Tag Archives: prison industrial complex

Dereliction and Fire

Narrative of Frederick DouglassI debated the merits of crafting a preamble to this excerpt, and as I begin typing, I honestly haven’t decided what to say about it. So we’ll see…

I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Early on in my reading, I became angry. I graduated from a high school named after this man. We did not read his words. At various points, teachers or administrators recited quotes of his, or summarized the “highlights” of his life. Our mascot, school paper and yearbook were all symbolic of him. But we did not read his words.

We did not spend time in an English class, nor a history class, nor an extracurricular making sense of his life. Glaring omission seems too quiet, too meek, too gray to describe it. Dereliction of duty is how I framed it in a brief note of complaint to a friend. And perhaps it was our fault, incurious teenagers that we were, we didn’t seek him out on our own accord.

I don’t know why it was not mandatory for incoming freshmen at the very least. Not just to find out more about Douglass as a historical figure, but also to help us begin to understand his fire to free both his mind and body. For him, the two were interconnected in ways that may not seem as obvious now. But we needed that. We need that.

I don’t know whether its apathy or rebellion, but it seems the fire has gone out in many quarters. Whether we blame government mandates, institutionalized oppressions, our families, ourselves, somehow we must at least acknowledge that smoldering embers and cooling ashes are often found where fires once roared.

I have more to say on the matter, but for now let us read his words:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ʺIf you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master‐‐to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,ʺ said he, ʺif you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty‐‐to wit, the white manʹs power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

~Frederick Douglass

Today at lunch…

I mentioned my plans to transition out of K-12 and into reading/writing/teaching about women’s issues. I highlighted rape culture and sexual violence and fibroids by name, although my net is cast a bit wider than these. The woman who inquired about my goals made the raised eyebrow/pulled down lips/impressed face and nodded. “Wow. Good for you. What got you moving in that direction?”

Who knows?

It brings to mind a similar question asked of Angela Davis. In a lecture recorded as The Prison Industrial Complex, she discussed her activist beginnings: “What made you decide to become an activist? What was that pivotal event in your life? And for years and years I thought about it.” She went on to mention the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and how she initially believed that to be the catalyst. Upon further reflection, she realized that wasn’t it:

Finally, after struggling with this for years, I decided that there really was no particular moment when I decided to become an activist. As a matter of fact, I grew up with the idea that in order to live in segregated circumstances… my parents basically taught us that we had to be critical of the way things were. Otherwise, we could not affirm our own humanity. And that we had to dedicate our lives to the kind of transformation that would make this a better world to live in for all of us. And so I’ve learned that wherever I am, whatever I happen to be doing at the moment, I have to fulfill that commitment that has informed my life.

Now, I don’t have years invested in feminist activism and advocacy, so it’s not like I have a long history to consider. Despite my brief affiliation, I’m hard pressed to supply a satisfying answer. In fact, today was my first encounter with the question; I’ve simply never thought about why. So I sputtered. In fact, I’m writing now, more as a think-aloud, than to offer a definitive answer.

I think it’s a series of dots that are just now being connected. For instance, I’ve practiced Nichiren Buddhism for 13 years now. Studying and practicing a life philosophy grounded in human potential and equality leans one ever toward more progressive and compassionate ways of knowing and being. Encountering Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy in graduate school 5 years ago is another dot. A huge one really. Unlike the constant flow of the water of Buddhism, reading Freire and studying critical inquiry pedagogy caused a fiery, seismic shift.

Then there was the class that wasn’t. The University of Georgia offered a course on Black women’s narratives. I attended the first day, but enrollment was low, and the class didn’t make. The professor showed Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk on the Danger of the Single Story – which became seed as much as dot – and I eventually ordered all the books on her syllabus. I started my own class really, and began reading (and writing) when I could. Dot.

A series of shares in the Red Clay Writing Project’s Summer Institute led me to brainstorm a study on teenage rape narratives, and I wrote and studied my own as a pilot. Dot. An article here or there would move me to anger, tears, or elation. Dot. And suddenly, here we are. At the beginning, still. And like any other journey, each day is an opportunity for another step.

Onward.

Pondering love.

Love has been on my mind a lot in recent years. Romantic love, sure, but most often I’m mulling societal love. See, I have a theory: much of what ails society is rooted in distrust and competition. The way we go about healing is rooted in love.

Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely,
both an intention and an action.
Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.
~M. Scott Peck as quoted by bell hooks

From where I stand, it seems a lot of what transpires in daily life is a deliberate choice to avoid love. It’s like we go out of our way to be cold and closed off or simply mean. All day in schools we yell at children who were yelled at or ignored at home the night before, and we wonder why they aren’t more “civilized.” We criminalize any behavior we think is the least bit out of bounds, and put forth little effort into prevention in the first place, or rehabilitation in the second. We sue folks for trying to come to our aid, so people live in fear of being helpful. We do any and everything but love.

And that’s why love is a revolutionary act – because there isn’t enough of the doing of love these days. There’s more than enough talk about finding a mate, or keeping one. But it’s a might too quiet on the love thy neighbor front. It’s sad really, and ultimately dangerous. A loveless society can only create more of the same, no? Physical and mental abuse are not born of love. Wars are not initiated by people who are acting from love. Fear. Domination. Revenge. Power. But not love.

We are taught to believe love just happens. And you fall in it, or as the creatives now say, you rise in it. In any case, allegedly love happens to you, and then you respond. But let’s consider that maybe love is something you do, rather than something that shows up out of the clear blue sky. Then we can be more intentional in our actions, as M. Scott Peck suggests. Think of an active participation in love, rather than a passive one. So what, then, might doing love entail?

To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients
care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust,
as well as honest and open communication.
~bell hooks

The affection part is what we know and feel most readily, but what of the rest? Caring for something or someone takes effort. Think about house plants or your pet. When you care for them, you’re doing something – feeding, nurturing, soothing, what have you. You’re not just feeling affection; you’re acting.

And what of recognition? If we would engage the effort to recognize one another for who we really are, rather than who we imagine, what a loving act that would be. How often do you feel seen, truly seen, recognized, for who you are? What would it take to be recognized? Honest communication is certainly a start. And I would go so far as to say that communication must happen within oneself as surely as it must happen between ourselves and others. In other words, our responsibility to societal love is grounded, in part, in our responsibility to care for, recognize, respect, and trust ourselves.

Let’s spend more time pondering a theory of love. And then more time still practicing love with ourselves and those around us. Your time and attention to love moves us all closer to healing.

Justice, conflicted. | #vaw #abolition

The defendants in the Steubenville rape trial were found guilty yesterday. My initial reaction was elation. Jane Doe was sexually assaulted, then publicly humiliated, and despite the attempt to cast her as consenting to the abuse, her violators did not get away it.

Only that’s not exactly true. The chain of complicity in this case is long and tightly woven with bystanders who refused to intervene, friends and acquaintances who felt the ongoing assault of another human was worthy of laughter and sport, and still others who felt the need to rally against Jane, for the sake of young men who ostensibly had the rest of their lives ahead of them.

These complicated factors aside, two people were found guilty, and for that I was glad.

But I was also conflicted.

They were going to jail. That was the solution, you see. The end of the road. You do the crime, you do the time, and all that. But I felt, in a word, unsatisfied with that outcome. I tweeted:

I shared my earlier musings on alternatives to prison and restorative justice. Then I tweeted this:

I sat with my thoughts and feelings on the matter as others began to engage. For instance:

I am glad there was a trial and guilty parties were found to be so. But I felt the resolution was not a good solution; it solves nothing at all except to remove the offenders from the community. And then what? How does healing begin? Is this truly justice? Does a punitive approach really challenge rape culture? What else can be done?

Prison Culture held these same reservations and offered a thoughtful response. A poignant excerpt:

Do we believe that these two young men are going to unlearn rape culture in prison? How about all of their friends who seem to believe that the young men were unjustly convicted? Who will intervene with them to help them unlearn rape culture? The vast majority of our resources have been diverted to criminal legal approaches while rape crisis centers are being defunded and don’t have the capacity to do any prevention work with young people. Some will say that it isn’t either/or; That we can focus on criminal legal remedies while also doing community-based intervention/prevention work to eradicate rape culture. Yet it’s been decades and we still haven’t found the proper balance. Our primary focus on a criminal legal approach has in fact seemed to crowd out other interventions. More importantly, it has let community members off the hook from taking responsibility to interrupt or intervene in preventing or calling out rape. The social problem becomes the criminal legal system’s responsibility to solve and not ours as community members.

I am a proponent of restorative and transformative justice because I believe that they offer the best prospects to eradicate violence. I believe that survivors of violence should be centered in all interventions. Let’s focus on listening to survivors and on really engaging their claims. I want spaces for authentic and survivor-directed healing. I believe that our communities often enable harm and that therefore they must be engaged in addressing these harms. I believe that prisons are constitutive of violence in and of themselves and therefore are not viable anti-violence tools. I believe that perpetrators of violent acts must understand the impact of the harms they cause. Let’s create a context within which we encourage perpetrators to assume actual responsibility for harm. Let’s provide them an opportunity to be transformed if they will accept it. Finally, perpetrators should be expected to actively participate in repairing the harm that they have caused to their victims and by extension to our communities.

Yes.

Read the whole piece here.