It’s June 2020, and Americans are flocking to the internet in search of a petition, nonprofit, listicle, or GoFundMe to channel their uncertainty and horror at George Floyd’s death. Among those resources, in between the Linktrees and breaking news reports and black squares, lie pages and pages of recommended books to try and learn how to not step on the toes of Black friends and coworkers.
The books that permeate these lists are informative and serve their purpose of demystifying the Black experience, dusting off the film of historical oppression and systemic racism in favor of a, at best, cordial understanding. And yet, incredibly, Kiese Laymon was left out.
Laymon is, without a doubt, the author people needed last summer. The author, editor, and professor expertly channels the turmoil that comes with growing up Black in America through easy-to-digest narratives documenting his own life. While other books may approach this topic with an academic tone, Laymon makes you feel like a friend, if not a therapist, as he recounts the lowest points in his life that Black men rarely reveal in literature through his novel, Heavy.
In it, Laymon retells his upbringing and the bumpy relationship with his loving and overworked mother that characterized much of it. Without trying to paint a rosy, 80s sitcom image of the Black family, Laymon gives a unique insight into the way oppression can erode a healthy family dynamic—if it ever allows it to form in the first place. Gaining sympathy points doesn’t seem like the goal when you read Laymon, but you can’t help but relate to a young boy from the deep south as he navigates the system seeking to crush him at every opportunity. Laymon cuts out his very heart and gifts it to his community while holding up a mirror to the ugly niches of Blackness in Heavy, encouraging the reader to understand rather than pity.
The emotional ties between the reader and Laymon somehow don’t dissipate as he narrates his adult life, but instead, grows stronger. His novel of short essays, How To Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America, works to familiarize the reader with the same little boy in Heavy, now a grown man. Centering himself and his progress in the adult world, he recalls similar themes and obstacles from his childhood with the newfound courage he didn’t have in his adolescence. At the same time, the vulnerability that made Heavy so addictingly melancholy remains, drawing you into its pages and lulling you into a depth of understanding that nonfiction has yet to reach.
A pitfall of many novels seeking to do the same, many that top the aforementioned lists, is the hideous goal of coercing the reader into feeling bad for Black people, Black culture, and Black struggle. They only treat the community as a wounded deer, unable to do bad, commit evils, hurt others, or cause pain. Laymon ingeniously familiarizes Black America (not that he should have to, but we both know that he does) on Black people’s grounds, through the ugliness that they are both subject to and subject others to, as everyone else does. He illustrates those close to him, and even himself, as abusers and abused, neither noble savage nor fearsome enemy, but human. Laymon drives home the point that Black people shouldn’t have to be “angels” (harkening back to the “no angel” argument that weighs down reports of unjust killings of Black Americans) to be treated as human.
If the lists of last summer left you starved for something that comforts and repulses, loves and betrays, look no further than Kiese Laymon.