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Heavy: An American Memoir

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*Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Broadly, Buzzfeed (Nonfiction), The Undefeated, Library Journal (Biography/Memoirs), The Washington Post (Nonfiction), Southern Living (Southern), Entertainment Weekly, and The New York Times Critics*

In this powerful, provocative, and universally lauded memoir—winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal and finalist for the Kirkus Prize—genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon “provocatively meditates on his trauma growing up as a black man, and in turn crafts an essential polemic against American moral rot” (Entertainment Weekly).

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to time in New York as a college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. Heavy is a “gorgeous, gutting...generous” (The New York Times) memoir that combines personal stories with piercing intellect to reflect both on the strife of American society and on Laymon’s experiences with abuse. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, he asks us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.

“A book for people who appreciated Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful, often comical exploration of weight, identity, art, friendship, and family through years of haunting implosions and long reverberations. “You won’t be able to put [this memoir] down...It is packed with reminders of how black dreams get skewed and deferred, yet are also pregnant with the possibility that a kind of redemption may lie in intimate grappling with black realities” (The Atlantic).

ISBN-13: 9781501125669

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: 03-05-2019

Pages: 256

Product Dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Kiese Laymon is the Ottilie Schillig Professor in English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi and author of the novel Long Division, the memoir Heavy, and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. He was recently named a 2022 MacArthur Fellow.

Read an Excerpt

1. Train You stood in a West Jackson classroom teaching black children how correct usage of the word “be” could save them from white folk while I knelt in North Jackson, preparing to steal the ID card of a fifteen-year-old black girl named Layla Weathersby. I was twelve years old, three years younger than Layla, who had the shiniest elbows, wettest eyes, and whitest Filas of any of us at Beulah Beauford’s house. Just like the big boys, Dougie and me, all Layla ever wanted to do was float in the deep end.

Beulah Beauford’s house, which sat deep in a North Jackson neighborhood next to ours, was only the second house I’d been in with new encyclopedias, two pantries filled with name-brand strawberry Pop-Tarts, and an in-ground pool. Unlike us in our rented house, which we shared with thousands of books and two families of rats, Beulah Beauford and her husband owned her house. When we moved from apartments in West Jackson to our little house in the Queens, and eventually to North Jackson, I wanted people who dropped me off to think Beulah Beauford’s house belonged to us. Our house had more books than any other house I’d ever been in, way more books than Beulah Beauford’s house, but no one I knew, other than you, wanted to swim in, or eat, books.

Before dropping me off, you told me I was supposed to use Beulah Beauford’s encyclopedias to write a report about these two politicians named Benjamin Franklin Wade and Thaddeus Stevens. You told me to compare their ideas of citizenship to President Ronald Reagan’s claim: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

Then I was also supposed to read the first chapter of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and imitate Faulkner’s style when writing a short story placed in Jackson. The first sentence in the book was a million words long, which was cool, and it used strange words like “wisteria” and “lattices,” but I didn’t know how to write like Faulkner and say anything honest about us. Ronald Reagan gave me the bubble-guts and William Faulkner made me feel drunker than a white man, so I decided I’d take the whupping from you or write lines when I got home.

Besides Layla, and Beulah Beauford’s son, Dougie, usually there were at least two other seventeen-year-old big boys in the house who were the friends of Dougie’s older cousin, Daryl. Daryl moved into Beulah Beauford’s house a year earlier from Minnesota and his room was a straight-up shrine to Vanity, Apollonia, and Prince Rogers Nelson. Daryl and his boys went from rolling their own cigarettes, to smoking weed, to selling tiny things that made people in North Jackson feel better about being alive. In between doing all that smoking and selling, they swam, watched porn, drank Nehis, boiled Red Hots, ate spinach, got drunk, got high, imitated Mike Tyson’s voice, talked about running trains, and changed the rules to swim at Beulah Beauford’s house every other week that summer of 1987.

One week, the rule was Dougie, Layla, and I had to make the older boys all the supersweet Kool-Aid they could drink with perfectly chipped ice if we wanted to swim. Two weeks later, the rule was Dougie and I had to place five socks around our fists and box each other until one of our noses bled. The next-to-last day I spent at Beulah Beauford’s house, the rule was simple: Layla had to go in Daryl’s room with all the big boys for fifteen minutes if she wanted to float in the deep end, and Dougie and I had to steal all the money out of her purse and give it to the big boys when they got out.

Layla, who smelled like apple Now and Laters, shea butter, and bleach, always wore a wrinkled sky-blue swimsuit underneath her acid-washed Guess overalls. I watched her walk down the hall behind Darryl, Wedge, and this dude named Delaney with the biggest calves in the neighborhood. Delaney claimed he’d been initiated into the Vice Lords one weekend earlier.

We all believed him.

When the door to Darryl’s bedroom closed, Dougie and I started rummaging through Layla’s purse. Stealing stuff, getting to the last level in Donkey Kong, barely losing fights, and saying “on hard,” “on punishment,” and “on swole” were Dougie’s superpowers. He wasn’t all-world at any of them, but he did all four ten times more than anyone I’d ever known in Jackson.

Since Layla didn’t have any money to steal, Dougie stole Layla’s compact that day. He claimed he was going to fill it with these weak joints Daryl showed him how to roll. I saw and stole a crumpled minipack of apple Now and Laters right next to this unopened bottle of white shoe polish.

Inside the smallest pocket of the purse, wrapped around some yellow legal pad paper, was this homemade ID. None of the edges were smooth and Layla had on a red Panama Jack shirt and braces on her bottom teeth in the picture. The ID had Layla’s birth date, school name, weight, height, and a church picture of her and her family standing in front of Mt. Calvary, but it didn’t have her name on it. I remember Layla was at least six inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter than me. On the other side of the ID, blazing across the middle in huge bleeding black marker, were the words USE THIS IN CASE OF EMERGENCIES.

Up until that point, I’d never really imagined Layla being in one emergency, much less emergencies. Part of it was Layla was a black girl and I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them. Part of it was Layla was three whole years older than me and I never really had a conversation with her for more than eight seconds. Layla wasn’t the most stylish girl in North Jackson, but she was definitely the funniest person in Beulah Beauford’s house, and she was all-world at more things than all of us combined. She was all-world at dissing Daryl for having feet that stank through his bootleg Jordans, all-world at reminding Delaney his breaststroke was forever a “drownstroke,” and all-world at never really laughing at anyone else’s sentences until she was good and ready. I wasn’t the type of fat black boy to ever talk to fine black girls first, and Layla wasn’t the type of fine black girl to ever really talk to fat black boys like me unless she was asking me to get out of her way, walk faster, or get her some Kool-Aid.

I didn’t have an ID of my own, but I did have this blue velcro Jackson State University wallet with the faded tiger on the front. You gave it to me for Christmas. I kept the two-dollar bill Grandmama gave me for my birthday in it. Behind a black-and-white picture of Grandmama, in one of the folds, was one of your old licenses. You said I couldn’t leave the house without it until I got my own license. A real license, you told me way more than once, didn’t mean I was grown. It just meant I was technically protected from the Vice Lords, the Folks, and the Jackson police, who you claimed worked for Ronald Reagan and the devil.

“What they up in there doing?” I asked Dougie, whose ear was pressed against Daryl’s door.

“Fool, what you think? Running a train.”

I smirked like I knew what running a train was. Really I had no idea how running a train worked physically or verbally. Running a train sat orange-red in my imagination. Running a train occupied the space of a proper noun, but moved like the most active of active verbs. Just saying “running a train,” whether you were a participant in the train or knowledgeable of a train, gave you a glow and gravity every black boy in Jackson respected. The only other three words that gave you a similar glow and gravity were “I got initiated.”

“They ran a train up in there this morning, too,” Dougie said.

“Layla was here this morning?”

“Naw. It was this other girl.”


“I forgot her name,” Dougie told me. “LaWon or LaDon some shit. They ran a train on her twice. Be quiet, fool. Listen.”

I stood there wondering why the shallow grunts and minisqueaks coming from the boys in Daryl’s room made me want to be dead. I didn’t know, but I assumed some kind of sex was happening, but I couldn’t understand why Layla was so much less breathy than the white women on Cinemax and The Young and the Restless. I assumed Layla’s short fingers were balled up and her eyes were rolling back in her head. If everyone in the room was naked, I wondered what they all were doing with their hands and how they looked at the hair on each other’s thighs. I wondered if anyone was crying.

Fifteen minutes later, the door to the bedroom opened. “Both of y’all little niggas getting on hard, ain’t you?” Delaney asked us. Daryl and Wedge walked out of the bedroom a few seconds later with their shirts wrapped around their heads like turbans. Dougie started walking into Daryl’s bedroom.

“Where you think you going?” Daryl asked Dougie. “Keece knocked you out like a little-ass trick the other day. Keece, take your big football-playing ass in there and get you some if you want. I think she like you anyway.”

I looked at Dougie, who was looking at the ground. “I’m good,” I told Daryl, and walked behind the big boys. “I don’t want none right now.”

When I saw no one was in the bathroom, I acted like I had to pee. After hearing one of the doors to outside close, I walked back down the hallway and stood in the doorway of Daryl’s bedroom.

“Big Keece,” Layla said from the bedroom. “I be seeing you.”

I wasn’t sure what Layla saw, other than a twelve-year-old, 213-pound black boy with a suspect hairline and no waves, but under the three crooked Vanity 6 posters and the chlorinated stank of Daryl’s bedroom, I saw Layla’s Filas were on, and the long stretch marks streaking across the backs of her thighs were so much prettier than the squiggly ones forming on my biceps and butt.

“Big Keece,” she said again. “Can you get me some yellow Kool-Aid?”

“Okay,” I said. “Wait. Can you tell me how you get your Filas so white?”

“Why you whispering?”

“Oh,” I said louder. “I was just wondering how you got your Filas so white.”

“Bleach and shoe polish,” she said, adjusting the fitted sheet.

“Bleach and shoe polish?”

“Yup. Use bleach first on the white part with, like, a toothbrush. How come you always be reading books when you come over here?”

“Oh. ’Cause my mama will beat my ass if I don’t.”

“That’s funny,” Layla said, and laughed and laughed and laughed until she didn’t. “My mama kinda does not play. But I heard your mama really does not play.”

“She don’t,” I said, and walked to the kitchen hunting for strawberry Pop-Tarts. I remember watching the swirling reds, yellows, and forest greens in Beulah Beauford’s pantry. At our house, there was no pantry. There was hardly any food other than spoiled pimento cheese, the backs of molded wheat bread, a half-empty box of wine, and swollen green olives. I missed our fridge, though. I missed our kitchen.

I missed you.

I opened an unopened bottle of thick bleu cheese dressing and drank as much as I could. Then I placed some crushed ice in a huge red plastic cup, poured some lemonade mix in it. I used a plastic butter knife to stir before walking back to Daryl’s bedroom.

From outside the doorway, I could see Layla sitting up, putting on her swimsuit. I’d only been this close to three naked women in my life: you, Grandmama, and Renata.

“You got me something to drink, Big Keece?”

“I got you some lemonade like you asked me to,” I said, still not fully in the room. “And a strawberry Pop-Tart if you want half.”

“I want half.”

I’d never kissed anyone my age and I worried if Layla tried to kiss me, my lips would be chappy, or my breath would stink like bleu cheese, or at some point she’d maybe see my stretch marks and the big flat mole on my left butt cheek.

I took Layla’s ID out of my pocket, grabbed the apple Now and Laters out of my other pocket, put both on the ground to the left of the door. Then I moved the cup of Kool-Aid and the strawberry Pop-Tarts on top of the ID.

“Walk with me out to the pool?” she asked me. “I don’t want to go out there by myself.”

“Why? You think Daryl and them trying to laugh at you?”

Layla held the strap on her left shoulder and looked down at the Kool-Aid. “I don’t,” I remember her saying. “I don’t think they’ll laugh at me. They said I had to go in the bedroom if I wanted to swim in the deep end. So that’s what I did.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you think they gone laugh at me?”

“I guess so,” I said. “I mean, they be laughing when they nervous. Why you call it yellow Kool-Aid and not lemonade?”

“?’Cause that’s what it is to me,” she said. “It’s yellow and it’s Kool-Aid. Ain’t no lemons in it. Walk out there with me?”

I remember my back facing the opposite side of Daryl’s room and wondering if there was a real word for stories filled with people who started off happy and then got sad. “Happysad,” no space and no hyphen, was the word I used in my head. Telling happysad stories about what just happened was really all the big boys at Beulah Beauford’s house did well. Whether they were true or not didn’t matter. What mattered was if they were good stories. Good stories sounded honest. Good stories made you feel like you didn’t see all of what you thought you just saw. I knew the big boys would tell stories about what happened in Daryl’s bedroom that were good for all three of them and sad for her in three vastly different ways. I wanted to tell Layla some of the happysad stories of our bedrooms but I wasn’t sure whether to begin those happysad stories with “I” or “She” or “He” or “We” or “One time” or “Don’t tell nobody” or “This might sound nasty to you but...”

“I’m starting not to feel so good,” I heard Layla say behind me.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

Without turning around, I whispered, “Me either. I mean, me too.” Then I took off out of Beulah Beauford’s house, leaving Layla to walk by herself toward the deep end.

The run home was a little more than a mile. I ran a lot of sprints in basketball and football practice, and I always felt fast for my size, but I’d never run a mile nonstop. Running a mile for heavy kids like me had everything to do with your brain and your heart forgetting you were running a mile. That’s what Dougie, Layla, and me loved about the deep end. For however long you were in it, for a few minutes of your life, no matter how the big boys laughed at us, our bodies forgot how much they weighed.

Then they remembered.

When you and I lived in apartments off Robinson Road, your student Renata came over to babysit a few times a week. Renata, who was bowlegged in one leg, always made pork chops, rice, and gravy. We watched Mid-South Wrestling Saturday night. After Mid-South Wrestling, Renata asked me to come to your bedroom so she could put me in the figure four. While I was on my back bracing myself for pain, Renata told me she loved how my cutoff sweatpants made my thighs and calves look. No one ever said they liked my calves or my thighs before Renata.

When Renata asked if I wanted a sip of her thick Tang, I tried to drink from a part of the cup she hadn’t drank from because you told me never to drink after anyone. When Renata asked me why I didn’t want to drink after her, I told her because you told me I could get herpes drinking after randoms with chappy lips. “Your mama is the smartest and funniest person I’ll ever know,” she told me.

“That’s cool,” I said, and placed my lips right where she pointed. The Tang tasted sweeter than a melted Popsicle and way more sour than a pickle.

“It’s good, right?” she asked. “Does it make you want to kiss me?”

I didn’t know how to be anything other than scared at the thought I was about to have my first real girlfriend. I remember just fake smiling and drinking more Tang so I could have something to do with my hands.

When I was done with the Tang, Renata pulled up her shirt, unhooked her bra, and filled my mouth with her left breast. She used her right hand to pinch my nostrils until I could only breathe out of the corners of my mouth.

I held my mouth open as wide as I could, hoping not to cut Renata’s breast with my crooked front teeth. I remember praying to God the Tang overpowered the pork chop, rice, and gravy smell on my breath. I didn’t think Renata would want to stay my girlfriend if I made one of her nipples smell like pork chops, rice, and gravy. Choking on Renata’s breasts made me feel lighter than I’d ever felt. After a few minutes, Renata grabbed my penis and kept saying, “Keep it straight, Kie. Can you keep it straight?” She kept breathing in a way that sounded like she loved whatever her body was feeling. The sound of her breathing made me feel sexy for the second time in my life.

Nearly every time Renata came over to take care of me, she put me in a figure four, choked me, and asked me to keep it straight. When she came over and didn’t choke me or ask me to keep it straight, I wondered what was wrong with me. I always assumed it was because my thighs and calves weren’t muscly enough. On those days when she didn’t touch me, I didn’t eat or drink and I did calf raises and squats in the bathroom until I cramped.

After a few months, Renata’s real boyfriend came over while she babysat. They drank thick Tang together. Once, when they thought I was asleep, I heard her wailing in the closet and making the same sounds she made with me.

I heard Renata’s real boyfriend say, “You better not say no either.” Then I heard Renata start cussing him out. I opened the closet door and saw them both standing up, sweaty and naked. Her real boyfriend had the body of Apollo Creed but his neck was longer. I’d never seen Renata’s whole naked body that close up. I felt amazed someone with a fine body like hers and a real boyfriend who had a fine body like Apollo Creed would want anything to do with a wide messy body like mine. “Close the closet, little fat, looking-ass nigga,” her real boyfriend told me. “Fuck is you looking at?”

When I told them I was going to get your gun to shoot them in the foreheads, they both ran out of the house with half of their clothes on. Renata decided not to be my girlfriend anymore. I never saw her again. I knew it was because my legs were fat and I made her breasts smell like pork chops, rice, and gravy the first time she pushed them in my mouth. You got mad at me that night because your bed looked like two people had been in it. I told you I wasn’t in the bed with Renata. I didn’t tell you I wanted to be.

The day I sprinted away from Beulah Beauford’s house, I sat out in the driveway of our house for hours thinking about what I heard outside of Daryl’s bedroom and what I felt in our bedroom. You made me read more books and write more words in response to those books than any of my friends’ parents, but nothing I’d ever read prepared me to write or talk about my memory of sex, sound, space, violence, and fear.

Usually, when I wanted to run from memory, I transcribed rap lyrics, or I drew two-story houses, or I wrote poems to Layla, or I watched black sitcoms, or I thought about new ways to act a fool in class, or I shot midrange jump shots, or I ate and drank everything that wasn’t nailed down. I couldn’t do any of what I wanted to do in our driveway, waiting for you to come home.

When you got home the evening I left Beulah Beauford’s house I hugged you, thanked you, told you I loved you. I hated, for the first time, how soft my body felt close to yours. I knew I’d either get a whupping or have to write lines for not doing the assignment you told me to do. Lines were a number of long repeated written sentences explaining what I would do differently, beginning with “I will...” I hated writing lines, and always wrote one fewer half line than I was assigned, but I hated getting beaten by you even more.

You turned the lights on when we got in the house and stood in front of one of the bookcases. “What do you see, Kie?” you asked me.

I looked first at your oversized blue dashiki, your wide feet squeezed into a pair of Beulah Beauford’s shoes, the shiny keloid on your forearm, and your mini fro leaning slightly left.

“Not on me, Kie,” you said. “What do you see behind me?”

When I was thinking of how to answer your question, you told me you were getting closer to defending your dissertation up in Wisconsin. I hugged your neck, told you how proud I was of you, and asked if that meant you were about to be a real doctor and if being a real doctor meant you’d be making a lot more money.

“Look,” you said, and pointed to the bottom shelves of the bookcase. Sitting behind you were the bluest books I’d ever seen. I asked you how we were going to pay for the books since we didn’t have enough money for lights or rent. “Kiese Laymon, do you like the encyclopedias or not?”

I stood up and ran my hands along the spines. You usually only said my whole name when I was about to get a whupping. “Does this mean I don’t have to go to Beulah Beauford’s house no more?”

“Smell the books,” you said, and opened the encyclopedia on the far left. “Get a grip. And don’t say ‘no more.’ Say anymore.”

“Anymore,” I said, and put my nose as close as I could to the spine of the book. You told me my first assignment was to use our encyclopedias to write a two-page report on Jim Crow and freedom strategies used by black elected officials in Mississippi, post-Reconstruction. The report was due by the end of the week.

“Um,” I told you before you walked to your room to call Malachi Hunter, “I think I want to lose weight. Can you help me? I be sweating too much when I try to talk to people I don’t want to be sweaty around.”

“You mean girls, Kie?”

“I guess I mean girls.”

“If someone doesn’t like you for you,” you said, “they are not worth sweating around. Save your sweat for someone who values it. I think I’m gaining all the weight you want to lose in my thighs.”

Your thighs were always thick, but I could see even less of your cheekbones in the last few months. Your neck looked a lot shorter. Your breasts seemed heavier when you walked around the house in your huge raggedy Jackson State T-shirt. You looked even more beautiful to me.

We played Scrabble that evening and I beat you for the second time in our lives. You asked for a rematch, and I beat you again. “I’m surprised you didn’t try to spell ‘be’ or ‘finna’ every chance you got,” you said as you walked toward our new encyclopedias. I watched you stand in front of the encyclopedias with your sweatpants and JSU T-shirt on. You smiled ear to ear as you gently fingered through half of the books. “The day your grandmother brought home a set of encyclopedias for us was the happiest day of my childhood, Kie.”

“Do I have to go to Beulah Beauford’s house anymore to use her encyclopedias if we have our own?”

You responded to my question with a question, which is something you said was illegal in our house, and asked if I used Beulah Beauford’s encyclopedias to write the essay or short story you told me to write. “If you didn’t write the essay or the story, what did you do?” You actually stood there, with an encyclopedia in hand, waiting for an answer. “Answer me, Kie. Don’t tell a story either.”

I thought about what I did, what I wrote, what I saw and heard, and how I ran away. I imagined Layla telling a story of that day. I could hear her telling it in a style that made me better than the big boys. I could hear her telling it in a style that made me worse. I could mostly hear her telling it in a style that centered her and made the big boys, Dougie, and me the same kind of blurry and terrible.

When I didn’t answer your question, you said my not doing the essay was another tired example of refusing to strive for excellence, education, and accountability when excellence, education, and accountability were requirements for keeping the insides of black boys in Mississippi healthy and safe from white folk.

I stood there watching you, feeling a lot about what it meant to be a healthy, safe black boy in Mississippi, and wondering why folk never talked about what was needed to keep black girls healthy and safe. My body knew things my mouth and my mind couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, express. It knew that all over my neighborhood, boys were trained to harm girls in ways girls could never harm boys, straight kids were trained to harm queer kids in ways queer kids could never harm straight kids, men were trained to harm women in ways women could never harm men, parents were trained to harm children in ways children would never harm parents, babysitters were trained to harm kids in ways kids could never harm babysitters. My body knew white folk were trained to harm us in ways we could never harm them. I didn’t know how to tell you or anyone else the stories my body told me, but, like you, I knew how to run, deflect, and duck.

“Kiese Laymon, what did you do instead of writing your essay?” you asked me again. “I am going to ask you one more time and I am going to get my belt. Why did you not do the work I told you to do?”

I wanted to tell you I hated when you didn’t use contractions. Instead I said, “I’m sorry. I just got tired of swimming in the deep end at Beulah Beauford’s house, and I wanted to come home. I won’t do it again. Thank you for the new encyclopedias. I know they gone protect my insides from white folk.”

“Going to,” you said. “Don’t say ‘gone’ or ‘gonna,’ Kie. ‘They are going to protect your insides.’ If you know better, do better. Promise me you will do better.”


“Yes, now. Do you promise?”


“Say it.”

“I promise,” I said. “I promise.”

You didn’t beat me. You made me write ten lines instead. I wrote nine and a half because I was hardheaded.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told when I go to Beulah Beauford’s house.

I promise to read and write as I’m told.

Reading Group Guide


In this powerful and provocative memoir, genre-bending essayist and novelist Kiese Laymon explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies, and deception does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on the brink of moral collapse.

Kiese Laymon is a fearless writer. In his essays, personal stories combine with piercing intellect to reflect both on the state of American society and on his experiences with abuse, which conjure conflicted feelings of shame, joy, confusion, and humiliation. Laymon invites us to consider the consequences of growing up in a nation wholly obsessed with progress yet wholly disinterested in the messy work of reckoning with where we’ve been.

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.

A personal narrative that illuminates national failures, Heavy is defiant yet vulnerable, an insightful,