Twenty Flight Rock
I am taken away down into the darkness. I see the faces of my loved ones who can do so little. What is happening is legal, certified, acknowledged, and rubber-stamped. Now begins the shutting down – the closing of metal doors – of boxes put into boxes and padlocks put on to padlocks. Handcuffs on my wrists are, in turn, chained to the chains around my ankles. If I was not a person in the city, now that I am here amongst the true criminals of the world, it seems I will lose my right to live, and if I thought there was darkness before in my life, now it is a constant, black, midnight.
Already I long for release – and if it was possible to explain fully what the state of being really is like, I could only best describe it has been in a place where the dead who are not dead but who are no longer alive dwell.
I am passed from one guard to another. I have lost interest in my surroundings and only see the light and darkness – only hear the rattling chains and banging doors, and for some reason, almost like my forefathers, I can smell the white man’s whip. I hope that in my incarceration, we can dispense with our skin colour, that we can become one and that the uniformity within the prison walls will mould black and white prisoners together. Yet already, I feel that this will not happen. My hope is too idealistic. My hope stems from that other institution, the battlefield, where our blood ran the same colour - infused by war, infused by a fear that was too powerful to have time to discriminate - But here there is plenty of time to ponder hatred and degradation in all its forms.
Prison serves no purpose. It serves even less purpose if you feel that it is unjustified. I am not sure whether I can stomach this sentence. Whether I can rise each morning and face another day in this prison within a prison – in this cell within a cell.
I know nothing. I have been walking around with my eyes and ears shut. Secure in the sweetness of the sun. I ignored the pleas of my brothers, locked in chains and dungeons. It is only eight years ago that I was strong and proud and had a direction home. For a while, I could comprehend the light of the Lord and His teachings, but somewhere in my head, that light went out, and I cannot rekindle it, do not want to rekindle it because it is false and within its teachings lies our own enslavement.
Once, a woman walked at my side, oh sweet Loretta, what have I done to you? Sometimes I am haunted by your songs, by your warmth and merriment, your simplicity, your abilities in a hundred ways, your fundamental sanity, how we wanted each other then, how we cried of our love for each other; and now …
Now begins my journey of days like any other days and nights like any other nights.
I have been hosed down, dried, fingerprinted, searched, squatted, humiliated, and given my prison garb to wear. Each morning the whistles blow at 6.30, doors bang open, and we are then marched in silence to the food hall, served our slops, and then marched back, once more in silence. The first few days were like lying in a boat – just drifting. I knew nothing. I knew nobody – did not know where I was going. I still don’t.
Now I lie on my bed in my single cell and try to look above the cells opposite, to the high sunlit windows that flicker and glow like firelight on the cell block ceiling. Outside it is early winter; a thin layer of snow has fallen. The trees will be misty green. Sometimes in the silence of dawn, I hear the sound of a blackbird singing.
How are you? Sorry for not writing sooner, but matters are such that getting to grips with the situation is proving difficult at times. Mr Farrell came to see me last week and told me they would be launching an appeal against my sentence, but I don’t put much stead by that. I try not to be pessimistic. It’s just that there is no use served to look on the bright side of things. I mean, no matter what, I am still here – I still go to sleep here and still wake up here. Although I must admit, I am getting a little more used to the routine.
I am in one of the older parts; this is where all new black prisoners first come to. The cells are fifteen feet by ten and arranged in galleries, one above the other down either side of the block. There are two galleries above the ground floor. In the centre of the hall, there are four tables pushed together to form a square. Here sit the guards on duty, who occasionally get up and walk around, running their metal batons along the cell bars. All of them are armed. All of them are white. All of us in this block are black. I have a metal bed secured to the concrete floor. There are a sink and a small recess in the corner that houses the toilet. There are also two shelves on which I place the books I get from the prison library every Wednesday. Books can also be sent in, providing they pass an examination by the service. It does seem rather vague as to what is allowed. After breakfast, we are taken out along the block, down two flights of stairs, and released into an exercise compound for one hour. This is repeated after luncheon. The compound is the size of a small football field. The walls are, to be expected, high. Near the middle is a tower with a guard with a rifle to deter any possible unrest. Needless to say, there is tons of barbed wire on all the walls. Also in the back of my mind is “Old Sparky”. Somewhere in this complex, the machine that executed prisoners up to 1962 still stands. It is a dark and foreboding place with its marble walls and its wretched history.
I have had plenty of time to think these past few months and have started to look around me and feel what is going on here. I suppose to a degree; I am shocked by the disproportionate amount of black men in captivity and our segregation. I would never have thought like this before, but now I see it as one more humiliation in a whole string of humiliations. I mean, most of the black boys here are inside for reasons that do not make sense – where no evidence was produced, and witnesses were paid to testify against them, and Judges were blatantly prejudiced. It is little wonder they see prison as inevitable, all part of growing up in this rich, fine country of what I thought was all of ours. Still, I am now beginning to think otherwise, how it can be considered that way when, to most white men, we are nothing but slaves that “contribute” to their civilization.
I remember the first time I was ever called nigger. I was seven years old. It was a little white girl with long black curls. I used to leave the front of my house and go wandering by myself through town. The little white girl was playing ball alone, and as I passed her, the ball rolled out of her hands into the gutter.
I threw it back to her.
“Let’s play catch,” I said.
But she held the ball and made a face at me.
“My mother don’t let me play with niggers,” she told me.
I didn’t know what the word meant. But I felt my skin grow warm. I stuck my tongue out at her.
“I don’t care. Keep your old ball.” I started down the street.
She screamed after me, “Nigger, nigger, nigger!”
I screamed back, “Your mother was a nigger!”
Later I asked ma what a nigger was.
“Who called you that?”
“I heard somebody say it.”
“Go wash your face,” she said. “You dirty as sin. Your supper’s on the table.”
I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face, and wiped my hands and face on the towel.
“You call that clean?” my mother cried. “Come here, boy!”
She dragged me back to the bathroom and began to soap my face and neck.
“You run around like you do all the time. Everybody’ll call you a little nigger, you hear?”
She rinsed my face and looked at my hands, and dried me.
“Now, go on and eat your supper.”
I didn’t say anything, Jacob; I went to the kitchen and sat down at the table. I remember I wanted to cry. My mother sat down across from me.
“Mama,” I said. She looked at me. I started to cry.
She came round to my side of the table and took me in her arms.
“Baby, don’t fret. Next time somebody calls you a nigger, you tell them you’d rather be your colour than be lowdown and nasty like some white folks is.”
Some terrible things are going on in this country right now, and I have had my eyes opened. In North Carolina, as I write, nine black men and one white woman are under sentence of 282 years in various prisons on various charges, including arson. None of them has ever committed an offence before, and one of them, Ben Chavez, a Reverend Minister, got 34 years even though the courts failed to indicate what he had done! I tell you, Jacob. It does not bode well for me at all.
Anyway enough about me, how is that beautiful wife and daughter of yours? Please let me know. Love Buddy.
I am now in a better understanding of where I am. By this, I mean I will be able to forward to you a visiting order in the next week or so. Then it will be processed, and they will decide whether you will be allowed to come. Sorry this is taking so long, but even the simplest request is like trying to move a mountain.
Are you well? I often think of you and would write more regularly than I do if I could but find the time, which sounds rather odd considering where I am. I was thinking about Joey the other day. It all seems like crazy shit now, when I used to drink so much and talk to you of Joey and me sitting by the river under the elevated highway, with drunken tears in my eyes, and all this at ten-thirty in the morning. It is also mildly upsetting to think that Sing-Sing is further up the same river that we used to sit by as young men. Some nights when the wind blows through the buildings, you can smell the river, and sometimes I can hear the foghorn of some lonesome boat going downstream, I guess. I wonder what Joey would make of me being in here now? I think he would probably laugh in that joyous way of his and shake his head. When he died, he didn’t know where he was. He never said anything. I expected him to say something, maybe call out a name … or just …
I miss you, sister. It just seems I’ve had a long dream somehow, and now I’m just beginning to wake up in a room by myself, and there’s nobody here I recognize. I am sorry for these past few months. They must have been hell for you and, of course, Loretta, who I still feel loves me as I do her. I have been such a fucking idiot with my life! Taking those drugs and getting addicted, I mean, it doesn’t make sense. I know I mean well by saying that I am just pleased that Mamma will never know about what has happened. It does not bear thinking about, really. I am sure it would have broken her heart.
I’m learning to repress all my emotions; I have learned to see myself in perspective, in true relation to other men and the world at large. I have enlarged my vision so that I may be able to think on a basis encompassing not just myself, you, my neighbourhood, and my life so far, but also the world. I have dispensed with religion, the supernatural, and other shallow, unnecessary things of this nature that lock the mind and hinder thinking.
I’m now implementing all things possible to survive. I read my books and talk when I can with my fellow brothers about our history. It does not rest well on my shoulders. I feel as if I have been behaving like some fool, my head down a hole, not wanting to know what was happening around me, but now I have come up for air. Now is the time to protest. Now is the time to fight for justice, not only for me but also for all my brothers and sisters out there. Now I see my slave roots. I see Martin Luther King gunned down in cold blood to stand up and want to have a dream, a dream of equality, and a dream of freedom. I wish I had followed my religion when I was younger and not gone to serve in Vietnam. It seems now that from that one piece of folly, I have created a nightmare from which I cannot wake up. I’m not so much trying to bring to your mind the suffering of despised people, you are my black sister, and you must see also that there are too many of us in jail. Too many of us are starving. Too many of us can find no door open. Most times, our situation is wretched. All nonwhites, the Indian, the Puerto Rican, the Mexican, and the Oriental, all suffer from white dominance. The commotion, the violence, the struggles in all areas and much more spring from that one source.
I know I must not get too much on my high horse. Maybe it might be wise to exercise some restraint in my letters to you; you never know who may read them. Have you heard any more from Jesse Jackson? I guess not. Otherwise, you would have told me by now. Strange how he rode into town one minute on the back of seeing justice to be done, and the next, he’s disappeared back into the establishment. I suppose that is what you call a politician. They are small men with their petty intrigues and prejudices. It is as Mao Tse-tung said, “In shallow men, the fish of small thoughts cause much commotion; in magnanimous oceanic minds, the whales of inspirations cause hardly a ruffle.”
The nighttime is the worst. Apart from a small table lamp used by the guards and their flashing handheld torches when they walk around the galleries checking the cells, there is no other light in the block. I have now been moved up to the top landing, so tiny illumination filters this far up.
I have not read anything or studied in a week now. I have been devoting all my time to thought. I see in many respects that my chances of getting my sentence reduced are minimal. I guess all the fuss and commotion, with the TV cameras, radio interviews, and whatnot, have caused more problems than it was worth. Lying here in the darkness, I realize it was a mistake.
Today in the exercise yard, I talked with “The Brothers” pretty much for the first time. There seems to be some coalition among them, some solidarity. This, I feel sure, is their way and possibly my way of coping with our incarceration. Unity is all we have against the white guards. Shit, I never understood any of this on the outside. I have been living in political times for the black people of America, and it is not until this late stage when all seems lost that I am even aware of it. When I think of the trial, there was no way I was going to walk out of that court a free man. It seems that even those that have served their country and laid their lives down for their country are treated with prejudice also. It seems there is nothing you can do in some circles that will ever be considered right. It is little wonder that those cats, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, sprung up. What is a black man supposed to do in these neo-slavery times?
I understand the forces that work to drive so many of our kind to places like this and mental institutions. I can’t help but sometimes think that being born black is a heavy load to bear.
Sister, I’m going to go now – I’m a little tired. From what I understand, I am to be moved shortly to another section of the prison. I have no idea what that will entail, but I know that segregation in prisons is now outlawed in this State. Considering the catcalls from the white prisoners' cell windows around the exercise yard, it looks like the regime will get tougher. – Much love, Buddy.