In this episode, Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy, talks about home, race, and the Portland Trail Blazers. Hear him reflect on his loyalty to and criticism of Mississippi, his jaded allegiance to the United States, and what it means to speak about our hometowns with tender honesty.
Kiese Laymon is the author of the award-winning memoir Heavy, the groundbreaking essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and the genre-defying novel Long Division.
Laymon’s IndieBound bestselling memoir, Heavy: An American Memoir, won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, the 2018 Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, the Austen Riggs Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media, and was named one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years by the New York Times. A personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable—an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family.
When Laymon was a contributing editor at Gawker, he wrote an essay called “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” This harrowing piece, which describes four incidents in which Laymon was threatened with a gun, evolved into a collection of lacerating essays on race, violence, celebrity, family, and creativity.
In Laymon’s novel, the NAACP Image Award-winning Long Division, fourteen-year-old City, a newly minted YouTube star, is sent to stay with family in rural Melahatchie, Mississippi. What happens next transgresses the boundaries of fiction and reality, present and past, as City travels through time.
Laymon founded the Catherine Coleman Initiative for the Arts and Social Justice, a program aimed at getting Mississippi kids and their parents more comfortable reading, writing, revising and sharing. He is the Libby Shearn Moody Professor of English and Creative Writing at Rice University. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2022 for "bearing witness to the myriad forms of violence that mark the Black experience in formally inventive fiction and nonfiction."
More from Kiese Laymon
- Watch the full Consider This conversation with Kiese Laymon from March 2023.
- Now You See Me: A conversation with comedian Darryl Lenox about how his trust in strangers dramatically shifted after he lost his sight.
- What We Owe and Are Owed: An essay on on Black revision, repayment, and renewal
- Conjuring Love: A conversation in the LA Review of Books
- Terrors: An excerpt from Heavy
Kiese Laymon: Bruh, you do not want me to talk about Damian Lillard. I'm just gonna tell you.
Adam Davis,: But, but—
Kiese Laymon: Because. If these people loved Damian Lillard, the way they say they love Damien Lillard, yeah. They would be writing fucking, like, letters begging that GM to let that brother free.
Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour, where we connect ideas and personal experiences without looking for easy solutions.
Kiese Laymon is not from Oregon. He's from Mississippi. Now he lives in Houston where he writes and teaches writing at Rice University. Not long after being named a MacArthur Fellow, Kiese joined us as part of our People, Place, and Power Consider This series in March 2023. While he was here, Kiese said some beautiful, funny, insightful, and provocative things about home and about race and honesty—even about Damien Lillard and the Blazers and the soap opera, "The Young and the Restless." Wherever Kiese is, whatever he is talking or writing about, he seems to be thinking a lot about how we become who we are and where our loyalties, our deepest commitments should lie. Kiese is incredibly loyal to Mississippi, also incredibly critical of it.
He's intensely connected to his grandmother and his mother, and he wonders about important choices they've made, and he models an allegiance to the United States that's as barbed and jagged and real as the nation's history. Whether he is talking about race, class, "The Dukes of Hazzard," or the Ole Miss Football team, Kiese is worth listening to. From the moment I met Kiese backstage at the Alberta Rose Theater in March 2023 until the last audience member left, after asking Kiese to sign a copy of his memoir, "Heavy," and pose for a selfie, I felt really lucky to be in the orbit of the warmth, humor, intelligence, and tender honesty that radiates all around him. I think I speak for the whole audience too when I say we cannot wait to invite him back to this place, mess and all.
I was going to ask us to say a big warm Portland welcome to Kiese Laymon. Can we do that one more time? A big warm welcome.
Kiese Laymon: Um, thank y'all for making space for me tonight. Often when I do talks, I have to decide before I talk whether I want to be invited back. And I can just tell you from this vibe, I definitely wanna be invited back. So, so I'm gonna try to be as honest and as soulful as I can be. But I'm also gonna try to not leave a lot of mess for y'all to clean up. 'Cause that's how you don't get invited back to places. You got it?
Adam Davis: We can take it. Absolutely.
Kiese Laymon: Okay. Okay. Okay.
Adam Davis: Exactly. We, we invited you in part for the mess.
And you say, and you said you wanna be honest, but you also say in a couple places in your books, you encourage, you say you're gonna try to be as honest, as generous, and as tender with each other as we can be.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah.
Adam Davis: And, and this isn't where I was gonna start, but because of what you just said, I think, usually we think of honesty as something that's prefaced by the adjective "brutal," right? So how do you put honest with tender?
Kiese Laymon: You work and, and I think, I don't remember the first time I wrote those two words together, but, you know, writers have all of these little mini-epiphanies. But the first time I wrote those two words together, I was definitely on some like—that don't work. You know, like what is tender honesty? I mean, this was a long, long time ago. And I don't like to talk in fortune cookie messages, and I was just about to, so I'll try to be messy and not be clean. But, but so, so for me, it's just, I think sometimes making honest proclamations can run counter to like, taking care of your insides.
And, and what I often want to do is like, tell myself, remind myself that when I am being quote–unquote honest or searching for honesty or being, you know, nudging people to look toward what we might consider truth or honesty, I think it's most important that we do that, um, with a tender disposition and a care for ourselves. But I also don't think that that care means that we don't need to push and be pushed. So I'm just saying I think it's contradictory, but so is life.
Adam Davis: Great. So is life.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah.
Adam Davis: So there we go. And maybe so is Mississippi, and maybe so is Oregon. And I know you write a lot about Mississippi, and I hope we're gonna talk a lot about Mississippi, and I hope here, we're also thinking about Oregon, or wherever it is that we come from, and the nation. It feels like a lot of what you're writing about when you write about Mississippi is—it's not just a place, some ideas, some people, and so I guess I wanted to ask early on, like, when did you start to realize that Mississippi meant something to you?
Kiese Laymon: Oh, man. Um, yeah. I won't be too long-winded, but, you know, my mother had me when she was nineteen. She was a student at Jackson State University. My father was twenty. He was in this organization called Republic of New Africa. And I just had young parents who attempted to make me understand the importance of Pan-Africanism, right? So I understood the importance of the continent and parts of our relationship to the continent.
You know, my mother would have freedom fighters over from Zimbabwe often. So it wasn't until I was probably like eleven when I started to give my state the same attention that I had been given to like Pan-Africanism, even as a young person. 'Cause that's what my mama drilled into me. So I think when I was like around eleven or so, my mother didn't let me read these books. She didn't let me read Black books in my house 'cause she thought reading White books would protect me. Um, and then I remember reading a book ironically about this dude David Dennis Sr., who is David Dennis Jr., my friend's, father, and a lot of work that they'd done around Freedom Summer.
And so when I started to understand that, like, my getting an education in Mississippi was like a death-defying, like radical, revolutionary thing as a twelve year old—eleven, twelve year old—that's when I started to understand that like Mississippi meant something different. You know what I'm saying? The might of Mississippi.
And that's, and at that point, you know, I knew Jackson was the Blackest place that I'd ever known. I knew Mississippi was the Blackest state in the union, but I didn't really know what that, what that meant to the rest of the world. And I also didn't know why the White people, when I was twelve or eleven, were so adamant that, that those people who had less would continue to have even less.
And so like when I started to understand that shit and, and I started to see the history of Mississippi fully, I started to really appreciate, like, the geography of Mississippi. That's probably around thirteen or fourteen. And then I did that thing where when you become educated, you use that education as a shield, you start trying to act like your place is the best place ever.
I did that for like two decades, you know what I mean? I started telling everybody in New York, man, fuck your borough. You know what I'm saying? Like, motherfucker, do y'all have rivers in this motherfucker? And they'd be like, that's the Hudson. And I'd be like, but is it the New York River, 'cause we got a Mississippi River, you know, like you just start being mad reactionary to everything and, and it's easy to be reactionary about Mississippi because across the world, like if you know about Mississippi, most people often know it as someplace that lacks.
And I just wanted people to be like, if you think Mississippi lacks as the Blackest state in the nation, I feel like you're saying the Black folks in Mississippi lack, and I'm trying to be like, well, we don't, you know what I'm saying? Or we do, but we don't lack any more, any more differently than you do.
So that's a long winded answer. But yeah, it was probably thirteen or fourteen for me.
Adam Davis: Yeah. I mean, it doesn't feel like a long-winded answer at all, and it feels like it's a start. In part because it feels like talking about Mississippi is talking about the country and it's talking about race, talking about class too. There's a, the epigraph to "Heavy" is from Tony Cade Bambara.
Kiese Laymon: Mm-hmm.
Adam Davis: An author who, among other things, has a short story collection called "Gorilla, My Love." And there's a story in that called "The Lesson," and you refer to Bambara a lot as someone who was formative for you. There's a character in "The Lesson," Ms. Moore. Like this informal teacher.
Kiese Laymon: Yep.
Adam Davis: Who, the narrator, Sylvia, says, "Ms. Moore's always saying where we are is who we are."
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Adam Davis: "But it don't necessarily have to be that way."
Kiese Laymon: Yep.
Adam Davis: And I just wonder, like, Sylvia's recounting of Ms. Moore's comment, "Where we are is who we are, but it don't necessarily have to be that way."
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, that's a tough question. Um, first of all, I wanna say if you haven't read Bambara, and you profess to like a short story, I don't really know if you've read short stories. Like Bambara, in "The Lesson" and other pieces in "Gorilla, My Love," like taught me what was possible with what we call the short story.
But that quote is tough because, like, when I read that quote and when I reread that quote and when I hear it, I almost hear it as like implicitly an apology. Like, sometimes some of us feel like we need to apologize for where we from. And coming from Mississippi, you know, like I've been through that stage, and I don't think I stayed in that stage as long as other people I know.
Um, but I think power, tender power means you can stand in front of people outside of Mississippi and say, I absolutely grew up in a place where the water looked like vegetable oil. I absolutely grew up in a place taking showers when you, when you got out, you didn't have to really necessarily put on lotion 'cause it felt like you were taking a shower in lotion.
But I also grew up in a place that literally created what y'all call civil rights. You know what I'm saying? I grew up in a place that created Fannie Lou Hamer, that created Ida B. Wells, that created Medgar Evers, that created Jesmyn Ward. So, I feel that quote, but I feel like if you feel it too much, you can get into a place where you apologize for what people in your state did to the best people in your state.
And what I want to do is live in the fucking like, majesty of what the best people in my state did. So I feel that quote deeply, but also just want to be able to say, I'm not apologizing for what the best of Mississippi did, ever, outside of Mississippi, but I am, um, but I do feel responsible for some of what the worst of Mississippi has done.
I mean, I think those are paradoxical, you see what I'm saying?
Adam Davis: You feel, you said you feel responsible for some of the worst that Mississippi has done.
Kiese Laymon: Absolutely.
Adam Davis: How so?
Kiese Laymon: I mean, I'm a Mississippi—I mean, like, there's so many ways to talk about this. I can't see y'all right now, so I don't know if. Yeah, yeah. You definitely, you're definitely here. I can't tell who or what kind of folks are here, so, maybe that's for the best. But, I think like, I think that, you know, bro, like before the pandemic, I would go into like these juvenile detention centers in Jackson, my city. And I remember one time, last time I was there with my friend Ryan Mack, we grew up together. Ryan taught me how to be an artist, among other things. Ryan went to prison for a little while, and we went to this place to talk, and then the kids were talking to us and this one kid was like, um, he asked Ryan what he did to get in, and Ryan was like, you know, I shot somebody.
And then G was like, how many people you shot? And then Ryan didn't wanna say, and then Ryan eventually said, and then the kid was—but then Ryan's whole point was like, I'm here to tell you you cannot carry a gun in Jackson, Mississippi, after you get arrested, because that's what I did. And then these little jokers were like, but this Jackson.
And you can say, I didn't fail, but I'm a fucking writer who writes every single day of my life to young people in Mississippi. So I think one of the problems we have in my state, maybe in Portland, definitely in the nation, is that we kind of don't want to take responsible for any fucking failure.
You know what I'm saying? And so like I can be like, oh, I wrote a fucking book called "Heavy." I wrote a book called "Long Division." I wrote some blah, blah, blah. I'm in Portland. People come out here and clap for me. I'm very, very thankful. But I'm under no illusion that my art has done what I wanted it to do.
Because if my art did what I wanted it to do, that motherfucker wouldn't even be in prison. That little motherfucker wouldn't even be talking to us about guns. Like how you have to have a gun. And so that does not mean you need to take all of this on your back. But I think it's, I think it's much more important that we sit in the failures sometimes of our art with the expectation that we can revise that failure into something else.
And for me, I'm definitely in here fucking responsible for Mississippi. I went to school with the governor. I went to school with Tate Reeves. I didn't bust that motherfucker in his face. I'm responsible for that. You know what I mean? That's true. I hope y'all recording it too. 'Cause that's true.
So I'm just saying like, you know, it's not even, yeah, we responsible. I mean, you know, I didn't pass the last bill that, like, they wouldn't let poor people not pay their water bill. Like, I fought against that shit diligently. But we lost. So yeah, when you lose, you're responsible.
Adam Davis: That's a big, I mean, responsible is a big word. And you just said you're in some way responsible for a governor with whom you have strong disagreements and would've liked to pop in the face. And if we bring that home to ourselves, that's asking us to feel responsible for all sorts of things we're usually better at pointing at and seeing out there.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, but that's the thing. Like, I don't wanna be ableist, but like, you know, if one can point with one, like I can point here and point there, you know what I'm saying? Like, I'm pointing at two different places here, and if I have two hands, I'm pointing at you now. You know what I'm saying? If I do this, I'm pointing at me and you.
So, like the notion of a pointer is interesting, like, yeah. Point. But, like, the thing about critique that I hear in this country is that like, even the people we pointing at, like we are not saying anything about, I think. And I think in order to kind of point two different ways, it's gonna take a lot, you know what I'm saying? 'Cause you're gonna have to talk to people about what you think is your success. Somebody might be like, that's wrong, and you gotta talk to people about the way you fail. And I just think like, we don't ask that of presidents. We don't ask that of governors. We rarely ask that of principals. We don't ask that of fucking, uh, preachers.
So every institution is hollow because we ain't asking the motherfuckers who run it like, when was the last time you failed? And how? So, in the absence of that shit, like people can read a book like “Heavy” and be like, oh, da da da. I'm like, fam, like we live in a cauldron of fucking dishonest, like, disaster.
And so like, I just think maybe if we took responsibility for what that means, but I don't think take responsibility for what that means is a speech act. I think it might begin with a speech act, but I think ultimately like, it takes a lot of speech acts, it takes a lot of accountability. It takes a lot of failure. It takes a lot of pushing. Damn. I didn't wanna get all heavy like that real quick, but...
Adam Davis: It's good. I mean, while you were talking, it made me think of your grandmother, especially as she shows up in “Heavy” and of her commitment to Mississippi. And when you ask her, uh, why didn't you leave? Why do you stay?
Kiese Laymon: Yeah. Yeah, fam. Like she's just, she is, I was about to say was, and that's what makes me not happy. But she is one of those people in the world who, again, I won't talk about it too long, but you know, like people often talk about the Great Migration and all the people that left Mississippi to go to Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit.
But also a lot of times these people in the migration left rural towns like Forest, where my grandma and my mama grew up to go to like, southern cities like Jackson or like Memphis. So the Great Migration was much more complicated, I think, than people talk about. But the thing about the migration that I think we don't sit in enough is that, like that first generation of people who were left had a lot of work to do, who were left. My grandmama was left at eight years old and she didn't want to go. But there's a lot of shit my grandmama didn't want to do that her parents and parental figures and, and older people made—so my grandmama was able to stay in Mississippi because she was able to stay, ironically, with a woman that she called her mother, who I thought was my grandmother my whole life. And this woman ended up having an affair with her real father who supposedly left, went up north with her actual mother. So she wanted to stay like at eight years old, she was working in the fields she tells me ,and the story, who knows if the story's true, but her story was like, I didn't want to go up north. Like, they got land up there? That's what my grandma would say. They got land up there? And people would be like, nah. And then she'd be like, well, what I'm going for? And then they’re like, well, you know, because fucking like Jim Crow and like, you know, some of our family is up there and they building.
And then she'd be like—my grandma, she real petty—she'd be like, oh, you talking about so-and-so who living eight motherfuckers in a room? And they’d be like, and then next they’d be like, yeah. She like, nah, I'm good, in this little one bedroom shotgun house, like up on cinder blocks. So when we talk about, when some of us talk about the wonder of Mississippi, like she saw that shit early.
And even now, she's 94 years old and she's at my auntie's house, and I guarantee you she's not lucid, but when she is lucid, the thing she gonna say is, take me home. I want to go back to my house. To the house that I made for myself. So, you know, I don't have that same thing in me. Like I left Mississippi, I mean, I didn't want to leave, but I left when I was 20. I came back and then just left again. You know what I'm saying? Like, we're different people in that way, but I do appreciate her love and desire to not relinquish that which she worked for. Know what I'm saying? Like that, that's my grandma's shit. My grandma's shit's like, yo, I worked for this shit, fam. I'm like, you know, I'm not finna give this shit up to go up north to rent some house. Like, that land, as fucked up as it is, that's our land. That's our land. We ain't got no land up north. So there's a lot more to that story, but that’s—that's why she stayed.
Adam Davis: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting to think, she put so much of herself into it. She put so much of her life and work into it. And also it was inherited too.
Kiese Laymon: That's right.
Adam Davis: And it's, so one of the things that I've been thinking about as this has been approaching is when does it make sense to kind of cut bait? Especially because you, I think, are getting us thinking a lot about freedom.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Adam Davis: And I think there's a quick take on freedom that makes it sound like, we go where we want to go. But the roots, the roots here feel very strong in Mississippi, in family, and your grandmother most of all articulating it regularly. Like, this is the land we worked right.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, that's a great question. I’m sort of meditating on when you, what happens if you have to leave? I would much rather like for schools—and because church is so big down there, maybe churches—this is, this is utopic, because the shit we are looking at is dystopic, right? Like, so, I would really like if we kind of sat down with ourselves and our young people in our lives and talked about what it means to give to a place and leave. Right? Like, can you give to a place, and leave? Can you give as much as you can to a place, especially if particularly at that time, staying in that place is destroying your heart? We all know we often, most of us die of, I think, broken hearts. You know, we call it heart attack, call it whatever the fuck you want.
But like I think if I was taught as a young person that mobility is something that they do not want Black folk to have, especially in my state, I think the flip is that we just like, so we going to run. And what I wish my people did a little bit more talking about was like, what happens. Can we run and tend to the place that we made? Can you run to a different place and tend to a place? I think premature death makes this really hard, 'cause you're never given the possibility or probability that you're gonna be able to make it back home. But I do believe that you can leave and tend to home.
And I actually think if you don't tend to home when you leave, you're gonna be passing as somebody else in them new spaces. And I think we see a lot of that shit. I see a lot of people, you know. I see a number of writers out there in the world who are Mississippi writers who will not say they Mississippi writers. You know what I'm saying? Like who won't say that they're Mississippi writers because of what that might mean. So my point is like, I just think we can move through the world, go wherever we have to go, but creatively take home with us, and we have to decide what that means. Maybe that means you give all or half or whatever the fuck you make, blah, blah, blah. Maybe that means that you come home more often. But I think that the creativity in that question isn't even posed. And then we, like, lay it down to—do you stay or do you leave? You can stay and hate the fucking place. You can leave and love it. But I don't think we really have done the work to make those two texture realities kind of meet.
Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour by Oregon Humanities. Yeah. It's the idea of tending to home whether you are at home or not, that feels like a really potent way to put in. It does make me think a little bit about this place, too, where Oregon—Oregon is not Mississippi. It's different in lots of ways. But like Mississippi—[audience laughs]. That's a good smile. Did I not need to say Oregon is not Mississippi?
Kiese Laymon: I don't know, man. [audience laughs] I mean. Hey, listen.
Adam Davis: Yeah, we're listening. We're listening.
Kiese Laymon: Let me tell you, I'm all about shitting on places when I come to 'em. That's one of the things I'm good at. I don't know if Lyceum knows that, but like II'm really good at shitting on a place when I come, but I mean, there—I'm not gonna shit on Portland. I'm not gonna shit on Portland directly. [Audience laughs.] I'm using mad subtext through all, this whole conversation and I hope y'all feel it. But, I will say I am grateful to be here. 'Cause whatever is out there, or however this audience looks—I can't see. Shit, you get this kind of looking audience in Mississippi, they wouldn't be up here watching me. That's real talk. You see what I'm saying? So, um, I'm not saying y'all need to congratulate yourselves for that, but I'm just saying, it's a little different. But y'all should come to Mississippi. You should come to Jackson to see how different it is. Bring your own water.
Adam Davis: Well, actually thinking about the place, and while you were talking and politely saying only indirect things, it made me think that there's actually an example here of a guy who, who won't leave, even though there are other places he could go. And that's Damien Lillard.
Kiese Laymon: Bruh, you do not want me to talk about Damien Lillard. I'm just gonna tell you.
Adam Davis: But, but—
Kiese Laymon: Because.
Adam Davis: Yeah.
Kiese Laymon: If these people loved Damien Lillard, the way they say they love Damien Lillard, they would be writing fucking like, letters begging that GM to let that brother free. Sorry, sorry.
Adam Davis: So, if they love him, like they say, they would say, go to a place where it works.
Kiese Laymon: If I love you, I want you to do what's in your best interest. Even though you, you mean with this interview and you make me feel good, you make me feel good, but if I know that there's other opportunities out there for you to ultimately, like, win? And you might be like, I don't want to go, but if I love you, I'm gonna be like, man, you smoother than a motherfucker, bro. But you, you could be smoother. You might be—
Adam Davis: I've never been called smooth before. That's the first time in my life.
Kiese Laymon: You might be smoother with the Bucks. You might be smoother with, dare I say the Lakers?
Adam Davis: Nobody’s moving to the Lakers, but here's the thing. Here's the thing. Like Dame, this sounds like, so Dame actually like grew up in California, but he has made Oregon a place that he is deeply committed to. So, like, leave basketball aside for a minute to the extent that you can, he's committed to a place in this very visible way, even though the challenges are all over. And so, the goal of excellence, it's a different kind of excellence it seems like he's modeling.
Kiese Laymon: Right. I mean, I feel like I've gone as far as I'm gonna go in this. I'm saying that, yes, but what I'm trying to tell y'all, we were talking about this a few—we were just eating some good food a few minutes ago. And the thing to me about Dame is, oh, first of all, let me say, when I came to Portland, like four or five, or four years ago, and I came to Sunnyside and I hadn't, like, I hadn't lived in a place at that point that had a basketball team. Right? I think at the time I was still at University of Mississippi. And college football is the biggest thing in my state. And I had tickets to the Grizzlies, but it was different, fam. Like I went into that school and like these, like six year olds, five year olds, thirteen year olds, like they was all rocking the shit. Right? So I had no idea what a player could mean to the development of young people before I came to Portland.
And I'm saying that, even saying that, I just don't think you put your wellbeing in the hands, often, of millionaires who never had to compete. And the GMs and the millionaires who make the decisions about where these fucking genius Black motherfuckers are gonna go play never had to compete. So the idea, like the idea in basketball that someone who is so piss poor at their job can tell someone who literally is one of the ten best human basketball players on earth where to go? He been here long enough, bro. Set that motherfucker free. [Audience claps.] Y'all know it. Y'all got a lot going on. I just had some kombucha. That shit was popping. [Laughter.] I mean, like, you know, you got a lot going on here. Like, you know, and it's not working. It's not working. Let that brother go,
Adam Davis: Alright, somebody here has a connection to Dame and to the front office, and so—it's not me that has that connection, but someone that has it has to get away to get this—
now you refer to the University of Mississippi football team and there's a moment in the essay in this book, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” there's an essay about your developing relationship to the University of Mississippi football team. And there's this one short line where you say, you're talking about the outcome of the game and you say, “We won,” or something like that.
And then the next sentence is “We.”
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, that's, uh, I mean, I wrote that essay for ESPN. They recording this?
Adam Davis: What?
Kiese Laymon: Are they recording this?
Adam Davis: They are.
Kiese Laymon: Okay. So somebody from ESPN might have paid me to write an article about Ole Miss Football when I first got there that was sort of gonna be like the spark that was gonna send everybody—'cause people knew that they were cheating when I first got there, I don't know if you know, but this was a few years ago. And so they might've given me some money to be like, write an essay when you get there, that can be the smoking gun for da-da-da-da0da. So when I got there, I started interviewing people and writing an essay and I was just like, yo, I can't, first of all, this Oxford, Mississippi. Like I can't come to Oxford, Mississippi—if any of y'all know Oxford—throw the football team, which is the economic engine of that shit, and it is mostly all Black boys, throw that football team under the bus for a $1200 check from ESPN, when at that point those players couldn't get a $10 check from ESPN. So I literally was like, yo, I can't do what y'all want me to do.
There's some fuck shit going on around here. But what I'm gonna focus on is the strange sort of like, paradox of my being a visitor to Oxford, Mississippi. It's a part of Mississippi I never grew up in, I grew up in central, not northern, and feeling this weird sort of like possession over these Black boys, which is a similar possession that most of the White people in Oxford feel.
And so if you really read that essay, like, I'm going in, but I'm also going in on myself. Like, when you just said that, I was like, God, that was so gross, Kiese. 'Cause there were times when I felt like, “We,” you know, Ole Miss would be playing. Ole Miss would be playing football, and I’d call my boy Derrick, uh, Derrick Carrell and I'd be like, yo, how we doing? How we doing? And at the time, this fucking place had, you know, multiple Confederate statues on the grounds. And most importantly, y'all, like the Black student athletes of that school were the economic engine of the entire town. And they were not treated that way. They were treated like fucking, like, niggas when they lost. And they were treated like niggas who could play football good when they won. Which means they were treated like niggas. You see what I'm saying? So, when I wrote that piece, I was trying to just sit in that, well, one, I'm coming back to the state. I ain't been here for ten years. I feel this weird sort of collective “we-ness” about these young Black boys making all of us happy, like raising the property value of fucking houses and shit. And I felt like they were, I felt like I got swept up in that shit. I got swept up into like the “we-ness” of that, that institution and that football team. So.
Adam Davis: So the we part is interesting and it made me think again about, that you and your grandmother, if I'm remembering right, would watch, every Friday night, “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Kiese Laymon: Yeah, we sure did.
Adam Davis: And so the example of you feeling like this football team, we are part of, like we're winning, or you and your grandmother watching “The Dukes of Hazzard,” where it feels like there is some really complicated identity stuff going on there.
Kiese Laymon: I mean, it's kind of complicated, but “The Dukes of Hazzard” wasn't—I mean, it was complicated for my mother, who was a college professor at the time, who could talk to you about why watching the show with White boys driving a General Lee with the Confederate insignia wass the antithesis of what Black people might need to be consuming. But my grandmama is a southern Black woman who was fucking hungry for any kind of southernness that was shown on tv. Same reason she liked “Hee Haw,” same reason she liked “Dallas.” You see what I'm saying? So like I think, I think it's important to talk about this because sometimes I think particularly talking about older grandmother type figures, I think we make them so saccharine and like, they're like purely saccharin, you know what I mean? My grandmother had like a racial critique. She had a gender critique. She had a spatial critique. But she also found a lot of pleasure in “Hee Haw”—
Adam Davis: I love that sentence just on its own.
Kiese Laymon: —in “Dallas.” But you know what else she found pleasure in? She found pleasure when she came home from work, from fucking slicing open chickens at the chicken plant. You couldn't talk to my grandmama from eleven to twelve-fifteen ‘cause she was watching, um, “Young and the Restless.” [Applause.] And so—look at people clapping for that. I know there's some Black people out there, too. That's how I know Black people here. Y'all just clapping for “The Young and the Restless.” [Laughter] Watch this. Watch this. “All My Children.” [Applause.] Black folks in Portland. There we go. Yeah. Yeah. And so like, there's just a complexity to me about my granny and the shit she used to watch. And then her best friend, Mama Laura, was older than her but 10:30 on Saturday night is when wrestling used to come on. I would, you know, I was like between four and ten years old. I’d just sprint down to my Mama Laura's house who was slightly older than my grandmamma, and we'd just sit there on some plastic fucking furniture and watch these mostly White men on steroids and tights.
And we would watch primarily so we, until we could see the Black men come on there with tights, Butch Reed, Junkyard Dog, and whatnot. So I'm just saying, it’s complicated, but at the same time, I just think sometimes, you know, Black people get to enjoy like transgressive pleasures as well, you know what I'm saying?
Adam Davis: Sure.
Kiese Laymon: And especially older Black women, I just think we need to like open up possibility for that.
Adam Davis: Mm-hmm. You describe yourself multiple times as a southern Black man, and it feels to me like it's a way of saying something that you were just talking about. Southern and Black, but connected.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah.
Adam Davis: And I'm asking that, I'm building towards a question, or maybe it's not a question. Maybe it's just a gesture in your direction. Someone that I was with last week said that she's— she's a teacher who's been doing this exercise with her students, where she has them list five sort of categories that they're a part of, that are essential to who they are. And then she makes 'em remove, one by one, the ones that aren't fundamental to who they are.
Kiese Laymon: Wow.
Adam Davis: And she gets 'em down to one. Yeah. Right. People are taking the Lord's name in vain in response to that exercise. I mean, is it possible to peel apart Black and southern and male for that matter? How do you think about the way those three things go together?
Kiese Laymon: Jeez repeats, bro. I don't like—okay. You asking me to be a person I don't like, so I'm gonna be this person for like twenty-five seconds.
Adam Davis: Bring it. Yeah.
Kiese Laymon: All right. I'm sorry. But you know, words—words are approximations. Like, I don't believe anyone in the world who tells me they're a man or a woman. I know that they're, I know that they're using what they've been given. There's no reason in the world to think that there's only two genders. Like there's no reason in the world to think that there's good and evil, right?
Like there are approximations. So what I hear you asking me is like, what approximation would I be most okay with, if Black, southern, man, and because they are approximations, I'm gonna say Black. Because I think Black and the way we've constructed that word means so, so, so, so much. And I think, man, which is a different word than male. Which is a different word than Southern. I just think those approximations are like, they're just less weighty, they're less evocative, they're less interesting. I think Black, the way I think it has been constructed, is an amalgamation of a whole lot of shit. So it's like, it’s words, it's approximation. Like you know, you ain't gotta ever call me a man, you ain't really gotta ever call me Southern, but you don't call me Black? I'm gonna feel some kind of way.
Adam Davis: Okay.
Kiese Laymon: With the understanding that whatever we mean by Black, like, I mean so much more. But I just think that that word is so much more expansive, definitely, than man. Most definitely than male and I think, than Southern. But maybe not.
Adam Davis: What was the twenty-five seconds that you didn't want to be?
Kiese Laymon: Well, 'cause sometimes bro, people don't want to hear you talk about how words are bullshit at a thing about words. You know what I mean? People don't wanna be reminded that we all up in here using symbols to communicate and acting like we know what the fuck everybody else means. We don't know what the fuck nobody mean up in here. We don't, but we, you know, we act like we do. But yeah, so.
Adam Davis: I'm gonna ask you about one more word, and if you don't want to deal with the word, it's actually a word that doesn't show up in your books as far as I can remember, but it's a word that shows up all the time in Portland, especially around race. And that word is equity. And I'm curious because it's such a present word out here, and I don't remember coming across it in any of these three books. And now you're shuffling in a way that makes me excited, so— [audience laughs].
Kiese Laymon: Oh, I'm just, I'm very arthritic. And questions that remind me of DEI make me, like, kind of make me itch.
Adam Davis: They get the arthritis going?
Kiese Laymon: Yo, man, them equity conversations though. Because we're in a space now where people who don't say diversity want to pat them—not you, but people who don't say diversity—
Adam Davis: Of course, right, right, right. Exactly.
Kiese Laymon: Not you, not you. You too smooth for this. [Laughter.] People who don't say diversity often want to pat themselves, we often want to pat ourselves on the back for using equity. Like we don't mean diversity, we mean equity. So, but lemme just say, take the question like, on face value, like, I don't know what else to say other than I hope equity in this community means an honest assessment at what has been given to certain people and what should have been given to certain people, and to question what, like, what it means to not be given what you're, what you've earned and what you—what you earned, and what you need, for generations and generations and generations, and most important, and as importantly, think about what it means to be people who've been given way more than they actually deserve for generations and generations. I would assume equity means we look at that and we say, how do we fucking, like, equalize the distribution of resources and wealth. On the surface, that's what I assume it would mean. But because Portland, I assume, is like other places in the world, you’re gonna have a lot of people who say they earned some shit that they don't wanna share with people who have also earned some shit. And so, like I'm not coming, trying to be that person who come to Portland and try to tell Portland about Portland. 'Cause I hate people who do that kind of shit. But if you're asking about equity, like I would hope that people in this community, and this is where this is hard because I think there are a lot of people who've been generationally, like, given shit that they might not deserve. But the question is like, how do we share? If it's material, I think it's easy. But I also think culturally some of us have been given something called home training. I think we need to share that with some of these motherfuckers, you know what I mean? But conversely, like, you know, I'm in a place in my life where I make, for my family, I make a lot of money. And I don't know what to do with that money other than to share it with people. I used to share it with slot machines, and even when I shared it with slot machines, I still was sharing it with my granny first. And so I'm saying all that to say like, I don't want us to think that this equity model is, well, one, White folk, anywhere you go, owe people. They owe the people they stole the land from, and they owe Black and Brown folks. I don't give a fuck what you talking about. They just do. But I also think families owe each other. And so like, if there are me, like as someone in the family who makes a ton of money, I do have the responsibility to kind of—to not kind of—but to fucking see what I can equitably share. It gets hard when you talking about people who come from like,intergenerational poverty, you know what I mean? It's just, it's just different. You know, because you can do that. You do that three months in a row, you ain't got no more money. You know? So that's a hard question to me. But I do think in this community, I would hope it would mean sharing what you have unfairly accumulated with people who have also done the work to accumulate, but at the end of the day, as we know, we gotta question like accumulation and extraction. I mean, we gotta question capitalism, but you can question capitalism while like, giving your shit away. It's not like we gotta figure that shit out. Nah, motherfuckers, you know. You know. You know what I mean? And then the question though is like, then what? But I also just don't think we're just talking about capital. I think we're talking about culture too. Yeah.
Adam Davis: So a couple more questions from me and then we're gonna open that microphone over there. Maybe this is the last question that's about a couple of, I think, big word concepts, and this one is, I think, it's putting your mother in conversation with your grandmother, which I think you do—
Kiese Laymon: Okay.
Adam Davis: —around freedom, which you identify, I think, with your grandmother.
Kiese Laymon: Yeah.
Adam Davis: And excellence, which you identify with your mother. Those two words, freedom and excellence, which feel like big ethical choices.
Kiese Laymon: Right. Yeah, so I grew up with a mama who was just like, you know, she made you brush your teeth with excellence, gargle with excellence, spit out fucking excellent, you know, wipe your ass excellently. You know, and like, who was very, uh, clearly adamant about if you don't do such and such excellent, White people gonna get you. Now retrospectively, she was right. White people got me for not being excellent, right? I should not have stolen that book, for example. But the reason they got me was because I was being like, I actually was being excellent.
Like I actually was being excellent at 19 years old at that thing Black children are very seldom allowed to be excellent at, which is experimentation. And I mean this with every fucking like shred of my being, that if you do not allow young, Black people to experiment in this nation, you are terror. You are terror. You see what I'm saying? And so, like for me, you know, I was experimenting with words, writing essays and shit that people at my school didn't like and that the fraternities didn't like. And then I got kicked outta school for fighting them, because they didn't like something that I wrote.
So my mama would say, Kiese, you weren't excellent, but retrospectively, that was that abundance. Like I was, you know, to experiment you have to, in some way, be free. Like to freely experiment. That's what I used to love so much about growing up in Mississippi. Across the street from my grandmother's house were these woods, and lots of us used to go in those woods and experiment with our bodies, but particularly the kids that we now know were queer, like they found spaces in those woods to freely experiment. And when they were caught, the punishment was like, beyond anything we could ever imagine. So, excellence is what I—I feel excellence and I feel, like, the Black excellence people and all that shit. But this shit is so narrow. You know what I mean? It's so, so narrow. Like, and I don't think it takes much to be— my mama used to always say, you gotta be, I gotta work twice as hard as White people to get half as much. But she never talked about what happens when you actually are twice as good as them. You know what I mean? And when I went to White school, I always say this, I went to school with White people. Yo, Seth [laughs]. That little motherfucker, Seth, this motherfucker was doing his eyelids, right? We in eighth grade, you know, how you turn your eyelids inside out? Fam. We stopped doing that shit in third grade. Like this—y'all laughing, but this mean the world to me. Like, but my mama's whole thing was key: when you get in there, you gotta be more excellent. But I'm like, Mama.They turnin’ they eyelids. They got the freshest library, they got all of this shit, and we up in there, you know, we up in there throwing words back and forth, playing vocabulary games and shit.
And these motherfuckers just like laughing they ass off, like turning they—and I really do think, I don't like to fucking land on metaphor, but that's sort of a metaphor for, not you, but like White boys in this country. You know what I'm saying? Like, we over here doing some shit. They turning their eyelids inside out, and next thing you know, they governor, you know, or president.
And so like, my whole shit is like, that excellent shit? Yo, okay. But I want to accept my black abundance. I want to accept my black abundance and I want to do everything I can to encourage young Black children in my state to be free, which means when they fuck up, we have to forgive them. That shit is the hardest thing in this nation. That means you gotta forgive them. [Applause.] That means you gotta give motherfuckers second and third and fourth and fifth chances. So, so excellence. I understand why my mama pushed it. She comes from that civil rights era. And then I was born into a Black power era.
But I just think, in my estimation, you know, like my mama wouldn't want me up here wearing this fresh ass shirt that Samson made, she wouldn't want me up here in my sweats, but like, you know, we gotta be critical of ourselves, but we also gotta be honest about ourselves. You know what I'm saying? I've been writing for a minute, you know what I'm saying? I did not just become that nigga, like I've been that nigga in my heart, in terms of like the writing that I do. And so like, I just gotta tell my mama or everybody else, I'm not finna like get up on this motherfucking, like, wear a goddamn suit for you. I'm sure y'all are beautiful people if I could see you, but for some—no, I'm gonna come up here and be honest and talk to you. And to me that is a freedom that I feel like I wish every Black person in this world could have, and they do not. So we gotta, we gotta do what we can to make that more possible. [Applause.]
Adam Davis: So we're going to turn on a light. If you have a question that you want to ask Kiese, the microphone is here. I just ask that you introduce yourself before the question. Usually it takes one to break the dam a little bit.
Audience member: So I really appreciate you being here. 'Cause I don't never see no southern Black people here. I'm originally from Montgomery, my family's from Demopolis and Union Springs. And so I remember you talking a little bit about home. And so I've been here for about seven years. And so we have this thing in Montgomery, like once you leave, you can't come back. And it is one of those things because like, you leave and they're proud of you, but then you come back and now you think, or they think that you think that you're better than them.
Kiese Laymon: Right.
Audience member: So having that sense of home, you feel displaced. You feel as if like, you know, where are you supposed to be? And I feel like that as soon as I went to Jackson State, and that was five hours away.
Kiese Laymon: Right. Wow.
Audience member: Because you went to college. And so I was like, okay, well I gotta leave here, too. ‘Cause like job opportunities, money and all of that stuff. And so once I got like my doctorate, I was like, I'm going back to the South to teach. So I just got done teaching at USM, and I was like I gotta give some—University of Southern Miss. And so I was like, I gotta give something back. 'Cause Alabama State don't ever hire nobody. So once I got there, I was teaching interdisciplinary studies, and it was taught, like most of the people on the football team were taught like, hey, this is a fly-by department. And we were hired as a diversity cohort. And so they were like, you need to turn this entire department around. And when I got some of the assignments, like, the writing was not good. The comprehension was not good, because they were there just to be football players. And you know, you talked a little bit about failure and I was like, I've failed them. Like we failed them. We.
Kiese Laymon: We.
Audience member: And so I just wanted to get your thoughts a little bit more about like, what does home mean when you leave and you try to come back and you feel like, we failed them.
I failed them. We failed them. And that it is not your home anymore.
Kise Laymon: I love that question. What's your name?
Audience Member: T.
Kiese Laymon: I love that question, fam. It's really complicated though. 'Cause like when I graduated it took me six years to graduate college. 'Cause I got kicked outta Milsap and then went to Jackson State and then I went to Oberlin. And I remember when I graduated from Oberlin, anybody who's graduated from any sort of place, you probably know this feeling. And you know, my whole family was making it about me, and the whole school is making it about me. Four years—really was six years for me—but I was like, okay, four years! But like, I remember when I saw my mama face, I saw six years right here. I saw six years right here. I heard six years when she opened her mouth. And when I went home I saw six years on like, you know this notion you go home and people on the corner are on the same corner. Yeah. But if you go and listen to those people, the stories ain't gonna be the same stories that they told six years ago.
Six years is six years from home. And so the thing that I had to understand more than anything was like if you go home, yeah, you coming home with some letters and shit behind your name, and you know where we've come from, our people gonna be like, yes. But I also think we owe it to our people to use some of these skills that we have gathered at these institutions, which is hopefully the skill of questioning and asking, not in sort of like a way to dictate, but just to be like, where have you been? Where have you been? That's the question I think we gotta ask when we go home.
And I also noticed when I came home to Mississippi this last time, the thing that thankfully I was old enough to understand was like, yeah, you can come home and be like, yo, I wanna start this organization. I wanna come home and start this. But the most important generative work is asking people on the ground, at your home, in your home, how you can be of service. And I feel like that is some way that you sort of like step across that gulf between those who leave and those who stay.
But we have to first understand that whether you stay or you leave, you have whatever, six years, four years, five years, ten years of experience that's worth mining. 'Cause one of the things about being in college is you have people ask you questions about yourself all the time. But I think one of the things that I will say about my people is that like they didn't have a lot of people to ask them questions. And if you don't ask the people who made home home, about who they are and what they are, I think you're not gonna really have an understanding of home. So that's what I would say to that. And I really appreciate you giving what you just gave to us.
Audience member: I appreciate it. Thank you.
Second audience member: All right, so I'm a future teacher. I'm gonna start my first year teaching next year, and [audienc applauds]—Thank you. And I was thinking when you were talking about the experimenting as a young Black person, and how important that is. I think that's like super important. And one thing that I wanna do is make sure that my Black students know that they can do whatever the hell they want to. And I think about, you know, Seattle Public Schools has this thing, this curriculum where it's “Black Lives Matter in School” Week, where they were like, it's not required, I don't think. But they have you teach these lessons about the Black Lives Matter movement and where it came from and all this stuff, and I taught it.
And to me it was really about teaching White kids about the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than having anything to do with the Black kids. 'Cause they already know, and they've already seen it, and they've already been triggered by it and harmed by it. And so to me it felt like, my question is more about like, how can we have that both, like how can I inspire these young Black kids? And I just don't want them to constantly be seeing themselves in those positions in the like Black Lives Matter movement and stuff like that. And they try and put a spin on it where it's like, you know, this is a group of people that always stand up for themselves. And I understand like you wanna make sure that people know that there's some power in this.
But I just know that from my standpoint, I don't always want my students to see themselves like that. I want them to know that experimenting and doing all this stuff is important. So I just wanna know your opinion about like, as Black teachers, our role in putting those two together, where we're being honest and we're supporting the learning of White kids and not Black kids, but we're also not just showing Black kids this side of the history, and also inspiring them.
Like how can we put—do those together as Black teachers of Black students?
Kiese Laymon: The little something I have to say, I think, asks too much of you. You know what I mean? I think what you are sitting in is the responsibility that you have to teach your students, but also to teach individual students and then to teach different groups of students. That's four jobs, when you're being paid half as much as what you should for one. [Applause.] So I think organizing to be compensated more fairly is part of what we're talking about. And while one is organizing to be more fairly paid, and this is the part I think is kind of like controversial about what I'm saying, I think you kind of gotta max out in that time you have. Meaning, I think you have to give everything you can to those students in front of you right now with the probability that your ass is gonna burn out in five years from doing that. And I think other people would say, do it the other way. Right? Pace yourself. You gotta be there for more people in the long run.
I think that is absolutely true, but I also think that the students in front of you today, sadly, 'cause premature death, we’re not guaranteed a five year, ten year down the line type of thing. We as Black folks are not guaranteed to be here five, ten years from now. So I just think you give everything you can to teaching those students in that classroom. But also, I just think you gotta do, I think it's not fair what I'm saying, but I think you have to teach those kids, whether it's in like caucusing or what people call affinity groups. But I would just say, you have to meet with those Black kids and talk and ask them what they need.
Second audience member: Mm-hmm.
Kiese Laymon: And try to give everything you can to them, knowing that what you are giving them is actually tools that are gonna be used to subvert the system. 'Cause if the system wanted you to do that work, they would pay you accordingly. They don't want you to fucking educate them Black kids. I don't give a fuck. I don't have to live in Portland to know that. If they wanted you to educate those Black kids affirmatively, wholly, like with healing at the center and radical experimentation as part of what they did, you wouldn't even have to ask that question.
Second audience member: Mm-hmm.
Kiese Laymon: But you do gotta ask that question, and I think you do gotta tend to those kids no matter what. But most importantly, as importantly, I think you have to organize with other people trying to do this work so you can get more resources to be what you can be to those students. That's what I think.
Second audience member: Mm-hmm.
Kiese Laymon: Thank you. For real. Thank y’all.
Adam Davis: Kiese Laymon is a Black southern writer from Jackson, Mississippi. You can find links to Kiese's work and watch footage of our conversation by visiting the link in our show notes at oregonhumanities.org.
The Detour is produced by Keiren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Ben Waterhouse, Karina Briski, and Alexandra Powell Bugden are our assistant producers. I'm Adam Davis. Thanks for listening. See you next time.