In Gratitude: Incarceration & Black Freedom
December 3, 2020
In this addition to our Gratitude Journal, Durham County Library’s Jenny Levine remembers a talk on criminal justice held at the Power Plant Gallery in conjunction with the exhibit, Visionary Aponte: Art & Black Freedom.
By Jenny Levine
The brilliant partnership that brings Forum programs to the Power Plant Gallery, an accessible (and, for me, walkable) space at American Tobacco Campus, is always enriching.
The coordinators feed us — literally as well as intellectually — and leave our minds hungry for more. FSP@PPG: Incarceration and the Future of Black Freedom, a coffee-house-style, public conversation held at the Power Plant Gallery in October 2018, was one such occasion.
Our senses were immersed in the art on display throughout the space, and the day's topic and the conversation that ensued over the course of an hour were both directly inspired by the art.
The project was timely, as the Forum's programs generally are, and would be welcome again in the current political climate, fraught still with the same issues.
I am a bit embarrassed to say I had heard of only one of the presenters (puppeteer Tarish Pipkins) in this program on criminal justice, and I felt the weight of all I wanted to learn from each of them. The feeling was mirrored by the art on the walls all around us, art that demanded engagement as a vital part of the program.
Program coordinators Caitlin Margaret Kelley from the Power Plant Gallery and Lou Brown from the Forum at Duke had interwoven every imaginable aspect of the humanities and human connection with the art on display in the Visionary Aponte exhibit.
For this and other joint programs offered during the nine weeks of the exhibit, they brought together a vast array of community partners and made the execution of this program and others look flawless. The level of accessibility, inclusion, and thoughtfulness was almost overwhelming. I can only compare it to a semester-long study on art and Black freedom compressed into an hour, with outside reading and labs optional. Thinking back, I am still amazed at the planning that went into the seemingly casual, roundtable conversation.
I was captivated by the four speakers, each with their own fascinating arenas: Omisade Burney-Scott, then a director at SisterSong and an activist for reproductive justice; Lynden Harris, the founder of Hidden Voices; Theresa Newman, Duke Law professor and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic; world-renowned puppeteer Tarish Pipkins, a.k.a. Jeghetto; and Sherrill Roland, who started The Jumpsuit Project following his own wrongful conviction and incarceration. I remember in particular how moved we all were in the room to listen to Roland's story — how he wore an orange jumpsuit for a year after his release from prison and documented his experiences on campus.
The program was timely, as the Forum's programs generally are, and would be welcome again in the current political climate, fraught still with the same issues addressed and dissected during this conversation. Our communities — local here in Durham, and rippling out into the wider world — are richer for the Forum's efforts.
REVISIT THE CONVERSATION
The following excerpts of "FSP@PPG: Incarceration and the Future of Black Freedom," which took place on October 4, 2018, at Duke's Power Plant Gallery, have been edited for length and clarity.
Sherrill Roland: When I started grad school, I was aware of the world that I live in and how I have to walk through life, and try to stay close — or should I say, stay as far away from trouble or any suspicious-like behavior as possible. But in the path that I was taking, like staying out of trouble, going to school, doing these things that I was told to do, somehow trouble ended up finding me anyway.
Halfway through grad school, I was wrongfully accused of a crime and sent to prison for it in Washington, D.C.
I'm not from D.C. I'm from North Carolina. And I didn't do it. And so this whole process of... In this notion of what I believe criminal justice to be, the faith that I thought I had — I didn't do it, therefore I could just tell them the truth and it would be okay. But the statistics that opened my eyes, once I fell in, once I got to D.C. and started to see the other men that I shared a block with, I knew statistics were different. Statistics for us, as a nation, and then also specifically for D.C.
I knew that the truth I was speaking wasn't really being heard when I was in the trial. I had a limited amount of time to tell who I am, give my character for you to believe me… And the level of protection that I needed, even though I was innocent, was pretty extraordinary — how much money I needed to have, to have someone represent me.
And I had never been in a position where my voice felt so useless, so quiet, so helpless. Being inside also pointed the finger back at me. Once I got inside with these other guys, I was like, "I'm not supposed to be here. I'm not jail material.” You know what I mean? “Don't link me with these other people. I'm innocent." But I couldn't cry home to my mom. I was completely isolated. There was nobody I could run to as far as the safety net. I learned to open up a little bit to some of the men who were close to me, and they ended up being the crutches that I needed to survive that place.
In that sense, once I started to listen to them, whether they did the crime or not, I understood the situation that we were in. And it's a very unjust system. Some of these men, even though they may have done it, were fighting against manipulation and more time than they deserved… And so the word innocence is something that I still play with in my work today, in analyzing who I am, thinking, yeah, I may not have done the crime, but I'm not perfect as a human being, and neither are these other men and women who are incarcerated, and they deserve second chances, and a chance to actually show who they really are.
Coming out, it took me a while to even get my exoneration. I lived under the notion of reforming my life. Like this is it, I'm wronged. I have to figure out a way to go on, and progress. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to return to grad school. That's not something that a lot of people get. But I didn't want to go back to school. My world had completely changed in many different ways, in how I encountered individuals. I still have trust issues about opening up and letting people in, about walking through the streets. Even going on campus again to visit and discuss returning to school was different for me, in a sense like, "This isn't the same. It's not as blissful as it used to seem. This world is a lot colder and a lot more real to me."
The only way I could figure out how to deal with the issues that I was dealing with was to wear an orange jumpsuit on campus. I wore an orange jumpsuit that I bought from Amazon; it's not the real thing. I wore that on campus for the entire year to finish out my graduate degree. And the funny thing about that: it's not illegal to wear an orange jumpsuit in the streets, but it is very dangerous for certain individuals to.
When I wore it on campus, the image of that was very powerful and it elicited a lot of reactions, both inviting and standoffish. But that was a way for me to put this conversation in people's day-to-day. We get a piece of some things in a newsfeed, but we can quickly scroll down and go on. This was a way that I could continuously interrupt people's day-to-day lives… I needed the honest truth from people, and this jumpsuit gave me people's honest, honest reactions in their faces. I was able to read how they saw this image, and this then sparked conversations about how they saw me. Then I would try to tell my side, which would hopefully bring them closer to other individuals’ stories, too.
To this day, I'm still trying to use my work to... My story isn't unique, so I hope to bring people closer because the experiences that these men and women have are often silent but very rich. I think we can learn a lot from this perspective. And so I had to share it through the work.
Lynden Harris: At Hidden Voices, we create community-based projects that engage audiences and participants in explorations of complex stories. Our vision and values are really important and they drive the work that we do.
Our first value is that all lives have meaning, and secondly, that all stories matter. Thirdly, that everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone is creative. It's in our DNA. We're more creative together than we are separately. And fourth, that sharing space is vital — being right here, right now, together, allows us to really become deeply available to each other. It's also the simplest way to envision — together — the future that we wish to create, as well as explore complex situations.
We don't draw lines of inclusion and exclusion. We really look at drawing bigger and bigger circles. We describe ourselves as a radically inclusive, participatory, and co-creative collective. And by radically inclusive, we mean not only that all voices are welcome, but that they're really necessary.
We do what's needed to bring out voices that might not initially feel included. We’re participatory, in that we bring a really specific process but no agenda. We bring a lot of questions, but no answers.
Omisade Burney-Scott: The different representations of resistance and freedom and Blackness in the Visionary Aponte exhibit are, for me, representations of how we have all been caught in the snares of a carceral system for most of our existence. For Black folk, our experience through the Mid-Atlantic slave trade, our experience with slavery in this country, our experience with Jim Crow is all absolutely a manifestation of carceral systems, right? Because carceral systems are about domination and control. And power. They're not about justice.
So when I saw the question around criminal justice, I was like, "That's oxymoronic. There is actually no criminal justice. It doesn't exist." I'm an abolitionist. I believe that the current system in place needs to be dismantled, because carceral systems are based on white supremacy and racism and other systems of oppression.
There’s no way for someone either caught in the snares of something that they did not do, or caught in the snares of something they did do, to be able to receive any kind of transformative justice process, right? It's just not possible... Our system is about controlling you and dominating you, and power over you, and punishment, and free labor. We know that the carceral system was built on slavery, on the slave system, on chattel slavery.
I sit here today as a person who has family members who are currently incarcerated, as a person who has family members who were formerly incarcerated. As a person who is a storyteller, and an artist. I'm a founding tribe member of Spirit House… I'm the mother of two boys. Well, one's a grown man, a grown-ass man. It's a coffee house, right? It's grown-ass man. He's 26, he'll be 27. He lives in D.C. He's getting ready to move to Brooklyn and I'm constantly like, "Are you good? Where are you going?" He travels all the time. He and his friends from Howard are always on a plane someplace. And I'm like, "Y'all be careful, be smart, pay attention, make sure I know where you're going. What's the Airbnb? I'm not hawking you because I think something's going to happen, but I don't want to be caught out there, in the event something does happen, I don't know where you are, and I'm not able to mobilize our community."
We have a tremendous community of folk that would be mobilized, like Johnny on the spot, and that's a huge blessing. It’s a privilege to know that, if something happened to Che, I could mobilize folk within an hour to be wherever he was. That's not the case for the vast majority of people of color or Black folk, or Black men, or Black women in this country. It’s just not.
My youngest son, Taj, will be 10 soon. And his politicization as a 10-year-old has blown my mind. I call him an Obama baby. He was born in '08. For his first eight years of life, he had a Black president. Going into year nine, he was horrified, like most people, about what was going to happen.
His questions and analysis around the why of it have blown my mind. Why does the system work this way? Why are people being treated this way? Why can't this system be fixed? Why would they target me or you, or Daddy, or Che? Why do white people fear Black folk? Why do the police kill Black boys? This is, like, on-the-way-to-school car conversations. I'm just driving and going, "Well, I'll tell you what I can and then you got to get out; it’s the carpool line."
I don't sugarcoat it. I give it to him, I think, in such a manner that he can wrap his mind around it at nine and a half. But I'm also not going to lie to him. I'm not going to set my child up for the okey-doke, and lie to him.
Over the last couple of years, I been doing work with SisterSong and Reproductive Justice Collective, which works on centering the voices and the lived experiences of women of color as they relate to reproductive justice…
Reproductive justice is the full spectrum of a person's ability to have bodily autonomy throughout their entire life, from the time they are a child to the time they die — your ability to live where you want to live, to love who you want to love, to be free of fear of violence, to be able to make choices about when you have a child and under what conditions you have a child. And if you don't want to have a child, to be able to prevent that from happening, or if you find yourself pregnant, to be able to receive services so you can do what you need to do for your life.
And part of what we talk about is policing, and how policing is absolutely connected and has connective tissue to reproductive justice, because the carceral system does not want you to have bodily autonomy. You are not supposed to have bodily autonomy.
Tarish Pipkins: My kids… I had to sit them down, like, “Look. Remember how I told you that the police was safe? That's not the case anymore. You know what I mean? They perceive you as a threat. You're older. You're the enemy of the state. Now, I'm sorry it is that way, but that's what it is. These are the tools you need. You could never prepare for something like that, but at least they'll be aware of it.”
The term that I heard in this training session was “internalized racial depression.” I said, “Goddamn. That is what has been going on.” You know what? I can't even deal with white people today. I can't. I don't feel like going to work. I can't pretend everything is okay. It's not. And there's no conversation about it. You go into the office with “Hey, how's it going?” I have really close white friends. I consider them my brothers. I'm talking to them, like, “How are you going to confront your grandmother, your mother, your brother? You have to confront your family members to stop this.” And I have no faith in that. None.
What are we going to do about this problem? As far as people saying that the system is broken? No. It's not. It's the most efficient machine on this planet. It's working exactly how they want it to work. People say it's broken. It's not. I heard the term “barrel of laughs.” Does anyone know where that came from? A Jim Crow law where it was illegal for Black men to laugh out loud, so they had to laugh into a barrel. That's where “barrel of laughs” came from.
When they stopped slavery, they just said, “But if you're a criminal, you're still a slave.” So they made up all these bullshit laws and just rounded little Black boys up all over the country and put them in forced labor camps. To the point that even corporations would go to prisons, like, "We need to rent 20 Blacks for this construction site." And they would rent out Black people.
Slavery did not end, by any means whatsoever.
I'm blessed to avoid the situation that Sherrill found himself in, where I came up… I'm just blessed. I'm here. I could easily be doing life or be dead right now, just from the circle, you know what I mean? But I'm just blessed to get that spidey sense and get out of there, or just talk myself out of… I even met this one guy, met the same day through a friend... Long story short, I ended up talking him out of doing a drive-by on a local bar. I saw him years later and he came up to me and we kicked it.
I was always an advocate for, you know, just peace in the hood. I was always the negotiator. I wouldn't want two dudes beefing, and I would go to try to squash that. Because I knew there was death coming out of it.
Theresa Newman: At Duke, we work with law students to ... be much more aware of the problems, and, if nothing else, to bring that awareness to the table, even in boardrooms. We teach these students, and then we all work on behalf of men and women who were incarcerated, and who are, indeed, innocent.
I am in a privileged position — I appreciate this — to represent people who are innocent. What we do is investigate to learn the truth of what happened, and then try, first, to persuade the prosecutors that a mistake was made. And then we ask them to join us.
I have to say that, eight years ago, we were very successful with it. In the current climate, there's much more resistance. I'm not going to name names, but there's a whole lot going on in our country right now that makes it difficult to do the work that I do, the work we all do, caring about a lot of the issues that I have cared about my whole life.