Eighth grade, age 13. I was skinny, flat-chested, and wore round Dwayne Wayne glasses with red wire frames. My mother and I lived together in a small brick house on a wide, busy road, near the Memphis International Airport. We had a rotting oak tree in our front yard. I went to the public middle school across town where students were mostly white and middle class. That year has many beginnings. It was when I began to notice my math homework was harder for me than anything else, and that I felt serious about English class. Ms. Erskine, my English teacher, was a short plump woman of Scottish ancestry who lived in the suburbs out east and had a son in my grade. Her hair was curly, brown, and chin length. She spoke rapidly, with her hands.
In our unit on Black American literature, I first encountered the poetry of Langston Hughes. We talked about, “I, Too,” (They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well), and Ms. Erskine told us, dropping her voice as if letting us in on a juicy piece of gossip, “he isn’t talking about eating food.” She read “Mother to Son,” aloud (“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”) and made her voice strangely accented in a way I wished she wouldn’t.
At some point that semester we read Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I found it gorgeous and also scary. It trembled with a fiery propulsion and it was the first time I’d read a book that talked about a Black person being there, where I was, in Memphis. Wright had lived in the city for a portion of his early childhood, from sometime in 1913 to 1916. In an early scene, he beats the neighborhood boys who try to rob him of his grocery money with a stick. Ms. Erskine mostly lectured to us about the hunger Wright and his family suffered, and for this reason, Wright’s mother’s advice to, “Jump up and catch a kungry,” sticks with me. I remember Black Boy as a story of a stark, bleak childhood and the violence of a racist South. “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled,” Wright tells us.
I had been a reader for a long time. A born reader, it seemed; I read poetry and Bible verses in church pageants and had an active private reading life that sometimes got me in trouble when I’d stay up past my bedtime with a novel by Judy Blume or the Sweet Valley High series, a nightlight, and bleary eyes. It had been my mother who stoked a desire for reading in me and drilled into me a certain kind of speech that made me sound older than my age, as if I wasn’t the poorest kid in my classes, which I almost certainly always was. She’d had her own active reading life. I remember new books coming to our house, from the library, by the handful, and when every Toni Morrison novel from the 80s and 90s debuted. My reading life kept growing — the work of Sylvia Plath and Jane Austen became high school obsessions I shared with my closest girlfriends; in college, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Tsitsi Dangarembga taught me about the global costs of poverty, racism, and misogyny.
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What I’m saying is I was always going to read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. I was made for it by birth and acquired disposition. With its author, I share a region of origin, a generation, a difficult relationship with a mother who taught me to read. There are artists I love and admire for how well they execute ideas and Laymon is one of those and has always been. But I also relate to his work ancestrally, at its marrow.
I read Heavy first in one sitting, up late into the early hours of the next morning despite having to work the next day. I was silent for a while — for a few days actually — and just let my feelings be. I’d been in the middle of a rough spot with my own family, due to our denials and delusions about sexual assault and physical abuse. I’ve loved reading white readers and critics engage with Heavy as a reckoning with America’s sick affairs with racism and familial violence. I loved reading about Laymon’s generosity as a teacher in Bim Adewunmi’s stellar profile of the artist, and other Black women writers have mined layers of the story in impressive ways. What interests me right now (and many things about the book interest me, for there are numerous portals through which to enter it), is how Heavy spoke to me as a Black woman reader. It sent me back to Black Boy; it honestly gave me a sense, a nudging that I should revisit it that preceded my recognition of the two works’ unquestionably shared literary genealogy:
That night, I started rereading Black Boy. Reading the book at Millsaps felt like a call to arms. Reading the book in my bed, a few feet from your room, in our house, felt like a whisper wet with warm saliva. Wright wrote about disasters and he let the reader know that there wasn’t one disaster in America that started the day everything fell apart. I wanted to write like Wright far more than I wanted to write like Faulkner, but I didn’t really want to write like Wright at all. I wanted to fight like Wright. I wanted to craft sentences that styled on white folk, and dared them to do anything about the styling they’d just witnessed. I understood why Wright left Jackson, left Mississippi, left the Deep South, and ultimately left the nation. But I kept thinking about how Grandmama didn’t leave when she could. I thought about how you left and chose to come back. I thought about how I chose to stay. I wondered if the world would have ever read Wright had he not left Mississippi. I wondered if black children born in Mississippi after Wight would have laughed, or smiled more at his sentences if he imagined Mississippi as home. I wondered if he though he’d come back home soon the day he left for Chicago.
Because I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, I’d forgotten that Black Boy is also an account of how a Black boy became a Black writer and reader. When he has his first story published as a teenager in a Black newspaper, Wright tells us, “From no quarter, with the exception of the Negro newspaper editor, had there come a single encouraging word…Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment, I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing.” On what reading novels opened up for him:
It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.
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Heavy is about a family and a state and a nation and trauma, but it also directly confronts generations of Black art (by men and women) and the redemptive possibility inherent in the making of it. It is a direct response to Richard Wright’s seething, possibly unrelenting anger at his condition, a dance with Toni Cade Bambara’s humor and her love of Black speech. It chronicles a conversation with Margaret Walker Alexander, where she gives Laymon a poetry collection by Nikki Giovanni and tells him to “own your name.” It is a dare to Black artists to make work for us, about us, and without shame:
I read The Fire Next Time over and over again. I wondered how it would read differently had the entire book, and not just the first section, been written to and for, Baldwin’s nephew. I wondered what, and how, Baldwin would have written to his niece. I wondered about the purpose of warning white folk about the coming fire. Mostly, I wondered about what black writers weren’t writing about when we spent so such creative energy begging white folk to change.
In doing this, Heavy shakes off many burdens.
Throughout, Laymon shares his wildly vivid reading life with us, how he reads and thinks about his reading. He admits when something in a text confuses him; he tells us a book must be re-read to be truly read. He is, essentially, teaching us, reminding us, how to read. And reading may not save us from despair, or pull us from the edge of where we’re at with our families, or reverse the damage we have done to this planet. But I’ll always believe storytelling can clarify, fortify, nourish, and help us move things along.
More great Black writers on writers, readers, and reading:
- Excerpt, Well-Read Black Girl Anthology, Tayari Jones, Oprah Magazine
- “Preface to James Baldwin’s Unwritten Suicide Note,” Harmony Holiday, Poetry Foundation
- The Blacklist Column, Michael Gonzales, Catapult
- “The Black Boy Literary Survival Kit,” Mychal Denzel Smith, LitHub
- “The Radical Friendship of Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin” (an excerpt from Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry), Imani Perry, Buzzfeed
- “Read My World,” Jamey Hatley, Oxford American