Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Struggling: Stigmatized

It smells like pee,
it must:
they crinkle their noses in disgust
every time I walk by wafting it in their faces.

It seems to follow me
and precede me
and hangs in the air
like a cloud all around me,

only I can’t smell it
because I’m acclimated.
I’ve seen it choke off conversations
and invitations mid-sentence.

I’ve seen hands fly to mouths
to cover gasps
of giggles while they pointed
down their throats,

gagging and looking down
their noses at me,
causing me to look down
at myself,

looking for a spreading stain
that never came, yet
what else could it be?
I lift my arms and sniff

cup my breath into my hands
and whiff the contents: minty fresh.
Is it just me, or does poverty stink?
It poured cold water on my cotton candy confidence,

melting me within myself.
Since when did being poor become a sin?
I’m too scared to raise my hand
or sit at the front of the class

lest I draw attention to myself.
I’m scarred by Salvation Army clothing,
burning with humiliation
dripping with self-pity,


I am less of a person now.

by George Wilkerson

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Man of Knowledge Increaseth Strength

I have learned some hard life lessons in my short time upon this earth--one of them being this: just because a person says they are going to do something doesn’t mean they’re going to do it. For most people, actions speak volumes while their mouths say something contrary. I know whatever a person chooses to practice becomes a standard of living for them, whether it’s right or wrong.

I would love to believe that every person lives by a moral code. But my personal interactions and the news reports I read leave me thinking that many people don’t have a moral code. Morals are taught and a person grows and continues to practice them or opts out of them to seek a different path in life. Look at soldiers in any military throughout the world. How is it that some come from a moral background, then go to war, kill people, return home, and are expected to live a normal life? These same soldiers raise a family, teach their children the very same values they learned, and leave out the killer they were in battle. This was true for my momma and her siblings. My momma’s dad was in World War II, in Southeast Asia.

But for me this common experiences raises the question, Who gets to judge whether a person is good? If someone does something terrible, how long does he need to show that he has altruistic qualities before another’s opinion of him changes? How long does it take for a person who was once believed to be evil to be considered moral?

My parents reared four children. They taught us the principles of the Holy Bible, and I am a Christian. My opinions and beliefs are biblically based, and I stand solidly upon those teachings. I’m not perfect, but I do try to grow more each day by God’s perfect grace. Like any fallible human being, I too often allow my ego to get in the way where I need to practice patience and understanding.

My dad and mom worked hard rearing us children while at the same time trying to acquire a piece of the American dream. My dad was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. I remember at one point in his life he worked for the Department of Transportation, working 40 hours a week. Also, after each day with the D.O.T., he farmed and ran a garage.

Daddy was a great provider and protector of our family, friends, and the weak. I don’t understand how he did it, holding down a full time job and farming—which is demanding, especially if you are intent on raising a good crop. The garage was a small operation, but coupled with the other two jobs it added to the toilsome labor.

As far back as I can remember, my brother and I rode around with our dad when he was farming or going to work on a car. Going to the garage was mostly fun for me, as I loved being around my dad. I always wanted to know what he knew. In many ways I tried to imitate him. He was my role model.

To this day I remember one of the earliest lessons I grabbed onto. At this time I was about four. I don’t recall my brother being with us this day, but I do remember that I saw someone with something I wanted and when I asked for it--or for some of it--this upset my dad. Daddy waited until it was just me and him, and he scolded me, calling what I’d done begging. He said, “Boy! Don’t let me hear tell of you begging anybody else for nothing.” If it would have ended there, I seriously doubt the lesson would have stuck.

But later that day, Daddy and I stopped by an older couple’s home in the neighborhood—Mr. Lee and Mrs. Easter. While we were there we sat at the kitchen table, and I saw Mrs. Easter baking what appeared to be a cake. It smelled so good. Remembering Daddy’s warning, I said nothing, but I did notice the sweets. I perked up, hoping for a piece of cake, my eyes following her every movement. It was obvious to anyone who was looking what my desire was, and surely Mrs. Easter would soon notice; she wouldn’t deny this cute, loveable, little boy a piece of cake.

Knowing my dad, I’m sure he was watching me too. I thought I had found a loophole in my dad’s warning, and I could still be a success in obtaining my desire. I could plead with my eyes and use body language but be within the guidelines of the old man’s warning. Who said children aren’t smart? My plan worked like a dream--or almost worked. I got my cake and gave Mrs. Easter a “Thank you” with a big smile. Everything went down smoothly and I could not be accused of any wrongdoing.

With my cake eaten and my dad’s business with Mr. Lee taken care of, we headed out to the car, jumped in, and headed home without a word. At home, as we were getting out of the car, Daddy said, “Boy! Didn’t I tell you about begging?” I started to plead my cause, intending to tell him that I didn’t ask but accepted when it was offered. My pleas were cut short by Daddy’s spanking and my yells. I guess you could say the lesson was driven home.

It took some years to grow into the core of that lesson—why it is not dignified to ask a person for something just because I see it and want it. Most people who work hard don’t respect an able-bodied person who can work to obtain the things they need and want rather than beg. If a person is begging because because of an ailment or some other deformity or hindrance, it’s understandable. Otherwise, begging is a sign that you’ve lost self-respect and think that someone else who works for a living should take care of you and your needs. That’s one of the lessons that my dad taught all of his children: if a person needs or wants something, work for it. Ever since I’ve been old enough to work, I never had a problem with finding a job. Most of those jobs weren’t what I wanted, nor did they pay the wages I wanted. But I never asked anyone for a handout.

Hard work was part of my upbringing. I saw my dad get up early for his job and come home, eat supper, then head out the door again to the garage. Daddy did this pretty much every evening and weekend, with me and my brother in tow. We grew up at that garage, working alongside our dad. In many ways I’m a reflection of my dad. I carry his name; I’m a junior. My dad raised me to be a man, to take on the responsibility of a man. He showed me how to be a protector, provider, and defender of family and friends, as well as the weak.

Coming from that background, I know a person’s work habits, or lack thereof, reveals something about who they are and the goals they may or may not be striving toward. What reasonable adult believes that it’s acceptable to live in a home where they don’t need to make a contribution to the home?

When school broke for summer when I was growing up, we children would sleep late, watch T.V. and if Momma wasn’t working, we would ask her questions until she grew tired of our curiosity. Sometimes we would help Momma out around the house and in the vegetable garden we grew each year. Most of the time helping Momma didn’t seem like work; we were having fun. Once school ended for summer break, after I had grown some, I was old enough to be at home by myself, but too young to get a job like the older kids. But my brother and me had a job cutting grass once a week for Mrs. C. Joiner. With school at an end I was free from those tough and long days of classes and the demands of schoolteachers; now was my time.

I planned to sleep late, roam the neighborhood, and maybe even go fishing. My intent was to enjoy myself without the restraints and watchful eyes of adults. I was excited to put my plan into motion with places to go and things to explore. I just needed to wait until Daddy and Momma left for work. But, as usual, like Murphy’s Law says, “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”

Normally, through the week when school was in, everyone in our home got up at 6:00 AM, sometimes a little earlier, depending on the need. But on the first day of summer I was laying there asleep, not a care in the world. All of a sudden I heard, “Alright, y’all get up; get on up.”

“What’s going on?,” I thought to myself. “We don’t have school…. Daddy must have forgot; this will be straightened out shortly.”

Once we stumbled out to the living room—still more asleep than awake—our dad started calling off a list of chores for us to do. The list of chores that was given to us was long. After Daddy and Momma had left for work, I said (to myself), “Man, we can’t get all of this done today.” This was something our Dad did each day throughout that summer. Even if he didn’t give us a list of chores (which was rare), he would wake us up at the same time he got up, and sometimes we would stay awake until our parents left. But after a while, most times, my brother and I would stay up, being that we were already awake. But early on, it was back to bed, unless we were cutting grass. One of the things we did after we had gone back to bed is wake up about an hour or so later and start on the chores, doing as much as we could (if it was garden work) by noon. Then we’d go in the house to dodge the heat, our older sister would make lunch, and we’d watch T.V. till we four decided to go back out and work some more.

It was years later when I understood that it wasn’t just about doing the chores. We were being taught to get up early and get the job done. No being lazy, laying around depending on someone else to do the work. For me, these lessons paid off in life, as they did for my siblings. Every one of us became early risers for our daily jobs. No slacking.

Long after Daddy started waking us up early it became a routine. At first I started working in the tobacco fields at the age of thirteen, working ten hours a day, walking up and down those tobacco rows in the heat of the day and every other part of it. Doing this to earn money made me a wise spender of my earnings and taught me a new respect for my parents, and how hard they worked. I remember before those tobacco fields, long hours, and hot sun, when my parents bought my school clothes and I didn’t take care of them as I should have. Most days when I came in from school (before buying my own school clothes), my mom would have to remind me to take off my school clothes and put on the ones I played in. But once I started working and buying my own school clothes, I learned real quick to take care of those items without having to be told. Also, as my older sister, my brother, and I started working all at the same time, we contributed one fifth of our earnings to the household. Today, as then, this was the right thing to do. When our parents told us this is how it was going to be, I wasn’t liking it so much, but once I saw how it lightened the load for my parents, it was good. I learned to appreciate the value of the family working as a unit. By giving a portion of what I earned this gave me a sense of responsibility and self-worth, that even my little bit helped.

For me, when I was at the garage learning to work on cars, most of the time I had fun; I enjoyed the people, the talk, joking, and sometimes being treated like an adult, even though I was a young teen. Being respected for skills I had by the time I was fourteen and fifteen felt good and gave me the encouragement and desire to better myself. I could tell that my dad was genuinely proud of my brother and me when people would comment on what good mechanics we were as such young men. Daddy would swell with pride when people commented how we were such smart workers and hard workers.

At sixteen, I got a job at a chicken house near my home; at first I would ride a 1969 450 Honda to work after school. The guy I worked for paid me a little above minimum wage, but at the time that was cool with me because I was earning money and the work wasn’t difficult. The work consisted of me being there at 4:30 each evening to walk each aisle, observing the chickens to see if any were sick or had died, and remove such. Each aisle was pretty long, maybe sixty yards. There were two sides to the chicken house and each side had about five aisles. After walking each aisle, I would turn the machine on to gather the eggs, stack them, and then place them in the cooler. I would work each evening from 4:30 till about 8:30 if nothing went wrong. The chicken house where I worked sat about half a mile off the road; it could not be seen from the highway. It could be a little scary to work back there at night by myself, surrounded by mostly woods, but by then I was used to the woods and darkness. The whole while I worked at that place, I couldn’t eat any chickens or eggs. I tried, but the smell of them wouldn’t allow me to put them in my mouth. I would have never believed that anything could affect my eating habits. Heck, I’ve seen chittlings cleaned and eaten them, so I was thoroughly surprised by my own reaction.

I have worked other jobs since those tobacco fields of long ago. I learned lessons from each of those jobs and remember a quote from my dad, “Boy, every lesson you learn is going to cost you.” The last profound lesson my dad taught me before I was confined was one that I never saw coming from him because of my belief about who I thought he was. The whole situation started back in the fall of 1991. My dad and I had had some arguments and it seemed that we disagreed about everything. October of that year, my grandmother passed away and about a week or so after that, Daddy and I had it out again. It got heated to the point that he told me to get out. I had been living with my parents since January of that year and hadn’t even thought about moving out, which could have been the real source of all of our arguments. Whatever the reason, my dad told me to get out and I felt instant betrayal and a whole different kind of anger. So I left with no intention of ever going back there again. I didn’t speak to my dad for about a year and a half; I felt like I had been wronged. I was so foolish. I believed that it was all about me!

I never gave any consideration to the fact that my dad had just lost his mom, still suffering his loss, or that I wasn’t living up to my potential as the man he raised me to be—living at home with my parents at twenty-five. There were some other things going on as well, but I believe the biggest problem was the loss of his mom.

I remember one Sunday around March or April of 1993; I was at my uncle’s home when my dad and mom stopped by. Mom stayed in the car, and Daddy got out and walked straight to me. Daddy looked me I the eyes as I did him, me not knowing what to expect. He said, “Boy, when you leave here, stop by the house. I got a car I want you to help me with.” I answered and said, “Okay.” I knew as well as he did that he didn’t need my help with any car, but then again, this wasn’t about any car, it was about reconciliation. The older I get, the more I think about Daddy’s act of humility that he didn’t talk about, but showed. Daddy put himself in a position to be rejected and humiliated, and to me, this wasn’t the man I knew at the time. I was immediately humbled. But back then I don’t think I could have done it, as a matter-of-fact, I didn’t do it, and had no intention of doing so. I was so full of foolish pride back then. I thought that my dad was too proud of a man to humble himself; he was a wiser man than I knew, and a better one than me.

I believe my parents were coming from church that day; they were into the Word of God. Now I understand that I was just a churchgoer at that time, thinking that a churchgoer and being a Christian were the same. Being a Christian is about showing the love of God, not just talking about it. Showing love means sometimes putting one’s self in a vulnerable position, to where one may be rejected. I understand why God says that he fights against pride, because pride will not allow love to flourish and grow.

My place of residence at present date is on death row. Existing in an environment such as this requires all that I was taught by my parents, that I might remain sane. Being on death row is an affliction of the spirit. I must remind myself that I am a man, not an animal, no matter how often I am corralled or put in stalls. Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” A person’s true nature is revealed when they have another in a vulnerable position, just as another’s nature is revealed in adversity.

For me, there is nothing dignified about death row, though it is important to find dignity no matter where you are. Here on the row, we may be called at any time for canteen or a doctor’s appointment. I’ve seen some guys jump out of bed without washing or brushing their teeth while others would never do such a thing, even though guards complain that they take too long. As long as I live, I will always have an obligation to humanity to live and do my best, as every human in this world’s obligation is to each other. As I believe and my faith as a Christian teaches me, “A person’s life is measured in the quality of life they live, not in the quantity of years.” I make the best of every day by being the best I can.

Sometimes being the best I can, in my belief of God in Christ Jesus, conflicts with the beliefs of others, but this is where respect comes into play between me and whoever may be the other person. As much as humanly possible, in the spirit of Jesus the Christ, I aim to live at peace with others, no matter their thoughts of me. “Your value doesn’t decrease based on someone else’s inability to see your worth,” said the Holocaust survivor Ted Rub. In some ways our thoughts always serve ourselves, but we as a people must reach farther and allow our assumptions and attitudes to serve the community. In this way we can create better communities. To the extent that I have something to contribute to this better life, I have my parents to thank for the values they instilled in me.

by Melvin Lee White, Jr.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Keeping It Together

In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, memoirist Jeanette Winterson offers us the following words on one particular condition required in the pursuit of sanity: "Mental health and emotional continuity do not require us to stay in the same place, but they do require a sturdy structure on the inside." I know just what she means. As one "unduly" convicted of a felony, I was stripped — literally and figuratively — of my former identity and made to assume a new one, one debased and dehumanized, that of inmate, prisoner, and convict. Most may find this event to be humiliating, traumatizing, and difficult to bear. For me, it was not so, at least not consciously. I owe this to the ease with which I find myself identifying my experience of prison with that of my ancestors who endured being enslaved.

Especially traveling from prison to prison on those urine-smelling buses, cramped next to others whom you've never seen before, shackled at the ankles and cuffed at the wrist attached to belly chains, images of slaves being transported to various plantations are conjured in my mind. At such times, one must have a well-fortified structure, a living foundation, within to maintain the hope of mental health and emotional continuity.

I've survived this ordeal by keeping with me what is familiar to me. I've found it necessary to remain somehow weirdly nomadic, because I have to prepare myself mentally for the everyday fact that I can be transferred to any other prison at any time for any or no reason at all. With this in mind, I find that I can relate Jeanette Winterson's story to my own on many levels.

by Rightjust Soul