Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge people with equity?
2 No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.
3 Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
4 Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
5 that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.
A Black man once told me that I lived, not in real life, but vicariously through books. That was said over 30 years ago, but it still stings. This tendency of mine, though, has been in full expression since the isolation began. Books of all genres have compelled me to understand our country’s past and my own. Reading Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, left me undone.
Oftentimes good literature disturbs us. It transports us beneath the surface of another’s life and we experience their reality. Heavy thrust me into the life of a Black man the age of my son. Laymon was born in Jackson, Mississippi, six weeks before my son in Starkville, Mississippi. Both were bright young men with futures so different it broke my heart to absorb Kiese’s reality and know it to be true.
Laymon wrote his memoir as a message to his mother. His relationship to her was the foundation of his life. A tall, full-throated Black man, a playwright and professor, told me years ago that “boys have no choice but to love their mothers.” The plays he wrote depicted a Black life similar to Laymon’s: full of pathos, joy, rich language, and abuse.
The best way I can understand Heavy is to see it as the lament of a Black man reflecting on his life. It is common these days to hear the media talk about Black people dying of COVID due to “underlying conditions.” Those “conditions” are heavy, Laymon was saying. The most powerful condition is being Black in America. His lament cried out as the psalmist does, “Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? No, in your heart you devise injustice and your hands mete out violence on the earth.”
Laymon was physically abused by his mother. He understood in his 40’s the frustration and rage, the loneliness, that tormented her. Her brilliance, what Kiese might call her Black abundance, was never appreciated by the white world of academia. This never-named woman loved her son and wanted to discipline his mind and body for what it would take for him to succeed in the same white world she found so cruel. But the child’s body only felt pain at the hand of the one he “had no choice but to love.” Kiese’s memories were steeped in a pain, a Mississippi Blackness, that set it apart from other stories of childhood abuse. The pain was inescapable, it was thick in the atmosphere of his life and his mother’s. And it was oh, so heavy.
The year my son matriculated at Davidson College in North Carolina, Kiese did the same at Millsaps College in Jackson. Both were drawn to liberal arts colleges with vibrant intellectual cultures. My father had gone to Davidson and his grandson was able to finish college with no debts. Kiese had to work, often did not have food, and was surrounded by White people. He rarely went to class but read all the assigned books, took Latin, and Women’s Studies. After months of study and the opening of his mind, he felt he knew enough to write about something he probably had felt most of his life. Now he thought he had words for it. He wrote an essay for a class about “Institutional Racism at Millsaps.”. When the student newspaper published it, a series of frightening events and reactions made it very clear to Kiese that he had lit a fire he didn’t completely understand. His mother had warned him, “They will try to shoot you out of the sky.” His other Black friends wanted him to shut up and get his degree, organize and make changes that way. A friend of his mother said, “ You wasting your time fighting rich Mississippi white folk for free. You can’t fight these folk with no essay. You ain’t organized. You aint got no land. You ain’t feeding no one with that sh_____ you writing. What is it you want White people to do, and how is whatever they do after reading that essay going to help poor niggas in Mississippi. That’s the only question that matters.”
He became a pariah to the White student body and the paper was shut down for ten weeks while new guidelines were developed. Ultimately, Kiese was expelled because he took “The Red Badge of Courage” from the college library without checking it out.
Laymon transferred and graduated from Oberlin College, received an MFA from Indiana University Bloomington, and landed a professorship in Poughkeepsie, New York, at Vassar College. The power and shame of addiction permeated Kiese’s life. He had been obsessed with his weight since he was twelve years old and weighed 213 pounds. He would gorge himself with food to manage his anxiety and continue until he punished himself. When he weighed in the 300 pound range, he would use intense exercise and starvation to lose the weight. Throughout these cycles, he wrote, taught classes, mentored students, and dealt with the white culture of Vassar College.
The white professors in his department repeatedly told him how lucky he was to be on the faculty. Laymon wondered if the Black faculty members at Jackson State told his mother how lucky she was to teach there.
Black students at Vassar gravitated to Laymon and he treated them like his family. Maizie was one of those students. He helped her appeal a suspension she received for threatening a roommate who “disrespected” her mother. With his assistance the suspension was reduced to banning her from the dorm and library after dark.
A white boy was brought before the judicial council, when Laymon was the only Black member, because security had found “felonious” amounts of cocaine, a scale, and baggies in his room. He was charged with possession and intent to distribute the drugs. He defended himself by describing a “big, dark man” who had made him use cocaine in a nightclub. Despite the dissension of Laymon, the council decided to practice what they called “transformative justice.” One of the white members declared that “we don’t know what he went through”. The result was no action taken against the boy.
“I thought about how even when we weren’t involved in selling drugs, big, dark folks like us could be used to shield white folk from responsibility….I’d look like a big, dark, black man since I was an eleven year old black boy. I’d been surrounded by big, dark, black men since I was born. I never met one big, dark, black man who could make a white boy buy cocaine. Apparently, there was one such big, dark, black man in Poughkeepsie, New York.”
At some point Kiese began to see himself as another Black man doing hard work in order for white people to prosper. “And some of us if we were extra lucky, would get to teach these small, smart, addicted white boys and girls today so we could pay for our ailing grandmother’s dental care tomorrow”.
Laymon’s memories should make it possible to see the protests in our country, sparked by the killings of Black men at the hands of policemen, as the outpouring of anguish, rage, sorrow, and exhaustion pent up over generations. Heavy ends with ambivalent prose and poetry. “We may remember, imagine, and help create what we cannot find.” Or we will not.
Kiese Laymon is now back in Mississippi and is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi.
Laymon, K. (2018). Heavy: an American memoir. New York, NY: Scribner.