The University Convocation, “The Radical Possibility and Democratic Necessity of Navel-Gazing,” was held virtually by the Public Events Committee on Monday, Jan. 28. Kiese Laymon, Hubert H. McAlexander Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi and the author of the book, “Heavy: An American Memoir,” spoke at the event about his writing experience with “Heavy” and the need for navel-gazing within the community.
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chair of the Public Events Committee, Allison Fleshman, is part of the selection process for Convocation speakers.
“As a committee, we knew that Laymon’s ability to write and capture the southern Black experience and un-selfishly turn inward for deep introspection would benefit our ongoing campus conversations on racial and social injustice, personal reflection and continued work to create a more inclusive community,” Fleshman said.
During Convocation, Laymon emphasized the ongoing process of revising his work, “Heavy,” as arts are always unfinished as time passes by. Laymon also talked about his early years of writing experience and how he was inspired by his personal experience with school and family as well as the written lines on his notebook. The frustration about racism and domestic abuse of Black families had driven him to write the sentence, “America seems filled with violent people who like causing people pain but hate when those people tell them that pain hurts.”
Besides his own experience with “Heavy,” Laymon stressed the importance of “navel-gazing,” a self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue at the expense of a wider view within society. Laymon argues that if people look deep into themselves with tenderness and imagination, they would find something that essentially connects everyone together.
“If you look into your navel with any acuity, with any tenderness, you’re going to find something you never saw before, and that something is going to help you understand the people you love more. It’s going to help you understand context more, and, most importantly, it’s going to help you understand what you want tomorrow to be.” Laymon said.
Following his speech, a pre-recorded interview of Laymon by Amy Ongiri, Jill Beck Director of Film Studies and Associate Professor of Film Studies, and freshmen Edwin Martinez and Tania Sosa was shown on the livestream. After talking to Laymon, Martinez expressed his feeling regarding his experience of the interview.
“I felt a sense of connection while talking to Kiese. It felt like home — as if I was just having a regular conversation with a friend,” Martinez said. “I felt really thrilled for the conversation that we had. I want others to view the conversation and listen to the discussions that we had. I think the conversation provides so much perspective that is almost always missing in all facets of our daily lives.”
A public question and answer session with Laymon was held and moderated by President Mark Burstein immediately after the Convocation. One of the questions was about what home is to Laymon. Laymon responded that, even though he had been living in Jackson for many years, it is still hard for him to recognize the part of the city he has never been to as home. The concept of home to him is complicated and fluid, Laymon said.
In addition to the main speech and the following question and answer sessions, the Convocation began with the Prelude, which was a performance of the song “Genius Child” by sophomores Preston Parker and Maddy Kung. Following the Land Acknowledgement by junior Jessica Hopkins, David McGlynn, Professor of English, introduced Laymon. The Convocation ended with the Postlude, a performance of the song “Set Me as a Seal” by Lawrence University’s Concert Choir and the members of the Appleton East High School Easterners, directed by Stephen Sieck, Associate Professor of Music.