Now, before you go thinking that I was being selfless, let’s be clear. I remember how amazing I felt after going to Jessup last year and I needed some of that to deal with Will. Last time I was there, I felt like I was home. Not because I thought that I should be in prison. Actually, I think I have come to believe that no one should be in prison – especially black males. Rather, because I felt like I was talking to several dozen of my brothers, friends, neighbors, cousins, nephews, uncles, fathers and grandfathers. There were so many generations of black men that I engaged with at one time, that I felt warmed from that part of the experience and as an educator at the university level I have not been in this type of environment that frequently. That they embraced me, heard me, engaged with the work, challenged me but enjoyed the journey and learned a little something from the whole interaction was simply the worldly version of heavenly. We were inches, seconds, a decision or two from one another and I think that all of us felt that by the end. Sometimes it just takes 50 brothers to help you deal with the loss of one.
Now, I’m not saying that I don’t contemplate every now and then what they did when outside prison or realize that someone might be trying to play you by being nice but I do know that we have to be better as a species than simply removing individuals from society and warehousing/working/exploiting/breaking them. We have to be or at least we should be.
The last reason for going was a bit less personal. I felt that these men had suffered a great deal by having part of their freedom and humanity taken from them and I was not going to be one other thing that had gone wrong. I am sure that they had endured the loss of friends, relatives, associates and others and they were not allowed to feel or express that in prison. In this context, the least I could do is contain my grief until after I had gone. As a result, I got my ass on the plane and went to Jessup.
This trip was a bit different this time because I was familiar with this particular set up. For example, I was not shocked/surprised by the African guards (mostly female) policing the mostly African American prisoners. I was disturbed by this though. The idea of black folk living on the backs of other imprisoned black folk just seemed an insult to an already festering injury. The bizarreness of this situation was simply one part of a complex jacked up situation however. I was also not shocked/surprised by the route that we took to get into the prison – through gates, through fences, through walls.
I was shocked/surprised at how I felt when I saw the brothers. I came to view them as I imagined Malcolm would (the Malcolm). In my mind, our approach was something analogous to an Indiana Jones movie. We went through the maze of the panopticon and the hundreds of ways that you could be killed, to get to the jewels. And then we arrived.
The last time I spoke about my research in India and Untouchability but this time I spoke about my research on Rwanda during 1994. In the last year or so I turned my attention back to this troubled country. After the trauma of seeing the dead and living dead, after being asked to leave the country and after being called a "genocide denier" because I made the claim that many of the dead (not all) were not Tutsi but were Hutu, I left the topic. With some critical distance and an opening to change the narrative because of repeated repressive/violent activities of Kagame, I was now coming back with a vengeance working on numerous articles and two books. I wanted to share this with them first as they asked for something that I cared about.
But as I spoke, my mind went less to Rwanda than to these men. This is not because I was not into it, which I was, and it was not because they were not into it, which (gauging from the detailed and often difficult questions) they were as well. Rather, it was because I began to see the brothers in a different light – literally. In my mind, these were not prisoners. They were the prize. They were the thing that was most not least valued, most needed. Imagine a few dozen Basquiat-like crowns appearing above the heads of the brothers sitting there – shining and gold, and then you have an idea of what I saw.
So, I hear some of y’all out there: “you naïve fool. They were playing you. Trying to get out for good behavior. Are talking mess in the Easy E kind of way?” Well, naysayers, some of these men aren’t getting out, so keep quiet. And for the others, how do you know what resides in their hearts? Let’s see what is there. Lets rehumanize them and through that ourselves by engaging with them and embracing them. Let us test ourselves and exchange words with them. It is easy to discard the discarded and stigmatized, just as it is easy to discard the awkward and ill-fitting (like our dear Will H. Moore). Let us take the harder but better position where we embrace rather than shun.
Further, if we do not believe in change and that someone can shift their position/status, then that is perhaps the most un-American thing that I have ever heard. What is America if it is not change. Were Americans destined to forever be the colony of the British? Were the poor destined to forever be poor? Were African Americans destined to forever be enslaved? Minus the racist who would respond affirmatively to the last, the answer to these questions is a resounding no! What kind of American story would there be if the poor were actually believed to forever be poor? There would be revolution in a second.
Rather, it is the potential for change that keeps us moving forward and hopeful. And, with that, it seems that we need to confront as well as challenge the institutions, activities, beliefs and individuals who wish to be in the removing humans from humanity as well as warehousing/exploiting/abusing humans business. We need to confront these things as if our lives depends on it because I would argue that it does. In short, we need to accept that we are our brothers keepers and that when we lose one of these brothers we need to weep for that loss but in the same breath step back up and try to save the next one/few/hundred/thousand.