The Look 2020
A photographer and a writer separately explore black boyhood and the season.
Black boys from Mississippi know the Black boys from New York. When we were young, their parents sent them down south one summer. We were as afraid of calling them beautiful as we were of calling them by their real names.
If they were Chaka, Marcus, Stephon, Akil or Damon, we called them New York. Whether we were from Jackson, Memphis, Birmingham or Atlanta, they called us country. They were quick. We were fast. We were strong. They were tough. They talked with their hands. We listened with our chests. We were singular people — New York and I — but we were also representations of actual distinct places, and every meaty assumption that those two places hold.
We were Mississippi Black boys visiting Grandmama. They were New York Black boys visiting Mama Lara. All of us were they. All of us were them. By the end of one Saturday in the summer, New York Black boys and Mississippi Black boys wandered through woods, and woulds and coulds, through the kind of freeing friendship that is love.
This was five years before that stranger at Battlefield Park called us slurs, rhyming triggers and figures, with no fathers at home; 11 years before the police placed guns to our head for throwing invisible rocks of crack out of windows; six months after our teacher threatened to hold us back because we refused to write ourselves out of the assignments they gave; and two weeks after we tried to humiliate Octavia in the lunchroom to make ourselves feel harder, impenetrable, like men.
Every weekday summer morning, when Grandmama went to work at the chicken plant, we jumped off the porch of her pink shotgun house and sprinted 20 yards to Mama Lara’s tiny off-white house. Nothing separated Grandmama and Mama Lara houses, other than the largest, greenest garden in Forest, Miss.
This Saturday morning, we were out on Grandmama’s porch getting our cardboard sled ready to slide down the underpass on Highway 35 when New York walked up on the porch shirtless, wearing what looked like off-brand Buddies and fluorescent wristbands.
On the way to the underpass, we walked through the woods.
New York asked why some places in the woods were cooler than a fan, but not cool as air-conditioning.
We laughed, thinking New York was joking.
New York wandered away from us and walked closer to the edge of the woods. You good? we asked them.
I’m ready to go home, New York said.
They jumped the ditch and headed back toward Mama Lara’s house. We tried to make ourselves laugh because laughing was how we worried, how we consented to love and how we said I’d like you to love me.
They stopped next to my grandmother’s side of the garden and just watched the sunflowers, the greens, the black-eyed peas, beans, the cucumbers, the green tomatoes, the gangly stalks of corn twice as tall as any of us.
What you run up on? we asked New York. A snake? Copperhead?
New York ignored us and walked into the garden until we couldn’t see his fluorescent wristbands or the wet brown of his chest.
We followed, looking for New York.
Where you at, we asked. You need to stop playing. My grandmama don’t like when folks be messing in her garden.
We were behind the house when we heard, “Marco?” coming from the front of right of the garden.
Polo, we said.
There they go over there, we whispered to one another.
Where this fool at?
I think they bread ain’t all the way done.
We looked down every row in that garden looking for New York until we got to the front of the garden, on Mama Lara’s side.
“Marco?” we heard from where we’d just left.
We walked back to the middle of the garden afraid that New York had been taken by Wayne Williams, white folks or white folks’ god.
Something in those central Mississippi woods reminded New York of the language of home. Being reminded of home, so far away from the bodegas, the apartments that scraped the clouds, the fire hydrants and actual blocks, terrified or satisfied New York. Whether it was absolute fear or exquisite satisfaction, wandering through the cool spots in those Mississippi woods was too much for New York’s body.
We didn’t speak this.
New York didn’t speak this.
But our bodies knew.
In the middle of the garden, we felt a forceful wind getting closer to us and when we turned around, New York tackled us and laughed so hard as we all tumbled on a row of my grandmother’s butter beans.
On the ground of that garden, covered in vegetables and dirt, coated in so much laughter, I want to say that the Mississippi and New York in our Black boy bodies were indistinguishable from each other. That would be a lie. We absolutely contrasted. But the sight, tastes and smells of our contrasts felt like safeness.
Safeness. And safeness sounded like love. When we stood up, the rain dropped thicker.
Grandmama and Mama Lara were standing on the outside of the garden, pillars of our safeness, longing for more safeness themselves, each spraying us with water from their water hoses. “If y’all don’t get y’all behind from out our garden,” Mama Lara said, laughing, “we know something.”
We all knew something, too, and what we knew was more than short trailers and shotgun houses, more than magnolias and pines trees, more than semi-trucks filled with chickens headed to be slaughtered at the plant. We knew another way for Black boys in America to say I love you and I am afraid. And we kept saying I love you and I am afraid in as many different ways as we could that Saturday in the summer until it was time for New York to go home.
Andre D. Wagner is a photographer working in New York City. These images were taken between 2015 and 2020. Kiese Laymon is the author of “Heavy: An American Memoir” and the novel “Long Division.”
The Look is a column that examines identity through a visual-first lens. This year, the column is focused on the relationship between American culture and politics in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, produced by Eve Lyons and Tanner Curtis.