Friday, April 16, 2021

Mississippi Authors Redefine What It Means to be a Writer in the South

By Neely Mullen
Journalism student

To Angie Thomas and Kiese Laymon, Mississippi isn’t just home. It’s a kind of legacy and responsibility, one they wholeheartedly choose to bear–even if the presence of that legacy wasn’t exactly negotiable. 

“I’m so Mississippi that it oozes out,” Thomas said, laughing. 

In a conversation for Square Books, as a part of the Oxford Festival for the Book, the two nationally-acclaimed authors  (Layman for his essays and bestselling memoir Heavy, and Thomas for bestselling young adult novels The Hate U Give, The Come Up, and her upcoming Concrete Rose), talked at length about the connection to Jackson, Mississippi. 

“It was important to me to honor my southern-ness,” Thomas said. “As far as me and my commitment to Jackson, I love Jackson. I wouldn’t be who I am, wouldn’t be the writer I am, if it weren’t for Jackson. […] This is where Angie Thomas the writer was conceived.”

Laymon and Thomas are in a new class of Mississippi writers, dedicated to honoring the literary tradition of writers like Mildred D. Taylor (author of the acclaimed Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), who center and honor an unflinching look at the experiences of Black Mississippians. 

“You know, we have such a rich literary history, but when people would tell me, ‘Oh, such and such is a writer from Mississippi,’ all of those people were either old, white, or dead, and I was none of those things,” Thomas said. 

For the two authors, understanding what their writing means, not only in a sense of what they are writing, but also why they are writing it, is rooted in their experiences in their shared hometown. 

“All places are like this, but in Jackson, we literally are walking on history,” Laymon said.

Thomas, whose mother lived close enough to hear the gunshots that killed Medgar Evers in 1963, agreed. 

“My grandfather got a call that said that the Night Riders were coming through, and so that meant the KKK was going to be riding through, and my mom said that she had to sit on the floor, and they heard like a pickup truck coming through the street,” she said. “Calling out, ‘Where are all the ‘n-words’ at, we’re trying to have some fun.’ Maybe half an hour later, she heard those gunshots. I know about history, and our history is still so within reach of us. My mom, I’ll tell her age, she’s 65. She remembers that. So many of our elders remember all of that stuff. That is still a fresh memory for them.” 

The authors say that history, a history of violence, racial inequity, and white dominance, continues to inform Mississippi’s understanding of the future. 

“A big chunk of Mississippians and our government leadership has a tendency to fall in love with the old and not embrace the new,” she said. “In doing that, Mississippi will continue to be behind. People don’t want change; they want to stick to their old ways. It took them so long to let go of that flag because it was heritage, it was history. What about the future? What are we doing to give the young people here a future, and then a place that they actually stay in?”

Laymon and Thomas both say that reckoning with that history doesn’t fall on Black people. 

“If I say anything, I’m just a black woman with a complaint;  I’m just a black woman who has an issue with something,” Thomas said.  “It’s up to the white people to get them on board. Y’all gotta have those uncomfortable conversations at the dinner table. This is where people’s personal interests come in; you’ve got to show them that. If I show them that I’m just an uppity black woman telling them something about themselves. We can’t do all of this; Black people can’t fix racism. It’s gonna take white people doing it. For the white folks in the room, it’s up to them to do it. That is the only way it’s going to change.” 

For her part, Thomas is working to help young Mississippi writers access the resources they need to tell their own stories. 

“When I went to Belhaven, I was in the creative writing program […],” Thomas said. “I was the only black student [in the program.] Mississippi has such a rich writing history. What do you mean a creative writing program here in the capital city, and this is all you have as far as representing this city? It made me realize that so often people who look like you and me don’t know that these things are around, and don’t know that they’re there for us, and don’t know this is something we can do.” 

Now, she helps to fund programs like the McMullan Young Writers Workshop, which empowers Mississippi kids to learn how to tell their own stories. 

“There are so many kids in Jackson, they don’t see people like me and you doing what we do, and when they get to see that up close and in person that shows them what’s possible,” she said. “Here I am in the flesh, personification of a dream come true, to remind them that any dreams they have are possible, are within reach.” 

And, to many kids who live in Mississippi, Thomas is just that—the personification of a dream that serves as an inspiration to students across the country.

“I was in college the first time I heard you speak at Square Books for The Hate U Give,” one educator in attendance wrote. “Now, I’m a math teacher at North Panola Middle School. I love reading, and created a book list to show my students what I’m reading because I believe it is so important. It has been a lovely way to connect with them during this virtual time. I got to have conversations with students who say that The Hate U Give is their favorite book. Love you and your books!”

For Thomas, that’s the best part of the job. 

“What keeps me going is being at the Mississippi Book Festival and having black girls and black boys tell me, ‘I don’t read nobody’s books but yours,’ you know?” she said. “These kids, they are the future, as Whitney Houston said, and whatever influence that I have on them now can affect how they maneuver and operate in the world, and I take that seriously so they encourage me. Writing stories to them, writing stories that get them excited about writing, and proving to publishers that Black kids read. That encourages me.”


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