It can take longer than it should to realize that our elders are a gift. And even the mundane moments we share with them shape our lives (and imaginations) for years to come.
For MacArthur “Genius” Grant award winner, Kiese Laymon, the limitlessness of his imagination began in his grandmama’s kitchen — at least partly.
Catherine Coleman, a Mississippi woman who chose to stay on the land she and her ancestors cultivated, sparked something special inside Laymon through food, but also through love and resistance.
Mississippi is the place you leave. It is beyond that state line where you will find opportunities and what some people believe to be freedom. But Ms. Coleman refused to leave, and with that refusal came the founding of the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food, & Justice Initiative.
In honor of his grandmama’s legacy, Laymon is providing Mississippi children with something that was inconceivable when he was growing up.
“I just wanted to create a program that could give young kids, who I’ve met in Jackson, more opportunities to do what we call creative writing, and creative reading, and creative eating, and creative preparation of the food because I just think all of it goes together. But when I was growing up, it was like, food was over here, books were over here. And whatever was going on inside me was somewhere separate.”
At its core, this program honors the tradition of Black women freedom fighters from Mississippi – those more well-known like Fannie Lou Hamer, and those who are lesser-known but we know intimately, like our mamas, grandmamas, and aunties–who made complicated and beautiful lives here in spite of the worst of Mississippi.
The program launched its first workshop in the Summer of 2020, and so far, it has had the intended impact that Laymon hopes for, which is “tending to the interior life” of Mississippi youth.
Maddison Huddleston, a sophomore at Rhodes College interested in History and Africana Studies, was among the first cohort to go through the Catherine Coleman program. Huddleston notes that one of their favorite parts of the experience was learning and growing with other Black women and femmes. But maybe more importantly, she felt like her voice mattered:
“I gained a sense of legitimacy, like, a lot of people discredit or don’t study Black female poetry and Black female literature, and especially Black, Southern female literature. And it made me feel like, what I was writing, my thoughts were meaningful.”
Also, a part of the first cohort was Alana Brown-Davis, a student at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, majoring in Journalism with a focus on music. As a young writer, Brown was really in search of community and mentorship when she decided to participate in the program. She found the experience meaningful.
“I ended up really enjoying it. I hated when it ended. But I’m thankful for the connections that I made…it really helped me grow as a writer and as a person.”
One of the great things about this program is that the students see themselves reflected in their instructors. Christy Conor, a fiction MFA student at the University of Mississippi, taught in the second cohort. Even as an instructor, she regarded the privilege of working with the students as a learning experience:
“We talked about a range of different things like racism, colorism…It was a humbling experience. And I think I learned so much.”
Both Huddleston and Brown mentioned being granted the space to share their experiences, particularly in regard to the chaos of 2020.
Brown says, “[our instructor] was really pushing us to look inward, especially reflecting on the time that we were in, despite just COVID going on, it was also after the killing of George Floyd. So, she urged us to sort of tap into that, and what life had been like, after his murder and before, and what it was like for us witnessing a change.”
Similarly, Huddleston recalls, “I wrote a poem called ‘Today I Am.’ And that was just a short poem about 2020 things that were going on, and I was doing some activism during that time. And so, I just kind of wrote a little bit about how to preserve [myself] while doing it.”
Oftentimes, we forget that young people are experiencing the world right alongside the rest of us. In fact, they might be feeling it a little harder, which is why Laymon prioritized a program that caters to “what kids are experiencing inside and what they feel is desirable or capable of exploring.”
This was something he didn’t have but wanted.
Growing up in Mississippi as a young, Black, and curious writer, I also wished more of the adults around me took an interest in my insides and my experience of the world. The Catherine Coleman Initiative, to me, remedies that.
And that is the very embodiment of all the Black women I know still living and loving in Mississippi: World-builders who give us all the wisdom and unlikely tools we need to continue their labor of love.