“America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.” —Ta-Nehasi Coates, Between the World and Me
I confess that I picked up Heavy, Kiese Laymon’s staggering memoir about growing up bright and black in Mississippi, with more than a little curiosity about the obesity angle. I knew that it was a story of race, poverty, resilience, and writing, but the title refers, in part, to Kiese’s lifelong struggles with his weight. As someone who knows that struggle, I thought there might be something for me to learn. As a white Southern man, there was a lot for me to learn because, as one of Keise’s friends remarks to him on their first days in a predominantly white school, “they still don’t even know.” (79)
Look at a map of the obesity epidemic in America and you see Mississippi and its Deep South neighbors shaded brightly enough to let you know that this is ground zero. It’s an easy temptation for those who live in more lightly-shaded states to tick off reasons for this—poor education, poor nutrition, poor access to fresh food, just plain poor, poor, poor. But maybe more importantly the obesity belt traces a trail of trauma—physical evidence of ancient sins and lingering inequities. Maybe bodies say what it is difficult or impermissible to say, especially in a landscape that can’t talk about race directly without coming apart at the seams.
“No one in our family—and very few folk in this nation—has any desire to reckon with the weight of where we’ve been,” Laymon says, “which means no one in our family—and very few folk in this nation—wants to be free.”(6) But bodies betray our efforts to smother the contradictions and injustices that traumas induce. “My body broke because I carried and created secrets that were way too heavy.”(206)
Weight hovers around every chapter in this book. Kiese’s grandmother tells the 12-year-old, “Two hundred eighteen pounds is just right, Kie. It’s just heavy enough…for everything you need to be heavy enough for.”
But 12-year-old Kiese becomes six-one, 230 pound high school senior Kiese, becomes 242 pound entering-freshman-at-Millsaps-College Kiese, becomes 293 pound freshman-at-Christmas-Break Kiese, becomes 165.7 pound professor at Vassar College Kiese. (Yes, you read that right.)
There are stories behind those numbers—deep and engaging stories of coming of age with a demanding, brilliant mother, whom he holds close despite disturbing outbursts in which she beats him with a belt. “You made me feel like the most beautiful black boy in the history of Mississippi until you didn’t,” he tells her.(5) But he accepts this mixed inheritance. “We have always been a bent black southern family of laughter, outrageous lies, and books.”(9)
Yes, those books, and the daily writing exercises his mother imposes on Kiese throughout his childhood, gave him a love of language and resources to approach his world. He can read Eudora Welty and critique her “fully developed, unreliable white protagonists who treated partially developed black” characters shamefully, even while he was embarrassed to admit to himself “a tug toward the interior of Welty’s stories.” (71) Toni Cade Bambara opened worlds “where no one was sheltered, cloistered, or white, but everyone—in some form or fashion—was weird, wonderful, slightly wack, and all the way black.” (130) The writer Margaret Walker, a family friend, inspired him to “write to and for our people.” (106)
Through it all, Laymon is having a love affair with words. He sits in the back of a classroom with a classmate and reinvents meanings for the word ‘meager’ to describe how limited the white-dominated school can be. ‘Black abundance’ is its antithesis. Each chapter of Heavy has a single word title, which invites meditations on words like ‘Be,’ ‘Hulk,’ and ‘Greens.’ He teases his grandmother when he can’t distinguish her ‘been’ from ‘bend’ and it becomes an image for the debilitating weight of the past.
Laymon doesn’t offer easy wisdom in Heavy, though the book is a very easy read. He has an excellent ear for dialogue and there is music in his prose. He is aware of how he has been formed by family, history, geography, and the racial infrastructure that Americans work so hard both to keep invisible and yet to maintain.
“I wanted to write an American memoir,” he writes in the introduction. “I wanted to write a lie.”(1) He knows that they are the same thing. American writers, especially white writers, have always been entranced by lies about this land. When Laymon finds himself slipping into clichés, he knows even he can’t escape it.
The climactic scene with his mother takes place in a Connecticut casino. He wants to force her to face the truth and tell the truth about their troubled relationship. But they end up fighting about how to deal with white America.
“I told you that running and hiding from folk who can’t see themselves has fatal consequences. You told me that unnecessarily opening yourself up for folk who can’t see themselves has even more fatal consequences. I asked you why we’re still talking about people not in this room.”(225)
The reconciliation they arrive at has all the cosmetic beauty of the lethal slot machines they have been feeding downstairs. “Two miles from all those promises and three minutes from our last cliché, I will understand that no meaningful promises are made or kept in casinos.” (233)
But if you are like me, you will come to the end of this glowing book with a sense of having experienced something more enduring and having met a great soul. Laymon will bring you to the heart of his life and the heart of the lies we tell ourselves, but you will not experience it as a heart of darkness. You will have no easy answers but you may believe that he has finally written the first American memoir. This is excellence. No lie.