Dear Kiese Laymon

Front cover of paperback Heavy

Trust
I wanted to write a lie too. I wanted to write a whole life of lies. Straight black lines of lies. I wanted to just say hi. I wanted to deliver the meaning of this name of mine. I wanted to ask you ain’t it funny how no one ever asks what Karen means or Emily or Caroline. I wanted to say your book was wow and I want to do that even now. Because I wanted this to be short. But truth is what it is. And sometimes we rhyme slow sometimes we rhyme quick.

I came to your book years ago and said I would read it over that next month. I didn’t. I poured myself into my work at The University of Pittsburgh and said that my reading would have to wait because “so much work.” I’m going back to this time like you do so many of yours in Heavy. I know what will happen. I will not read this book. I will not even read what I want. I will read what I must to finish a sloppy dissertation to finish a degree I’m not sure I ever really wanted. I will work and create work because it feels like winning when the objective in this ivory tower casino was for me to spend my whole self and feel honored that winning was ever even a possibility. I will say I can’t read Heavy right now because I think I know what it is about and I will not really know but I will know. I will mourn the death of my mother. I will mourn the death of my mother. I will mourn the death of my mother. And all the pain, grace, Mississippi, love and yes, joy in your book will wait a bit longer. I will read at it. And then I will listen to you read it. I will press pause sometimes and read it. Not at it. I will remember that I reached moments in other works when I knew I needed to write to authors like Brian Broome and Deesha Philyaw. And I will recognize that moment when I know that I need to write to you. I’ll tell you on Twitter. I will be scared because my heroes have sometimes let me down. Not Brian or Deesha. Others. I will be scared because I am not a writer. I am a reader who writes to writers. I will finish reading your book and every step of the way I will give you something I have very little of even for myself. Trust.

I like words. I do not like that one. It’s too close to trice and truce and trance. Too close to truth. Placement in the dictionary is something that makes sense to people who grow up with Black moms who refuse to accept that we are exceptional. My Black mom raised me in Newark, NJ where I wanted to go outside and clap along to the jump rope while I baby rapped “he said uh “M” fuh the monnney “I” if you give it to me, “S” sock ettt, “S” sock ett.” My mom was not with that. She made me look up every word. Questioned me about every meaning of every lyric. And when Mississippi found its way into my block’s girl games on the pavement in front of our apartments or the house we shared with my grandma, I had to look it up, watch Eyes on The Prize episodes and recall the life of Medgar Evers on her demand. The jump rope stayed outside. Mississippi meant truth and work. Still, I decided to trust you. I trusted you when Beulah Beauford’s house felt like too many places in my childhood, and I got scared of what else you might write. I trusted you to make it heavy like the kind of rain that cleans the walkway. I trusted you to make it good heavy. You been trusted.

Been
“I been known who that was!” I thought this when I was in a DEI workshop, and someone said they just found out who Kiese Laymon is. I am unapologetic about speaking the way my mom and grandma would have in the house. I do not call it codeswitching except when I’m gettin’ smart or poppin’ a attitude. Half the time folks think I really believe in that term. Like they think I really believe them when they say DEI. I served as an Executive Director of DEI for a place that felt a lot like the Millsaps you knew. A place where they wanted me to explain why a chapter of Turning Point was a bad idea but didn’t understand why I thought they should stop charging students tuition. Laughed at me, even. Well, not all of them. But enough. I been known Berea’s model could work. I been known these DEIs don’t even care if I DIE. I been known I needed to step away from my career in higher education, but I didn’t have the courage to do it until last year. Because I been scared. I been off when I told people “I been on.” I been depressed when I seemed sad. And I been daydying when people thought I was just daydrinking. I’m trying daydreaming. I dream about telling the truth of who I really am and have been. So as you did that over and over in Heavy, I been inspired. I been moved. I been changed.

What do people say about it to you? I read very little of the critics’ words. Do they say you are so brave, so amazing, so wise, so good? I think those things, but they don’t seem the right words for what you are so. So dope, so sharp, so fresh, so def I might have said when I was trying to hold to my language in an all-white graduate program that told me that more Foucault was what my paper on prison abolition needed. Told me I was a fraud. Never to my face. But I know because I been known. So sweet? That’s what I want to say. Not in the sitcom way. In a cotton candy on a rainy day way. Sweet like all the things Black men deserve to be called when they write vulnerably about their lives. Sweet like Kara Walker’s Subtlety.

This is what I feel right now as I reflect on the lines you poured out for us and to us. I know the sweetness must have attracted more than just us. I know sometimes you write something, and people read it and it feels like they come to it to eat like it’s a stop on a buffet. Like Black pain, death, heartbreak, sorrow, suffering are things they can select from a bountiful spread. Like they can eat it and fill themselves with what makes them feel heavy. Just so they can purge it and lighten themselves as some sort of punishment for things they think they did nothing to inflict. Things they think they did not intend. I know some folks read heavy to make themselves light. They attend to intersectionality one day and turn to someone else’s mental health the next. Like they are mutually exclusive. Like intersectionality means nothing at all. I have carried this. I have carried the weight of words about students’ need for assistance with eating disorders and I have been told we need a better understanding. I have gone home from those meetings and written a check to a man with a snake because purging has come through the cracks of our hundred-year-old plumbing. And while my family and I will stand around silently watching his confused face wonder what is going on here, we will stare back at him knowing. We been known. We been known that controlling what we can is sometimes all we have. And we pay for the pipes because we been blessed and we be blessings. I’ll write this to you and keep the details of that experience limited because the Kamalas in our lives deserve this. And we know they do.

Secrets
I used to think I was not good at keeping secrets. I realized later that was a lie. I was just not good at keeping the secrets that I didn’t understand. When I was growing up, I never hid much. I told a teacher that my punishment was not being able to go outside for a month. She thought this was cruel. I thought she was crazy. I told her I used to get beaten with a belt on the buckle side. She nodded and shut up. My grandma asked my (and therefore told my) mom to stop beating me when I was eight or nine years old. She told my mom that I got a look in my eyes that scared her. My grandma said it hurt me too much when my mom would beat me. She may have been right. I don’t know because my grandma never said a word directly to me. She just directly flicked her Salems in the amber ashtray by her couch and watched her Matlock, Magnum PI and Spenser for Hire. Then when she had given me all the chocolate donuts, rides in her rose-colored Oldsmobile, and treats from her kitchen job at the Marriott she could, she went to Orange Memorial hospital with lung cancer and never really came home. My grandma’s death grabbed my mom by the throat and never really let go.

I was ten. Soon after that, my mom’s Malachi Hunter came along. My grandmother’s request was kept as a promise to me. But my mom’s Malachi Hunter beat her and I felt powerless. I wanted to say whatever my grandma had said. I didn’t know how. He wasn’t Mississippi’s only Black revolutionary. He was a Vietnam vet recovering from heroin addiction in a community of people who had left the Nation of Islam to pursue being “real” Muslims. I don’t use those quotations in a pejorative way. Just a distinction between their words and my own. My mom’s Malachi Hunter had been in and out of her life for years. His family called him Junior, others called him Rock (short for Rahman). Junior and Rock were fun people. They took us kids to the movies and then recited “The Signifyin’ Monkey” telling us it was a bedtime story. They kept a Newport in the mouth and played two congas while listening to Tito Punete on Jazz 88. He was also known as Aaron. Aaron, a junior to his father, was a married man who had three children with his wife. Aaron was not able to patch things up with his wife. Aaron got mysteriously sick. Aaron needed somewhere to go. Aaron turned to my mom after having left her pregnant years ago. Aaron was my biological father. Aaron was his family’s Uncle Jimmy without the OD. He died of AIDS when I was thirteen. And in the year before that he got clean, stopped beating, stopped running, got life. A diagnosis of death gave him life. So, I know what those men at Grace House meant. And I think I understand why Nzola may have been scared. I don’t know her, but I know what it is to want to see that test over and over again. Thank you for taking the test. For real. Thank you.

Scales
Books like Heavy were my center during that period between my grandma’s quiet guidance and my father’s bare feet. I went to the library every day after school and read books in the “African American” literature room. I must have looked pitiful as an eleven-year-old trying to make my way through a stack like I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Invisible Man, and The Bluest Eye in a two hour sitting. But the librarian for that room just let me sit there with the stack of the day and smiled watching me hold all that heavy. My mom helped me lift my heavy books. Scales came later. With diabetes and high blood pressure and heavy books about diabetes and high blood pressure. And while my mom’s body grew a bit, she was never what folks would call heavy. Still, she carried heaviness in her and fought hard to run it off, vegetable it, lemon water it, weight lift it. She threaded the needle of her life as my mom carefully every day for over thirty years. I got so used to her slipping the heaviness off and slipping the pain and sorrow through tiny openings of joy that it absolutely shocked me when one day she simply did not. When my mom died unexpectedly in 2016, I was one week away from comprehensive exams for a PhD. I hated the weight of that unfinished degree. I hated that she would not be there for the end. I did not want to be there either. I ate donuts and cakes to ease the pain and when they stopped working, I found that keeping a bottle of Jack in my night stand was close enough to forgetting. Far enough from meager. I guess this is the part where I tell you that I am doing better. I traded the bottles for a return to the stacks and here I am at Heavy. You and your mom are right, books are protection. They balance the scales.

So now, I read and write to writers. I don’t know that I actually have the words to say what this book means to me. I hold it and cry sometimes. Something between the scales and the moments at Vassar maybe? Your lines are broken chunks of ice to me. You know the ones on the Hudson river that crash along that Metro North train from Poughkeepsie? The ones that seem to dissipate around Croton-on-Harmon. Each time I come back to this book you remind me that beyond all the Dante theses and police station promotions there is always the truth. Ice on the Hudson. It breaks and hides and I may sometimes still lie but I see it too. So, I hope you will accept this long ass letter as a way to say, from a heavyset sister who goes to family reunions in Virginia, thank you. My gratitude is for all the Laylas, Kamalas, Nzolas, Floras, mothers, and grandmamas I know and all the ones I may ever be. I will read Heavy again, read heavy and try to be the best Margaret Walker change in the world that I wish to see. I will read your other works and cherish what your writing means to me. I will rhyme slow and quick “tucked securely in a pecan tree with a book in my hand” trying to be free.

Sincerely,
Tahirah Walker

Published by Tahirah Walker

Teaching | Writer | Consultant | Black | She/Her

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