A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad

December 22, 2018 | 9 books mentioned 7 min read

I’d never been inside of a prison until this past spring, when I received a grant to teach a creative writing workshop at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall facility. This meant driving every Tuesday morning for two months to Martinez, California, a sleepy city to Oakland’s north, until I arrived at a squat, nondescript beige building set off from the street by oak trees and a huge visitor parking lot that was always full. Usually I parked on the street, which extended on into the distance until it curved around into a residential neighborhood—California ranches, two car garages, various shades of beige and gray. From the neighborhood, not a single aspect of the prison was visible.

The strip mall parking lot aside, the juvenile hall was an unassuming element of the neighborhood: it featured a boxy modernist design, a pleasant little courtyard just out front, and a sleek glass façade. If not for the signage indicating that I had indeed stumbled upon a prison, I would have assumed I was walking into the local high school, with its boxy Modernist structure, pleasant courtyard, and glass façade.

The interior trashed that illusion. When I arrived for a February meeting with prison authorities to discuss the workshop’s logistics, a security guard barked at me from behind bulletproof glass—rules required that I trade my driver’s license for a guest badge. I felt a vague, animal discomfort about the exchange. The prison librarian, a woman about my age whose easy smile and buoyant personality calmed my nerves, arrived in the lobby and ushered me into the facility’s innards. The prison revealed itself to be a seemingly endless labyrinth of identically spare white cinderblock hallways leading to unmarked doors that opened up onto yet more cinderblock hallways. There was little signage indicating what turns took you where, but the librarian kept a quick pace. She whipped her away suddenly around corners without much warning; I scampered after her. My shoes slipped about on concrete floors so polished that I could almost see my reflection in them. I wondered whether, if left to fend for myself, I’d ever find my way back out. What would happen if a security guard caught me wandering the halls, if he didn’t see my badge?

The librarian and I chatted the entire way, about how excited the students were to meet me, how relieved they were to encounter somebody new, how much they were looking forward to writing. We approached one of the doors; the librarian stopped dead in her tracks, but didn’t stop talking. I must have looked confused; “We have to wait for the guards to open the door,” she explained. We stood for a few seconds before a voice boomed from out of a speaker I could not find. “Tell him to show his badge,” someone commanded. Startled, I lifted the badge from my chest, offering it to a camera I knew was there but could not see.

We walked through, into the prison’s center, and were immediately met by a group of boys, marching slowly down yet another cinderblock hall. Something about their bodies—the limited range and uniformity of their movements, the way they shuffled their feet instead of lifting them from the ground, the way their heads bent so that their faces were nearly parallel to the buffed concrete—was off. It took me a few seconds to process what I was seeing: black and brown teenage boys being marched single file by a CO, their hands and feet shackled to a single chain. They appeared younger than I had imagined, their faces puffy with baby fat. Not a single one of them looked older than 19, and when they lifted their heads, their eyes met mine with a mix of hatred and shame.

That day, I left the prison with sadness and doubt swirling in my gut.  What was my presence in that place and with those boys meant to do? Was I just legitimizing the prison’s dehumanization of black and brown youth? I had volunteered for the workshop out of some hazy notion that I’d change how marginalized youth thought about their world, give them the tools to represent their own lives via story. But the sight of those shackles made my vision seem flimsy in comparison.

My experience in the prison sent me on a yearlong search for literature with the heft of reality—not of this reality, but another one, to remind myself that writing could conjure entirely worlds altogether different from the one I’d encountered in the prison. Before the first workshop session, I sent my students a poem—“Alternate Names for Black Boys,” a stand out from Danez Smith’s 2014 book [insert] boy, which I had read that spring upon the recommendation of an artist friend. Smith’s poetry feels religious in essence, in the way it insists that there has to be another world beyond this one, where black bodies are imprisoned, shot, choked out, electrocuted, subject to an endless series of horrors. There has to be another world, they insist, and we have to make it, together. In the poem “Poem Where I Be & You Just Might,” Smith writes: “God’s flaming eye, I stare into it always/Dying to blink, irises cracking like commandment stones.” Their language is incredibly visceral, urging the reader on to this bodily encounter with the divine—an encounter we can only begin to envision through communion with one another—moved me to tears when I first read [insert] boy. I’d hoped that my class, a gathering of black and brown boys, would find it an appropriate starting point for our workshop.

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Smith sent me on a poetry bender, as I’m wont to do during the summers. Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death was my biggest summer obsession: it’s a patience-testing monster of a book that blends essay and poetry in order to rethink the prominence that music enjoys in African American studies. Smith is interested in how the tightknit relationship between a mostly male-dominated jazz canon constructs a strain of black studies that conflates “feeling black” with an immersion in black music. For her, this intellectual legacy forecloses some larger questions about blackness, and leads us to automatically associate any black music with radical black resistance. Her prose—audacious, often moving in two directions at once, infused with the ethos of the black vernacular, informed by hip hop culture but never succumbing to sentimentality about the music—is never less than riveting. Turning her attention to the rapper Future’s 2015 song “I Serve the Base”—an ode to being an unrepentant scumbag—Smith is decisive: undue commitment to music as an object of black study leads us to excuse a music that will serve “Whatever you want … for money, for a nihilistic, endlessly repetitive and narcotized kind of peace … the call to recede into the persona of whatever it is one serves.”

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Jasmine Gibson’s Don’t Let Them See Me Like This was also impressive. It’s a poetry collection that manages to be simultaneously tender and incisively political. In “Electric Wizard,” she writes, “In which panel do I get to be Fred Moten or/Frantz Fanon, so that you can think my words are pretty too?//I want myself against everything/Stay there and be burned into the mind/Into the mind,” and I love the way that third line turns on a minute shift, from trenchant disdain for a world built on white supremacy into something like desire, the will to be “against everything,” as Mark Greif would have it, turning into the yearning for bodily proximity. For me, the collection’s incessant flitting between anger and sensuality destabilized what it means to undertake a radical politics, moving us away from a hardened antagonism and into something more receptive: an attention to the sensuality of black bodies, and all the ways they can be in the world.

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I read plenty of good prose, too, that spoke to that sense of possibility. Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is a collection of short fiction so masterful that you can’t help but put the book down to marvel at the architecture of his language. Brinkley’s virtue is that he doesn’t settle for merely representing black life (a black Greek party soundtracked by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo,” for example); instead, he uses fiction as a space in which to reveal the sense of enchantment that undergirds black life. By the end of “No More Than a Bubble,” Brinkley managed to make me think so deeply about the series of performances known collectively as “black masculinity” that he made me reconsider what the short story form is capable of. Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy performs similar alchemy, drawing our attention to the physical experience of black masculinity. Laymon asks us to think about what happens when black male bodies fail to mirror the images that the American cultural imaginary is always comparing us to. In doing so, he has also written an aesthetically gorgeous bildungsroman of the assorted tragedies, affections, and traditions that turned him into a writer.

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There was so much more that I read and enjoyed this year. I’m a Californian, and it delighted me to no end to see an outpouring of literature by and about fellow Californians. There were a few highlights for me. Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State is at once a hilarious examination of poor white culture in Northern California’s far flung rural counties, and a harrowing portrait of single motherhood. Kiesling’s juxtaposition of motherhood and an incipient political crisis seems to equate the governance of tantrum-throwing Californians with the raising of tantrum-throwing children. Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars is a vivid portrait of an urban community of immigrants. Wandering City Lights Books in San Francisco over the summer, I found a copy of Wanda Coleman’s Native in A Strange Land, a collection of prose poems and short stories about Los Angeles that evoke the loneliness, but also the enchantment, of being black in a city that has normalized alienation. Joan Didion’s Where I Was From made me reflect on my family’s scant presence in the state, such that I can’t think of California as a place that I’m from so much as a place that I ended up via a few historical aberrations: my maternal grandparents’ decisions to abandon Louisiana so they could become shipbuilders down at San Pedro.

More than anything else that I read this year, those two books made me appreciate the unlikeliness of my black life here in this golden state—the persistence and tenacity that preceded me and resulted in my being here at all. It’s a lesson that, after walking out of that prison, I needed to relearn.

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is a staff writer for The Millions. He splits his time between Los Angeles and Oakland, where he's currently working on a dissertation and a novel. Find him on Twitter @trapmotives and IG @trapmotifs.

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