This guest post comes from Jeremy J. Kamps, who was selected this year as a Fellow for the NYC Center for Fiction. Little Patuxent Review nominated his story, “Locked Out,” one of the stand-out pieces of short fiction we published in 2017, for the Pushcart Prize.
Now I Lay Me
Perhaps the most sacred ritual growing up was going to bed. Each night, depending on their schedules, I got either my mom or my dad to tuck me in to sleep. This was no simple snuggling of sheets around my body, but an ongoing episodic event.
When Dad put me to bed, we said the customary “Now I Lay Me” prayer and then added a long string of people, places and circumstances for me to bestow my Blessing. We decided who made the Blessing cut based on Newsweek articles from that week and people we knew who were sick or going through something shitty. My dad summarized all the happenings across the globe from Beirut to Bangladesh. We’d discuss the situation and then add that place or the people to the Blessing list. I wish I had written this list down, but I still remember some pieces of it today, and I am guessing it went for a good ten minutes. Each night the prayer was growing to epic proportions and I recited it like it was a spiritual chant.
When my mom put me to bed she told an interactive story about a boy named Jeremy (coincidentally enough) and his flying blue horse. Around the world and cosmos we went from adventure to adventure. She paused at key moments to ask what I thought would happen next. After I would make my predictions she continued the story and you know what? I was right every time. Whether this was by her design or due to her exhaustion of coming up with more storylines than CSI, I don’t know.
Between Newsweek and my flying blue horse I learned Story as a way to travel through and understand the world. I learned Story as prayer and a possibility, as social justice and wonder, as a way to love the world in spite of the hurt and hope for the world to love back and heal. Story is a painful admission of mortality and an audacious architecture of meaning. Story is ringing the bell in the town square, asking the community to come out and see each other, and it is a whisper in the night so that when the time has come, we can rest.
Remarkably, in all-white, rural Wisconsin I came across hip hop music in 1986. I scoured the cassettes sold at the local Shopko store and found one rap mix tape called Rap the Beat and later another called Kool Raps. I bought them and was introduced to Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions.
The local bookstore, Book World, stocked Word Up magazine about once a month in the far back corner behind Metal Edge and other heavy metal magazines. I was introduced to a world, point-of-view, and history beyond Whiteness. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Whiteness until I read Public Enemy’s MC, Chuck D, say that “Rap is black people’s CNN.” It was Chuck D who challenged the dominant narrative I had been told when he said, “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps” and charged Elvis the King with being racist and stealing rock ’n’ roll from Black culture. His hype man, Flavor Flav, taught me that 9-1-1 response time was slower in black and poor communities.
Boogie Down Productions MC, KRS-One, wore a t-shirt in a video that said, “Jesus was Black” and their By Any Means Necessary album cover that recreated the iconic Malcolm X image, compelled me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 7th grade, which was not on the Beaver Dam curriculum. I special requested Do The Right Thing from the local video rental store. I hid my NWA tapes under my bed, memorized every lyric of “Fight the Power” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” to name a few. Chuck D, KRS-One, Hip Hop was telling me a story, giving me a critical counter curriculum, and I wanted to engage in that story. Also in 7th grade I got together with the one other kid in town who liked rap and a reluctant third, and we made a group: Tri-JAC (Jeremy, Adam, CJ). We, too, were socially conscious, using art to say something and performed at some events around town.
From the 8th grade variety show:
People dying and starving on the streets of New York
And you just walk by and stare, you dork!
From a science project:
Hey y’all, stop using that aerosol
Tylenol, Advil, Excedrin, Bayer
Nothing is as painful as a broken Ozone Layer
From a church event:
Thank you Lord for the home and school board
For all the volunteers, through all of the years
Looking back on these and other lyrics, some so far from my reality, I see that writing, but more importantly, Story, was deepening and broadening my empathy on a human level. Chuck D’s story called me to reckon with where my story met his and this was the beginning of trying to navigate the world as an anti-racist. Hip Hop gave me a critical consciousness on Race and engaged me in that discourse. Hip Hop laid bare the system of Racism ingrained in our history and institutions. It demonstrated that to be silent was to support the status quo.
The Demon of Self-Doubt
It’s a perfectly fine afternoon. I just had a chocolate chip cookie. It was delicious. Not right out of the oven, unfortunately, but still chewy even on the edges. My lone regret is that I only got two and should have trusted my impulse to get six. The sun is setting. The breeze is gentle. I turn down the alley on the way home and halfway down, it’s there. It was hiding behind the dumpster and startled me by jumping out. Dusk is fast approaching and I think I should turn and run back, not for the cookies but for my self-preservation. It’s too late. It’s got me: the Demon of Self-Doubt. Immediately I am in its clutches, under its attack. “Who are you to tell stories!” Ouch. “You have nothing to say to the world!” Bam. Right in the balls. “You’re boring!” Slap in the face. “You could do so many other things and have stability and success!” I drop to my knees. “You’re wasting your time!” A blow to the head. I’m seeing stars. “What about your family? How will you live when you’re old? You’ll never pay your student debt! You’ll never own a home!” I’m bleeding now.
The Demon of Self-Doubt is unleashed. I usually can avoid it in this alley. But it’s got me and it’s ugly this time. But at the height of my pain, I refuse. There is no other way but through to the other end of the alley. There is no other way home. I reach down into my belt and grab my sword. Until this moment, I do not even know I have a sword, but indeed I do and it’s a Vorpal sword at that. I grip it and it’s about to go snicker snack on that Demon. The Demon of Self-Doubt doesn’t know because it’s too busy laughing at me. Its biggest weakness is its mockery. In one motion, I have pulled it out and slashed the snickering beast across the chest. It is stunned and in its moment of hesitation I drive the sword straight through the place where its heart is supposed to be. This is not sport. I do not waste time. I have stories to write. It’s night now. The moon is looking down upon me. I drop the sword, step over the Demon of Self-Doubt, and walk to the other side of the alley by its glow.