At 7:30 on Thursday, Sept. 26, students, faculty, and many others shuffled into Memorial Commons for an evening discussion of social justice with author and Mississippi native Kiese Laymon. Laymon’s talk garnered interest across campus after various FYS students praised his writing from their class as witty, introspective, and eye-opening. Some students came to learn even more about his inspiring story, while others were merely intrigued by positive endorsements bubbling around campus.
Laymon read a personal passage from his critically acclaimed memoir Heavy: An American Memoir, followed by an open floor Q&A period for students to ask him questions about racial identity pertaining to life on a college campus. The evening concluded with audience members getting the chance to have their books signed and have intimate, one-on-one exchanges with Laymon.
For the first hour, audience members appeared to be engaged as Laymon recited a section of his book detailing his struggles whle working as an adjunct professor at Vassar College. Laymon discussed how difficult it was to see how Middle-Eastern people were treated immediately after the September 11 attacks. He also spoke of a drug dealing problem that he discovered one of his thesis students, Cole, was involved in.
Laymon’s experience with this white student solidified his understanding of the unfortunate truth of the extent to which white privilege could prevail. No matter how many immoral things Cole did, his opportunities would continue to abound.
Laymon concluded that no matter how progressively he educated students like Cole, the fact that he was even teaching them at all was ultimately strengthening the white power imbalance. This proved to be a great source of distress for Laymon because he was truly passionate about teaching, but no matter what he did, he felt like he was furthering the power of the individuals that made communities like his remain oppressed.
Laymon’s narrative seemed to resonate with many individuals in the crowd. White audience members appeared to reflect on how their circumstances could be used for good, while members of marginalized communities appeared to be deeply moved by Laymon’s story.
Alex Togneri-Jones ’23 reflected on Laymon’s experience. “I was really surprised by how candid he was about his inner struggles while he was a professor,” he said. Oftentimes, individuals are used to attending a professor’s class and completing the work; one isn’t used to engaging in discussion about the turmoils that the professors face.
As the talk moved into the Q&A portion, thought-provoking dialogue took place between Laymon and various students. One student asked the question of what can the administration of a college do to not be active in upholding white supremacy. Laymon responded that if a college values their education, their trustees need to value it as well. If the trustees aren’t engaged with the diversity that the college ostensibly promotes “it’s a bullshit-ass hustle.” This response from Laymon garnered a wave of snaps from the audience members as it appeared to resonate deeply.
As the night came to a close, audience members appeared to leave satisfied. While the topics explored were not easy for some individuals, Laymon got a portion of the Bates community to begin discussing important issues that don’t appear at surface level.