Each moment in the classroom is an opportunity for professors to connect with students and to significantly impact their education as they encounter the world during and beyond college. University of Mississippi English professor Kiese Laymon did so from the moment he arrived on campus.
Laymon – a celebrated writer from Jackson, Mississippi, and Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction recipient – has been named the inaugural holder of the Hubert H. McAlexander Chair of English, created by the late Lester Glenn “Ruff” Fant III and his wife, Susan.
“This honor means that I am expected to uphold a standard of rigor, creativity and joy that I know will be upheld by the next holder of the chair. Investments in the arts, especially African American art in our state, are crucial,” Laymon said.
The Fants of Washington, D.C., established the McAlexander chair with a $1.5 million gift to honor Ruff Fant’s lifelong friend and professor emeritus of English at the University of Georgia, Hubert H. McAlexander. The two men bonded over chess games as young boys growing up in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Fant passed away in May 2019.
“We are so grateful to the Fant family for honoring their friend Hubert McAlexander through the creation of the McAlexander Chair in English, which will help us attract and retain outstanding faculty,” said Chancellor Glenn Boyce. “The Fants’ generosity has enabled the university to fortify its treasured and distinguished liberal arts programs.
“It’s a cause for great celebration that Kiese Laymon will be the first to hold this professorship,” Boyce continued. “As a Mississippian who has, in his work, explored some of the most challenging ideas of our time, including racism and Southern Black life, he is recognized throughout the nation as one of the most valued voices in today’s literary landscape.”
The Fants established the chair as a tribute to McAlexander, who received his undergraduate and master’s degrees and was a graduate instructor in English at the University of Mississippi. A legendary and inspiring educator who won almost every teaching award given by the University of Georgia, McAlexander is a celebrated scholar and Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer whose career spanned over 50 years. Laymon, likewise, has garnered international acclaim for his 2018 “Heavy: An American Memoir.”
“The generous gift from the Fants helped make it possible for us to retain an excellent faculty member who has been recruited by several other universities,” said Lee Cohen, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Given that our faculty are critical to our mission, doing all we can to support them enables us to be the very best we can be. Such support would not be possible without incredibly generous gifts like this one.”
The Fants also created the Chancellor’s Honors College Artist in Residence and the Lester Glenn Fant Chair in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, which is held by Bruce Levingston, acclaimed concert pianist and one of the nation’s leading figures in classical music.
“Kiese Laymon is a great Mississippian and one of our country’s most profound artistic voices for social justice,” Levingston said. “He is extraordinarily generous with his time and resources, and deeply committed to the education of young people in our state. This announcement honors the memory of Ruff Fant, whose vision for an artist-educator at our university is embodied by Mr. Layman.”
Laymon, a recipient of many literary awards including the Los Angeles Times Book Award, is recognized for being a powerful literary voice for social justice and education.
“Kiese is a Mississippian who truly wants to see Mississippi get better. Specifically – in addition to being an excellent ambassador from our university and doing all he does for our campus community – he is working with graduate students and faculty to expand the literary arts among our state’s youth,” Cohen said.
His colleagues say Laymon is gifted in mentoring his students and guiding them along their creative writing paths.
“Kiese has many assets in the classroom,” said Ivo Kamps, chair of the Department of English, however, I think that his ability to connect with his students as a compassionate human being is decisive in establishing a rapport with them and in inspiring them to become writers who can have a positive influence on their world.”
After completing a degree from Oberlin College, Laymon earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in fiction from the University of Indiana and published his first two books, “Long Division” and “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America” in 2013. He joined the UM faculty in 2015 as a John and Renee Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence.
“I came to Ole Miss because I needed to be back in Mississippi,” Laymon said. “I needed to breathe the Mississippi air and I needed to be close to Mississippi kids. I love Mississippi with everything I have. I just want us to be better. I’m trying to do my part to help myself be better, but I also want to help our state be better. I think part of that is acknowledging how wonderful and incredible we have been.”
Laymon created The Catherine Coleman Initiative for the Arts and Social Justice created in UM’s English Department to expose high school students to fine arts and creative writing. Named after his grandmother, the program aims to connect graduate students with Mississippi high school students through the arts and creative writing.
“The initiative will connect our brilliant grad students from all over the world with the best of Mississippi, our children. Lots of our students know UM but they don’t get a chance to know and feel and inspire, or be inspired by other parts of the state,” Laymon said. “Most importantly, it means we can give more time to young writers in our state who might have never met folks who write and read for a living. We are also connecting and offering workshops for parents of the students. It could be incredible.”
Assisted by his colleague Derrick Harriell and MFA students, Laymon launched the program with two online creative writing workshops for students from Jackson and the Delta this summer.
Susan Fant added, “I am so pleased that the distinguished author Kiese Layman has been named as the inaugural recipient of the Hubert H. McAlexander Chair. I’m grateful for the inspiration of his writing and teaching and his initiative to advance education and social justice in his home state. I know that my late husband, Ruff, would share my appreciation and be delighted that such an eminent writer would be the first to hold the chair honoring our beloved friend Hubert.”
To make a gift to the McAlexander Chair of English, send a check with the fund noted in the memo line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, P.O. Box 249, University, MS 38677; or visit online at https://give.olemiss.edu.
For more information, contact Denson Hollis, executive director-principal gifts, at email@example.com or 662-915-5092.
By Mary Stanton Knight