The Fire This Time

by Jesmyn Ward

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“Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel)” by Kiese Laymon Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996

Kiese Laymon remembers how his grandmama Catherine would wake up every day at 4:30 a.m. to make the family breakfast before going to work an eleven-hour shift at a Mississippi poultry plant where she sliced open and removed the guts of the thousands of chickens that came down the line. She did that for thirty years, and Laymon could never understand why she woke up so early every day to make herself clean and fresh before going back to the slop and “stank” of the plant. He understands now that even though the plant was a “laboratory for racial and gender terror,” Grandma wanted to look her best and be the best at what she did. Grandma understood that her “audience” wasn’t just her colleagues and their white male managers, but “all the black Southern women workers” who came before and would follow her.

The “presence and necessity of this stank” was the element that “dictated how Grandmama moved on Sundays” as head usher at her church in her starched whites, always “fresher this week than the week before.” In this dynamic between “stank” and “freshness” lies the “root and residue” of poor Black life in the rural South as well as its “excellence,” its “life, love and labor.” Even as a child, Laymon appreciated the way his grandmother was able to bring this “stank” to her “spiritual communal life,” though he didn’t fully appreciate this quality until years later when he first heard the album ATLiens, and then Aquemini, by the Atlanta-based hip-hop group OutKast.

Laymon was a junior at Oberlin College at the time and knew he wanted to be a writer. He was already familiar with OutKast’s first album when he heard a “new sound” that changed not just what he thought he understood about music, but also his “expectations of [himself] as a young black Southern artist.” After hearing ATLiens, he understood what all his English had teachers meant by “finding his voice” and knew that in order to fully express himself, he must write fiction and create worlds of speculation and possibility. Hip-hop had been up until then primarily associated with New York, and Southern fans like Laymon had begun to feel that the music didn’t love, respect, or represent them. ATLiens, on the other hand, made Laymon “love being black, Southern, celibate . . . Grandmamma’s grandbaby.”

After Laymon had graduated Oberlin and moved on to a Master of Fine Arts program in fiction writing that exposed him to new critical perspectives, the singer Lauryn Hill released her first solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The revelation that came from repeatedly listening to the record’s songs, which “called out a culture insistent on coming up with new ways to devalue black women,” was just how misogynistic many of the messages were in the music of his beloved OutKast. Laymon had higher expectations for their next album, Aquemini, which was released soon after Lauryn Hill’s and went to new levels in its cautionary, apocalyptic depictions of Black life. Laymon was reading Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred when the album came out, and the experience of these converging influences inspired him to begin writing what became his first novel.

Now a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, Laymon originally planned to interview the members of OutKast for this essay and invite grandmama Catherine to join them, but the plan fell through, and the interview never happened. This was just as well for Grandmama, who didn’t feel comfortable traveling to Oxford, where the university is located, because she didn’t know any other black people...

(This entire section contains 996 words.)

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there. Laymon admits that if he’d had the chance, the only thing he’d have wanted to ask Andre 3000 and Big Boi about was their grandmothers. He plans on going to see Grandmama this weekend and to play OutKast for her while he finishes this essay. Most of all, he wants to “thank her for her stank,” for believing in him when no one else did, and for saving his life by showing him “black Southern love.”


Kiese Laymon’s essay reads like a double love letter, to both his heroic grandmama Catherine and his visionary artistic influences Andre 3000 and Big Boi of OutKast. The quality that unifies both of these streams of inspirational love is the imperishable “stank” of “black Southern love.” For Grandmama, the “stank” was the “residue” of a hard day’s dirty work in an oppressive environment; her unvarying habit of making herself fresh and clean every morning before going to work in such a place was an assertion of her value and dignity that Laymon recognized even as a child. When he was out-of-place-feeling college student at Oberlin, a bastion of progressive, inclusive liberal arts, OutKast’s sonic innovations revealed to Laymon a new conception of the possibilities of artistic expression, as well as a new awareness of the complex intersectionality of his identity. Laymon heard in OutKast’s “spacey stank blues” something intimate, familiar, and enduring, a quality that reminded him of nothing so much as “grandmammas”—the continued legacy of Southern Black maternal strength as an essential, generative force.

The title of the essay is the prelude to a suite of songs on OutKast’s album Aquemini that Laymon describes at length. The two parts of “Da Art of Storytellin’ ” tell a complicated fable about contemporary Black life that culminates in the end of the world. The title then suggests that Laymon is paying homage to his influences while also placing himself and his work in their lineage, the generational continuum of “stank” that extends beyond Grandmama Catherine to all the nameless matriarchs who came before and will continue on. In the context of the “Reckoning” section of The Fire This Time, Laymon, like Clint Smith, offers a young, contemporary Black man’s impression of the simultaneous robustness and vulnerability of Blackness in a continuity of generative, creative, and life-affirming traditions.


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