UM English professor Kiese Laymon harshly criticized university leadership after news broke of historian Garrett Felber's termination. Photo courtesy Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Listening to Kiese Laymon: ‘We Have to Uncover Those Secrets’

Kiese Laymon said a lot of powerful and funny things on last week’s MFP Live with MFP Publisher Kimberly Griffin and me, sometimes at the same time. Three things stood out for me: First, the wonderful trip down memory lane he and Kimberly took about phenomenal high-school basketball in Jackson, and the reasons for it, especially when they were both younger and growing up not far from each other in the capital city.

But it was two overlapping topics later in the hour-long show that really struck me: Kiese calling out not just ongoing racism in Mississippi but the sexism and, yes, patriarchal traditions here that keep women out of power, the spotlight, well-paid positions and well-funded opportunity, and far from most political commentary and strategy, regardless of our experience and expertise. This, as Kiese hammered home, is especially true for Black women in a state that, as he put it, they literally have built and held together.

Over several months, Mississippi Free Press reporter Ashton Pittman digested hundreds of emails a whistleblower obtained through public-records requests. Ashton published a three-part series based on those public documents in early August 2020 revealing disturbing conversations between the journalism dean and a donor he was wooing for millions of dollars in donations, as well as complicating a narrative about the “Ed Meek incident” that was supposedly fully reported in 2018. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Then, I asked Kiese about the University of Mississippi where he both currently teaches (perhaps not for much longer, though) and from where he has been critical of the institution for not doing more to protect students of color, and especially young Black women, as Ashton Pittman’s UM email series really spotlighted. You must listen to the last 10 minutes of the program to fully appreciate how he responded (start at 50:00).

Kiese shared that both UM’s response to first the 2018 Ed Meek revelations and then the shielding of who created images that white men used to disparage Black women students made him question why he is part of the faculty there. He was unsparing in his words for the university’s official responses that did far too little to acknowledge, face and openly discuss the full spectrum of what happened before, during and after the “Ed Meek Affair.”

‘Cowardice Pushed to the Brink’

“It doesn’t necessarily abide by rules,” Kiese said of the university, “… but sometimes when you don’t abide by rules, the same vulnerable people get taken advantage of. … If my name is going to a commercial for your institution, your institution has to do right …. (UM leaders) at least have to be ethical when it pertains to students, especially students of color and vulnerable students.


Kiese’s thoughts about the state’s “flagship” university were complicated, separating the brilliance and courage of Black students and white allies (and good faculty members) from the institutional silence and defensiveness that sustain and inflame the damage. The institution must learn to be more open and proactive, Kiese emphasized, echoing Black UM students.

University of Mississippi Associated Student Body President Joshua Mannery (left) and Black Student Union President Nicholas Crasta (right) point to “momentous strides both symbolically and substantially” at UM. But, they write, a lack of transparency on both problems and solutions underway hamper that progress and the experiences of marginalized students. Photo by Abby Johnston
Kiese Laymon says Black students at the University of Mississippi are courageous for calling for the administration to be more transparent and proactive to protect marginalized students there, as then-Associated Student Body President Josh Mannery and Black Student Union President Nicholas Crasta wrote in a join MFP Voices piece after the UM emails series last August. Photo by Abby Johnston

“We need to not pat ourselves on the back for realizing 30 years too late that we should’ve done something. You do the work of talking about why it took us 30 years to remove a statue …,” he said in part. He added that the response stemming from revelations about the racist, misogynistic photos of Black women and similar issues should have been all-hands-loudly-on-deck at a public university with a habit of shielding problems from the public, often opting for radio silence: “That’s an opportunity for everyone to step up … every single person on that campus should have stepped up and say never, never, ever again….”

Kiese’s blunt words reflect how all of Mississippi needs to respond to our own recent and distant history of racism, sexism, homophobic and brutal cruelty, rather than allowing anyone to again shroud the past in secrecy so even more generations don’t know the truth, thus embedding the same inequities and cowardly responses.

“What I see is cowardice pushed to the brink, and then it has to act, and that act is supposed to be labelled as courageous. But fam, you didn’t act until you had to act,” Kiese said.

‘Just Trying to Cause Trouble or Whatever’

At the end of the MFP Live interview, Kiese nods to Ashton’s recent UM email series, which resulted in still-ongoing smears of our journalism and ethics (and national recognition for it), as well as an official (and unsuccessful) university and journalism-faculty effort to out the whistleblowers and target the ombudsman for no apparent reason (they lost that battle, too). 

Meantime, the public university would allow no one to talk to Ashton or me about how they are responding and improving based on the revelations that we were the only outlet with the courage and ethics to publish.

UM cemetery protest
Kiese Laymon criticizes the University of Mississippi, where he is still teaching so far, for priding itself on being courageous when it should have been taking more action against racism long before, instead of leaving that to students and willing faculty to do. Photo of 2020 UM student protest by Paul Gandy

“Thank you for doing that work,” Kiese told Kimberly and me at the end of the show about the UM emails series. “Some people see it as y’all just trying to cause trouble or whatever,” but, he added, secrecy about such abuse of UM’s most vulnerable students is simply unacceptable.

“If it harms the most vulnerable, it especially needs to be uncovered,” Kiese said. “We don’t need to harm people who the state has already decided it is going to perpetually harm. When we see secrets doing that, we have to uncover those secrets, so thank y’all.”

“We just had no choice,” I responded. “Once we knew, we had to do it.”

Watch and share Kiese on the new MFP Live YouTube channel (and past episodes), see it on Facebook here and watch for our upcoming podcast. 

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to azia@mississippifreepress.com. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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