Thursday, December 22, 2022

Reading Heavy

I recently finished Kiese Laymon's Heavy: An American Memoir, after it sat on my to-be-read shelf for close to four years. I knew it was really good, but it took a friend telling me she was talking about it with everyone she knew to put it next on my list. 

Her recommendation came not long after I had read one of his essays about being a Black professor at Vassar, and getting stopped by police in Poughkeepsie, so I had a general idea what the book would be like. But it was a lot more than that, of course. Many layers of personal pain growing up and structural oppression intersecting.

I recommend it to you, as my friend did to me.

There's one particular page I want to quote. It's about his time at Vassar as an English professor, and particularly about advising an upper class white student named Cole, who was a drug dealer:

By my third semester at Vassar, I learned it was fashionable to call Cole's predicament "privilege" and not "power." I had the privilege of being raised by you [Laymon's mother] and a grandmama who responsibly loved me in the blackest, most creative state in the nation. Cole had the power to never be poor and never be a felon, the power to always have his failures treated as success no matter how mediocre he was. Cole's power necessitated he literally was too white, too masculine, too rich to fail. George Bush was president because of Cole's power. An even richer, more mediocre white man could be president next because of Cole's power. Even progressive presidents would bow to Cole's power. Grandmama, the smartest, most responsible human being I knew, cut open chicken bellies and washed the shit out of white folks' dirty underwear because of Cole's power. She could never be president. And she never wanted to be because she knew that the job necessitated moral mediocrity. My job, I learned that first year, was to dutifully teach Cole to use this power less abusively. I was supposed to encourage Cole to understand his power brought down buildings, destroyed countries, created prisons, and lathered itself in blood and suffering. But if used for good, his power could lay the foundation for liberation and some greater semblance of justice in our country, and possibly the world.

I just didn't buy it.

...If I was doing my job, I had to find a way to love the wealthy white boys I taught with the same integrity with which I loved my black students, even if the constitution of that love differed. This wasn't easy because no matter how conscientious, radically curious, or politically active I encouraged Cole to be, teaching wealthy white boys like him meant I was being paid to really fortify Cole's power (pages 190–191).

His rejection of the word privilege in favor of power is relatively new to me. While some white people reject the idea that they have privilege based on their whiteness, it's still a lot easier to acknowledge privilege than power. I've thought more about the term white supremacy than I have white power, maybe because white power sounds like a neo-Nazi or white nationalist movement term to me. But white supremacy used to sound like a Klan term to me as well, so I guess it's a matter of perspective: these individual words have dictionary meanings before they're combined and they're not just the connotations they have after they become phrases. They are descriptive of reality in this country, even if their even-more-extreme forms are held up as ideals by the fascist Right.

Even more so, I was startled by Laymon's perspective on how a Black teacher or professor working with a ruling-class white student is necessarily reifying the existing power relationship, rather than transforming it or destroying it so it can be rebuilt in a different way. As a white middle-class woman who has (I think) had my perspective shaped and changed many times by formal and informal connection with Black educators, I hope this is not always true, though I know Laymon has more experience with it than I do from both the teaching side and the Black side. And it does call back to Audre Lorde's famous words: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

Laymon left Vassar to return to Mississippi at the University of Mississippi in 2015, and in 2021 became the Libby Shearn Moody Professor of English and Creative Writing at Rice University. He won a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2022.


I see that Laymon published an essay in 2017 that gives more background on this passage from the book, It's available from his website, so check that out.

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