoyen Coldson, better known as City, who finds himself a viral YouTube video sensation after cussing out judges at a spelling bee competition for asking him to use the word niggardly in a sentence. Following the incident, his mother decides to send him to rural Mississippi to stay with his grandmother where he discovers a mysterious paperback novel titled Long Division— a text uninhabited of a proper author— about another young, black-fourteen-year old who also happens to be named City but is set in the year 1985. Soon after, City discovers that the novel contains some sort of magical power, allowing him to travel in time between his present time (the year 2013), and between years 1964 and 1985.
Filled with magic, witt, and the realities of being a young black boy in the deep South, Laymon demonstrates his ability to create surrealist and metaphorical images through his writing while Prince demonstrates the same observation and commentary through his art. Prince’s works titled Katrina’s Dirge, a series of graphite drawings created after Hurricane Katrina, works well in depicting the similarity between the overlapping storytelling qualities in Laymon’s work and that of his own by illustrating congruent emotions of grief, exhaustion, sadness and mourning through androgynous figures of what appear as human-horses. Through this series, Prince is able to disclose the narrative of the “drowning of New Orleans,” an area rich in diverse cultures, languages, foods, religion, and “the literal crossroads of the Atlantic slave trade” in a way that intersects and interacts with that of the ambition outlined in Kiese Laymon’s work.