JANS – Award-winning author Kiese Laymon told an assembly of Jackson State University graduating seniors, family, faculty, staff and alumni on Saturday, April 29, that the greatest human in his life could not go to JSU, but it did not stop her from dreaming of JSU for her children and grandchildren.
“Her dream was to send her children and her grandchildren not to Harvard, not to Stanford, not to Mississippi State nor Ole Miss. Her dream was to send her children to the place that gave her children the greatest chance to equitable access to second chances, healthy choices, good love and that Black abundance,” he said.
“She worked as a domestic in white people’s homes. She worked as a line worker in a plant in Forest, Mississippi. She had to drop out of high school to work as a teenager. She finished high school through correspondence courses,” Laymon shared. “She could not even vote in this state until she was deep in her 30s.”
That individual was his grandmother, and the school she chose for her children and grandchildren was Jackson State.
Laymon was keynote speaker at JSU’s commencement ceremony at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium where a palpable sense of exhilaration was in the atmosphere as more than 500 undergraduates waited to receive their degrees.
JSU Acting President Elayne Hayes-Anthony, Ph.D., welcomed the audience enthusiastically, saying it was an honor for her to preside over the commencement exercise saluting the class of 2023. (Photo: Charles A. Smith/JSU)
Acting President Elayne Hayes-Anthony, Ph.D., welcomed the audience enthusiastically, saying it was an honor for her to preside over the commencement exercise saluting the class of 2023.
“All of the parents, grandparents, children, relatives, loved ones, and significant others who have gone above and beyond in supporting our graduates in so many ways, please stand and be recognized,” said Anthony, a JSU alumna.
She also acknowledged the alumni, faculty, staff, administrators and JSU retirees for championing the graduates and helping them reach the apex of their academic expedition.
“This is an exciting milestone in your life and a major step in your career. Congratulations to you, and enjoy the ceremony,” Anthony prompted.
SGA President Madison Cathey gave a brief but emotion-laced speech, commending several of her classmates on their post-graduation plans. (Photo: Charles A. Smith/JSU)
SGA President Madison Cathey gave a brief but emotion-laced speech, commending several of her classmates on their post-graduation plans, including Erin Eatman, a political science major who will pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Florida.
“We are the makeup of this groundbreaking class. We have worked hard to see this day. It took grit, mental toughness, resilience, tenacity, and a little finesse to get here,” she said. “Those same qualities will be what separate us from the rest of the working world. As you transition into a bigger pond, please never forget you were a part of something special.”
Cathey reminded her classmates that they attended the most talked about university in the country, referencing JSU’s appearance on “Good Morning America” and in the New York Times.
“You graduated from God’s favorite HBCU. You’re a big fish. Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently,” she encouraged.
Cathey then highlighted moments they would miss, like nights on the Gibbs-Green Plaza and the “world famous” fried chicken Wednesdays in Heritage Dining Hall.
“Our JSU experience wasn’t perfect, but it was ours,” said the accounting major, her voice slightly cracking from sentiment. Anthony joined her at the podium, draping a comforting arm around Cathey’s shoulders.
“Today, I can say with confidence that Jackson State University was the best decision I could have made for myself,” said Cathey, wiping away tears. “This university has changed my life, and I’m so grateful.”
Lastly, the student-leader informed her peers that they were now the institution’s stakeholders, but they could not be stakeholders without making an investment.
“It’s time for us to be benevolent alumni who positively contribute to the future of our university. JSU has given to us, and now it’s the only right that we give back to it for future students just like us,” she said.
JSU graduating senior Shilo Sanders emulates the JSU drum majors routine as he prepares to cross the commencement stage. (Photo: Charles A. Smith/JSU)
Laymon dwelt on his own connection to JSU.
He is responsible for works like “Long Division,” which won the 2022 NAACP Image Award for Fiction. His essay collection, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” was named a notable book of 2021 by the New York Times critics.
Centered on his experiences as a Black Southern man, Laymon’s storytelling has been described as grounded in “radical honesty.”
His bestselling memoir, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” includes accolades such as the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and was named one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years by The New York Times. Recently, he was awarded the prestigious “genius grant” MacArthur Fellowship.
A Jackson native, Laymon meshed Jackson State’s past and present influence. He unfolded a story of his parents meeting as JSU students nearly 50 years ago.
“My mother was born in a small poultry town called Forest, Mississippi. My father was born right down the interstate in a small town called Enterprise,” he said. “Both were valedictorians, and both realized the dreams of their parents when they decided to attend and eventually graduate from Jackson State University.”
Laymon reminisced about being nurtured by the JSU community as an infant in classes with his parents to his campus ventures as a youth. Later, his mother and his father attended Wisconsin University for graduate school. In 1979, Laymon and his mother, Mary Coleman, Ph.D., returned to Jackson, where she became an assistant professor of political science at JSU.
“I remember spending days running up and down the creepy stairs of Ayer Hall with other kids of professors. We’d make our own books and paper airplanes,” he said. “We played in that fountain in front of the library. We’d go to the bowling alley. We watched students play games, y’all have probably never heard of; Pacman, Astroid, [and] Gallagher.”
Laymon recalled hanging out in the student union observing college kids, who seemed to be 100 years older, but were somehow still cool, getting their haircuts before going to the step show.
“We watched protests on campus urging folks to end apartheid and sexism. On Saturday nights, if we hadn’t cut up during the week, we were able to join our parents and other 50,000 folks who called the SWAC home right here in this stadium. We watched legends like W.C. Gorden, Lewis Tillman, Jerry Rice, [and] Willie Totten.”
On the ride home, from the backseat, Laymon said they would listen to their relatives tell them none of the players they had witnessed was better than their classmate “Sweetness,” also known as Walter Payton.
Laymon described JSU and its culture as “our safeness in Jackson, Mississippi.” Although that safeness was imperfect, “it was Black, and soulful, and highly stylized and it was political, necessarily.”
He characterized the classrooms of professors like Ally Calhoun-Mack, Ph.D., and the late Robert Mack, Ph.D., Leslie-Burl McLemore, Ph.D., and his mother, as providing students with a rigorous safeness.
It was a safeness, according to Laymon, that led them to lives as teachers, federal judges, artists and leaders of the NAACP. Most importantly, he emphasized, these classrooms made students critical lovers of Black, brown and indigenous people.
“That rigorous safety is part of our inheritance as Jacksonians and Jackson State University. A version of that safety is what you have created for yourselves in the city of Jackson, Class of 2023,” he said, adding that they have done so in the face of unimaginable death, destruction, and an obscene desire on the part of Mississippi’s leadership to obliterate their access to good love, healthy choices and second chances.
“And I just want to say, ‘Thank you for doing more than surviving,’” he said.
Touching on his time as a professor in Oxford, Mississippi, Laymon said he taught some of the most brilliant young writers and met unforgettable colleagues. Still, he pointed out that despite publicized crime in Oxford, he could not recall anyone calling it a bastion of crime.
Invariably, Laymon said that when he shared with his colleagues that Jackson, Mississippi, and JSU made him who he was, their responses were audible gasps. Their faces and voices questioned how he made it out.
A family proudly flashes custom signs of their JSU graduate’s face in the audience of onlookers. (Photo: Aron Smith/JSU)
“I believe by then I was one of the greatest writers in Mississippi, which means I believed I was on the verge of becoming one of the greatest writers in the world. And I knew whatever I actually was, will be, Jackson and Jackson State University made me,” he said, followed by a burst of applause.
Laymon told the Class of 2023 that they were stronger, more politically savvy, imaginative, compassionate, and organized than “we ever were,” and have repeatedly shown that anyone who reduces them and Jackson State to crime was “a damn lie.”
“When they talk ill of Jackson and Jackson State University, you have to know they are not just talking ill about you. They are talking ill about the perseverance of the people who got us here,” he said.
Now, while most do not know his grandmother, Laymon said they know the love he described. He explained that anti-blackness would have people believing that the Black person who loved them is not worthy of emulation.
JSU graduates displayed broad smiles as they basked in their academic accomplishments during their commencement ceremony on Saturday, April 29. (Photo: Aron Smith/JSU)
In closing, Laymon told the graduates that they were more brilliant and prepared than he ever was. He urged them to decide what kind of lover of JSU and Jackson, Mississippi, they want to be and articulate it. He urged them not to wall themselves off from the world if they failed at that type of love.
“It is okay to feel ashamed when you fail and let your community down. It is also okay to seek the mental health necessary for revision and revision that we seldom like to admit has always been our Black superpower in Jackson and Jackson State University,” he said.
The author then thanked the Class of 2023 for being guides leading others to well-deserved “rigorous safety.”
“I want to thank you for allowing us to love you. We are the luckiest people in the world simply because you chose us. Thank you for not giving up on us and thee I love, abundantly,” he said.