Last Updated on January 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2328
Part I: Boy Man
Part I of Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy takes place in Jackson, Mississippi. Kiese, aged twelve, goes to Beulah Beauford’s house, where older teenage boys and a fifteen-year-old girl named Layla gather during summer weekends. Kiese’s mother instructs him to use Beulah Beauford’s encyclopedias to work on...
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Part I: Boy Man
Part I of Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy takes place in Jackson, Mississippi. Kiese, aged twelve, goes to Beulah Beauford’s house, where older teenage boys and a fifteen-year-old girl named Layla gather during summer weekends. Kiese’s mother instructs him to use Beulah Beauford’s encyclopedias to work on a research report. Layla goes into a bedroom with several boys, and they use her sexually. Kiese and Layla talk after what transpires in the bedroom, but neither knows how to address their feelings of unsettlement. Soon after his conversation with Layla, Kiese runs away from Beulah Beauford’s house, heading for his own home about a mile away.
Kiese describes a memory of one of his babysitters, Renata, a student of his mother’s, who is completing a doctorate at the nearby university. Renata coerces Kiese to engage in sexual acts with her, until one day, months later, she brings her boyfriend over and they have sex in his mother’s bed. Kiese realizes he is not Renata’s boyfriend. After Kiese drives the pair of them out, she never comes back to babysit him again.
One afternoon, Kiese arrives home from Beulah Beauford’s house, where he waits for his mother. When she arrives, she shows him a set of new encyclopedias and assigns him an essay to write. He thanks her and asks her to help him lose weight. Later, Kiese and his mother go grocery shopping, but Kiese sees a picture of his mother on a list posted in the store. Though he doesn’t completely understand what the picture means, he suggests that they leave the store, and when Kiese’s mother sees the picture herself, she agrees, putting her checkbook back in her handbag. Kiese drives home, and his mother falls asleep while Kiese recalls a party at his home attended by his mother’s students and her lover, Malachi Hunter.
When Kiese goes to see a psychologist to talk about his parents’ divorce and his tendency towards violence, he is confused by her questions and insinuations about his eating habits and alcohol consumption. The psychologist, paid for by Malachi Hunter, recommends that both Kiese and his mother count to ten when stressed, exercise more often, and eat less sugar and carbs.
The next time Kiese’s mother takes him to Beulah Beauford’s house, he protests. Soon after he arrives, he witnesses one of the older boys coercing his friend Dougie into a sexual act. The older boy pleads for Kiese not to tell anyone what he has seen, but Kiese drives the boy out of the house. He calls Malachi Hunter looking for his mother, but he gets no answer. When his mother finally appears, she has a black eye. Malachi Hunter comes over to their house later to apologize.
That same summer, Kiese spends several days with his grandmother. They go to church and to the house his grandmother cleans. Kiese helps his grandmother clean the clothes that belong to her white clients, and she whips him with a belt when she finds him stomping on the clothes in anger. He also helps her in the garden, and when she tries to touch his face, he flinches. Kiese begins to write a report on the Book of Psalms, but he veers away from his assigned topic, writing instead about being beaten. He also discloses his confusion around sex and remarks on the sexual experiences he has witnessed and taken part in. After reading Kiese’s report, his grandmother offers him reassurance that 218 pounds is not too large for a boy his age. As he drifts off to sleep in his grandmother’s bed, she tells him that not all memories should be remembered.
Part II: Black Abundance
Part II begins with a description of Kiese’s eighth grade year at St. Richard, a white Catholic school in Jackson. Kiese and his friend LaThon Simmons are both scholarship students. LaThon has a butter knife in class one day, and when both of the boys get in trouble with the principal, they know that they will receive beatings at home for the incident. From then on, the two boys are separated while at school. In English class, the students read works by Eudora Welty, which inspires Kiese to reflect on his own feelings towards white people. At basketball practice one day, Kiese is weighed by his coach, who mocks him for weighing 231 pounds. LaThon tries to make Kiese feel better by reminding him about the power of the Abundance, their name for their friend Jabari’s ability to dunk. The boys know that their worries are different from those that afflict the white people they know. They feel they can rise above the assumptions white people make about them.
While Kiese attends high school in Maryland at DeMatha, another Catholic school, his mother researches at the University of Maryland under the terms of a year-long postdoc fellowship. When Kiese and his mother are pulled over by a police officer for having out-of-state license plates, his mother pushes back on the policeman’s request to see Kiese’s ID using formal English grammar. Only when the officer sees that Kiese’s mother is affiliated with the university does he let them go. Back in Mississippi, over Christmas break, Kiese and LaThon go to a basketball game at another high school. They realize that their abilities cannot match those of more talented athletes, so they begin making other plans for their adult lives. Kiese cheats on a test a few weeks later, but his mother doesn’t beat him for it; he realizes she is actually happy. Later, he takes her words about writing and the process of revision to heart. Just before Kiese and his mother move back to Mississippi, Kiese learns that he has a heart murmur.
Within days of their return to Mississippi, Kiese’s mother is abusing him again. At the same time, Kiese is noticing that he is developing physically, but not as quickly as his friends. He shaves his head and gives himself a fake moustache with his mother’s mascara. Soon after this transformation, Kiese loses his virginity to a white girl, also in the tenth grade, named Abby, who tells Kiese that she loves him. Though their relationship is a secret, Kiese’s basketball game suffers and his coach suspects the truth. After watching a news report of a black man named Rodney King who was beaten by four white police officers, Kiese is cold towards Abby. He goes home and is beaten by his mother, who has just learned about his relationship with a white girl. In the midst of the beating, she tries to give Kiese relationship advice, which he challenges. Abby and Kiese’s relationship continues, but he is tempted by the attention of his friend Kamala. At a party, Kamala pulls Kiese aside and confesses a secret, presumably about her having been sexually abused. In light of this secret, Kiese promises that he will never sexually abuse any woman.
By the end of his senior year in high school, Kiese is writing editorials for the school newspaper and thinking about college. He is reading Nikki Giovanni and developing a deeper appreciation for literature. Kiese is proud of the last paper he writes for English class, so his teacher’s critical comments about his writing, as well as his weight, disappoints him to the point of tears. His mother helps him revise the essay, and the next day in class, Kiese confronts his teacher, who is also his basketball coach. The confrontation becomes heated. Kiese chooses not to attend graduation. He knows at this point that he will go to Millsaps College, located nearby in his hometown of Jackson, to play basketball. Although his GPA is low, he decides to become a writer.
Part III: Home Worked
At the start of Part III, Kiese is now 242 pounds and his mother is heading to Harvard University, where she has been awarded another postdoctoral fellowship. After taking his mother to the airport, Kiese goes back to his dorm room at Millsaps. The next day, he meets his friends, all of whom believe he is as avid a drinker as they are, despite Kiese’s seven years of sobriety. At college, Kiese writes copiously, stays silent in classes that intimidate him, and eats cake as a response to fear, putting on more and more weight as the weeks pass. Kiese soon meets another student named Nzola Johnston, and they bond over cake, music, and writing, and soon they are cheating on their respective partners with each other. Kiese discovers the writing of Toni Cade Bambara and he continues to write and revise everyday for the entire fall semester. Nzola breaks up with him before the winter break, and in response to his disappointment, Kiese reads, writes, and eats.
When Kiese’s mother comes home and sees Kiese at the start of winter break, she is shocked by his fifty-pound weight gain. Malachi Hunter comes over to their house, and Kiese’s mother gives Kiese her gun, asking him not to leave while Malachi is present. After Malachi leaves, Kiese’s mother tries to borrow money from Kiese, but the next day, they lose their electricity anyway. Kiese’s mother comes after Kiese with a belt, but he takes the belt from her and she looks at him in fear for the first time in his life.
When Kiese returns to Millsaps, he learns that Nzola has found someone new. Kiese eats, reads, and engages in other distractions, such as writing a paper about the institutionalized racism he observes at his college. The following summer, Kiese reads the works of James Baldwin and exercises. When he returns to Millsaps in the fall, he continues to exercise and limit his food intake, and he loses weight. Nzola comes back to him upon the publication of his satirical essays in the college paper, and their relationship resumes. Malachi Hunter confronts Kiese about the satirical pieces he has written, warning him about angering white people. Nzola and Kiese argue about his writing, and when Kiese insults her, she punches him in the face.
Kiese is soon expelled from Millsaps. He ignores the advice of older people around him, preferring to follow his passion for challenging and provoking white people. Kiese enrolls in Jackson State University, volunteering at a home for homeless men with HIV, most of whom are black. As his relationship with Nzola declines, Kiese realizes that he needs to leave Mississippi and his mother. Kiese successfully transfers to Oberlin College.
Part IV: Addict Americans
In Part IV, Kiese is now twenty-six years old and 183 pounds. He is a graduate student in Bloomington, Indiana, and as he talks to his uncle Jimmy about his life during their drive to Mississippi to see Kiese’s grandmother, he expresses his ambition to teach in high school. Upon arriving at Kiese’s grandmother’s house, Kiese goes to see his ailing grandmother, and they discuss George Bush, Clarence Thomas, and Anita Hill. Later, Kiese, his mother, and his aunt Linda gamble at a casino in Mississippi, and Kiese gives his mother his last bit of money to play on the machines. Before Kiese leaves for Bloomington with Uncle Jimmy, he talks with his grandmother about his weight loss, which concerns her.
After he completes his MFA at Indiana, Kiese takes a position as an adjunct professor at Vassar College in New York City. He and his mother talk openly about what it’s like to be a young black professor. Kiese reflects on the challenges he faces and the ambitions he has for his students, but when 9/11 happens, he understands fear in a whole new way. A few months after the attack, Kiese is mentoring a student named Cole and directing his thesis on Dante. Though he is paid little for his work, Kiese is sending money home to his mother for various expenses that appear to be related to the care of his relatives. When Cole, who is Jewish and white, is discovered to be a drug dealer, Kiese observes that Cole gets away with his crimes—crimes that would impact a black man very differently.
While at Vassar, Kiese continues to exercise and diet, and his weight drops to 165 pounds. He tells his mother little about his visit with his father a few weeks earlier. During this visit, Kiese learns about the rape and murder in his father’s family history, which helps him understand fear and violence from his father’s point of view. As Kiese’s career at Vassar gains momentum, his mother travels more and more for work to Cuba, but Kiese pays for more and more of his mother’s expenses, losing more weight all the while. Kiese’s physical health declines and his body appears to be breaking down, but he rejects the therapy and surgery recommended, choosing instead to eat until he weighs 206 pounds.
After ten years of teaching at Vassar, Kiese no longer has a job, and his mother has moved to New York, ninety minutes from a casino. They gamble together, and Kiese finally realizes that his mother never has any money because she is addicted to gambling. Kiese’s partner, Flora Wadley, also gambles with him, and together, they lose significant amounts of money. Kiese meets his mother at the casino, and when she questions him about his weight gain and his job status, they have a heated conversation about their relationship and the abuses they both feel they have endured. Though their conversation is difficult, a seemingly meaningful text exchange between Kiese and his mother demonstrates that he is committed to moving forward. The memoir concludes with a series of statements by Kiese, all of which are directed towards his mother and all of which acknowledge the difficult realities they, like other black Americans, face just by being alive.