In the black church, a “praise break” is that electric moment when, after a song ends, the musicians and congregation keep it going like they just got to have more Jesus. Call it getting happy or catching the Holy Spirit, it’s a thirst of the soul quenched by the mysteries of spirit and oblivious to time, decorum, or gravity.
That’s how I felt reading every page of “Heavy,” Kiese Laymon’s staggering memoir.
This isn’t to say his unflinching narrative about growing up in the deep South and deciphering himself and this fitful nation is a light read. There’s racism, addiction of various stripes, domestic violence, depression, and self-inflicted harm. In this another-week-another-memoir era, when the relentless naval-gazing is sometimes less insightful than your average Twitter thread, Laymon lays out his life with startling introspection.
“Heavy” is comforting in its familiarity, yet exacting in its originality. It’s a tapestry of heart and heartache about a struggling, gifted single mother and the son who loves, fears, and protects her. It’s also about fists that split flesh; taboo-flouting sexual curiosities; social pressures that breed self-hatred; black vigilance; and racial profiling.
Oh, and white people’s odd aversion to washcloths.
In part, the book’s title refers to the author’s long battle with his weight. On its first page, Laymon talks about “our families’ relationships to simple carbohydrates, deep-fried meats, and high-fructose corn syrup.” At 12, he weighs more than 200 pounds; later, he will tip the scales at 319.
Weight is both literal and metaphorical. Heavy is the racism that has bowed the backs of African-Americans for centuries. Heavy is the violence men often inflict on women, a behavior that takes root in boyhood.
Heavy are the worries of a single black mother trying to equip her son for safe passage in a nation that would just as soon see him as a chalk outline. To impress upon him the dangers he faces as a black male, she will even hurt him to ensure, as best she can, that a white man will never kill him.
That tumultuous, but deeply loving mother-son relationship is this book’s centerpiece. Appropriately, Laymon writes the book as a letter to his mom. This could come off gimmicky; instead it gives his memoir the intimacy of a secret shared, and the immediacy of real time.
Laymon is Mississippi born and raised. That’s the state whose brutal embrace of white supremacy claimed the lives of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and countless others. Yet despite its history, it holds for Laymon that spot in his heart reserved for home.
What he endures as a black child provides a bumpy road into manhood, and he emerges with more steel in his veins than his affluent white classmates when he transfers to a predominantly white Catholic school. Yet what he learns outside the classroom about how to be black and survive in America is a potent education. In a grocery store, he notices a copy of his mother’s driver’s license on a bulletin board for those who’ve passed bad checks. She’s not a criminal, but she’s trying to keep food on the table. Laymon’s embarrassed, just as he scoffs at his beloved grandmother’s side hustle — washing the clothes of white families.
“[C]leaning them nasty clothes is how we eat,’’ she explains, “and how I got your mama and them through school.” It’s a lesson black people learn early about getting over and how the ends, however odious, can justify the means.
When his mother’s car is pulled over by Maryland police, Laymon moves to challenge them. But his mother slaps and silences him. Later, she has that conversation familiar to so many African-American families and their sons about police encounters.
“Never give them a chance to take the shot . . . They will take it,’’ she tells him. “They will shoot your black ass out of the sky every chance they get. If you have a heart attack dodging their bullets, they will hide they guns and say you killed yourself.”
While his mother and grandmother are his biggest influences, Laymon is also drawn to his buddies who boast of sexual conquests as symbols of budding manhood. Girls are just a way to keep score, and while Laymon is not immune to it, he’s conscious of its toxicity.
“[I] knew that all over my neighborhood, boys were trained to harm girls in ways girls could never harm boys . . . men were trained to harm women in ways women could never harm men,” he writes. This is especially apparent in his mother’s relationship with her miserable boyfriend, Malachi. He sees himself as a revolutionary black man, but he lashes out when he feels his destined greatness thwarted, and it’s Laymon’s mother catching those slaps and punches.
After one severe beating, Laymon tries to get his mother’s gun to kill Malachi. His mother stops him, because her plans for her son do not include a life sentence for her terrible choices. Just as she wants something better for her son, Laymon wants the same for his mother.
Often “Heavy” is about peace within sight, but beyond reach. Laymon is perceptive about the failings of others, but especially himself. You can see his attempts to be a better man and ache when he backslides.
In a poignant passage, he recalls being in New York on Sept. 11, and the city’s post-attack mixture of jitters, generosity, and bigotry. Riding the subway, he watches as other passengers seethe at a “Muslim-looking’’ family. Even as he sympathizes with them, he also marvels that as a big black man, “For the first time in my life, I experienced not having the most fear-provoking body in a contained American space.”
“Heavy” provokes fear, wanting, love, and humor. It’s Mary J. Blige on the car radio and a cool, grainy glass of Tang, telling lies with your friends, having sex and mistaking it for love. Laymon subtitled his book, “An American Memoir,” and that’s more than a grandiose proclamation. He is a son of this nation whose soil is stained with the blood and sweat of his ancestors. In a country both deserving of his love and hate, Laymon is distinctly American.
Like the woman who raised him and the woman who raised her, he carries that weight, finding uplift from sorrow and shelter from the storms that batter black bodies.
An American Memoir
By Kiese Laymon
Scribner, 241 pp., $26Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.