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Blackness is Heavy: A Conversation Between Kiese Laymon and Tressie McMillan Cottom

Blackness is Heavy: Attending A Conversation Between Kiese Laymon and Tressie McMillan Cottom

Kiese and Tressie both wrote for, to, and about those of us who carry Blackness with us everywhere we go.  

The thin white woman beside me folds her legs all the way up and gathers her knees to her chest. Her elbow is in my way and it nearly pokes me. “I’m so tiny,” she leans over to me and breathes in my direction. “So short! I gotta put my legs up, you know?”

I don’t know her. I don’t like her. I don’t want to talk to her or hear her talk about the length of her legs or the size of her frame, or anything else for that matter, and I don’t want her elbow in my space. I am here, at UNC Chapel Hill’s annual Southern Cultures talk, to experience Kiese Laymon in conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom about their books, both explorations of the muchness of Blackness in their own way.

Just before the event begins, the woman interrupts my conversation with a friend also in attendance to ask me if I need help putting on the jacket I have draped over myself, covering only my arms, and I see her hand stretching towards me. “I’m fine,” I manage to say quickly and firmly but without emotion, instead of “Don’t fucking touch me,which is what I say in my head with seething anger and frustration. Her hand stops and pulls back. “Oh, I see what you’re doing,” she nods approvingly at my decision and smiles, even though nobody asked her a damn thing. I wish I could say this is the first time a strange white woman has tried to touch me or my possessions without my consent, invaded my space and felt entitled to assert herself and her opinions when I have no desire to entertain either. I’m exasperated and irritated that this woman is in my space, but I know that I can’t express that without being read as the aggressor.

At this event—where two amazing Southern Black writers have convened to discuss their works which, in significant ways, both contend with the concept of being Black and taking up too much space, about being too heavy and too thick, respectively—ironically, the seats are anti-fat. My hips ache, squeezed into lecture hall seating that wasn’t made for bodies like mine to exist comfortably in them. All the thin people around me look comfortable, though. The woman beside me is comfortable as fuck with her folded up legs. I flash back to being crammed into lecture hall seats during my college years and I think about how common this scenario is for people like me. How people with thinner bodies get the luxury of being comfortable in the vast majority of their surroundings, but the rest of us don’t. These spaces aren’t made with us in mind.

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Thin people don’t really have to consider how their bodies will fit into public spaces and common areas. Thin people like the woman next to me rarely, if ever, have to consider the amount of space they take up. As a result, they often take up a lot of it.

Kiese approaches the podium to read an excerpt from his award-winning book, “Heavy.” The passage is about his experience attending a white school for the first time as a boy and he relays humorous conversations had with his friend using and misusing their favorite vocabulary words, intertwined with uncomfortable truths about family, abuse, and how white teachers treat Black children.

The white woman next to me laughs too hard when Kiese says “nigga” as he reads us the funny exchanges between himself and another Black boy. She nods too energetically and agrees too loudly when he makes poignant observations about white people’s passive violences. She’s exorcising her white guilt and I’m meant to be a witness, a reluctant witness. Her metal water bottle keeps falling over and it clangs boisterously every time it hits the hard floor. She huffs every time she bends down to set it up right again. She could just put it in her bag, but she won’t. The bag falls onto my right leg and, for only a moment, I adjust my body to make room for her and her folded up legs, but then I remember why I am here. I decide to kick her bag out of my way instead. The woman doesn’t see me. She is again enthralled with laughter at Kiese’s reading.

I remember that I am here because I am thick and I am heavy, and I want consider the weight of Kiese and Tressie’s writing with intentionality. I am abundant and I deserve to take up space, and I deserve comfort, and I deserve to not have sore hips because all the seats are too small and I deserve to not have a strange white woman lean over and remark about how small she is and why that means she needs more space.

White people don’t really have to consider how their bodies, their whiteness, will fit into public spaces and common areas. White people like the woman next to me rarely, if ever, have to consider the amount of space they take up. As a result, they often take up a lot of it.

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In “Thick,” Tressie wrestles with the thickness of Black womanhood and, by extension, Black girlhood. Her collection of essays is a record of the way Black girls and women are regarded by the world around us, how we are treated because of how we are constructed in the white imagination, how much of what befalls us are preventable harms. “Thick” is about a lot of things, but what really sticks to my bones is its ability to reflect my own life back to me as a Black woman who has always been “too much” for others, always taking up “too much space” in one way or another.

Tressie writes: “Being too much of one thing and not enough of another had been a recurring theme in my life. I was, like many young women, expected to be small so that boys could expand and white girls could shine. When I would not or could not shrink, people made sure that I knew I had erred. I was, like many black children, too much for white teachers and white classrooms and white study groups and white Girl Scout troops and so on. Thick where I should have been thin, more when I should have been less.”  

Black women are too loud, too aggressive, too masculine, and Black women are thick. We have thick skin, or rather we are supposed to, and that is why we can endure so much abuse, that is how we have survived this long. Concepts of beauty and competency don’t apply to us because we can never truly be seen as either one of these things by virtue of our Blackness, as such beauty and competency are often used against us, our lack of beauty and competency seen as justifications to mistreat, silence, and ignore us, and attempt to govern us. Because Blackness and womanhood are benchmarks by which we all measure ourselves in a society marked by white supremacy and male supremacy, the further away we are from these benchmarks, the more value we have. This means that Black women are always already both too much and not enough, and Tressie makes it abundantly clear in her writing how social systems built upon this truth have a tangible impact on Black women’s lives, livelihood, health, and well-being.

When it is Tressie’s turn to speak, she says that “Heavy” made her angry. She actually threw the book on the ground after finishing it. Angry in the best way, because how dare Kiese write the way he does about the things he does, and who gave him permission to come into our homes and fuck shit up the way he does? Kiese admits that he wasn’t ready for the book to be published. “I wasn’t ready to be inside out,” he tells Tressie. When I interviewed him last year, he told me that he was glad to have finally finished writing it. It was a painful experience. The book is addressed to his mother, and in it he contends with trauma upon trauma, centering her throughout. He had actually set out to write a book about becoming less heavy, but instead ended up capturing with raw emotion just how heavy Blackness is.

“[W]hat I ruminate on the most as I read is how many meanings the word “heavy” can have… Sometimes heavy grounds you, other times it crushes you. And so many things carry weight growing up fat, Black, and poor in the American South… [It] makes me think deeply about the enormity of Blackness, the muchness of Blackness, and Black Abundance, which is the title of one of my favorite chapters. I think of the abundance of Sarah Baartman’s body and how her ass made her an inhuman spectacle until she died on a continent far from home. The muchness of Eric Garner and how he could have survived being choked to death if only he hadn’t been so fat. The enormity of Mike Brown and how his Hulk-ing frame made his murder legitimate self-defense. How they were too heavy for this world, but not heavy enough to live comfortably in it.”

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I get why Tressie reacted to “Heavy” the way she did. After my first reading of it, I had nightmares, the kind of nightmares that call up memories of the things I would rather forget, the kind of nightmares that excavate old traumas that still have a hold on me beneath the surface. It made me confront them in a way I never wanted to. Now, I sit and listen to Kiese talk about the confusion he often felt when his mother would beat him and later hold him tenderly with the same arms. He couldn’t understand how those two sensations, both pain and comfort, could come from the same place, the same home, but he has come to learn that for Black women they are often inseparable. Tressie agrees. “It’s the same event horizon,” she says. I have never heard anyone say this out loud before. I really needed to hear someone say this out loud. I needed this conversation between two writers I admire, to hear them say out loud the things that many of us often don’t have the fortitude to say.

I head to the restroom when the event is over. I swing the door open with one hand and rub my tender hip with the other. Two hours squeezed into a seat not meant for my body has left me with a pain and discomfort I am unfortunately familiar with. As I approach the stall, a white woman’s voice echoes across the room as she asks someone standing next to her, “Are those two famous?” I chuckle. I’m not offended. Their work wasn’t meant for her anyway. It doesn’t matter if she knows them. Kiese and Tressie both wrote for, to, and about those of us who carry Blackness with us everywhere we go.  

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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

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