After some thought, I decided that I wanted to talk with the students about Indian untouchability. This topic seemed appropriate because I figured they heard enough about and were potentially filled with information regarding the African American experience. I wanted them to learn about someone else’s persecution and struggle that was different from them but the same – i.e., hearing about the Mississippi in Gujarat. I wanted them to hear about discrimination, inequality, abuse of power, human rights violation and state failure as well as resistance, humanity, rebellion and social movements to see them more as human problems than strictly African American ones. Hopefully from this they would realize that they were not alone; that others suffered with them and struggled to find their place in the world.
The choice of topics was not easy. The student’s needs and interests were great and I had a large number of things that I wanted to talk with them about. Additionally, the pressure was up a little as I knew that few African American instructors took the opportunity to go there, moving through the labyrinthian series of gates, fences, barbed wire and tension. Think of a TSA line but on crack in july. I wanted to make this count. Who knew when another black professor would be walking down the halls.
When I came into the room, somewhat tentatively at first a few came up to say hello and what’s up. Just as meaningfully several sat or walked in and gave me “the nod” – the acknowledgement of connection, history, identity in the slightest of gestures.
Almost immediately I realized why African American male instructors stayed away. The place appeared to steal a little part of your soul. On a fundamental level I knew that I was one wrong turn (driving while black), one corrupt police officer (stop and frisk), one wrong gesture (demeanor studies), one mistake (being while black) away from being where they were. Now, I’m not saying that some of the brothers there did not deserve to be. I’m just saying that there are a great many reasons why someone would end up there and some do not really concern the individuals now raising their hands, asking questions and making statements in that room.
When class got started I began my presentation. The group’s questions and comments were insightful. I had provided a few readings on untouchability and they had moved through them with an intent and purpose matching almost any student that I had ever come across. The students asked questions about how untouchables/Dalits are recognizable to the eye. They asked about Gandhi and Ambedkar as well as why I was so favorable to the latter, which led to conversations about the Poona Pact and the many differences between these two great leaders. The students asked about the practice of untouchability and how it differed from American slavery, Jim Crow and more modern forms of racism. They asked about why untouchability continued and how (if at all) it could ever possibly be removed. The conversation was amazing and with their references to the readings and, interestingly, Nietzsche, we covered a wide range of topics.
At some point, I realized that although words continued to come out of my mouth and I seemed to be pacing in front of them, I also moved and sat with the class and leaned against the wall and became the fluorescent light above us. In this context, the brothers sat there listening to the person in the front and they did so in a manner more intently than any seminar that I have ever seen. The moment was provided an epiphany of sorts. As I stood/sat/leaned/listened/spoke I felt like the character in the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison at the end when he is sitting in a room full of mirrors. But in this version the mirrors were eplaced with human faces that reflected my life and the many lives or alternative paths that life could have taken. At that moment, I was rendered visible in that room as if all the lights in Maryland had been turned up. Never have I felt that the words coming out of me/him were heard, taken in, savored, chewed up and given back to me with a question or insight that revealed the care and insensitivity of that classroom. Never have I felt that I/he was heard or seen as in that moment. Never did I feel that I heard the soul of the question or commentator being posed. They were not just words being put forward by the brothers but they felt like finely tuned orchestras of thought – pieced together over hours or days or even perhaps years. As we spoke we were not in Jessup but we were in a cultural center, in a church basement, in a meeting hall, in a barbershop, in a living room. But, as I felt these things, at some level I knew we were not in any of these places. I was reminded of this every now and then as a guard walked by or when for a second I remembered the formidable doors or the Spartan conditions.
And as abruptly as I went away and moved throughout the room, I was returned to myself and the moment when class ended – two hours and seemingly a lifetime having passed in seconds like the Pink Floyd song. As I stood there (again), heart pounding, sweating and exhausted as if having finished a long race, the brothers of Jessup applauded, some shook my hand and on the way out, some gave me another nod. A few chatted for a bit afterward and I felt such a sense of gratitude for the experience but sadness of what the brothers had to return to. Shaking hands I was reminded of an incident in India which took place after a “tour” of an impoverished village. Seeing an especially disgusting pile of manure that tried to be a river, I was approached by a Dalit child, given a well rehearsed greeting and shook an extended hand. At observing this, all the children became excited at the outsider’s touchability and in this space/time they decided to do the same thing as their friend and again I moved outside of myself as I shook the hands of an untold number of children. At a certain point, I no longer even felt my arm and despite being completely surrounded by people all reaching out, I never felt threatened in any way. All they wanted was some human contact and in Jessup I think the brothers were exactly the same. The visible man and the brothers made some contact.
With the last of the students out of the room, Marc and I walked back through the labyrinth or rather I followed Marc and the guard on the way out in something of a fog, vision narrowed from the experience. When we finally got out, I had to stop in the parking lot and collect myself for a second, hands on knees, bent over. I felt that I just had several ribs and limbs ripped out of me. My brothers, uncles and cousins were left behind in some locked facility. Moreover, I felt that my alternative me had been left in the building as well. “Come back brother…..” I heard this whispered to me while gasping for air outside the prison, trying not to lose it or trying to find it. I knew what the phrase meant in that context but nevertheless my mind moved to the same haunting line stated by one of the black nationalist characters in the Spike Lee/Shelby Stone/Butch Robinson film DROP Squad (Deprogramming and Resotoration of Pride). In that film, the Squad had kidnapped and tortured a middle class African American in order to convince them to reblacken and stop assimilating. I was not kidnapped though but I felt the brothers were – they were removed, isolated and locked down. They called to me as I called to them, separated by rock and steel. "Come back brother..." I hear you.
Somehow I got in the car and as we began to drive away, Marc asked me what I thought. At the time, I had nothing for him. I said something at the time but really... there were no words. Not until now. Now I am filled with them. This is my beginning of an answer to Marc whom (along with the brothers in that room) I thank eternally for the experience. As for my going back, I will go return to Jessup as many times as they will have me. As I will go to any American correctional facility that sends me an invitation. But, at the same time, I must say that while I have seen truly horrible things in my life (e.g., petrified bodies in Rwanda and the immense poverty of rural India), the inhumanity and humanity that I saw in Jessup – the life on pause under lock and key, has profoundly altered me. It is unclear why we would allow humans to be treated in such a manner. It is unclear why we would accept the removal, warehousing and neglect of sentient beings without everyday reflecting on the practice and doing whatever is necessary to eliminate such an institution. There has to be something better than this. There has to be. There must be. What kind of life can the rest of us have knowing that this exists? What kind of life should we have?