Book Club March 2021: Heavy by Kiese Laymon
After a Covid-induced break, Zion’s Book Club reconvened in March of 2021 with a discussion of Heavy by Kiese Laymon. It might be the most appropriately titled book the club has ever read. Billed as ‘An American Memoir’, it deals with more weighty subjects than should ever rest on any one person’s shoulders: racism, body image, dysfunctional families, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and mental health issues. The book certainly provoked one of the more sober, deep, and uncomfortable discussions the club had ever held.
While relatively short in length, the author did not intend it to be an easy read. The raw, painful emotions displayed on its pages act like a battering ram on the reader’s consciousness. If you read for entertainment, this is outside your experience; if you are interested in getting inside an author’s head, seeing reality from a different viewpoint, and sensing his experiences vicariously, this book will take you there. The only plot line is the author’s life, and his story is uniquely rendered as a letter to his mother.
Mr. Laymon is an African-American, raised by a single mother in southern Mississippi with help from his grandmother. Money is tight, good food is scarce, and prejudice and bias are facts of life. Unusually for his environment, his mother is pursuing an advanced educational degree which takes her away from home at times, leaving him with his Grandmama who is a pragmatic matriarch with no great learning but grounded in common sense and faith. While his mother sees education as the path from poverty and the way to avoid the heavy hand of local law enforcement, she has demons of her own that include acceptance of physical abuse from men as a sign of caring. She, in turn, beats her son as punishment and he accepts it as proof of her love, repeating the cycle of low self-esteem and using food to find comfort. Kiese’s weight balloons, and this makes his teenage years even harder as he tries to make sense of self-image and how others view him. He finds saving grace in his ability to write and keeps journals where he can pour out his emotions in ways he cannot in life. His journey through high school and into college is one of painful discovery, not least when he fully accepts his mother has lied to him when asking for monetary assistance. In an effort to establish control of his body, he exercises to the point of exhaustion and stops eating which just exchanges bad eating habits for more bad habits. Going from over 300 pounds to less than 160 pounds is an achievement done for the wrong reasons, unsustainable, and doesn’t bring him to any understanding and acceptance of himself. As a college professor, he is still trying to grasp how black people fit into a predominantly white world, what kind of black man he has become, why he has absorbed and exhibits some of his mother’s worst behavior, and how to understand and forgive both her and himself.
This book was uncomfortable to read on a number of levels. Zion’s readers couldn’t understand how an educated woman could lie to and physically abuse her son; nor could they understand how she could accept physical abuse herself. This behavior crosses color lines and can be found in any community; we just don’t like to admit that it is present even in our isolated, rural area. Hiding addictions and refusing to acknowledge the harm caused to the one addicted and to the extended family are not behaviors defined by race. Battling them can be something we all have in common.
Looking for those common things that connect us is really the only way our readers could find to begin to bridge the gap between communities of all colors. Once we recognize the connections, can we not then find common ground to discuss our differences? And the connections can be small, seemingly insignificant. For instance, one reader realized that the parental directive given to Kiese to only use four squares of toilet paper at a time was the same one handed down in her family. After you have laughed together, it is simpler to move on to harder topics.
Systemic racism is one such topic. We live in a rural, small-town area, predominantly white. We can be blind to how racism might be woven into the fabric of our lives until something happens to bring it to the forefront. One reader remembers being shadowed through a retail store in a large city by an employee who evidently suspected her of shoplifting because of her color. Imagine living under that type of tension whenever you leave your house. Books such as Heavy can help push white people to walk a mile in the shoes of an African-American man and confront our ingrown biases. Those of us who recall the 1960’s see progress with prejudice and bias, but there is a generational chasm with younger people saying the progress is too slow and not enough – and they are right. As horrifying as the death of George Floyd was, it is heartening, as one reader noted, that the protests surrounding it were integrated. People must work together to identify the root causes of racism including extreme poverty, educational inequality, and health issues and then develop fair solutions designed to build people up and bring them together, not tear them down and push them apart. There is a danger that segregation can be self-imposed and walls built with good intentions that nevertheless impede reaching the goals of equality and dignity for all.
Communication – looking at and talking to and with one another – seems to be the keystone and harder than ever to achieve in this time of pandemic distance and devices that have our eyes glued to a screen. When we talk, all kinds of correlations might be found. For instance, one reader posited that the constant tension and unnerving feeling of imminent violence might contribute to higher stress levels and thus blood pressure and diabetes issues. Indeed, Mr. Laymon’s own experience with overeating would seem to bear that out. The propensity across color lines for violence needs to be discussed and root causes identified and overcome so that violence doesn’t lead the headlines in media of all kinds (evidently ‘bleed and lead’ is a journalistic mantra). Equality in reporting needs to be emphasized – during the ice storm recently in the south with its deadly loss of power, we heard a lot about Texas, but the area around Jackson, Mississippi was equally hard hit. Sound bites need to give way to even-handed in-depth coverage. We need to work toward a world where there is no need for parents to have the ‘talk’ with teenagers about how to avoid attracting the notice of police or how to act if stopped by them. As always, children are our future, and millennials and those generations coming later have identified as better at seeing beyond color and being better able to express feelings. Let us hope they continue to work to see what connects us and build on our foundation.
Connections were part of why this book was chosen for Zion’s readers. The member who chose it has a cousin who taught in the Teach For America program near Jackson, Mississippi. Family members visited several times and saw the area. This book caught her eye because she had been there and felt a connection. With current events in this country, Kiese Laymon’s memoir is certainly a timely selection. Two readers listened to the audio book read by the author and found his voice leant great power to the book. Professor Laymon has developed a national reputation, and various interviews can be found by Googling him. Thanks to media, the world can see evidence of racism on a daily basis, whether broader reporting of terrible ethnic cleansing, or the headline-grabbing alleged non-support of the bi-racial Duchess of Sussex and banning of certain of Dr. Seuss’s books (although our readers felt this was stretching it a bit as Dr. Seuss’s book The Sneetches underlines his acceptance of all). Heavy is certainly a book that will remain on our minds, not necessarily as an enjoyable read but a reminder to take a hard look at ourselves. And that was reflected in our voting: we had one reader give it 1-1/2 thumbs up, two give it 1 thumb up, and 9 voted neutral, neither liking nor disliking it.
Next month, we read The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon, inspired by a real-life mystery during the 1930’s and set in the Tammany Hall New York political era.