Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Last Night at Otisville

Tonight is my last night in Otisville. Bittersweet. I've built beautiful relationships with people here. I've made lifelong friends here. As I am excited to step closer to freedom I also step away from others that I've grown to love. Prison is no bed of roses, true indeed, but I have met people in Otisville that are carnations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Journals From The Pen- November 5, 2009

Dear Journal,

I can smell my freedom! I am less than three months away! The fact that I can 'smell' it is significant because for about seven or eight years of my bid I never had dreams that were set outside of prison. Even when I had dreams that included people outside of prison, like family and close friends, the dreams took place inside of prison. Weird, but true. It is only within the last year-and-a-half that I have had dreams that took place outside of prison. The fact that I 'smell' my freedom illustrates where my mind is at--freedom. My subconscious is no longer trapped in here. My focus is no longer on surviving in prison, it is on thriving in society.

My feelings at this point are... anticipatory, not yet excited. I tend to be a person that doesn't get too high or too low. Maybe when I begin to 'see' my freedom my emotion Richter will heighten. I may be transferred to Queensboro CF, a minimum-security in Long Island City within the month to finish out my sentence. Seeing NYC for the first time in seven years (I was sentenced in 2002) will be indescribable.

I am still networking to find a job. I so badly want to have a job waiting for me. I am ready to work. No beach chair for me, maybe a walk on the boardwalk, but no lounging. I am eager to work and go to school. BTW, I may have a scholarship waiting for me...

I've spent over a third of my life in prison and I'm only 30. I don't look a day over 20, nor do I feel over 20. It's just amazing to reflect on the amount of time I have spent behind bars.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Journals From The Pen-- The Final Days

Dear Journal,

I AM CLOSE TO 100 DAYS NEAR RELEASE! Nervous? NO. Excited? Not really? I have never been a polar person. I never get too high or too low. After all of these years (10 years) I still am mind-boggled that I have spent TEN YEARS IN PRISON. I don't regret the years I have lost. I will be 30 in three weeks and I don't feel the slightest desire to recapture my 20's--- not one bit. I do sense that I am a little more snappy at work. My tolerance level for some of the nonsense that I hear daily is waning. I don't snap at anyone, but my attitude is a little more serious. Today, my boy asked, "Marlon, what's up. I haven't been hearing your usual warped sense of humor." I responded like a bootleg Buddhist monk, "There's a time for everything". Then there is the fact that I still haven't got any serious job contacts. I know the economy is twisted and all, but I just get a little worrisome. I am confident that everything will work out, but this is a journal and I am just speaking my mind. I have high expectations for myself, and so do others. The expectations are OK. Really, I don't even consider the expectations as pressure because I know me and I know what I want and I know I will exceed them. My high expectations are simply the habits that I have formed during my incarceration. Great habits. Actually, it is a blessing to have other people think so highly of me-- an honor. I just do what I ought to do, you know. I am blessed with a beautiful mind, and I simply want to use it to help others that are not blessed in those areas.

Before I close, here is an excerpt from something I wrote while at work yesterday in my job at Transitional Services at Otisville:

107 days to go. I'm at work at the Transitional Services Center preparing lesson plans for the upcoming Phase III cycle. The men in Phase III are within 120 days of release, JUST LIKE ME.

The irony of it all is great. After 10 years in prison and four years preparing scores of men for parole, deportation, release; preparing them for their families and friends; and preparing them for their re-socialization, here I am, the guy about to be released. There are no release jitters for me, thankfully. Preparing others has prepared me.

I am all ready, except for one thing. I haven't secured employment yet. I am still confident that I will obtain employment before release. I guess it is the fact that it is the last hurdle that I have to jump before release.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Wise Guide to Stepping Into Your Greatness

"There was always this faint voice I would hear during the most trying times telling me 'don't give up, just a little bit more,' I'm not sure how I made it through those days..."

Wise, a 36-year-old African American man with a sage demeanor, penned those words in the introduction to his self-help guide book, "Your Greatest Obstacle (The Guide to Stepping Into Your Greatness"; words written in the 19th year of his incarceration--at age 36--for murder---and innocent.

Appropriately named, Wise was released from Otisville Correctional Facility on September 1, 2009 after spending 20 years and eight months in prison for a crime for which he claims to be innocent. He was originally scheduled to be released alone week earlier, but because of a miscommunication between the NYS Division of Parole and his family his release date was unexpectedly pushed back. Wise was not too pleased about that, but with the patience of Job and the wisdom of a guru he calmly waited for the problem to be cleared up. Today Wise is a free man.

Born Huwe M. Burton in the birthplace of hip hop, the Bronx, New York, Wise was raised by his immigrant Jamaican father. They rented the top floor of a two-family house from the family of New York Hot 97 radio deejay Funkmaster Flex. Wise carried the now classic record crates of the young Funkmaster Flex to and from neighborhood parties. That is where his love for hip hop and other genres of music developed.

A love that years later would provide an escape from the realities of prison.

A barely above average student in private school, Wise was transferred to public school early in the ninth grade where he began losing interest in school because of the too easy curriculum. Paradoxically, the illusory allure of street life piqued his interest.

Around the same time Wise was arrested and charged with second degree. A sixteen year old kid looking at life in prison.

Not bitter about the course his life has taken, Wise spent most of his years immersed in music. He raps (he sounds like Nas) and produces beats with his keyboard. Actually and a couple of his friends managed to mix a demo tape and have it played on a local college radio station. The claimed the moniker "Dirty Hands".

No longer a chubby teenager, Wise is now physically fit from countless hours doing calisthenics, married, has eyes that windows a story of sleepless nights and exhaustive insight, and a voice that vibrates a placid maturity. He has aspirations for running (and completing) the NYC marathon; "finishing next to the Kenyans and Ethiopians" as he jokingly promises.

Three weeks prior to his release, I sat down with Wise over a cup of John Wayne style coffee and vanilla creme-filled cookies in the Transitional Services Center at Otisville Correctional Facility for an interview. While I was preparing our coffee a mutual friend invited himself into the office where we were to conduct the interview. He had been having difficulties controlling his anger.

Wise tactfully volunteered the following advice: "You know better, you gotta do better." The thirty-something year old man replied, "Wise, you know what? You're right," and helped himself to a few cookies before exiting the room.

Wise being wise.

Pens: How does it feel to be finally going home?

Wise: Sometimes it feels surreal. You know in your mind that it's gonna happen, but you're also thinking, "You're really gonna let me go!" People usually see release as a cause for celebration, but I'm so different. For me, nothing is final. This is just the beginning. I just want to start doing what I should've been doing. I'm ready to get to work.

Pens: What's the first thing you want to do when you are released?

Wise: Spend time with my wife and what's left of my family. I want to be extraordinary. My family just wants me to be a regular guy, but that's not for me.

Pens: But you've spent almost 21 years in prison. Society does not expect much from you. Isn't regularity something to aspire for?

Wise: That's society's perception. Being below the radar is not for me. I will do more than is expected of me.

Pens: Got a job lined up?

Wise: A cousin connected me with an office manager for a dot com company in Westchester.

Pens: Do you think you're socially ready to interact with people in an office setting?

Wise: I think prisoners are complex and fragile in mind and heart. That can make them dangerous. Because of that I have learned to read personalities well and I will use that skill [of reading personalities] at my job.

Pens: Are you dangerous and fragile?

Wise: I used to be... I hit a bottom in my life that caused me to ask myself, "Is this it?" It happened in 1997 when I was in the box for a dirty urine. I began questioning my decisions and the people in my life.

Pens: You had an epiphany?

Wise: No, it wasn't an epiphany. It was like a faint voice that got louder telling me to change the way I think. I still hear the voice. The only difference now is that I've heard it so much that it's become my voice.

Pens: You've been in prison since you were 16 years old. Talk about that.

Wise: I wasn't afforded the opportunity to make mistakes like teenagers in the street. I had to learn things faster. I stumbled a lot as a teenager on Rikers Island from 16-19. Everything was insane. The thinking was insane. We were a bunch of 16 to 19 year olds going upstate with no direction, with 15 to life being the least amount of time to serve. Crazy. Those three years on Rikers Island shape the way I see thing today.

Pens: How? Is that good or bad?

Wise: Neither good or bad. When you put a bunch of human beings together against their wills things happen. The first time I saw someone get cut I was shell-shocked. Years later, if I saw someone getting stabbed my next thought was like, "What are we gonna cook for dinner?" You lose a little bit of humanity in prison. Some of my friends in here still hold on to those moments. I can't watch that stuff now.

Pens: What has sustained you throughout your bid?

Wise: Music. My ability to make it. It always provided an escape fro the reality of prison. I dabbled with music when I was home, but I honed it in prison and I'm good.

Pens: What type of music?

Wise: Rape mainly. It takes feelings and turns them into words that makes others feel the same. Making music. Playing music. Playing an instrument. I can play R&B, jazz, salsa, bachata, merengue, and rock. A whole new world has opened for me. It's still my escape.

Pens: Does hearing Funkmaster Flex on the radio motivate you?

Wise: Yeah, we loved music equally.

Pens: Did you think you could be successful like Flex?

Wise: Not until after my first parole board. Nine months later, after my dad died in May '05 I told myself, "I'm not dying in prison." Ironically, I wasn't at Otisville at the time.

Pens: You've been to six parole boards. Why has it taken six attempts? Isn't at least three the charm?

Wise: First off, three isn't the charm. I'm not one of those guys who's going to blame the political climate for my hits. I don't think the parole board commissioners are the axis of evil. Some people are just the same people they were when they were arrested. They try to betray who they really are when they are in that room [where the hearings are held]. I was never angry after any of the hits...

Pens: Never angry? Never?

Wise: Never. I always questioned what I did wrong. Even my family would ask what I was doing wrong. Some said that I should pay attention to my facial expressions, my language.

Pens: Did you maintain your innocence at the various hearings?

Wise: I thought about it, but my family were basically like, you did the time so if they want you to speak as a guilty person, I might as well. They wanted me to say whatever they felt it would take to get me out of prison.

Pens: So what did you do?

Wise: I told them what they wanted to hear; that I was guilty. It wasn't easy because I wasn't a good liar and I was an even worse speaker. I was scared to talk in my first hearing. The air conditioner in the room was louder than me. After that hearing I said to myself, "No one will ever have that much control over me." So I enrolled in the Public Speaking class here. I needed help. The next few hearings still showed that I needed to work on my character. I needed to correct some things. My third hearing turned into a shouting match. On my fourth hearing 22 people went up for parole and 22 were denied. My fifth was a deadlock and my sixth... Well I am going home, finally..

Pens: Well overdue, now let's move past that. You have written a self-motivational book, "Your Greatest Obstacle (The Guide to Stepping Into Your Greatness)" Tell me about it. What is the inspiration and purpose behind it?

Wise: I wrote it after my fourth parole hit [denial]. All of us didn't represent ourselves well and I thought, "What is standing in our way?" The answer wasn't the legislature or the political climate, it was us! In one word, the answer was ownership. The book's purpose is knowing what you want, unlearning the word 'can't', putting all your eggs in one basket. Once you embrace these things you can become the driver of your life.

Pens: In the book, you wrote, "Prisoners are one of the better examples of those that are reminded each day that they are social deviants. Everything around them is designed to remind them of their views." How have you been able to be the exception to your own assessment?

Wise: My father used to tell me, "I'm not saying you're better than people in there, but you are better than what prison has to offer." If you compare prison ethics to those in society, it's two different worlds. Applying prison ethics to society's doesn't work. Basically, I stopped doing jail and all that comes along with it.

Pens: The attribute Wise, it is a self prophetic name?

Wise: It's something I had to grow into. I'm still growing into it. But we're all wise. We just have to focus on it. The things you focus on are the things you see.

Pens: So what do you focus on? What are your dreams?

Wise: To be very well off financially. Society teaches us that wealth is shallow, I disagree. I will create music that can become the soundtrack to people's lives. I want to touch lives through my music. Bono, Mike [Michael Jackson] touched lives. My purpose is to touch people's lives. I never walked with my head down after those five parole hits because I wanted the next man to believe that he could make it. I want to inspire people. My boss at my new job will open me up to some speaking engagements, so I'm looking forward to some surprises.

Pens: This interview on pensfromthepen is first of many for you, hopefully. What would you like the world to know about Wise before, during, and after prison.

Wise: [thoughtful pause] That whether it is good, bad, or indifferent it always starts and ends with me. I am not bitter or angry about any of this. Everything that I've been through has inspired me. I've learned to embrace these things and to stop fighting it.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

“A Woman’s Story”

Is that selfish?

Perhaps from the outside looking in, but until anyone else can write my story verbatim it’s not up to anyone else to answer—but me.

… My eyes are a gift, windows to my soul…
Looks closely and they will tell you a story.
One filled of pain, anger disappointment, and despair…
Misunderstood, used, and abused.
My spirit has been tarnished and sometimes badly bruised…

I was a Daddy’s girl. Mi padre, Pablo, was a beautiful man. I was convinced that he was without fault. My mother, Christina, and I were related by blood—that’s it. I mean, I loved her and she loved me, but she was just an ornament in mi padre’s awesome world.

I was into everything mi padre was into. He was a photographer and I was his self-proclaimed apprentice. To this day, as a 29-year old, I am severely critical of amateurish photography. I refuse to be photographed by a novice. You’ve heard of military brats, well, I’m a photographer’s brat.

My padre owned deejay equipment too. In his spare time he would teach me how to use a mixer and switch records on his turntables. At some point in my life I intend to own my own state-of-the-art deejay equipment.

He was a handyman and I was his little handygirl. If he was hammering I was waiting to hand him the next nail. People are surprised to see a petite woman like me talking about building a shelf.

I was a tomboy for most of my teenage years. I loved sports. I hung out with guys. Subconsciously, I loved and adored mi padre so much so that I wish I was his Pablo Jr. Every little girl needs that type of relationship with her father.

Perfect until he left. I was eleven years old and I had never seen my parents argue. At eleven you assume that your parents are going to be together forever. This wasn’t Beverly Hill 90210 where separation and divorce are as common as black men in jail—this was Brooklyn 11225.

Their first argument in my presence occurred about a month before he left. Within that month my whole world imploded. My father left us for a woman in the Bronx. Just like that my everything disappeared. Who was going to spin records with me? Who was going to take my pictures? Who was going to validate me? Was it my fault? Did he leave because I was bad girl? Did I disappoint him?

My madre was devastated because she depended on him for everything. Now mi madre had to struggle to support a household. She had to learn how to survive independent of a man.

The adjustment wasn’t easy for us. We always had enough to eat, but just enough. I recall us eating the same beans and rice every night.

This may not sound like it was as bad as it could be, but consider how dramatically our lives changed so quickly. Our lives had revolved around mi padre father. We depended on him for everything: for money, advice, discipline, protection, for everything. In one day I was expected to change the role of daughter to my mother’s friend. In one day my mother had to become madre and padre. We had to adapt without preparation or guidance.

We had to act like nothing changed because we were ashamed. I kept my father’s unexpected departure a secret for nearly ten years. Mi madre decided that this was our problem, not anyone’s business. We survived on our own, so we didn’t need anyone being nosy about how we survived.

The divine image of mi padre was forever blurred. I was scarred—for life. Daddy’s little girl was wanted by her Daddy. This man, my father, no longer valued our relationship as I did. This man taught me to never trust a man without saying so. Mi padre became simply “my father”. I promised myself to never trust another man; they were all the same.

Why should I?

Around the same time that my father went AWOL, the trust that I had in another family member was also lost. My cousin, four years my senior, molested me. It continued for months. Initially, I didn’t understand what he was doing. I didn’t even know what to do about it. The memories of this period are scant; however, I did eventually tell mi madre.

She confronted her nephew and his parents in private about it. Mi madre always tried to keep things in private. This was our problem and we would get through it on our own.

I don’t know what was said, but he never came near me again. He was always excluded from family functions—he became an afterthought.

Thoughts of guilt, disappointment, and anger resonated.

… My spirit has been tarnished and sometimes badly bruised…

A little girl needs to be revered. She needs constant validation. Red carpet should be placed beneath her shoes before every step she takes. She needs to be coddled and cuddled. She needs to be loved.

I was tossed about like a sheep without a shepherd—left defenseless to be preyed upon.

I wanted so badly to be loved. To love.

Next Chapter:

Jamaal Greene.

I was 16 and he was 18. I was a tomboyish girl becoming a young woman. He was a basketball jock. We loved sports. He wasn’t the easiest on the eyes, and I wasn’t superficial.

He treated me good and I allowed myself to like him. I broke my own promise and trusted him. I had had other boyfriends before him, but he was special. Jamaal was a B.W.P.—a Brother With Potential. He was different from the other disappoint men in my life.

We both attended Long Island University in Brooklyn. He was on the basketball team and was a good student. I was a bookworm that partied little and studied a lot.

You see, I had to meet my goals. I wanted my degree; a career, and a family before my thirties. I was not going to rely on a man like mi madre did. When my father left us, mi madre was left distraught because she put all her livelihood into a man. When my father left mi madre had to learn how to fend for herself, and for me. I was not going to allow myself to depend on a man like mi madre.

I was an independent woman.

I earned my degree and had a stable and well paying job by the age of 21. With that goal of a career almost accomplished I was ready to move on to the family thing.

Five years into my relationship with Jamaal I knew I liked him, and I knew he liked me. But I didn’t think that we loved each other. We went on vacations and the sex was great. Mi madre loved him to. She thought he was the perfect match for me. So much so that she convinced me that I was also in love with him. He was the most consistent man in my life since my father left. Our history would sustain our future. I wanted marriage.

He dragged his feet when it came to the marriage commitment. There was one excuse after the other and I wasn’t a toy to be played with. Either you wanted me or you didn’t . There were no gray areas when it came to commitment and I made that perfectly clear to him.

Voila! We were married in the spring of 2001—the season of new beginnings. We had an elaborate wedding. It was what every girl dreamed of; however, I wasn’t sure that this was the marriage I wanted. The person I wanted.

He didn’t arouse me sexually like he used to. Our sex life had developed a bland routine to it like your average nightly t.v. dinner. Our mental and emotional connection was waning, but in my mind I assumed that we were just going through the ups and downs that all couples went through. Our history would sustain our future.

Plus, we had a baby on the way. The experts aid that a new baby can rejuvenate a dull marriage. A baby was exactly what we needed to bring the spark back to our marriage. A baby girl would do the trick. My little girl would have her father in her life, like I wish I could have had for my entire childhood. My little girl would have what I didn’t have. I was going to stop at nothing to keep her father in her life and our marriage in tact.

Even if he cheated on me, which I was having suspicions of after my beautiful baby girl Anika was born in the Fall of 2001. Nonetheless, I was his wife for better or worse.

Sex with him became increasingly difficult. I thought I had a sexual disorder. I couldn’t get aroused with him, so I began hunting stores for lubrication. I even attempted to get female Viagra. If he was stepping out on me it was my fault because I couldn’t please him, and I would have to fix that. I was the reason my father left, but I wouldn’t be the reason why my husband would leave me. Ironically, I would find comfort in myself, completely.

I wasn’t pleasing my husband. That was my fault, right? I was finding women’s phone numbers in his clothing. That was my fault, right? All men cheated, right? When my father left we found out that he had another family with children in Queens. All men cheated—my male friends did too. Cheating was a given, right? Something women didn’t have to like, but should accept as a way of life, right?

I was going to be his faithful wife through thick and thin. Anika must grow up in a household with both parents. I would ensure that despite my mental and emotional abuse.

“You’re too fat, hit the gym,” Jamaal would chastise. I was 125 lbs at 5’7’’, how could I be fat?

He criticized everything I did, everything I wore. If I was wearing pink he wanted blue. Nothing I did pleased him. But eventually those downs we were having would turn into ups—right? Our history would sustain our future—as long as he didn’t abuse me physically, right?

He only put his hands on me once. Men lose their tempers, they’re human. Once in seven or eight years isn’t anything to make a big deal about, right?

Jamaal’s blatant infidelity was getting to me. I had to say something. He had a habit of leaving in the evening and not returning until mid-morning. He was creeping, but I wished he would at least hide it from me.

One particular evening I got fed up. He was getting ready to go out on one of his late night prowls and I wasn’t having it this night. I barricaded myself in between him and the front door.

This man, my husband, Anika’s father, our protector grabbed a handful of my hair and dragged me across the floor like a heavy suitcase. My God, I still have a scar on my arms from that incident.

This was an aberration. Couples went through things like this all the time. I wasn’t about to give up my marriage and Anika’s father because of one accident. I shouldn’t have gotten in his way anyway.

I can’t believe he did it again!

… Misunderstood, used, and abused…

Months after the hair dragging accident Jamaal struck again. I only asked him to pull the car around to the front of the apartment so that Anika and I could go to the doctor. We were running a high fever (yes, both of us). I wasn’t expecting him to drive us to the doctor—even though he should have volunteered. Our personal doctor was all the way in Manhattan; it was late in the night and it was winter. I was irate and I let him know with my mouth.

He let me know that he wasn’t having any lip from me either. Right in front of Anika he slammed me into a closet door. I had a fever and he’s pushing me into a door.

That was it. I called the police and filed a complaint.

Through all of this I was telling mi madre everything. She was my rock.

To appease my public image (I was a teacher now) Anika, and mi madre and I still wanted to work things out.

But he, unfortunately, wasn’t as committed to our marriage vows.

One morning before dawn he woke me up and said to me, “I can’t do this marriage thing anymore,” and left the apartment.

Déjà vu! My father left suddenly and now my husband wsa doing the same. Unlike mi madre when it happened to her, I took Anika to the baby-sitter and went to work as if nothing happened.

… Look closely into my eyes and they will tell you a story.
One filled of pain, anger, and despair…

Once again a man I trusted disregarded my feelings. This was it. Love. Men. They were all overrated. After several half-ass suicide attempts; a lot of pounds lost; and a lot of crying I promised to never trust another man again. Anika was all I needed. She is the greatest thing that happened to me despite her coming from the worst person I knew.

… Another of happiness, ecstasy, and sheer pleasure…

Derrick Sargent.

Deborah Cox’s song, “Nobody’s Supposed to be Here” comes to mind.

At a time least expected our paths crossed. Me, a teacher dedicated to helping the behavioral development of my students. He, a man in prison for his indecisions as a teenager, but with a very unique story to tell.

Prior to his imprisonment I was acquainted with Derrick through a close friend—his nephew Joseph. Coincidentally, Derrick also had a brief fling with my friend Erica. Derrick and I never spoke much; we barely saw one another. Acquaintances was the best way to describe our relationship prior to his incarceration.

In the winter of 2003, eight years into his absence, I inquired into his situation. I knew about his case and that his conviction was the antithesis to his character. I saw him in some of my students. I wanted him to tell them his story because I felt that he would be able to reach them in ways that I couldn’t.

He obliged and his eventual effect on my students was phenomenal. I remember feeling a rush through my body when I would read his letter to my class. My students fell in love with him. Little did I know that I was also.

That one letter to my class evolved into an ongoing correspondence with my students and me.

Three months of letters between me and him and several phone calls later, I found myself reciting poetry to him over the phone.

… Whenever I hear your voice my face has a smile.
Our conversations endless,
When we haven’t talked for awhile.
You listen so attentively,
And always have questions to ask.
It’s amazing that you and I never had this connection in the past…

He was an answer to my prayers. Derrick was spiritual. He loved children, he was funny and mature. He was sensitive, sensual, and brave enough to be vulnerable. I was feeling things for him that I never felt for any man before—and I hadn’t seen him since he was home eight years ago.

When we finally met face to face it felt electric. It was in a prison visiting room, a place I had never known. Nevertheless, it felt right.

I shivered in his arms the moment he hugged me. I felt like mi padre was holding me when I was a child.

As we were about to depart from the visiting room he placed an ever so gentle kiss on my forehead. I was in love for the first time in my tumultuous life. I was breaking my promise of trusting a man and I knew it, but it felt right this time.

… I’m able to live and love you so easily.
I’m able to smile and laugh uncontrollably.
I’m liberated.
I’m free.
Free to be me…

I wanted his children. I wanted to propose to him. I wanted his last name and I was anxious to give Anika his last name as well. I tattooed his signature on my skin. I was sprung.

He loved me too. He was head over heels in love with me. We were fools in love. He proposed to me over the phone. His love inspired me to chorus. To sing love songs and to daydream. We were destined for each together. Life together forever was inevitable…

… Except for one overlooked problem. He was in prison with six years to go. The one man I knew was incapable of hurting me, of deserting me, is out of my reach. Derrick is the most beautiful man I’ve known and he resided in the worst place I’ve ever known.

Every noteworthy relationship I’ve had with men had required so much energy. Would I have the emotional stamina to sustain this relationship? This unique relationship?

… A river overflows from the dams of my eyelids…

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Speech at 2nd Night of Kwanzaa At Otisville Correctional Facility- Decemver 27, 2008

As a fledgling journalist and someone who takes pride in being in tune with current events I am a bit ashamed that I cannot recall when I first heard his name. Embarrassed that when I did hear his name and of his ambitions that I didn’t take him seriously—laughed him off as an afterthought, didn’t bother memorizing his name or listening to him speak; didn’t consider his thoughts, his story, HIS DEFINITION OF HIMSELF.

I think the first time I paid any attention to him on the television or gave a listening ear to the conversation about him was on 98.7 KISS FM’s “Open Line” radio talk show in early March.

Then came the slew of categorizations:
He was an African, Hawaiian, a Kenyan, a Muslim, a Christian, a black not black enough, too black, an idealist, a good speaker, another Jesse, another Al, too passive, a coke sniffer, an opportunist, a spoiler, a Sambo that whites were comfortable with, an uppity Negro, an elitist, a socialist, too nice, easygoing, too intelligent, not experienced enough, over his head, too young, out of his mind, a racist…

The definitions attributed to this man were given by Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians; by the poor, by the rich, by the free, by the incarcerated.

The questions that would remain were:
Would he accept the definitions given to him? Would he buckle under the pressure to fit into the categories that people—which we wanted him to fit into?


On that defining moment on November 4th this man defined himself. Through his self-determination he defined himself simultaneously initiating the redefinition of this country; the redefinition of how we view ourselves in this country. There is a black C.O. in this prison that is pregnant, we all know her. Irrespective of what you think about her, we must acknowledge that her unborn son or daughter will b born into a world where the sight of a black person in the highest office in this country will not be a shock, it will be a matter of fact. Unlike us who see his election as an event that we thought we would never see, this child will not have any limitation to his or her imagination or reality.

His self-determination inspired so many of us to watch CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News. He inspired us to read more than the sports section of the newspapers. His self-determination inspired us, the most marginalized and politically blasphemed of society, to talk this prison debating about things we never thought about before: left wing and right wing politics, pork barrels, the electoral college, Senate seats, bipartisan politics, and so on.

His self-determination for self-definition inspired and proved that the young, the hip hop and dance hall generation, the IPOD and MP3 kids, and the BET and MTV fans were more than what mainstream media and out of touch older Blacks and Latinos thought of us.

His self-determination to be self-defined inspired Blacks and Latinos, old and young, west Indians and African Americans, Latin Kings and Netas, Bloods and Crips to watch the television in their day rooms and listen to their Walkmans and Super 3 radios as he gave his victory speech saying:

"This is our moment, this is our time… In this new world, success will mean the active pursuit of excellence, not the passive avoidance of failure."

Tonight during the 42nd celebration of Kwanzaa we observe the Sven Principles—Nguzo Saba in Swahili, which serve as guides for daily living. Tonight, the 2nd night of Kwanzaa, we highlight self-determination—Kujichagulia in Swahili. Kujichagulia emphasizes that we define ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created for, or spoken for by others.

This celebration of first fruits, this reaffirmation of the African values of communitarianism—this synthesis of the best of the pan-African thought and practice. This introduction and reaffirmation of the Nguzo Saba based on the African values of community, family, and culture. This Kwanzaa is not something I have always embraced. Not something I always cared about. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many things of substance that I cared about in the two years prior to incarceration nine-plus years ago.

My first acquaintance with Kwanzaa was during the 4th grade. I was in PS 161 in Brooklyn and we were at our Kwanzaa school assembly in the auditorium. All I remember from that assembly was that candles were lit and that my friend, a girl, shared a name with one of the words plastered across the stage—Umoja. That’s all I remember, that’s it.

That was all I cared to remember partly because I didn’t see the relevance of a black Christmas (as I thought it was back then) and I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.
As a Jehovah’s Witness I did not celebrate holidays including Christmas. Today, I speak with you as a baptized Jehovah’s Witness, but by choice not as an active Jehovah’s Witness. For personal reasons I do not agree to all of the aspects of the religion, not because those aspects are wrong, but because I do not agree with them. I must mention my inactive status because I in no way want anyone to contrast my perspectives with those who are active Witnesses (that is, preaching with Watchtowers and Awake, conducting bible studies, etc.) I applaud those men and women that remain active in their status; however, I define myself.

Although I am not an active member I am forever indebted to it and appreciate it greatly. The Akan people of Ghana have a saying, “You don’t use the left hand to point the way to your hometown.” What does that mean? In Akan culture it is considered bad manners to gesture with the left hand before others. In this context we should not disrespect our origins (our hometowns as it were) but should appreciate it.

Without my religious origin I would not be here today. My parents, illegal immigrants in this country from Trinidad during the 70’s were poorer than most. When I say illegal immigrants I mean to say that they overstayed their travel visas. They were poor because limited education, bad and irresponsible money management, limited opportunities, and two mouths to feed—my older brother and sister. After their second child, my brother, was born in 1971 they decided they wouldn’t have any more children although that didn’t stop them from conceiving children. They had several abortions and I would have been another one if not for my father’s new religion. He became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1978 and I was born in 1979.

We were still poor though. My first crib was the penthouse suite—of our dresser drawer. You see, they couldn’t afford a real crib so they put bed sheets in the top drawer of their dresser drawer, pulled it out so I could fit and voila, there was my crib until someone bought one for us.

I speak of my religious background not to proselytize but to illustrate the level of evolution and growth I have experienced to leave my comfort zone to be here with you to attend Kwanzaa, study it in-depth, and to now speak with you at this celebration of our values as a unique and gifted people in relation to no one else.

Speaking of comfort zones, what is the normal comfort zone for those of us from the ghettoes of Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem, Tivali, and Laventille? Is it crime? Is it vacant self-esteem? Is it love of ignorance? Is it a warped sense of true manhood? Is it this crazy rite of passage called prison? Is it delinquency?

I was able to read by the age of four and excelled in school up until early high school, that’s when I began to fit into the comfort zone of people outside of my upbringing. By my 11th year of high school I developed a strong inability to stay in school all day. There was this teacher, Ms. McNeeley, a middle-aged black woman that taught my business class during the last period of the day; a period that I was rarely in school for. I would go to her class maybe once or twice a week just to secure a passing grade. During the final weeks of the semester she said that we did two of her special home works she would consider passing us. Well, I thought that was my to an easy 65, just passing, a grade I was usually pleased with. I did the two assignments and expected my 65, but to my chagrin when I received my report card I saw she failed me with a 50!

To be failed with a 50, in my opinion, was disrespect. I was accustomed to failing with 60’s, but to be failed with a 50 was a message of disrespect from a teacher, or so I reasoned back then. Feeling disrespected, I walked to her classroom during homeroom (she had a ninth grade homeroom), barged into her room and cursed her out with every profane term known to man. I called her every mother*&@!*!, bi@$#, and pu@#! I could muster, and even invited her to my private parts. During my tirade she sat at her desk fearfully and quietly and her ninth graders did the same. When I was done I walked out of her room beating my chest with my chin in the sky as if to say, “That’s right, you respect me now!”

To this day I am ashamed of my behavior back then and still wonder if Ms. McNeeley remembers that moment. That moment described the person I became. I became someone else’s comfort zone and the antithesis of what my parents expected of me. I became every negative stereotype linked with black teenagers. I became delinquent, disrespectful, arrogant, uneducable, and self-defeating. I wasn’t the worst Brooklyn had to offer but I was far from Brooklyn’s finest.

Carter G. Woodson, the father of Negro History Week, which eventually became Black History Month, wrote in his book, “The Miseducation of the Negro”:
"When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary."

Despite my decent upbringing and relatively stable home environment I did all I could to become nothing. I did all I could to fit into the racist stereotypes of black men. I did all I could to fit into many of the criminal justice statistics that blacks, unfortunately, dominate. I did all I could—I literally risked my life cutting that back door for my special benefit.

That back door led to a bullet wound and jail at 18 and prison at 19. That door led to the loss of lives, wanton violence, and chaos on a SoHo street during an evening rush hour.

Now I believe that I had some help cutting that back door. The paths many of us followed weren’t new, they were patterns we followed. Whether it was family, so-called friends, television, music, or magazines, we followed someone or something along the way consciously or subconsciously.

Let’s talk psychology.

There are three terms that I will briefly speak about: Broken Windows Theory, Labeling Theory, and Learned Helplessness.

The Broken Windows Theory says that if a window in a single building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. When a neighborhood is left unattended, when on one seems to care or be concerned about disorder, then disorder grows and crime grows with it.

Remember when we used to empty the tobacco out of cigars on to the floors of our hallways and those of others so we could then fill them up with weed smoke? After a while no one bothered to clean up that tobacco, it just remained there and piled up and made our buildings, our neighborhoods like garbage dumps. Remember that? Broken Windows.

The Labeling Theory can best be described as a stereotype becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, “If people call me a juvenile delinquent enough or call me a failure and will act accordingly. More examples are those of us that were labeled as “at-risk,” “just like your father,” “you ain’t gonna be nothing but a drug dealer or drug addict,” and you can fill in the rest.” Labeling Theory.

Learned Helplessness is best described as an acceptance of an unpleasant condition. For example, all your life you’re told that you’re worthless. After enough accusations of being called worthless you give up denying that you’re worthless, subsequently “learning that you’re helpless” to the accusations and finally accept and personify the accusation. Learned Helplessness.

Brothers, I am sure we can see how those theories fit into our lives growing up.
I know it did for me. My Crown Heights neighborhood was full of Broken Windows and Labeling Theories and was overwhelmed with Learned Helplessness. I’m an 80’s baby, so when I was grew up crack was kind and my building was a straight up crack building. Similar to the building in “New Jack City.” Not the one where they were selling their drugs, but the one where Pookie and his girlfriend was smoking crack. If you know anything about… how many people here are from Brooklyn? Okay, Brooklyn, stand up! You can get a crowd jumping anywhere by just saying that, huh.

Well, my building was on Nostrand Avenue and Pacific Street, drug central. My building was where people came in to smoke their drugs, urinate and defecate on the floors—vomit too. My building was where people were killed. I remember when I was about eight or nine my friend, a girl, was about eleven, twelve or thirteen and a guy took her up to our roof in an attempt to rob and rape her. After a struggle with her he threw her off of our roof right past our window. My building was a mess.
My school wasn’t much better. Assorted colors of crack vials would line up in the creases of the concrete in our school playgrounds. Actually, I learned how to tell the different colors by taking some of those vials up to my apartment and examine their empty contents (they were always empty because you would never find a crack vial with any crack left in it) just out of curiosity. I learned my colors through crack vials not through Crayola or Kindergarten.

Broken Theory, Labeling Theory, and Learned Helplessness to the highest degree.
Be clear, these theories aren’t exclusive to the youths in the hood. So many of us as adults passively and even aggressively accept and personify the stereotypes and stigmas attributed to incarcerated persons.

Selfish, better criminals, lazy, worthless, uneducated. Warped definitions of manhood. Putting our lives and freedom on the line for trivialities like arguments on the ball court or that infamous “principle” when it comes to the television or seating spots in the day room. It never fails to amaze me when someone refers to this principle. What principle? Whose principle? Who came up with it?

I’m close to completing my Associates Degree in Criminal Justice and through it I get to learn things about criminal justice from a law enforcement perspective coupled with my experience in the criminal justice system for ten years. You know that these behaviors and so-called principles are written about in these textbooks. These things that we—and I include myself in that we—perpetuate are studied and taught in school; they call it prisonization. It’s amazing that we do all we could to exemplify, even perfect what is already in these books. Why?

Brothers, we passively and in some cases aggressively accept the definitions given to us by others.

Why do we continue to cut back these back doors of special benefit that truly serve no benefit to us?

Why do we not realize that if we continue to think the way we’ve always thought, we will continue to get what we’ve always gotten? Brothers,

When will we stop depending on others who don’t care about us (by ‘others’ I’m referring to those in greens along with some C.O.’s, counselors, and administration) to educate, embolden, empower, and validate us?

When will we stop allowing others to define us?

When will we begin to realize the words of the age-old proverb, “He that is walking with wise person will become wise, but he that is having dealings with stupid persons will fare badly.”

I saw this firstly to the older ones among us. To those who have been disappointed by corrupt and arbitrary parole boards. To those of you who have seen your children have children and your children’s children have children. Your experience and knowledge are needed to fuel the younger men here. If the younger men see you looking self-defeated and shiftless by observing your actions or worse, your inaction’s, what message will you be sending t them, to me? If the volunteers that come into the facility see you in that condition what impetus will they have to advocate for you? Leave it better than you found, that’s the goal right?!

To my peers in age, I humbly consider myself a reflection of the best we have to offer in this population. I serve you a s leader among you. As your servant I am inspired by those of the younger aged-led groups and classes—Men in Touch, H.O.L.L.A!, P.A.C.E (I see you Fuji), Bridging the Gap, the Kwanzaa coordinators, AAOs, CAUs proactive recruitment of younger men into your ranks, I am inspired.

I was invigorated by the enormous insight, wisdom, caring attitude, potentials, and even the silliness exhibited at our young men’s AVP workshop held three weeks ago. Technically, what happens in AVP is supposed to stay in AVP, but I got to share a little bit with you.

We had an exercise where everyone had to do a dance chosen by someone else. You should have seen A-Rock’s Michael Jackson impersonation. He did the moonwalk, but his lip and even attempted a split. Patrick did the butterfly over and over and over and over. Shaq—big Shaq did the illest cabbage patch ever and Scar… well some things gotta stay in AVP. In my five years as a participant and now facilitator in AVP I have never experienced such a great workshop. It is the best I have ever been a part of.

But please let these things not lead us to complacency or self-contentment. Contrary to common talk, we are young but we are not youths anymore.
As young adult men it is our duty to lead. Our time, our moment of redefinition, of self-definition is now.

Please don’t be content when an older person tells us, “It’s good to see a young person like you doing what you’re doing.” Accept the compliment but don’t bask in it. What are we supposed to be doing? Raise the level of expectations for yourself. Raise the bar. Make those comments become few; so few that people chastise you for not doing what you’re supposed to be doing at your age. Remember outside of these gates we’re not considered so young. We have wives, girlfriends, and children. Think beyond these gates!

Please brothers, men, let’s take these GEDs. Let’s take these apprenticeships that are offered here! Let’s take all we can from our greatest resources—our human resources. Those like El-Sun, Rob, Cory, me. Use us, use me. If you know anything of me you know that I will do all I can to help you find information. Use me (but don’t think that you can manipulate me).

Please stop holding back those of us that are doing all we can to improve ourselves. So many of us are proud of people like Mandela, Malcolm, Marin, Garvey, Serena, Venus, Russell Simmons, and Will Smith; yet have difficulty feeling positive about the accomplishments of a peer or friend. Why? Don’t playa hate, playa congratulate!
Men, please work on filling your utility belts. I’m a fan of Batman movies. Around his waist he always wore what… a utility belt. In that belt included gadgets that could get him into and out of any situation. While we’re here in state greens are we taking out the opportune time to fill up our utility belts with employable and sociable skills?

Are we:

Taking advantage of every program here—voluntary and involuntary?

Taking advantage of this time to change our ways of thinking?

Challenging our counselors to assist us with our re-entry?

Associating with people who will empower us and not stagnate or denigrate us?
Redefining ourselves?

Men, how we view ourselves, our measure of self-value and esteem is essential to the process of defining ourselves…

Defining ourselves beyond what we were told by mistaken and misguided parents and relatives.

Defining ourselves beyond what we were told by impatient teachers.

Defining ourselves beyond what we were told by crooked cops
Defining beyond what we were told by the media, by lawyers, Das, Cos, and corrupt and arbitrary parole commissioners.

Dr. Joy DeGruy Leery, author of “Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome” suggested six questions that we should ask ourselves that is at the core of our esteem. Put these in your mental rolodexes:

1) Are you destroying or creating?
2) Have you discovered your unique gift and shared it with others?
3) Do things get worse or do they improve around you?
4) Are others’ lives poorer or richer because you are alive?
5) Do you make the world a better place? (The world is your surroundings—your family, your friends, and so on)
6) When people leave your company do they feel better than before you arrived?

Do some introspection and self-evaluation with these questions. If after careful examination you are left unsatisfied with you answers then it is up to you to make the necessary character changes—the first step in redefining ourselves.

This process of self-determination and redefinition is not easy. It requires Kujichagulia/Self-determination. There will be those close to us that will not be happy with our decision to define ourselves. But Bill Cosby said it best:
I don’t know the keys to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone.
In closing, I would like to share an excerpt from a letter that was sent to me from a college professor in Massachusetts that I am in correspondence with. The letter is in response to my question of how she felt about the presidential election.

"You asked about my reaction to the election. I come from a politically active family. My parents and grandparents were involved in radical politics, particularly during the decades of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. I have spent most of my life engaged in various kinds of critiques about the status quo, government policies, inequalities, and injustice. Not that those issues have evaporated. What I feel though, is something I’ve never really known before: HOPE. I am engulfed in what some call “O-phoria”. Of course, the fact of having elected a black president is something that I, like so many others, never though would happen. He is so brilliant. It has been so long, in my opinion, since we’ve had a president who was so articulate, well read, and offered a model of what an educated person is like. Beyond his qualities, there is a palpable “feel” on the street. There is something in the air that I’ve never experienced before. People are engaged; so many people see this as their victory; people are thinking, talking, listening, and participating. All kinds of people. My eight-year-old grandson follows the news. It takes something dramatic to get him away fro his DS, but this election has done it. Strangers at the bank and in the bookstore have stopped me to talk about the election. My hope comes form the possibility that we may, as a country, find a way to work together rather than pushing or being pushed apart."

Men, brothers, this man that looks like us and plays the game that so many of us love was… is determined not to accept the labels that people—that we place don him.
If there is only one thing that we get out of his success it should be that it is up to us as individuals, in the spirit of Kujichagulia to:

-Define ourselves
-Create for ourselves, and
-Speak for ourselves

Instead of being defined, named, created for, or spoke for by others.

Our family, community, and culture depend on it.