Heavy: An American Memoir

by Kiese Laymon
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Last Updated on January 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886

Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon is the author and narrator of the memoir. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Laymon attends mostly religious schools as an adolescent, going on to attend Millsaps College after graduation. After being expelled from Millsaps, he attends and graduates from Oberlin College and later completes his Masters in Fine Arts from Indiana University in Bloomington. Laymon writes in his memoir of his experiences as a young boy struggling with his weight, as well as the impact of racism on his life and that of his family members and friends. Laymon’s internal battles with food parallel the external battles he faces as a black man living in a world that often tries to degrade and diminish black people.

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Laymon’s mother

Laymon’s mother is the person to whom Laymon addresses his entire memoir, much of which is resultantly written in the second person. Fiery and brilliant, she has high standards and lofty ambitions for her son. Unfortunately, her passionate nature often gets the best of her and she beats her son, feeling justified by her strategy to toughen him up for the unjust world in which they live—one that is dominated by white people. At the start of the memoir, she is working on her PhD, and she goes on to receive postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Maryland and Harvard University. Laymon’s mother is also addicted to gambling, and throughout the memoir, she is constantly borrowing money or asking Kiese for money for various expenses. At the end of the memoir, they confront one another at a casino and discuss the ills of their relationship.

Grandmama

Grandmama is Laymon’s grandmother. She helps Kiese’s mother raise Laymon, and he has a close relationship with her. She also lives in Mississippi and works as a housekeeper for a white family. Though Grandmama sometimes whips young Kiese with a belt, she is more gentle with him than his mother. Laymon’s trust in her is demonstrated by the safety he feels while sharing her bed as a child, a safety he doesn’t know anywhere else.

Malachi Hunter

Malachi Hunter is a real estate agent in Jackson and Kiese’s mother’s lover. He considers himself to be a revolutionary, but, according to Laymon, he is primarily interested in wealth and power. Malachi is sometimes physically abusive to Kiese’s mother, and when she moves on from their relationship with another man, she is frightened of his anger. When Kiese is in college at Millsaps, Hunter tries to give him advice regarding Kiese’s provocative articles in the school newspaper.

LaThon Simmons

LaThon Simmons is a childhood friend of Kiese’s. They attend the same Catholic schools, play basketball together, and get in trouble with their teachers at the same time. LaThon and Kiese develop their own vocabulary that enables them to speak encouragingly to each other in times of stress. When LaThon realizes that he is unlikely to become a professional basketball player, he decides to become an engineer.

Abby Claremont

Abby Claremont is Kiese’s first girlfriend. Early on in their relationship, she tells him that she loves him, but sometimes their relationship becomes tense when issues around race come up. Because Abby is white, they keep their relationship a secret, but Kiese’s basketball coach tells his mother. Laymon’s mother beats him when she finds out he is in a sexual relationship with Abby, in large part because she is white. They stay together when Kiese starts college at Millsaps, but he soon cheats on her with Nzola Johnston, with whom he eventually develops a relationship.

Coach Schitzler

Coach Schitzler is Kiese’s basketball coach and—during his senior year—his English teacher. Coach Schitzler gives Laymon mixed messages about the support he can offer Kiese as a black teenage boy trying to figure out his way. He is white but he sees himself as a father figure to his black students and players. When the coach mocks Kiese for his writing skills and his ambitions of playing basketball at the college level, Kiese feels his criticism keenly. Coach Schitzler is the person who tells Kiese’s mother about his relationship with Abby.

Nzola Johnston

Nzola Johnston is Kiese’s college girlfriend. She prefers to wear baggy clothes and is short in stature. They get to know each other as friends before they start dating, and they bond over many shared interests. When Kiese makes comments about Nzola’s stepmother, they incite her to violence. Though Nzola expresses his frustration and anger by physically lashing out at Kiese, he stays with her for a significant amount of time. The first time they break up, Kiese gains weight. When he loses much of his weight and gains notoriety for his published articles in the school newspaper, they get back together.

Flora Wadley

Flora Wadley is Kiese’s partner, and towards the end of the memoir, their relationship is described as somewhat dysfunctional. Flora and Kiese gamble together and usually lose. Kiese sometimes borrows money from Flora so he can gamble at the casino. Their relationship is troubled, and Flora blames the relationship problems on the casino they frequent. When Kiese and Flora go to couple’s counseling, the discussion focuses mainly on Flora’s problems and traumas around the deaths of her mother and grandmother.

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