Two Mississippi

Heavy: An American Memoir BY Kiese Laymon. Scribner. 256 pages. $16.

The cover of Heavy: An American Memoir

The tragedy of the formative opening episode in Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy, is an American one, never more identifiably so. I’m writing this on the first day of October 2018, and last week millions of us watched the hours of retraumatizing and indignant testimony concerning an episode nearly identical to Heavy’s opening scenario. A fifteen-year-old girl, wearing her one-piece bathing suit under her clothes, is tricked into a bedroom with boys who are seventeen and bigger than her. There is laughter, among other sounds. They close the door. She cannot leave. Across from the closed door is a bathroom. After, someone will seek cover there, and when the coast is clear, the same someone will run outside and somehow make it home and tell no one. During, the two others at the small party wonder about what is happening in the bedroom.

“Fool, what you think? Running a train.”

“Train,” that’s chapter 1. The term is new to the worried kid who asks his questions. It was new to plenty of Americans, too, when Brett Kavanaugh was credibly accused of having committed sexual assault as a teenager, among similar accusations that suggest a hideous pattern: that when he and his friends victimized girls, they did so customarily as a group. “Train” rape was part of the culture, according to another victim who came forward to recall what happened on both sides of the closed doors at unsupervised parties in the Reagan-era summers. It’s the same word.

In Heavy, the scene occurs in 1987, not 1982; in North Jackson, Mississippi, not white suburban Maryland. The seventeen-year-olds are not Brett and Mark or PJ and “Squi,” they are Daryl and Delaney and “Wedge,” and it is Layla, not Christine, whom they violate. Swimming in the pool hasn’t happened earlier in the day; it is held out by the boys as something they’ll let her do if Layla does not resist them. It isn’t beer, it’s Kool-Aid they’re drinking; later, forties of malt liquor. And the girl consents to stay and claim her afternoon in the pool. It is, rather, the youngest at the party, the author at age twelve, who makes a pretense of needing the bathroom when the older boys, their shirts tied like turbans around their heads, leave Layla and tell young Kiese—Keece—to go have his turn.

Something seems wrong to him, about the whole event, and he tries to work out what it is: “Part of it was Layla was a black girl and I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them.” This formulation, approaching a recognition of complicity, is not what he is able to articulate when he and Layla speak. Nor can he manage to confide from his relevant experience “some of the happysad stories of our bedrooms.” Instead, he notices that her exposed stretch marks are like the ones he’s hiding on his 213-pound body; agrees to get her a drink from the kitchen; and replies, when she wonders, finally, whether they’ll laugh at her when she joins them in the deep end: “I guess. . . . They be laughing when they nervous. Why you call it yellow Kool-Aid and not lemonade?”

“Ain’t no lemons in it.” The directness of her answer acknowledges the displacement in his question. It seems to me directness and displacement are steadily dueling in the life Laymon is writing.

Spencer Evans, Mother to Son (Keadra and Xavier) (detail), 2018, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36".
Spencer Evans, Mother to Son (Keadra and Xavier) (detail), 2018, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36″.

The brief exchange with Layla is Heavy all over. It is conscious of weight, which is regularly recorded as Kiese ages, up to 319 pounds as a college freshman and down to 159 as a college professor and back up, drastically, over thirty years. It is conscious of words, of performance in language: code-switching and “showing out,” as Kiese’s mother calls it. Or as he and his inventive friends later come to claim it in mostly white classrooms: “shhhtyle,” part of “that black abundance.” It is conscious of his mother, for her sake stopping short of sharing actual stories from “our bedrooms.” It weighs candor against covering. It is post-traumatic and tense, fraught. And the freight is American. The heaviest we have.

Kiese Laymon has written before about the figure of his mother and the violent transgressions in their home, as an element of his phenomenal and varied 2013 book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, part life writing, part cultural studies. In Heavy, she is never the subject, but she is on every page the addressee. This, then, is an unusual account of self, one that is also a direct reckoning or a reconciliation. The towardness, the compulsion, is immediate from the opening of the preface: “I did not want to write to you. I wanted to write a lie. . . . I did not want to write about us.” She is the you, not you, reader, and not I. Not I, expressly: Some of what Laymon presents of their long dispute is about his work and white audiences and white onlookers. In a late scene, mother and son come together in unlikely circumstances, in a hotel room 1,400 miles from her home:

“I just think you share too much with people who don’t love either of us. . . . There are things I want to say to you that white folk do not deserve to hear. I have a heart, Kie.” . . . I asked you why we’re still talking about people not in this room.

“Because they’re listening, Kie,” you said. “They read everything you write.”

Kiese’s mother was his first reader, an exacting one, and she assigned what he was to write. It was on one such assignment that he was at the house where Daryl and his friends took advantage of Layla. Kiese was there because the house had encyclopedias, and he was to research “two politicians named Benjamin Franklin Wade and Thaddeus Stevens. You told me to compare their ideas of citizenship to President Ronald Reagan’s claim: ‘We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.’” It was his mother’s assignments that made him a writer, a black American writer, and it was her learned English he spoke in her presence or suffered the consequences; a political activist and a devoted professor at Jackson State University, she would not “excuse mediocrity” and maintained that words like ain’t, gone or gonna, and nan were ultimately dangerous for black boys in Mississippi.

But when trauma caught up with young Kiese, burying him in his weight, he turned to his mother’s mother, Grandmama, because she and he spoke alike and had a shorthand understanding of his mother’s contradictions. Because Grandmama “told me when I wrote my report on the Book of Psalms later that night, I could write the way we talk,” it seemed invitation enough to write instead, bravely, about all the secrets he’d been swallowing. There was no one else to tell, certainly not his mother.

“I try but I can’t tell her what’s wrong. Can I tell you? Can you help me with my words? The words Mama make me use don’t work like they supposed to work.”

I wrote the words “be kissing me in the morning” “be choking me” “be running a train” “be beating my back” . . . “be wet dreaming about stuff that scare me” “be watching people” “be getting beaten” “be listening to trains” “be on top of me” “be on my knees” “be kissing me in the morning” “be choking me” “be kissing him at night” “be hitting hard” “be saying white folk hit the hardest” . . . “be eating when I’m full” “be kissing me” “be choking me” “be confusing me.”

He concludes, heartbreakingly, “Grandmama, can you please help me with my words?”

“Be” is the title Laymon gives that chapter. “Nan” is another. “Hulk” finds Kiese at sixteen, in high school, the day after Rodney King is beaten with his hands cuffed and legs bound. The same day he watches this “gang of white police officers try to kill a chained black man they later claimed had ‘Hulk-like’ strength,” Kiese’s sexual relationship with his white girlfriend is discovered by his mother: “When I got in the house, you brought your belt across my neck.” He withstands the beating without resisting.

It is over the next several years, in the middle third of the book, that Laymon says his weight peaks, over 300, at predominantly white Millsaps College. And it is there, upon excelling as a writer and independent intellect, authoring a column in which he writes candidly, and ultimately notoriously, about race on campus, that he starts to manage his health. Over one summer, he drops eighty pounds. The loss, his release, his freedom, is uncontainable. Can’t stop running. When Millsaps finds a way to expel him, his story unforeseeably impresses Oberlin College, which offers him a scholarship. From there to Indiana University, for graduate work, and then “I was a 180-pound black adjunct professor at Vassar College. I had 6 percent body fat and a few hundred dollars to my name.” It’s an astounding journey, not least for the ways it duplicates his mother’s. Duplicates and complicates.

They arrive at different understandings, presumably, of what it means “to write to and for my people,” as his mother’s mentor, the poet Margaret Walker, advises. Laymon’s ideal is Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love, whose first sentence is the kind he wants “to be written to me every day for the rest of my life.” By contrast, much as he loves Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, he can’t help wondering what is “the purpose of warning white folk about the coming fire” and, further, “what, and how, Baldwin would have written to his niece,” as opposed to his nephew.

To his mother Kiese protests, at his leanest, that he’s no longer heavy. He wants to know how she sees him. She concedes he’s skinny, but he’s “a big, black man,” regardless, a construct that precedes him. He should “get a grip” and “stop running at night.” When at a certain point there is no more of the man to reduce, the narrative rushes brilliantly to its dismaying apotheosis: two scenes of institutional wrongs, the more appalling of which I won’t reveal. In the less personal one, this same cipher, a “big dark man,” is said to have forced a small, white, drug-dealing Vassar student to buy “felonious amounts of cocaine”—or so the dissembling student testifies, and is ruled innocent by the college’s judicial committee, over Professor Laymon’s outraged objection. The other jurists condescend to ask their dissenting colleague if he hasn’t ever heard of “transformative justice.”

Brian Blanchfield is the author of the essay collection Proxies (Nightboat Books, 2016).