On Choosing to Be Incompatible with the World
‘When They Tell You to Be Good’ by Prince Shakur
On Prince Shakur’s new memoir When They Tell You to Be Good (Tin House, 2022):
When he was an infant, prematurely born and still struggling to survive in the NICU, his father, with whom he shares his name, was murdered. Now he knows that his father “opened the door, hit the pavement, and sprinted for his life before he was shot down. At the center of my gravity is this moment.” He has positive feelings about Jamaica, where he was a kid “running around in my grandmother’s yard” and “my family worked as hard as possible to shield me from the violence.” But through his family, he feels the ambivalent forces of life and death, belonging and rejection. As he writes: “Some babies are born riding along rainbows and some tread the darkness with the duppy of death watching. I am born to both.”
Giving close attention to his relationships and interactions, he tells the story of how he came into his self-knowledge as a queer Black man and how he came into his activism as a young Jamaican-American. It’s a process to find people with whom he can mutually relate, to protect himself from their racism, to be willing to be touched, knowing that accepting himself as gay would ignite his life. He didn’t want to be one of the “well-read socialists sitting around in book clubs.” He wanted to disrupt the system, the system that Rastafarianism refers to as Babylon, mainly the oppression of white people and Western institutions. Increasingly, Shakur came to feel “the importance of being incompatible with a world that aimed to destroy you.”
Sometimes family members try to protect each other from the facts, but this leaves people “spinning on hamster wheels of illusion. We don’t get to know if someone we loved died cold, scared, or strangely relieved. The illusion becomes the truth.” As James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Shakur’s path of opening into his own family story showed him what Baldwin meant. Shakur discovers that “we must do more than stumble into our lives, upon our histories, answers, and ideologies. We must search and question to find meaning. What we are handed is not always what we must take.”
It’s liberation on a chronology that circles like a ribbon, walking the labyrinth forward and backward, leading us on the path of how he came back to and into himself.