Friday, March 25 and Saturday, March 26 presenters and listeners alike gathered at the School of Education and over Zoom to attend the 12th Annual Lemon Project Symposium with the theme “The Time is Now: The Lives of Black Men Past, Present, and Future.”
The two-day event consisted of multiple panels covering topics such as history, belonging, stereotypes, violence, and identity pertaining to Black men. Panelist speakers came from all different backgrounds and all different parts of the world, some joining virtually while others presented in-person.
“I think in many ways Black men in America are under attack and it’s important for the Lemon Project Symposium to see issues of concern described for the rest of us,” Lemon Project Director Jody Allen said.
According to the Associate Director of the Lemon Project Sarah Thomas, the goal of the Symposium is to encompass the project’s goals all at once, bringing awareness to African American History at the College of William & Mary through research, working with the community and making the College a safe space for Black students.
“What we’re working to do is to physically and mentally tear down walls,” Thomas said.
The construction on Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved physically removed a portion of the brick wall near the historical campus that had previously separated the College from the rest of Williamsburg. This, said Thomas, was a huge step for the Lemon Project’s goal of reconciling the College’s relationship with its African American history.
The Symposium likewise brings people together to raise awareness and describe issues that attendees can then take away and apply to their daily lives. Academic leaders, community members, genealogists and students all come together at the Symposium to have these important conversations.
“What we’re doing is really the public history of William and Mary,” Thomas said.
Tommy J. Curry, Chair of Africana Philosophy and Black Male Studies at the University of Edinburgh and author of “The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood,” presented the first keynote lecture at the conclusion of Friday’s events. His talk, entitled “Myths Maketh Man: A Prolegomenon of Black Males in the 21st Century” detailed the years of racist philosophies concerning Black men and the reasons why Black Male Studies is needed in society.
“One of the major methodological problems we have in the academy is that we do not have positive theories of black men,” Curry said. “Black men become studied when they become problems, when they harm someone, when they pose a threat to the society at large.”
“The socialization and oppression of black men and boys in the United States gave rise to an idea that the lack of true masculinity, true manhood, among black men was in fact responsible for their deviant status,” Curry said.
However, Curry pointed out that Black men are one of the most likely groups to be victims of violence and homicide, but because of these theories being ingrained in society, Black men are never thought of as victims.
“Black men have historically experienced some of the most atrocious rates of interracial violence, but because we overdetermine them as perpetrators, we never track how they may actually suffer in their homes, neighborhoods, schools, or other environments,” Curry said.
Black Male Studies seeks to rectify the history of rationalized demonization of Black men and combat these negative theories with positive evidence.
“Black Male Studies is trying to launch a massive resocialization. So, to combat the mythological origins and socialization of black males as violent, socially progressive, and sexually dangerous, educators and policy makers must look at the social determinants of violence, not masculinity or maleness, as the cause of deviance,” Curry said.
Factors like unemployment, earlier sexual debuts, and child abuse will all potentially shape how Black men interpret the world. Through Black Male Studies, Curry hopes that Black men and boys will not be held to the determinism of other people’s theories about them and can instead determine for themselves their own natures and futures.
“If you have a theory about Black men, Black men should be able to say whether that theory is accurate or not,” Curry said.
Saturday’s keynote speaker was Kiese Laymon, an award-winning Black southern author of works such as “Heavy: An American Memoir,” the novel “Long Division,” and collection of essays “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” His work focuses on personal and larger political battles he has had to face as a Black man in America, dealing with issues of depression and violence but also the love between Black people.
For his lecture, Laymon decided to read a piece he had originally written for the New York Magazine about his relationship with his best friend, Ray Gunn Murph. Laymon had been tasked with answering the question of what white America can do to repair themselves, but he instead focused on his experience with love and friendship between Black boys.
“I’m just not interested in that question anymore, about what white people can do to repair themselves,” Laymon said. “I thought this might be the right space to talk about some good that I don’t think we talk enough about, which is Black boy love of Black boys, Black boy friendship.”
Laymon met Murph when they were both studying at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. He writes in the New York Magazine piece about how Murph confronted him about being depressed one night.
“You’re letting all this shit kill you and that’s exactly what they want,” Laymon said, quoting Murph’s words. “There ain’t nothing ‘fantastic’ about where you’re at right now.”
When Laymon returned to his room, he wrote and stared out the window in an attempt to distract him from his appetite, since Murph warned him not to eat while sad. In the end, Laymon had two dinners that night.
Laymon and Murph lived in a tiny apartment together for the rest of their time at Millsaps College where they worked as porters, stole food when they could, and left tips at every Denny’s in central Mississippi.
“We were poor. We were happy. We were not happy about being poor. But neither of us longed to be rich. We longed for healthy choices, second chances, and good love,” Laymon said.
Laymon was kicked out of college for not checking out a library book after being put on disciplinary probation for getting into a fight with Fraternity brothers in blackface. He moved to Ohio and Indiana and eventually got a job as a professor in New York. In 2010, Murph and his daughter, Laymon’s goddaughter, went to visit him there, but they never met.
“I ended up lying about an emergency when they got to town because I didn’t want Gunn to see that I’d gained more than 120 pounds since we’d last seen each other,” Laymon said. “I didn’t want Gunn’s daughter, my goddaughter, to look at me with disgust. So I chose to harm all three of us. I lied, and I ran from my goddaughter and I ran from Ray Gunn, the one person on Earth I literally had no reason to ever run from.”
Laymon learned that Murph, too, had lied and run away from him as well because there is no model of how to be old, Black, and lonely. There is a lineage of Black individuals being left to clean up and repair the messes created by the worst of white families. This is not fair, Laymon said, because Black people have messes of their own too.
“Every time we run away from an abusive mess, a negligent mess, a lethal mess we helped create, we leave something essential for someone targeted for premature death to clean up,” Laymon said.
Laymon goes on to write about how his family and friends have shown him the importance of repairing and restoring the relationships in his life.
“Repair what you helped break, my Grandmama taught me. Restore what responsibly loved you, I learned from Gunn,” Laymon said. “And revise, revise, revise with your family and friends. Collective freedom is impossible without interpersonal repair.”
The lessons Murph taught Laymon inspired him to write this piece on Black friendship and its importance in his life, instead of answering the original question about white America.
“I decided I’d rather write to us and for us about the paradoxes of revision, restoration, and repair in our friendships,” Laymon said. “Instead of explaining something that has already been explained and making a spectacle of Black death, I decided to write something that makes me feel good about a man from Winona, Mississippi, who has loved me whole and halted my premature death.”
The questions and answers section touched on Laymon’s relationship with his body and the importance of Black Male Studies for boys growing up in the 21st century.
“So much of what we’re doing this weekend is talking about the necessity of Black Male Studies and my hope is that, when that becomes modeled all over the country and all over the world, that we think about not just the damage done to Black boys and our bodies, but the damage we do as Black boys to our bodies and to the bodies of Black friends and other Black boys,” Laymon said.
Afterwards, Jennifer Stacy, a member of the Council of Descendant Advisors at James Monroe’s Highland and panelist at the Symposium, shared what Laymon’s talk meant to her.
“It just opened me up and made me remember my own experiences, and I think that’s what it’s going to take,” Stacy said. “Sharing, giving people permission to feel the feelings that they feel in order to take the step that they need to take to be healed.”
Upcoming Lemon Project events include the dedication of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved on May 7 and the Donning of the Kente during commencement weekend. In the meantime, the Lemon Project will continue to do research on the College’s relationship with slavery and start planning the next Symposium.
“I think we’re going to do a more local focus. We always have more research to do,” Thomas said. “William and Mary owned enslaved people for longer than it hasn’t owned enslaved people. We have a lot of history that we’re still uncovering.”