Kiese Laymon, a Mississippi-born Black author and professor, discussed his book, Heavy: An American Memoir, as part of the Lowell Humanities Series at Boston College on Wednesday.
In addition to Heavy, Laymon has also written a collection of essays and a novel, Long Division. He also writes for several different publications, including NPR and Ebony, and is a professor of English and African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi.
Laymon’s lecture started in what he called true Mississippi fashion, with a shout out to the Boston College Graduate Employees Union-United Auto Workers, who are calling for union recognition to bargain collectively with the university for better working conditions.
Laymon praised the graduate student workers for pushing for “the equity you’re fighting for, the power you’re fighting for, the liberty of practice you know you deserve.”
After his shout out, Laymon described his memoir, Heavy, as “a book I started on my grandma’s porch when I was twelve.”
The memoir speaks to powerful dichotomies, a theme of Laymon’s lecture. It is about lies and facing the truth, love and not loving someone anymore. Heavy narrates intimately the story of Laymon’s life: his struggles, his failures, and his almost progress.
Heavy deals with the discovery, in Laymon’s own words, “that structural abuses dictate much of our lives, [and that] the folks I’ve been the most harmful to in this country are people who I purported to love.”
The memoir speaks of Laymon’s philosophy “that there [are] teachers who do all they can to understand the South and the context of their students' bodies to ethically educate them without harming them.”
At the same time, however, Laymon said, “The most terrifying discovery I made while writing this book is that in America there really might be far fewer people [willing to put others ahead of themselves] like this than I believe.”
Laymon wrote the novel to his mom, explaining that their relationship was unhealthy. However, he admitted that he “can say now that it’s actually done a lot more harm inside my family than I ever could have imagined.”
Following this explanation, Laymon read a chapter of his memoir entitled “Meager.”
“Meager” focuses on Laymon and his four friends during their eighth grade year at St. Richard’s, a predominantly white Catholic school that they had to attend after Holy Family, the Black school, closed down.
“Gross existed on the opposite side of what we considered Black,” wrote Laymon, as he focused on the language divides between white and Black kids.
Language separates Laymon and his Black classmates from their white counterparts as much as their teachers’ careless racism and the expectations their parents place on them.
When a white teacher identifies one of the Black students as “gross” because of the way he smells, Laymon and his friends encounter a perspective about themselves that they had never seen before. None of them would ever call a person “gross,” but now that label applied to them.
The chapter continues to examine how language, contrasting cultures, and the casual cruelty of teachers and family members continuously defined Laymon in their words instead of his own.
“‘There still that Black abundance?’ ‘Yep’ Lathon told me. ‘And they still don’t even know,’” concluded “Meager” to thunderous applause.
The floor then opened for questions, and an alumnus asked Laymon how the student body could serve the Black community at BC .
“I want to encourage students at all institutions, including students at this institution, to rigorously love each other enough to push back and make the institution fair, safe, and healthy for them and folks coming after them,” Laymon responded.
Laymon has a second book, And So On, coming out in 2020.