NOVEMBER 20, 2013
IN A 2011 ESSAY for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Kenneth Warren questioned whether African-American literature exists in the 21st century. He claimed that African-American literature is a historical genre, one that begins in the Jim Crow era and ends with the civil rights movement. In his view, once Jim Crow was defeated legally and socially, the literature and purpose of the literature written by African-Americans moved on to other issues. In a 2001 feature for Fence, poet Elizabeth Alexander recalled her anger and disappointment over an NPR interview featuring poet and literary critic John Hollander in which Hollander claimed that African-American poets may rise to prominence once they stop writing about their own personal experiences.
A number of forces — political, social, literary, and others — encouraged African-Americans to let go of the past and look toward a brighter future. The American myth, after all, is one of reinvention, the idea of a caterpillar remaking itself as a butterfly. Immigrants morph into citizens. Irish bootleggers become the Kennedys. Italian-Americans eventually become simply American. However, this mobility is not always present for African-Americans. Despite the success of the civil rights movement and American progress in race relations, a large part of the African-American identity is attached to centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow discrimination, an issue explored in Kiese Laymon’s debut novel, Long Division.
The protagonists of the novel are two black teenagers from Mississippi, both named City. One lives in 2013, and the other lives in 1985. However, the soul of the book belongs to Baize Shephard. A classmate of the 2013 City, she is missing at the beginning of the novel, and the quest to find her parallels many other quests in the book. In the novel, Baize prides herself on being “extra,” urban shorthand for being overdramatic or trying too hard. She knows she could do less and still succeed. In that way, understanding Baize Shephard is the key to understanding Long Division.
Long Division could have been a Nebula nominee. Long Division could have been a Young Adult classic. Long Division could have been a statement on American race relations. Long Division attempts to be all of these things. And while there are shortcomings — 270 pages might not be enough room to give every plot point and character arc the space they deserve — they are easily overshadowed by the book’s ambition. The book could have been 27,000 pages instead of 270, and readers would not tire of the world Laymon creates for his characters.
Baize Shephard disappears, and the ability to be seen and unseen is at the forefront of Long Division. The novel begins as 2013 City competes in a grammar competition. The initial tension lies in the rivalry between City, a chubby teen who treats his wave brush like a rosary, and Lavender Peeler, a self-proclaimed “exceptional African-American” who dreams of proving himself worthy to marry Malia Obama. This feud is compounded when the two have to represent their region in the finals of a grammar competition called “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence,” which claims to make up for the culturally biased nature of spelling bees. In these early scenes, Laymon shows his audience that Long Division is a novel where winning and losing in the traditional sense are never an option for his characters. For City and Lavender, the goal is not just to win the grammar competition, but to be noticed by those in power. As Lavender explains it:
African Americans are generally a lot more ignorant than white Americans, and if you’re an African-American boy and you beat not only African-American girls but white American boys and white American girls, who are, all things considered, less ignorant than you by nature — in something like making sentences, in a white state like Mississippi — you are, all things considered, a special African-American boy.
City just wants to be a good example for his neighborhood. For most of the novel, Baize Shephard daydreams about introducing herself to the world. This need for recognition and approval mirrors many moments in the African-American experience, including, perhaps most notably, Phillis Wheatley’s 1772 trial to prove that her poems were in fact the work of an African-American.
Because of the book’s setting in Mississippi, it would be easy to see this want for approval as a commentary on race relations and power dynamics. However, Long Division offers more than this. The novel also serves as a coming-of-age tale, and, like in many of these tales, the characters are left with the choice of accepting the rules given to them or finding a new set of rules to live by. For City in 2013, his journey starts when he discovers a mysterious book, also titled Long Division. This book introduces the second narrator, the City who lives in 1985. This City is concerned with gaining the approval of Shalaya Crump, his childhood crush, whom he hopes to win over using plans he has outlined in his notebook of “GAME.” He wants love, and this longing pushes him to travel through time with Shalaya. His love makes him rip through the fabric of reality. In a lesser novel, the idea of time travel could have easily pushed Long Division out of the literary realm and into the realm of genre writing. But the fantastic elements are still character-driven elements. What would a teenage boy do to be close to his first love? Time travel is not out of the question.
When 1985 City and Shalaya Crump time-travel to 1964, they are chasing the ghosts of their grandfathers, who died during the civil rights movement. Long Division is a haunted book. In 1985, City and Shalaya are haunted by rumors concerning their grandfathers’ deaths and how those deaths relate to their own mortality. In 1964, they are hunted and haunted by the Ku Klux Klan, who hope to preserve segregation and stop the activists who have come to Mississippi. 2013 City is haunted by the passion of the civil rights generation, the constant push for him to “run twice as fast to get half as far.” Ultimately, it is not the characters, the language, or the popular culture references that make Long Division an African-American text; it is the ghosts that inhabit the book. The cover of Long Division features a rusted, broken chain. This image, along with the book’s locale, easily evokes the tradition of slavery in the United States. And this tradition of otherness, this tradition of being valued and devalued based on skin color, is central to the novel. As the characters travel through time, there are humorous scenes involving technology, reality television, and the idea of an African-American president. However, in each time period — 1964, 1985, and 2013 — the African-American characters find the threat of racial discrimination and violence. No matter what the characters accomplish, whether it be academic excellence or time travel, their existence is never secure. It is telling that Laymon alludes to the election of Barack Obama and the murder of Trayvon Martin early in the novel, as they serve to represent the prime example of 21st-century African-American hope and 21st-century African-American hopelessness. Despite the ingenuity of the characters, they are never in control of their own narratives. They can create viral videos, fight for civil rights, meet portions of their pasts and futures, but they are never in control of the situation. Their plans never lead to their intended destination. There are always other forces dictating their actions. The characters can never grasp the ghosts they are chasing, and they can never fully exorcise the ghosts chasing them.
I won my school spelling bee in second and third grade, and I remember my parents taking me to Burger King to celebrate. Years later, I still have the trophies. I kept them because I wanted to keep the memories, to keep a sliver of time exactly where I wanted it. Of course, that is never possible. The characters in Long Division learn a similar lesson, specifically from Baize Shephard. During their conversations with her, she reveals that her favorite punctuation mark is the ellipsis because “The ellipsis always knows something more came before it and something more is coming after it.” With Long Division, Laymon gives us a story that embodies the ellipsis, the idea of an understood but unspoken beginning and ending. Narratives very rarely end; they go through edits and revisions. Characters are added and erased. For a book that begins with a grammar and language competition, Long Division fittingly ends with a statement about language, and that statement is that language, like history, never stops moving forward.