I have long been a supporter of The Literary Freedom Project. From them, I was introduced to the Beyond Words Book Club. The COVID lockdown has afforded me the opportunity to join them virtually on several reads. Heavy (Kiese Laymon) is one of those narratives that everyone should be encouraged to dig into. It is a book that will be passed down for generations.
My aim with the essay Samsonite was to go beyond a simple book review. I set out to communicate to the author that we see him. By way of a simple analogy, this essay is meant to convey that the things we he went through resonated with us. Though we may not have experienced all that is conveyed in his memoir, we appreciate the candor. Admire his willingness to share so openly. We hope it has brought him and his folk some comfort. -Jedah Mayberry
There was this luggage commercial that used to air when I was a kid – American Tourister, a Samsonite brand. In the commercial, they had this gorilla beat the sh*t out of one of their flagship travel cases. He jumps on it in the commercial, stomps on it, drags it all over his cage. Flings it from one wall to another, body slams it against the concrete floor.
Kiese, a close read of HEAVY lends the impression that you are Samsonite. And the gorilla, well, he’s the worst of white folks in America. He’s the Mississippi state governor, every Mississippi state governor to date. He’s the mostly white teachers in an all-black school. The all-white teachers and coaches in a mostly white school. He’s the white police officer in Maryland who pulled your mother over for failing to signal a lane change.
The shame of white-folk wants always trumping black-folk needs is with absolute certainty that gorilla. The Mumford boy who spoke your grandmama’s name so casually, so familiar. Used a name you didn’t know her by. The po’ white boy, whose clothes you knew from the dirty clothes basket inside your grandmama’s kitchen, from the clothesline outside your grandmama’s house before you knew him. He was that gorilla, too.
Packed inside that case is your interior self, the boy-man you saw yourself to be. The things you were working to become. A meager compilation of lived experiences bouncing around a half-empty, oversize case. Your destiny will have you graduate high school fifth from the bottom of your class despite being capable of making straight As.
Will place you under constant suspicion of plagiarism when you have read more, written more, revised more than any of the jokers who sought to persecute you. All you wanted was for someone to be kind to your insides even though you feared it was sweaty and gross inside your case, smelling of pork chops and rice and gravy and thick bleu cheese dressing guzzled straight from the bottle.
The big boys in Beulah Beauford’s house were that gorilla. Gorillaed anybody smaller, weaker, more vulnerable than they were. You wished to pull Layla Weathersby inside the case with you, be kind to her insides in hopes that she in return might be kind to your insides. With any hope, Dougie had his own case, would in time find ways to protect his insides.
Your mama was that gorilla too when she molded you into a man-sized case and had you stand up next to her at a slot machine in Las Vegas, like you were her husband, while she gambled away money you-all didn’t have to lose. She was that gorilla when she took you back to the Jitney Jungle that had one of her bounced checks and a copy of her license pinned to a board hanging above the cashier’s head.
Your mama is the only other person who had the combination to your case. She was determined to fit words and sentences, language inside your case. Instructed you on how to present yourself to the world, how to revise, to question what you had written as the only way to write better, to do better, to be better. She claimed it would protect you.
Still, she became that gorilla as she tried to beat into the shell of your case a new layer of resin or Kevlar or whatever material is used to make suitcases strong, impenetrable, indestructible.
She was that gorilla when she left you at Beulah Beauford’s house when she left Renata to look after you.
She was that gorilla every time she brought Malachi Hunter into her bedroom, leaving you within earshot, working to sort out what to let inside your case, what to leave on the outside. The things you couldn’t help but overhear, the things your body couldn’t help but feel stuffed inside secret compartments because your mama after all had the combination to your case.
You let Abby Claremont peek inside your case. Watched as she’d rummage around with one hand, not really attending to the case’s contents, paying little regard to your interior self. Turns out she was more interested in the big, black, bald-headed, hardened exterior. Would as easily be drawn to the next big, black, bald-headed, hardened case.
Kamala Lackey had learned to guard her insides as tightly as you did yours. Allowed you only the tiniest sliver of stolen glimpses into what her case contained. Nzola Johnston sensed the magnitude of the contents of your case ahead of noticing the heavy, big, black, bald-headed exterior. She feared you would never let her hold what you were carrying inside your case. She was right.
You laid your case open for your grandmama to peer inside. She’s the only one who seemed to genuinely care about your insides. Took care to set the outside straight so the insides might make out okay. She didn’t, any more than your adolescent self, have the language to make sense of the contents of your case. But she put her own words on it. Told you to let go of the things that upset the state of things inside your case. She told
you she loved you. Promised tomorrow would be a better day, every tomorrow better than the day you are living in the minds of older black folks (in MS).
I’m gonna turn the tables on you, leave you with a writing assignment: Describe your mother’s case. What did it look like back when you were trying to figure what to put inside your case, what to leave on the outside? How does it appear today? How are her insides? In what ways does she still need protecting?
JEDAH MAYBERRY was born in Harlem, NYC and raised in southeastern CT, the backdrop for his fiction debut. The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle won Grand Prize in Red City Review’s 2015 Book Awards and was named 1st in Multi-Cultural Fiction for 2014 by the Texas Association of Authors. In 2018, he completed a Hurston-Wright Foundation Workshop in Fiction. A second book, Sun Is Sky, is due from Jacaranda Books. His work has appeared at Linden Avenue, Brittle Paper, Black Elephant, Akashic Fri-SciFi Series, Solstice Magazine, Permission to Write, and A Gathering Together among others. Jedah resides with his wife and daughters in Austin, TX.