The following essay is part of a series, made possible by the Art for Justice Fund, documenting communities “most harmed by mass incarceration”—especially women and children—“where the promise of change is greatest.” Read the other original essays in this series.
Last time I saw my cousin T, we were in a lush section of trees near a charcoal bbq pit at William Land Park, surrounded by first, second, and third cousins, nieces and nephews, and god-babies of all ages running around us, a blurred rainbow of barrettes and laughter. I remember when he was young and slim-statured. His light skin dusted with brown freckles. His baseball cap, fit just like Ice Cube’s in Boyz n the Hood. Then he was gone. For over a decade. Then he reappeared. Older and with a larger frame. His hair and the fitted cap gone. But his freckles still present and gleaming. Today I speak to my cousin T once a month. Sometimes twice. We begin each text with “Hey, Cousin!” and end each conversation with “I love you.” He is not the only man in my family that gives this salutation so freely.
This is the norm in my family, because you never know when you will get to speak to someone again. Cousin has been home from prison for the past nine years but still smiles like he don’t know pain. But when I ask him of surviving prison, and how it has informed who he is today, his voice deepens into a slow crawl. I can hear him thinking before he replies, “As a Black man, I know how people think of felons. The first time I was pulled over for a taillight being broken, I was asked if I was on parole or probation rather than for my license and registration.” I look at the pictures from our family reunion. I focus on Cousin T’s face. We are smiling into the lens. His freckles shine bright like those of his younger sister, Tiff, and his gold-rimmed glasses are the only items of bling he keeps in full sight. He continues, his voice almost quakes. “They ask me about probation and parole because they want to know the jurisdiction of how to treat me!”
How do we treat the men that have served time? Do we only remember the men they were before they were locked up? If they were locked up for a mistake, has the debt been repaid? Will it ever be repaid? I ask myself this every time I look at our pictures together. I am reminded of who the men left behind when I talk to Cousin Tiff, T’s younger sister. “I panicked when T was sentenced to fifteen years. I felt alone and I didn’t know what I was going to do when my big brother was gone. He was my savior. My hero and my protector.”
Tiff remembers what the days looked like without Cousin T around for those years. After my car accident at age sixteen, I only remember life in splashes. So I return to our conversations and ask her again and again the same questions. I ask her to tell me about the economy unit she lived in until she ran away with her boyfriend. This is the man she will have seven children with before realizing the abuse is not worth the relationship. “If my brother was home I would’ve left mess long time ago. I didn’t have the support of a male figure in my life. So I dealt with volatile situations because I felt like I had to. I didn’t have nobody to talk about my life to. My brother was like my second dad.” Tiff looks just like me. At least that I would like to think. We have the same cheekbones. Same eyes that look close at everything and everyone. She taught me to talk tough. To swing at anything moving toward me with malice. I hear this story and I shudder. The truth she unveils in several conversations leaves her more vulnerable than she’s ever been. I tell her I am talking to her brother T. And she gets silent. Then she says “Good, Cousin. Good. Someone needs to hear his story too.”
Cousin T been out of prison. He serves as an entrepreneur and family counselor. He takes care of anyone that needs a house, a car, the lawn cut, or to move from house to house. He walks in a room and the men stand at attention. Not from fear. But respect and love. He’s quick to take selfies with the kids and cracks jokes about when we rode bikes and Big Wheels. He sends pictures of family as he makes his runs around the small booming city in the valley of California. Dollar General. Raley’s. Ampm. Home Depot. He walks in and someone knows him. And he smiles and remembers everyone’s name. He remembers their guardian’s name. He wishes them all blessings. “My absence, as the leader and go-to guy in the family, it made a lot of my family members weaker. They ended up searching for that in other relationships. I missed graduations, births, and funerals. They hurt so much—to have to counsel family members over the phone. I have to cry in front of two hundred people during visitation. In jail they tell you not to cry, especially a man in prison, you’re looked at differently. You got to put a front on at all times.”
But today, he is an ambassador of life and love. He is still all smiles, this cousin. As if he didn’t spend eleven years as an adult behind bars. As if folks on the old block don’t say his name twice, like a goon call. An echo of his former former. A figure we only see if folks don’t listen closely when he’s spitting truth to some knucklehead who don’t know better. He begins again, “Your father was my role model. He didn’t take no mess for nobody. He beat up dudes. He beat up the police. He was who I wanted to be like. He had the reputation that I wanted. He’s a rider. He’s a stand-up guy.” His voice, once jovial and almost dream-like, becomes cautionary. Like the dust cloud carrying itself across the water to an already burning city. “But he lacked the compassion to be a father, an uncle, and a family man. I thought if I wanted to be respected, I had to be tough like your father. And in the process of me living and hustling—I didn’t see at the time the effect it had on my family and loved ones.” I don’t cry. I just listen to his voice over the phone. The crackle of the air behind him in California is as still as me holding my breath in Brooklyn.
Tiff texts me for another hour after my conversation with Cousin T. She is remembering things she’s long since forgotten about. That’s how these interactions have been going. I feel guilty. I don’t want to excavate painful memories. I just want to understand the holes in my own. Why I don’t remember much outside of those traumatic folktales of the men in our family. Why I don’t visit prison, still. Why I write about prison at all. I don’t tell Tiff that I just learned another cousin is serving life without parole. Cousin T sighed heavy when he broke the news to me. “Little Lil’ wrote me a letter and told me he was just trying to be like me. Keeping it real. Putting in work and standing down. And I know what he meant. I used to puff my chest up. I didn’t realize it then but I was trying out different characters because I was searching for something in myself! Today I’m Scarface.” His voice goes gruff. “Tomorrow I’m Nino Brown.” His voice bounces into a lilt. “And the day after I’m in The Godfather.” My chest tightens. The wind of his voice is so tormented. I can hear him holding back tears, and blame, as he grips the steering wheel. “Little Lil just wanted to be like me. Never show a sign of weakness. And I was just trying to be tough and not take no mess like your daddy. And now he’s in there—for life.” The phone loses connection. Or I hang up. Don’t matter. All I know is I cry for five minutes and text Cousin T back apologies for the lost connection. I lie for the sake of looking strong. I don’t want to be weak. This essay almost didn’t happen. I write it now and try to get out of the way of myself. Fear is a hole that swallows your entirety. It is endless and I panic not being in control of all these feelings. I don’t know where to hold them. I don’t know how to not be angry. I think this essay is a Band-Aid. I think I am whining as I write it with pretty words and all my kin is locked up and dying or waiting to be locked back up. They are in their own bodies and know that is a prison too. I cry. Because that’s the whole set-up: to require the emotional labor of your victims. To ask for solutions from the survivors and I don’t want these lyrical essays to be considered a solution to the problem. I am only on display. Something to marvel and tsk tsk at as a sign of understanding. I know that now. Each of these memories splays an inconsistency in our humanity and how amazing! The absolute brilliance be my blood’s resilience.
We meet at a park. The lush trees swing low and our necks know this rhythm well. I do poems about poems. I write essays in the body of these poems. Sometimes I attach a name to the writing. Call it Timmy. Call it Andrew. Call it Keith. Sometimes I call it Sam. But every time, I call it into the room. This whole house exists because we are laughing together again. This whole house exists because somebody got the right to vote and have a good job and not be terrorized for taillights and menial traffic stops. The whole house exists because this good-ass barbeque smokes the air salty and our growing children will be fed. They are alive despite the many efforts to end us. I write this as a warning. You should be grateful we ain’t burned it all down yet.