"Being a better human being starts with revision," said essayist and professor Kiese Laymon during the fall 2019 Common Book keynote Thursday at the Lied Center. “It’s important to understand that nothing is done. Everyone can be a better reviser.”
Laymon, a Black writer from Jackson, Mississippi, presented the lecture for the University of Kansas’ Common Book program, hosted by the Office of First-Year Experience.
Laymon’s essay titled “Outside” was featured as one of the many memoirs in the Common Book “Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation.” The essay focused on themes of Black oppression and racial inequality.
Susan Klusmeier, interim vice provost for undergraduate studies, introduced Laymon along with a note on the importance of the Common Book.
“The KU Common Book is in its eighth year, and our program has three goals: to promote unity, create shared academic experience for our students at KU and to promote intellectual engagement,” Klusmeier said. “We strive to establish programs and services that are creative, inclusive and support a diverse environment for our students."
Howard Graham, associate director of academic programs for the Office of First-Year Experience, said Laymon is an important thinker in the country.
“Here is a great opportunity to have a shared experience with lots of other people in the community, to hear a great speaker and thinker, someone that is going to engage with our community and talk about issues that matter to us,” Graham said.
According to the Office of First-Year Experience, Laymon’s novel "'Heavy: An American Memoir,' was named a best book of 2018 by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, NPR, Broadly, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly and was a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.”
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Laymon began the evening by reading a revised version of his essay “Outside,” which he said “was revised to talk about some of the things I was afraid to write.” The essay was directly addressed to his mother, who is also a professor.
Laymon recounted his time as a professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, when he found himself deeply troubled by the state of racial injustice in the school system. One of his student’s friends was caught and charged with the intent to distribute cocaine. Laymon sat in front of the university’s judicial committee as the student said he was approached by a “big dark man” who made him buy cocaine at a club.
He said he had more trust in this committee than actual police, judges and prisons.
“The professor started talking to me about transformative justice,” Laymon said. “I told him that I considered myself a prison abolitionist, and I knew well what transformative justice was. I asked again how anything transformative or just could be happening in this room if it was all predicated on us believing that a big Black man made this small, smart Master’s student buy cocaine.”
Laymon said he grew up with “big dark men” his entire life and none of them would force a “small, smart white boy” to buy cocaine and that one of his friends was imprisoned for less than half of what this student was charged.
“I sat there trying not to be resentful as I remembered 10 years earlier getting kicked out of college for taking a library book out of a library without checking it out, and here was this kid caught with cocaine walking out of the room with no expulsion, no suspension no disciplinary probation — free,” Laymon said.
Laymon said he felt uncomfortable helping other “rich white boys” in the future because he felt he was “fortifying their power.”
“Teaching wealthy white boys like him meant to me that I was really being paid to fortify Cole's power,” Laymon said. “In return for this fortification I would get a monthly check, insurance and the moral certainty that we were helping white people be better at being human. That felt like new work to me, but it also felt like old Black work.”
He said he felt resentment for white people who got away.
“Some of us watch them watch us watch them walk free after getting caught, and a tiny number of us, those who were extra lucky, would get to teach and free these white boys today, so we can pay for our ailing Black families tomorrow," Laymon said.
Laymon spoke about his theme of revision after feeling angry about the ways he felt he had failed as a professor.
“The teacher’s job was to responsibly love the rich, white students with the same integrity that I loved my Black and brown students,” Laymon said.
He said being a professor isn't all about the knowledge gained in school.
"What people may not understand about college professors is that very few of us have been taught [how] to teach," Laymon said.
An audience member asked what young people could do to fight the power of injustice. He said the first step, before changing the institutionalized status quo, is to take care of each other.
"One thing I think young folks can do is commune and organize within the group you're in," Laymon said. "You have to be connected to some sort of organized principle or group, and you have to love that group with the same tenacity you'd use to go after that power. When you swing back at the institutions, it's going to be much more powerful."
Laymon also opened up about what he believes the audience should take away from the event.
"Generally, we have to do what isn't modeled by politicians or our president," Laymon said. "Never be the person who says 'I don't regret such and such because it made me who I am today.' I have hurt so many people emotionally. You can't revise unless you accurately assess what you did yesterday."