On Heavy: Every Word in Service of Our People
I just read Heavy: An American Memoir – this week, in one night.
Well, I’m still looking for an agent and of course, still wondering if Black girls lives really matter to agents, publishers, anyone.
I’m still get no’s from agents and agencies, mostly silences, but persevering on…I know the right one will appear, in due time, at the appointed time.
They (the ubiquitous twitter feeds) tell you to research agents who might be representing similar genres and the authors they are representing. So, I find an agency, and they are representing memoir and an African-American writer. Kiese Laymon. They tell you to research the writer, too. I look at Kiese’s website. I love it. His first tab — Thank You. His first thank you – Grandmama. And, many others. At the end, he thanks his agent for supporting him and encouraging him in his writing journey.
His memoir is called Heavy. I decide to read it. It resonates with my own life in an almost déjà vu way.
He called it “writing lines.” I called it “writing sentences.” His mama made him write lines. My father made me write sentences.
My words: “I have to write 1000—one thousand—sentences saying “Form is important in tennis. I cannot cheat and deceive myself and my father.” When my father assigned 1000-sentence punishments, the sentences were generally about tennis and life. “Emotions are not part of the tennis game”; “I will not be defeated before I enter a match”; I have to stop taking too many aspects of my life, including my parents, for granted.” For some reason, I have carried around the papers with these sentences for decades.
My son finally put them to good use in an art piece for the book cover, where he integrated the childhood yellow pad handwritten sentences, with edited revisions for the manuscript:
“I am one of those black children who was beaten into survival and excellence.” His words in an interview on August 4, 2019.
These words pierced my heart, because I, too, am one of those black children who was beaten into survival and excellence.
“I was the victim and beneficiary of a bargain without knowing made by my father. The bargain was The Pratt Setup—a systematic, disciplined approach for raising successful Black children in America who were born in the 1960s in the middle of the civil rights movement and the fight for equality by African-Americans. The Pratt Setup was designed to prepare me for life in a country steeped in racism and sexism by giving me two survival tools—discipline and a commitment to excellence. Discipline and excellence would be a virtue and value to help me as a young Black woman persevere—no matter what. In spite of all obstacles, in spite of any challenges, discipline and excellence would be my guides. They would be a strength and a rod that I would use to keep myself in line, to keep focused on my goals, on achievement, and on outcomes.
“Discipline and excellence would ensure persistence, resilience, and endurance. Discipline and excellence would not allow for weakness and fragility. They would be hard driving forces, pushing me forward, always, against all and any odds. They would help me succeed, but there would be a cost. The cost would be suffering—a quiet but intense silent suffering.”
Kiese writes about his suffering — a heavy weight literally, on the spirit and psyche, and body.
Being Black in America requires carrying a weight.
My father’s words in the last letter he wrote to me, 9 months before he died in this strange combination of lower case and upper case letters: “You do not know what PREOCCUPATION WITH SUCCESS FOR YOUR BLACK CHILDREN in this country means. It was a 24hrs job—NO SLEEP—LYING IN BED OR NOT.”
My father carried a weight — a weight that eventually killed him at the age of 60, almost 24 years ago.
Kiese watched Roots as a child. I did, too, at 9 years old.
My words: “When I was nine years old, my parents made me watch the entire Roots series when it came out in 1977. It imprinted the trauma of Blackness into my soul. It also provided a point of connection between my own Africanness and Americanness. I knew that I was very different as a Black person. I was truly African-American—with both African and American roots. As the only Black student in my high school graduation class of 388 people, my life had been one that was immersed in White culture. My exposure to Black culture ended when I stopped going to the Black church, Mt. Pisgah, as a child. All my friends were White, but I knew I was Black and different. “
Kiese writes about reading Faulkner and Nikki. So do I.
My words: “At Iowa, I did an honors thesis on William Faulkner and his portrayal in five of his novels of Black characters. It was part of my intellectual wandering. I also immersed myself in the writings of African-Americans. Most of the writings assigned in my courses were by Black men. I read a lot of James Baldwin. I was introduced to Nikki Giovanni during my first year of college in my Black Poetry class. She would be an inspiration throughout my life. Other than Nikki, it would be years before I would find Black women writers and scholars.”
Kiese’s grandmama did White people’s laundry in Mississippi. My grandmama did White people’s laundry in Texas. His mama was a professor. Like my mama.
He is a professor at Ole Miss. Like him, I, too, am a professor.
He is on leave, on fellowship, having time to work on two books. His out of office told me that. I had decided I would write him, to thank him. I am neither on leave or fellowship, yet I am still writing.
He writes about reading Before the Mayflower and about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. I, too, read and taught from Before the Mayflower at Fisk, and I, too, write about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.
His life, as a Black boy and man, touched me. That is what writing should do. It should touch us, awaken us.
After I finished reading the book, at 1:00 am, I wanted to drive to Mississippi, to Ole Miss, to see him, thank him. And I hate driving.
To thank him for his courage. It is hard to “air dirty laundry” as Black people say. We have been socialized into silence and we do hold secrets. In my writing, like him, I am sharing secrets I have held for years, yet written in journals over 45 years that bear witness to my evolution as a writer, as a thinker, as a Black woman.
His writing is just incredible. He is an immaculate storyteller. He doesn’t write from journals, but his sharing of words, experiences, and lives is as if it just happened. Brilliant.
Though we have different styles and approaches, there is a connecting theme in our work – being Black children in America – and being pushed toward excellence and discipline.
My story is about what it means to grow up as a Black girl with Black parents with doctoral degrees in the 1960s (PhD in nuclear physics – my father from Sierra Leone, West Africa) and PhD in social work (my mother from Henderson, Texas) — who are trying to raise a Tiger (Woods) and Serena/Venus (Williams) in White racist America. Black parents who raised my brother, Awadagin Pratt, who played classical piano recitals at the White House before presidents, enabling my mother to literally go from the outhouse to the White House as my brother’s guest.
His story is about growing up in Mississippi, and then moving North and dealing with the racism of America, and the toll that being in Black bodies takes on us. It is a heavy toll.
Yet, the toll doesn’t eliminate or obliterate the responsibility that all of us have to actualize our potential. We are all called to some type of service. Some of us are called to particular types of service. A service with our words.
He writes: “every word in service of our people.” That is my commitment, too. Words in service of our people. Every word. In service. Of our people.