“America seems filled with violent people who like causing people pain but hate when those people tell them that pain hurts.”
Kiese Laymon is perhaps the most prolific and controversial professor to have ever led a classroom at the University of Mississippi. Though he has recently left UM for Rice University, the talent, passion, forgiveness and fury behind his words and guiding his curriculum continue to send waves throughout our community. Now, his works are part of a deluge of book bannings and censorship sweeping through America’s schools. From Wentzville, Missouri, to Goddard, Kansas, Laymon’s searing Mississippi memoir “Heavy” is being removed from school libraries for “inappropriate content” and “offensive language.”
These immensely regrettable acts of censorship occurred just days before the Mississippi Free Press reported that Ridgeland, Mississippi, Mayor Gene McGee is withholding $110,000 of public funding from the Madison County Library System until they remove “LGBTQ+ materials” from their collection. Johnson claims that so-called “homosexual materials” offend his religious beliefs and should be thus inaccessible to the citizens of Madison County. Most recently, a Tennessee school district banned “Maus,” a comic book about the Holocaust on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Whether the excuse is objectionable language or theological doctrine, the true reasoning behind recent censorship efforts remains the same. Certainly, school board members are not offended by all curse words in daily life, as they would be hard-pressed to find any media completely free of foul language. The real discomfort lies not within the words being used in “Heavy,” but in the meaning behind them. Books like “Heavy” and “Maus,” or those written about the LGBTQ+ experience, force us to confront present and historical injustice. It is impossible to read “Heavy” without recognizing the great harm white supremacy and all of its manifestations have wreaked on the people of Mississippi. Anyone who comes away from the memoir less than incensed has fundamentally misunderstood Laymon’s message.
“Heavy” forces us to look right at the hard realities of growing up Black in Mississippi. When these school boards took it off the shelf, they clearly stated that they would rather protect children from unpleasant media rather than unpleasant experiences. How much easier our lives become, how much more complacent we can be when inequity and violence are out of sight and mind. These book bannings in Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee and Mississippi constitute a siphoning off of class, of race, of any form of difference from our national discourse. It was never about the curse words or the “sexual content.” It was always about placating white America or straight America or any other majority that refuses to take responsibility for the pain it has caused to marginalized groups. In the case of “Heavy,” it is the intersection of the prioritization of white feelings above education and an inability to grapple with any media that does not place white people as its primary audience. Beyond the symbolism, it is simply depriving children of access to extraordinary literature.
Mayor McGee may claim that his unconstitutional acts are an expression of his faith, but they are in reality a show of cowardice. McGee and members of school boards from Kansas to Tennessee know that literature forces us to confront the problems in our communities with the radical honesty that Laymon so often writes about. This confrontation can be uncomfortable, it can be awkward, it can be painful, it can even be heavy; but it is always necessary.
Katherine Broten is a junior majoring in economics and public policy leadership from Farmington, New Mexico.