Karen Yuan / The Atlantic

Today’s Issue:

  • “We are obsessed with the idea of the individual overcoming the odds. I’m drawn to that story, too, but that story is bullshit,” the writer Kiese Laymon told us.
  • Heavy, by Kiese Laymon, was our December Book Club selection. Laymon joined us to discuss the compulsion for black Americans to appear successful—and the damage that can do to the nation.
  • In the new year, we’re taking a brief break from the Masthead Book Club to work on some exciting changes. Stay tuned.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being

Kiese Laymon is successful. He’s a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His new memoir was named a best book of 2018 by The New York Times, NPR, and The Washington Post, among others. But Heavy isn’t supposed to be a feel-good story. Laymon’s writing rejects empty platitudes in a time when the nation is afraid to reckon with the problems it still embodies.

By honestly charting the pain of a poor black boy growing up in Jackson, Mississippi—pain that persisted even after winning acceptance to elite universities—Laymon uncovers “the failure to confront the myths, half-truths, and lies at the foundation of the success stories that the nation worships,” as Christopher J. Lebron wrote in The Atlantic’s November issue. One myth: that members of a vulnerable population can always transcend their circumstances. Early on, they’re defined by them, Laymon writes.

My body knew things my mouth and my mind couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, express. It knew that all over my neighborhood, boys were trained to harm girls in ways girls could never harm boys, straight kids were trained to harm queer kids in ways queer kids could never harm straight kids, men were trained to harm women in ways women could never harm men, parents were trained to harm children in ways children would never harm parents, babysitters were trained to harm kids in ways kids could never harm babysitters. My body knew white folk were trained to harm us in ways we could never harm them. I didn’t know how to tell you or anyone else the stories my body told me, but, like you, I knew how to run, deflect, and duck.

“I Wanted to Write an American Memoir. I Wanted to Write a Lie.”

Karen Yuan asked Kiese Laymon questions based on a member discussion in the forums. The questions are paraphrased below. Laymon’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Your mother taught you to act or speak while always thinking about what white people thought of you. How did that affect your upbringing?

I remember when my grandmother was washing the underwear and the clothes of a white family, the boy in that family said some stuff to me that was wholly disrespectful. But I knew I couldn’t step up to him, because if I stepped up to him, I would impact my grandma and her ability to not just feed herself, but to feed me and our family. So on a very personal level, I saw early on how whiteness and white power materially allowed white people to have things we didn’t. But on a psychological level, I also saw it through how my family talked to me. They would always tell me to try to be twice as good as white people. But I just didn’t see excellent white people. So I was like, Why do you want me to be twice as good as people who seem mediocre? I’m not saying all white people are mediocre at all. But I’m saying my momma was an example of excellence, my grandma was an example of excellence, but they never were like, I want you to be twice as good as me.

Your mother’s idea was that, if you become successful enough, you’ll be protected from the dangers of being black in America. What do you think about that hypothesis?

I understand where it comes from. I just don’t think it’s true. I’m not dissing people who feel that way. On one hand, I guess you can say, if you are employed and have money and you’re black, you’re in a less precarious position than if you don’t have money or a job and are black. But my mother’s belief was that education could save you from white supremacy. I saw for my momma that sometimes her education made her more of a target. Sometimes black women are seen as much more threatening if they are educated. I saw that in actual interactions with her and police officers. For me, big black men sometimes get privileged in our communities, but also punished outside of our communities, because we’re big and black and threatening.

She thought I had to read all “white books” because that would protect me. I think reading white books helped me understand white people more. But my grandmother hadn’t read any of those books, and she has an understanding of white people better than anybody in our family. I’m glad I read Ferber and Hemingway and Dickinson, but that shit didn’t protect me. I got kicked out of school for taking a white book, Red Badge of Courage, out of the library. Education gives you more tools, but the notion that education will wholly protect black or extremely vulnerable people in this country is not true.

In the opening of your book, you write, “I wanted to write an American memoir. I wanted to write a lie.” You call American memoirs “progress narratives.” What is a progress narrative, and why do they ring false to you?

A “progress narrative” would have been the book that I sold to publishers. I was going to lose 150 pounds, and I was going to talk to my family about their relationship to food and weight. At the end, it would have been self-help; it would have been weight loss. There was a push to write that book. I don’t know if critics would have loved that book, but it would have made a lot of money, because people love to read those books. We are obsessed with the idea of the individual overcoming the odds. I’m drawn to that story, too, but that story is bullshit. When I lost a ton of weight, everything wasn’t good. When I gained a ton of weight, everything wasn’t good. The progress narrative, the American memoir, has always been about resolution, deliverance, and artfully, I just didn’t want to do that.

What’s the dark side of progress narratives?

I think the nation is proof of the danger of pushing these narratives. When you don’t actually deal with the mess, or if you think you dealt with it just because you named it, what happens is that stuff metastasizes and gets more violent, more unhealthy. We see that with how gender works in our country, how race works, how socioeconomics work.

In other interviews, you call your memoir a “reckoning,” as opposed to a progress narrative. Another reckoning, the #MeToo movement, is taking hold of the country at the moment. Is there a hunger for reckonings in America right now?

I do think there’s hunger for more actual revelatory reckoning than I’ve ever seen. More than any other time in my life, I see masses of people thinking hard about the way they’ve been socialized to be violent, and socialized to accept violence.

But are most people doing it? Hell no. Are the most powerful people in the country doing that work? I think trying not to get caught is different from doing the work of trying not to harm people. Trying not to get caught is part of that progress narrative, to bring that back. So I do see that reckoning happening, but I’m not gullible enough to believe the entire nation is doing that reckoning.

When I say reckoning, I’m not just talking about calling people out. I’m saying people are sitting down and really thinking about experiences they’ve had in which they have been harmed, or in which they have harmed people, in ways they haven’t thought about before, in hopes that the thought or reckoning or work will make us less harmful than before. My fear is that the word reckoning, and the word work, start to become proxies for the work—so just saying the word reckoning or saying the word work can give the impression that we’re doing the work.

How do we have reckonings in our own lives?

I think being aware of issues is so important in a country that really craves ignorance, but it’s not enough to be aware. White people say the words white supremacy, and we’re like, Oh, they’ve done the work. Same with when men say misogyny. It’s not enough for me to be able to say the words trans antagonism. It’s important for me to realize how transphobic I actually have been in my life. We’ve got to say those words, we’ve got to name these systems, but the naming ain’t the work. The work is not only realizing you haven’t been loving and caring yesterday, but also being loving and tending and caring today and tomorrow.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.