Two Mississippi colleges host conversation on race

By Laura Tillman/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Last summer, Treshika Melvin read an essay that had her contacting everyone she knew. It was titled, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” and the writer, Jackson native Kiese Laymon, was an alumnus of Melvin’s school, Millsaps College.

In the early 1990s, Laymon spent a difficult year as a black freshman on the small college’s mostly white campus. As he tried to grapple with the racial dynamics, he wrote essays for the school newspaper, only to watch then-President George Harmon shut it down in response.

Melvin, a senior majoring in psychology, saw her experiences at Millsaps mirrored in Laymon’s alienation. Laymon struggled to make sense of a community in which white students seemed to break school rules without consequence, while he was punished for offenses as innocuous as improperly borrowing a library book. Laymon eventually was suspended for a year, and he transferred to Jackson State University. He ultimately completed his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1998.

“My experiences were not as extreme as his,” Melvin said, “but it’s just the feeling of being an outsider in a place that’s kind of supposed to be your new home.”

Melvin wasn’t alone in her concerns. Administrators, conscious of the college’s history of tense racial relations, also wanted culture changes at Millsaps, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

The timing was right for Laymon’s return to Millsaps.

Melvin and the college’s Black Students Association saw in Laymon’s essay an opportunity for fresh discussions on race, and lobbied for support from administrators to place him at the center of the dialogue. Predominantly African-American Jackson State University also responded to the essay and wanted to bring home Laymon, who is now an associate professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and co-director of the school’s Africana Studies program.

This week, Laymon returned to lead a two-part discussion titled “Necessary Tension: An Honest Conversation About Race, Art and Identity” at both campuses.

The discussion at Jackson State featured hip-hop artists and cultural writers, and focused on the relationship between art and identity.

The conversation at Millsaps tackled the complicated relationship minority students have with the college community, and explored ways the school can embrace diversity.

It coincided with a renewed effort to increase minority enrollment at Millsaps, which is about 80 percent white, and to make minority students feel more at home. During Laymon’s time at the college, it was about 93 percent white.

A strategic development plan for the college, completed in May 2012, laid out the focus on diversity. Millsaps was founded in 1890, though minority students were not admitted until 1965. Its current enrollment is about 1,000.

“We recognize that all our students must have the opportunity to interact meaningfully with faculty, staff, and peers,” said Rob Pearigen, the school’s president since 2010. “If minority students fail to feel like full members of the Millsaps community, or if they do not form the meaningful relationships characteristic of a Millsaps education, it is all of us that suffer.”

Laymon said he didn’t expect to be invited back to Millsaps, but when Melvin approached him, it felt right.

“It made me realize that college as an experience is really there for students to try and fail and learn,” Laymon said. He spent time with Pearigen, faculty and the Black Students Association, and taught a master class in creative writing.

In Tuesday’s discussion, students queried Laymon about race relationships on other college campuses.

His answer: Millsaps is not alone in dealing with issues of inclusion; many small liberal arts colleges struggle with diversity, and no school serves as an example of handling it perfectly.

But, he said, Millsaps is set apart by its location in a predominantly black neighborhood in a state scarred by a history of racial division.

“I’ll go to my deathbed saying that Mississippi is the richest cultural state in the union,” Laymon said. “It’s just got some big problems we haven’t dealt with.”

At the end of the conversation at Jackson State on Wednesday, Melvin said she felt a bit envious of the students at the historically black college.

“Part of me is like, I wish some of the support and love that’s so inherent and apparent here could trickle over, but the sweet part about it is that it’s inspiring,” she said.

She said the challenge of forging a place at Millsaps offers another kind of reward.

“I’m able to grow and develop and interact with people who I’m not used to interacting with,” she said.

Melvin and other members of the Black Students Association plan to meet with Pearigen next week as the conversation continues.

Laymon said he wasn’t sure what to expect when he returned to campus.

“But as soon as I sat down with the students, I felt like I probably shouldn’t be anywhere else on earth but here,” he said.

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