On February 4th at 7 PM, Kiese Laymon read from his book Heavy: An American Memoir. From the moment he appeared on screen, lives were changed. The Center for Literary Arts hosted Kiese Laymon because we knew his words needed to be celebrated, but what we didn't know was the immense impact he would have on the lives in our community.
Tears streamed down CLA staff member Alexis Rocha’s face as she watched the live reading. She stated: “I never knew how important representation was until that moment. Hearing the way Kiese spoke validated everything I have ever felt about academia. Listening to him I knew I belonged in academia, just like he belongs.”
Kiese decided to read from his chapter titled “Meager” where he speaks of his experience with white school systems. This chapter embodies all of Black abundance and demonstrates the ways Black youth overcome together. “Hearing his story means a lot because this is a different story that I haven’t heard before and I feel like this is a whole new style of writing I didn’t know was possible” (Anonymous SJSU student).
The conversation between Keenan Norris and Kiese Laymon felt more like a gathering of old friends than a sanctioned Q&A. Norris came to the event with all the questions we never knew we wanted to ask. From the portrayal of men's bodies to childhood in the South, Kiese and Keenan vibed their way through complex ideas with ease, humor, and personality. Black abundance was truly present during this event.
The reading, the questions, and the overall atmosphere created by Kiese allowed viewers to challenge their own assumptions about writing, their views around race, gender, and class, and even their own self image. Kiese came into this event unfiltered, unapologetic, and in doing so spoke directly to his audience in a transformative way. One student wrote in response: “I don’t think I truly understood literature until that night.”
Through his reading, Kiese speaks not only to Black people, but connects to a broader audience to provide further insight into his experiences navigating racism and the southern landscape. The Center for Literary Arts is grateful for the wisdom of Kiese Laymon and hopes to welcome him back to campus again.