Could You Please Go by Robert Lashley

Editor Robert Lashley, Editor's Choice, August 14th, 2017

"... the complex glory of being wrong and learning from it."

Robert Lashley Essay Nailed Magazine
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A personal essay by Robert Lashley.

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He wore a pork pie hat, tweed jacket, and liked turtle neck shirts. Almost every day, you could see him with a soup and six-inch in the downtown Tacoma subway. A skeptical democrat, he would go to meetings at Tully’s coffeehouse, where I would argue with him on every issue that inconvenienced me. Like everyone with sense in downtown Tacoma, he liked my ex-girlfriend more than he liked me.

I was a different intellectual bird then. I was a wounded man-baby who would emotionally lash out at the slightest criticism of any black man because “nobody knew how hard it was.” Like so many people who had traumas, I thought they were the cards I could play to get out of living an examined life. The networks that fostered late 90’s/early 00’s hip hop and R&B journalism gave me a place where I could act them out in an intellectual macho man persona. I couldn’t deal with the real pain in my life, yes, but I didn’t deal with the real pain in my life, and I take responsibility for the jerk I was at the time.

My neighbor and I had many dispiriting conversations. He didn’t give a gold star to everything about 90’s hip hop culture, asked questions about the civil rights movement, and didn’t think everybody was against me. I called him a racist a lot. By December of 2001, he had had enough. A month before, I had broken the heart of my ex for the last time by cheating on her again. I had a breakdown that night and went to my grandfather ask him for help in making me a better man, but people in the Tacoma arts scene had a right to still think I was a loud, self-pitying jerk.

It was in the middle of December when I saw him last. There was a core part of my person who knew I wasn’t shit and knew I had to leave town to process my life, so I had decided to move to Bellingham to start my life over. That day was unusually warm; and in the middle of moving, I decided to take a break to get some grape soda. A week before, I had read Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants, a book he recommended to me as a sort of literary forbearance of our friendship. The novel is about two writers in the projects: one black, one Jewish, and how they grew from racial hate to respect then went back to human hatred on the account of avarices that transcended skin color. It’s not a masterpiece: Malamud had a hard time writing women and his prototypical literary nihilist had become sort of a formula. What it is, however, is but a book that gets a lot out of the conflicts both men have with each other, and Malamud’s unwillingness to write political tract.

Then, however, I only saw a black writer being portrayed bad. And I went into him as he was leaving Subway. And five sentences into my harangue he snapped, “ALRIGHT! ALRIGHT! EVERY BLACK MAN WHO WALKS THE FACE OF THIS EARTH SHOULD NEVER GET CRITICIZED. EVERY WHITE PERSON WHO CRITICIZES YOU IS A RACIST. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. YOU DESERVE ALL THE TOYS YOU WANT IN THE WORLD, BUT WILL YOU PLEASE GO AWAY. JUST FUCKING GO AWAY. WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO MAKE YOU GO AWAY?”

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In the next fifteen years, that conversation has never left my head. In that time, I began to take responsibility for my life and go into therapy to deal with the neighborhood and sexual traumas that had happened to me. I molded myself after my grandfather, and began to conduct myself in a better way as a man. I came to terms with my aunts’ and mother’s lost friendship, stopped being angry at them for not being together anymore, and went back to what they taught me as a child. I grew up, and became a very likable person, and my ex and I are good friends now. (I also, as many of you know, became a somewhat recognizable figure in poetry scenes.)

The sadness I have over my self-pitying fuck-ups guides me in every issue. I’m not a moderate or a conservative: my beliefs fit more in the classical liberal spectrum. But I am always scared to have a set opinion on most things outside basic principles. I debate, debate, and debate almost every issue in my head, and I always hang out with people who aren’t afraid to tell me that they disagree with me. Because of this, and because of the iconoclastic aspects of my poetry, I’m seen as a literary figure people can talk to. And in the last two years, I’ve discussed politics with a lot of people who feel they don’t have that many people with which to talk politics.

In clubs, colleges, and festivals, I’ve talked to a lot of people who had no room in their peer groups for inquiry. People who get judged as soulless, calculating centrists because they don’t agree with an opinion “in extremis.”  When they didn’t want Nazis to doxx and injure students on their own dime, they were told they didn’t care about freedom of speech. When they wanted to defend the first amendment rights of speakers they vehemently disagreed with, they were told they were against social justice.

When they bristled at outsider artists disrespecting the high standards of the culture they held dear, they were told they were against cultural appropriation. When they cherished outsider artists who exceeded those standards and used forms to bridge cultures masterfully, they were told they hated their own culture. When they were hesitant to verbally flay a person for not being performatively woke 100 percent of the time, they were told they couldn’t possibly be aware of the damaging effects of oppression in society. When they offered criticism to (more than a few) segments of white people, they were told they were militants who were the single solitary reasons that Trump won.

This din that haunts those students has dovetailed painfully well with the two extremes of my social media feed. The first, a tribe of overwhelmingly white leftists who love the Chapo Trap House, still think Julian Assange is a hero and not a sexual predator, think rape jokes are funny, and expect Clinton voters to (as a commentator in CTH said) “bend their knee” to them. Another side of the tribe mostly consists of the nether ends of straight black Twitter and the woke white bros who love them; a tribe who has been defending Chris Brown’s, R Kelly’s, and OJ Simpson’s abusive antics, but–as highlighted recently by theroot.com–feel compelled to openly call Stevie Wonder to be excommunicated from black America because he said black people shouldn’t kill each other.

When they are not in their id, both sides (and their cross cultural, either provocateur or woke sycophants) have their valid points. Yes, we need to broaden the dialogue on class in this country and re-acquaint with old activist traditions that were the foundations of liberalism for a long time. Yes, racism is graphically real, graphically awful, and telling non-white men to be kinder to Trump voters isn’t a tangible public policy or strategy to fight oppression.

The problem is that–in regard to persuading somebody who doesn’t already agree with them–most people on both extremes of my social media sides couldn’t give away ice water in hell. The absence of grace, of understanding a person as a sum and not a hasty take, hangs very heavy through discourses I see and try to avoid. Also devoid in these discussions is the absence of dialogue, persuasion, and the complex glory of being wrong and learning from it. No, too often social media has been two lanes of a performatively woke or performatively transgressive sewer, and the second that I (a published author who needs to sell books) don’t need it anymore, it will be gone from my life.

Over the past year, I’ve burrowed in to do my own mentoring work, and I see friends who are doing the same thing as well: marching, calling, making moves behind the scenes, and not expecting cookies for it. If the democratic experiment has any chance to be salvaged in the next 2-4 years, it will come from them and other like-minded people. People more interested in showing who they are instead of telling people on social media and shaming people to look good. Because if there is some good to come out in the next two years, it will come from none of the members of the tribes I just mentioned. Only time will tell whether both sides are putting a social media stamp on the American Experiment’s ebb or its extinction.

But hey! What do I know? I have a disdain for Chapo Trap House. I don’t think student movements are above critique. I’ll punch a Nazi, but I’ll do it for the right for someone to express their opinion (even if I don’t like the opinion). I believe that Assange is an anarchist predator and so was Huey Newton. I will critique Mayer Hawthorne for playing his trade in soul music poorly and champion Amy Winehouse for being brilliant at it.

I have a grab bag of opinions, and if you disagree, I welcome to hear you out. If you are offended by me, however, I don’t care anymore. I’m a neo liberal. I’m a radical. I’m a black conservative. I’m a raving militant. You’re totally right about me. Everybody who believes exactly what you believe should never be criticized. Everyone who criticizes you is a racist/social justice warrior/fascist/neo liberal scum. Every single one of them. You deserve all the toys in the world, but will you please go away? Just fucking go away. What will it take for me to get you to go away?

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Header image courtesy of Eric Mack. Eric Mack received his BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 1998. Since, he has held several group and solo exhibitions throughout the world and his work is widely collected. As an abstract painter employing a specific two-dimensional vocabulary, Mack aims to reinterpret the system-based environment that we inhabit. View more of his work here.

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Robert Lashley

Robert Lashley is the author of The Homeboy Songs (Small Doggies Press, 2014). A semi finalist for the PEN/Rosenthal fellowship, Lashley has had poems and essays published in such Journals as Feminete, No Regrets, NAILED, and Your Hands, Your Mouth. His work was also featured in Many Trails To The Summit, an anthology of Northwest form and Lyric poetry. To quote James Baldwin, he wants to be an honest man and a good writer.