Heavy by Kiese Laymon is hypnotic. So much richness in the truth Laymon offers, so much vulnerability, so much powerful toppling of shame. Among other gifts, Laymon’s memoir deepened my understanding of the insidious and varied damage that systems of white supremacy cause on Black bodies and psyches. Of the pressure Black people are under, 24 hours a day, every day. Of what—to me (as a white-bodied person)—may be invisible in the classroom (and world). I’m grateful to Laymon for helping me open my eyes and see.
Please read and re-read this book. And meanwhile, behold some illuminating passages. (“You” in these passages refers to the narrator’s mother.):
P. 123: “In class, I only spoke when I could be an articulate defender of Black people. I didn’t use the classroom to ask questions. I didn’t use the classroom to make ungrounded claims. There was too much at stake to ask questions, to be dumb, to be a curious student, in front of a room of white folk who assumed all Black folk were intellectually less than. For the first time in my life, the classroom scared me. And when I was scared, I ran to cakes, because cakes felt safe, private, and celebratory. Cakes never fought back.”
P. 140-141: “I now knew what ‘patriarchy’ was. I could define ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’ I could explain ‘intersectionality’ to Ray Gunn. I understood gender was a construction and there were folk on Earth who were transgender and gender-fluid. I went to abortion-clinic defenses. I marched in safer-sex rallies. I made photocopies of my bell hooks essays and gave them to my friends. I had new lenses and frames to see the world. I called to those new lenses and frames ‘Black feminism,’ but I didn’t really have the will to publicly or privately reckon with what living my life as a Black feminist meant.”
P. 180: “‘The world was out to smother me and my kids,’ you told me a week after I arrived at Vassar. ‘ My job as a teacher was to help them breathe with excellence and discipline in the classroom. The ones that love you, they become what you model. Don’t forget that. Help them breathe by modeling responsible love in the classroom every single day. The most important thing a teacher can do is give their students permission to be loving and excellent.’”
P. 180: “My first week of class, I understood that none of my students, especially the black and brown ones who gravitated to me, wanted to be treated as noble exceptions to their communities. They wanted to be loved, inspired, protected, and heard. They didn’t want to be punished or unfairly disciplined for navigating the craziness that came with leaving home to sleep, eat, and drink with people they didn’t know while learning in haunted classrooms and dorms. Like nearly every black professor I knew from the Deep South, I expected to protect my students from security, police, and malicious administrations. I expected to pick them up from the police stations, train stations, and emergency rooms. I didn’t expect to fail them as much as I did. I mis-gendered my students when they asked if I could help push the college to cover the cost of transitioning because they’ve been disowned by their parents for being transgender. I made my students engage with art that attacked them for being queer, femme, black, and poor. I came into my James Baldwin lecture after the Virginia Tech shooting and told the one Asian American boy in the class, who happened to be Vietnamese, I was free if he ever wanted to talk about violence. I asked one of my Chicana students who told me her family had been deported if she knew when they’d be back, and if she wanted to publish an essay about it.
I found more ways to fail and harm my kids than I ever imagined. Every time I failed them, I knew I thought I was doing something you would never have done.”
P. 228: “‘We all broken,’ I said. ‘Some broken folk do whatever they can not to break other folk. If we’re gone be broken, I wonder if we can be those kind of broken folk from now on. I think it’s possible to be broken and ask for help without breaking other people.’”