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?
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?
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:
-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.