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An Interview with Kiese Laymon and "Meager" a chapter from "Heavy: An American Memoir," by Kiese Laymon

Author: Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon talks to Clemonce Heard about his debut memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir (Scribner, 2018), growing up in Mississippi, the influence of music on his writing, and reckoning with weight in all its different forms. Heavy is featured in Page One in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

MEAGER

You were on your way back from Hawaii with Malachi Hunter while LaThon Simmons and I sat in the middle of a white eighth-grade classroom, in a white Catholic school, filled with white folk we didn’t even know. These white folk watched us toss black vocabulary words, a dull butter knife, and pink grapefruit slices hack and forth until it was time for us to go home.

We were new eighth graders at St. Richard Catholic School in Jackson, Mississippi, because Holy Family, the poor all-black Catholic school we attended most of our lives, closed unexpectedly due to lack of funding. All four of the black girls from Holy Family were placed in one homeroom at St. Richard. All three of us black boys from Holy Family were placed in another. Unlike at Holy Family, where we could wear what we wanted, at St. Richard, students had to wear khaki or blue pants or skirts and light blue, white, or pink shirts.

LaThon, who we both thought looked just like a slew-footed K-Ci from Jodeci, and I sat in the back of homeroom the first day of school doing what we always did: we intentionally used and misused last year’s vocabulary words while LaThon cut up his pink grapefruit with his greasy, dull butter knife. “These white folk know we here on discount,” he told me, “but they don’t even know.”

“You right,” I told him. “These white folk don’t even know that you an oT grapefruit-by-the-pound-eating-ass nigga. Give me some grapefruit. Don’t be parsimonious with it, either.”

“Nigga, you don’t eat grapefruits,” LaThon said. “Matter of fact, tell me one thing you eat that don’t got butter in it. OT churning-your-own-butter-ass nigga.” I was dying laughing. “Plus, you act like I got grapefruits gal-low up in here. I got one grapefruit.”

Seth Donald, a white boy with two first names, looked like a dustier Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, but with braces. Seth spent the first few minutes of the first day of school silent-farting and turning his eyelids inside out. He asked both of us what “gal-low” meant.

“It’s like galore,” I told him, and looked at LaThon. “Like grapefruits galore.”

LaThon sucked his teeth and rolled his eyes. “Seth, whatever your last name is, first of all, your first name ends with two/s from now on, and your new name is Seff six- two because you five-four but you got the head of a nigga we know who six-two.” LaThon tapped me on the forearm. “Don’t he got a head like S. Slawter?” I nodded up and down as LaThon shifted and looked right in Seff 6’2’s eyes. “Everythang about y’all is erroneous. Eveiy. Thang. This that black abundance. Y’all don’t even know.”

LaThon’s favorite vocab word in seventh grade was “abundance,” but I’d never heard him throw “black” and “that” in front of it until we got to St. Richard.

While LaThon was cutting his half into smaller slices, he looked at me and said Seth six-two and them didn’t even know about the slicing “shhhtyle” he used.

Right as I dapped LaThon up, Ms. Reeves, our white homeroom teacher, pointed at LaThon and me. Ms. Reeves looked like a much older version of Wendy from the Wendy’s restaurants. We looked at each other, shook our heads, and kept cutting our grapefruit slices. “Put the knife away, LaThon,” she said. “Put it down. Now!”

“Mee-guh,” we said to each other. “Meager,” the opposite of LaThon’s favorite word, was my favorite word at the end of seventh grade. We used different pronunciations of meager to describe people, places, things, and shhhtyles that were at least eight levels less than nothing. “Mee-guh,” I told her again, and pulled out my raggedy Trapper Keeper. “Mee-guh.”

While Ms. Reeves was still talking, I wrote “#l tape of our #1 group?” on a note and passed it to LaThon. He leaned over and wrote, “EPMD and Strictly Business.” I wrote, “#1 girl you wanna marry?” He wrote, “Spinderalla + Tootie.” I wrote, “#1 white person who don’t even know?” LaThon looked down at his new red and gray Air Maxes, then up at the ceiling. Finally, he shook his head and wrote, “Ms. Reeves + Ronald Reagan. It’s a tie. With they meager ass.”

I balled up the note and put it in my too-tight khakis while Ms. Reeves kept talking to us the way you told me white folk would talk to us if we weren’t perfect, the way I saw white women at the mall and police talk to you whether you’d broken the law or not.

I understood how Ms. Reeves had every reason in her world to think I was a sweaty, red-eyed underachiever who drank half a Mason jar of box wine before coming to school. That’s almost exactly who I was. But LaThon was as close to abundant as an eighth grader could be.

LaThon brilliantly said “skrrimps” instead of “shrimp” because “skrrimps” just sounded better. He added three s’s to “mine” so it sounded like “minessss” no matter where we were. I once watched him tear open a black-and-white TV and make it into a bootleg version of Frogger and a miniature box fan for his girlfriend. One Friday in seventh grade, I saw him make the freshest paper airplane in the history of paper airplanes in Jackson. For five minutes and forty-six seconds, that plane soared, flipped, and dipped while LaThon and I ran underneath it for three blocks down Beaverbrook Drive. When the plane finally landed, LaThon kept looking up at the sky, wondering how the pocket of wind that carried our plane could find its way into a city like Jackson. LaThon could do anything, but the thing I’d never seen him do was come close to hurting someone who hadn’t hurt him first, with a knife, his hands, or even his words.

“It’s not a knife. It’s a butter knife,” I told Ms. Reeves. “And it’s dull. Why she acting like a nigga got fine cutlery up in here?”

“You know,” LaThon said. “’Cause they preposterous in this school.”

“Preposterous-er than a mug,” I told Ms. Reeves, looking directly at Jabari, the other Holy Family black boy in our homeroom. LaThon and I knew it was against the West Jackson law for Jabari to get in trouble in school, so we didn’t take it personally when he didn’t stand up for us. LaThon got whuppings from his grandmama. I got beatings from you. Jabari could get beat the fuck up by his father when he got home. In Jackson, getting a whupping was so much gentler than getting a beating, and getting a beating was actually ticklish compared to getting beat the fuck up.

Ms. Reeves marched out of the room to get Ms. Stockard, a white teacher who’d subbed a few times at Holy Family. Ms. Stockard watched LaThon, Jabari, and me eat grapefruits with actual silver knives plenty of times at Holy Family and never said a word.

But it didn’t matter.

“This isn’t how we wanted you guys to start the year,” she said as we all walked to the principal’s office to call you and call LaThon’s grandparents.

I sat in the principal’s office thinking about what you told me the day before we started St. Richard. “Be twice as excellent and be twice as careful from this point on,” you said. “Everything you thought you knew changes tomorrow. Being twice as excellent as white folk will get you half of what they get. Being anything less will get you hell.”

I assumed we were already twice as excellent as the white kids at St. Richard precisely because their library looked like a cathedral and ours was an old trailer on cinder blocks. I thought you should have told me to be twice as excellent as you or Grandmama since y’all were the most excellent people I knew.

LaThon got whupped by a black woman who loved him when he got home. I got beaten by a black woman who loved me the next morning. With every lash you brought down on my body, I was reminded of what I knew, and how I knew it. I knew you didn’t want white folk to judge you if I came to school with visible welts, so you beat me on my back, my ass, my thick thighs instead of my arms, my neck, my hands, and my face like you did when I went to Holy Family. I knew that if my white classmates were getting beaten at home, they were not getting beaten at home because of what any black person on Earth thought of them.

The next day at school, the teachers at St. Richard made sure LaThon and I never shared a classroom again. At St. Richard, the only time we saw each other was during recess, at lunch, or after school. When LaThon and I saw each other, we dapped each other up, held each other close as long as we could.

“It’s still that black abundance?” I asked LaThon.

“You already know,” he said, annunciating every syllable in a voice he’d never used before walking into his homeroom.

After school, in the front seat of our Nova, you told me what white folk demanded of us was never fair, but following their rules was sometimes safer for all the black folk involved and all the black folk coming after us. You kept talking about how amazing it was that Mississippi had just elected its first progressive governor since William Winter. You worked on Governor Mabus’s campaign and kept talking about how much was possible politically in Mississippi because it was the blackest state in the nation.

“A third of white voters in Mississippi came out and did the right thing,” you said. “That’s all you need when thirty-three percent of your electorate is black and we get our folks out to the polls. Do you understand what’s possible if we actually get effective radical politicians in place down here?”

“I understand it now because you’ve told me the same thing every day for the last year. I’m glad Mabus won, but hearing about it every day is just kinda mee-guh.”

“Me what?” you asked me, cocking your hand back. “What did you say to me, Kie?”

“Me nothing,” I said. “Me nothing.”

* * *

Somewhere around our third quarter, Ms. Stockard made us read William Faulkner and Eudora Welty stories and watch Roots for black history month. I was the only Holy Family kid in my English class. Ms. Stockard talked a lot about the work of Eudora Welty all year. She talked a lot about “historical context” when speaking about the “quirky racism” of Welty’s characters and compared quirky racism to the “bad real racism” of most of the white characters in Roots. I didn’t like what “historical context” and “quirky racism” in our English class granted white folk. If we could understand historical context, we could understand how Eudora Welty could create fully developed, unreliable white protagonists who treated partially developed black objects like “niggers.” I felt the weight of “historical context,” “quirky racism,” and “bad real racism” in that eighth-grade classroom, but I also felt something else I was embarrassed to admit. I felt a tug toward the interior of Welty’s stories.

Even though there were bold boundaries between my imagination and Welty’s, when she started “Why I Live at the P.O.” with the sentence “I was getting along fine with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again,” I didn’t just feel an intimate relationship to Welty’s text; I felt every bit of Jackson, and really every bit of Mississippi you taught me to fear.

Welty didn’t know a lick about Mississippi black folk, but she knew enough about herself to mock white folk in the most ruthlessly petty ways I’d ever read. You and Grandmama taught me white folk were capable of anything and not to be provoked, but Welty reminded me of what my eyes and ears taught me: white folk were scared and scary as all hell, so scared, so scary the words “scared” and “scary” weren’t scared or scary enough to describe them.

I didn’t hate white folk. I didn’t fear white folk. I wasn’t easily impressed or even annoyed by white folk because even before I met actual white folk, I met every protagonist, antagonist, and writer of all the stories I ever read in first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. At the same time, I met Wonder Woman, the narrator on The Wonder Years, Ricky from Silver Spoons, Booger from Revenge of the Nerds, Spock from Star Trek, Mallory from Family Ties, damn near all the coaches and owners of my favorite teams. I met Captain America, Miss America, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. I met Luke Skywalker and his white father, even though his white father’s voice, outfit, and mask were blacker than thirty-seven midnights. I met poor white folk, rich white folk, and middle-class white folk. I met all the Jetsons, all the Flintstones, all the Beverly Hillbillies, the entire Full House, damn near everyone in Pee Wee’s Playhouse, all American presidents, the dudes they said were Jesus and Adam, the women they said were the Virgin Mary and Eve, and all the characters on Grandmama’s stories except for Angie and Jessie from All My Children. So even if we didn’t know real white folk, we knew a lot of the characters white folk wanted to be, and we knew who we were to those characters.

That meant we knew white folk.

That meant white folk did not know us.

The next day in English class, we watched the scene where Kizzy, Kunta Kinte’s daughter on Roots, was raped by this white man named Tom Moore. The morning after the rape, a black woman played by Helen from The Jeffersons came to wash Kizzy’s wounds.

Helen told Kizzy, “You best know about Master Tom Mo’. He’s one of them white mens that likes nigger women … Reckon he be bothering you most every night now. Used to bother me, but no mo’.”

I wasn’t sure what to do with what I just heard. The first time I watched that Roots scene, I was eight years old. I remember hearing “rake” instead of “rape” when I asked you what happened to Kizzy. “Raking” someone sounded like the scariest thing that could happen to a person. I didn’t understand why Helen sounded sad that Tom Mo’ wouldn’t be raking her anymore. I asked you why anyone would “rake” another person. “Because some men do not care if they hurt other people’s bodies,” you said. “Some men want to feel what they want to feel when they want to feel it because it hurts other people, not in spite of it hurting people.”

Tom Mo’ was white. But he was a man. I was black. But I was a boy who other black men called li’l man. I didn’t think I would ever do to Kizzy what Tom Mo’ did. But I wondered if I would feel pressure to do that when I grew up. And if I could do what Tom Mo’ did, were Tom Mo’ and me different to Kizzy? I wondered what Layla would have felt if three white random dudes walked her into Daryl’s bedroom that day, and not three black dudes we knew. I didn’t know how to think about it and not knowing how to think about it made my head hurt, and made me want to eat boxes of off-brand strawberry Pop-Tarts.

At recess that day, the St. Richard white boys moved with the same eager stiffness they always moved with during break. A lot of the white girls at St. Richard and all of us Holy Family kids moved like we’d had a burning secret poured into our ears.

LaThon and I found Shalaya Odom, Madra, Baraka, and Hasanati sitting in a circle, quietly looking at each other’s feet. I’d never seen them sit silently at Holy Family. Shalaya Odom didn’t usually cuss much at all, but when I asked her what was wrong, she said, “That Roots shit, I had my ears covered the whole time.”

LaThon said we should go find Jabari and make sure he was okay. Jabari was the best writer at Holy Family. Out of all of us Holy Family kids, Jabari made the easiest transition to St. Richard. He really wanted to sleep in white-folk houses, ride in white-folk cars, and eat white-folk food.

We walked in the building and thought maybe Jabari was talking to Ms. Stockard about writing fiction, since that was something he liked to do during recess. When we walked in her room, Ms. Stockard said she was glad we came to talk to her because she’d been wanting to talk to us for a few weeks.

“Guys, I really want to be respectful,” she said, sipping on a warm Tab cola. “How is Jabari doing?” We both looked at each other without blinking. “Listen, I need you guys to tell Jabari to take a shower or a bath before coming to school. Maybe a bath at night and a shower or wash-up in the morning. Some students and a few teachers came to talk to me about, you know, his odor. It’s really grossing everyone out.”

We laughed out loud at first because there was nothing funnier than hearing your white teacher talk about how stanky one of your boys was.

“Ms. Stockard, are you trying to say Jabari stank?” I asked her. “Because we heard a rumor that white folk don’t use washcloths no way.”

LaThon burst out laughing.

“I’m not saying anything about”—she used her hands to make air quotes—“‘stank’ or washcloths. I’m saying some people think Jabari is just gross. You guys can understand how that is not good for any of you, right?”

LaThon and I stood silently next to each other. I wasn’t sure how a teacher could teach a kid they thought was gross.

I didn’t know why Jabari’s stank was okay at Holy Family but somehow gross at St. Richard. I knew Jabari smelled at St. Richard the same way Jabari smelled at Holy Family, the same way he smelled ever since his mother died. It wasn’t his odor, and it wasn’t that he didn’t take showers or use washcloths. Ever since his mother died, there was just a different scent as soon as you walked in Jabari’s house. And if you stayed longer than thirty minutes, you left smelling like Jabari’s house. But all of us were stanky at some point, even Shalaya Odom. When we were stanky, we laughed about it, took a shower, or threw some deodorant, cologne, or perfume on top of the stank and kept it moving.

I understood, swaying there in front of Ms. Stockard, that all of us at Holy Family shared stories with words, word patterns, vocal inflections, and really, bodies that made us feel safe. No one at Holy Family ever used their bodies to say “awesome” or “totally” or “amazing” or “FUBAR” or “like” fifty times a day more than necessary. The narrators of our stories said “fly” and “all that” and “fresh” and “the shit” and “sheiiiit” and “shole” and “shining” and “trippin’” and “all-world” and “living foul” and “musty” and “sorry-ass” and “stale” and “ashy” and “getting full” and “cuhrazee” and “nigga” and “you know what I’m saying” fifty times a day more than necessary.

There wasn’t a “gross” or anything approximating a “gross” in our vocabulary, or our stories. Bodies at Holy Family were heavier than the bodies at St. Richard. And none of those heavy bodies were gross. Seventh grade was the first year in our lives when boys started calling girls who wouldn’t give us any attention words like “freak” behind their backs. And when they slapped the taste out our mouth, we apologized. But even in our most brittle whispers, we never thought or talked about any girl’s body as “gross.” Or maybe I wanted that to be true. At the end of seventh grade, the same day we went to sing Club Nouveau songs at the old-folk home, Shalaya Odom stood up and walked out with a dark brown stain on the back of her jean skirt. We thought she’d shit on herself until LaThon explained she might have just started her period. We never called Shalaya Odom gross but we laughed in a way the girls at Holy Family would not have laughed at us if we actually had unexpected chunky shit dripping down our legs.

Worse than any cuss word we could imagine, “gross” existed on the other side of what we considered abundant. And in the world we lived in and loved, everyone black was in some way abundant. We’d all listened to grown-folk spade sessions on Fridays. We’d all dressed in damn near our Easter best to watch the pregame, the game, and, mostly, the halftime show of Jackson State vs. Valley, Valley vs. Alcorn, Alcorn vs. Southern, or Grambling vs. Jackson State on Saturday. Saturday night, we’d all driven back home in the backseats of cars, listening to folk theorize about the game, Mississippi politics, and why somebody’s auntie and uncle were trying to sell their child’s World’s Finest Chocolates in the parking lot after the game. Sunday morning, we’d all been dragged into some black church by our parents and grandparents. And every Sunday, we hoped to watch some older black folk fan that black heathen in tennis shoes who caught the Holy Spirit. But outside of stadiums and churches, and outside of weekends, we were most abundant. While that abundance dictated the shape and movement of bodies, the taste and texture of our food, it was most apparent in the way we dissembled and assembled words, word sounds, and sentences.

LaThon and I loved Jabari too much to tell him Ms. Stockard and some other white kids whose smiles, words, and food he loved thought he was gross. Instead of saying any of what I was really feeling to Ms. Stockard, a white woman who had the power to get us beaten by black women who loved us and distrusted her, I said, “We understand, Ms. Stockard. We will tell Jabari to take more wash-ups before he comes to school.”

* * *

Later that day, near the end of practice, my basketball coach, Coach Gee, the father of Donnie Gee, one of the only black boys at St. Richard, brought out a scale so we co weigh ourselves. We were going to a tournament in Vicksburg and the organizers needed our weight and height for the program.

I hadn’t weighed myself since stepping on the scale at the Mumfords’ earlier in the summer. I hated public scales, but I made myself believe I was under 210 pounds for the first time in three years.

I stepped on the scale.

170.

175­

180.

185.

190.

Shit.

200.

210.

215­.

225.

228.

“Damn,” Coach Gee said, looking at the rest of the team. “This big joker weigh two hundred thirty-one pounds!”

I walked away from the scale, faked a smile, and watched the rest of the team laugh. I went to the bathroom, made myself pee twice, and walked back to the scale.

“Two hundred thirty-one,” Coach Gee said again. “It ain’t the scale, Baby Barkley. Shit. It’s you.”

After practice, I tried to hold my stomach in and put dry clothes over my wet musty practice uniform. For the first time in my life, I thought about the sweat and fat between my thighs, the new stretch marks streaking toward my nipples. I felt fat before. I felt husky every day of my life. I’d never felt what I felt in that St. Richard bathroom.

“Damn, nigga,” LaThon said as I walked out of the gym. His grandfather was picking us up and taking us home. “Everybody trippin’ because you weigh like twenty-six more pounds than Michael Jordan, but you like eight inches shorter?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Wait, I know my nigga ain’t acting all sensitive over no scale. You ain’t gross. You know that, right? You ain’t gross. You just a heavy nigga who quicker than most skinny niggas we know. You ain’t gross. You hear me? You you.”

Later that weekend, LaThon and I met Jabari in his backyard over in Presidential Hills. LaThon hyped this soft-ass dunk Jabari did on his younger brother, Stacey. He called the dunk “the Abundance” and I gave Jabari the nickname “Kang Slender.” Jabari tucked his bottom lip under his front teeth and flew through the air doing awkward versions of “the Abundance” until the sun went down. Every time he dunked, LaThon and I laughed and laughed and laughed until we didn’t. Eventually, Jabari laughed with us when LaThon said, “They don’t even know about the Abundance. For real. We can’t even be mad. They don’t even know.”

“We can be mad,” Jabari said. “But we can be other stuff, too.”

We both looked at Jabari and waited for him to say more. I was finally understanding, for all that bouncy talk of ignorance and how they didn’t really know, that white folk, especially grown white folk, knew exactly what they were doing. And if they didn’t, they should have.

But by the end of February of our eighth-grade year, what white folk at St. Richard and the world knew didn’t matter. We were learning how to suck our teeth, shake our heads, frame a face for all occasions like Richard III, and laugh each other whole. That meant a lot. Mostly, it meant that although some of us had more welts on our bodies than lunch money, light bill money, or money for our discounted tuition, we knew we were not the gross ones.

We were mad, and sometimes sad, but we were other stuff, too.

On the way out of Jabari’s house that day, I grabbed a T-shirt from his dirty clothes. I was well into an XL, while Jabari’s and LaThon’s bird chests barely filled out a smedium. But I was learning from you how to make anything, regardless the size or shape, bend. I came to school the rest of that year with my breasts, my love handles, and my stomach compressed in a T-shirt that smelled so much like Jabari’s house. When white folk at St. Richard looked at me like I was gross, I smiled, shook my head, sucked my teeth, intentionally misused and mispronounced some vocabulary words. Then I dapped LaThon up at lunch and said, “They so meager and we so gross. I’m talking about we so gross. It’s still that black abundance?”

“Yup,” LaThon told me. “And they still don’t even know.”

DMU Timestamp: December 19, 2018 18:14





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