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.
It goes deeper than you losing your freedom. They work towards taking away your mind, body, and soul. —Russell Craig
I don’t often feel comfortable talking about the uncles who can no longer speak when they return home from prison. Their bodies swollen on ramen soups and breaded meals. Their knuckles bruised to black. Their mouths tightened in a grimace, even when they are laughing, even when they are looking at the clear and clean sky.
When I meet Russell Craig, former incarcerated artist and genius, we are fellow attendees for the Arts for Justice convening weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am aware of his eyes peeking from beneath a baseball cap, registering everything and everyone in the room. He isn’t particularly interested in anything, but he is bearing witness to the orchestra of free will and movement. Immediately, I think of Uncle D and I decide, I will give him his space.
My Uncle D was once a young young man who wore burgundy sweatpants and the freshest, cleanest pair of Nike Cortez. Everyone would attempt to make him laugh and he would pity us with a small offering: a glimpse at his gleaming white teeth. His brown eyes watching everything. On hot summer days, he didn’t wear a shirt, just his sweatpants and his Nikes with a pair of cut-up gloves in his pocket. The gloves were a warning, just in case someone mistook his small stature for weakness. Uncle D was the uncle closest to me in age, so I sported for his approval. I played basketball on the fractured concrete court of Poplar Park and never ever cried. Not even when the d-boys from the block crashed down on my ankle, causing a pop to reverberate through my body. I finished the game and returned home to my Uncle D sitting in the living room. He asked me what happened, leaning forward in the worn brown recliner, ready to wage an assault. I declined, said I hurt them worse in the pick-up game, because I won. And he laughed full—a deep belly laugh. His eyes still open and seeing. Days later, he would be pulled over for a “California stop.” He didn’t budge or buck in fear. He just ordered whatever young one was in the car with him to Grandma’s house, humming on the West Oakland block, with news he would be home later than expected.
“When someone says they don’t want to talk about it, they are trying to save you from the trauma,” Russell says quickly. He talks fast, a trait I’ve grown accustomed to. He adds, “I had a homeboy who would send letters back because he was serving life and he didn’t want them to endure it.”
I was raised to give my elders space after they returned home from battle. I think of the way in which my cousins and I gave our uncles more than “ten feet,” for weeks. My cousins would leave grocery bags of untouched canned foods by Uncle’s apartment door and back-trace their steps quickly, away to safety. At the age of fourteen, I had real no understanding of lock-up and its effect on the human body. I didn’t understand the mental health harm and physical abuse endured during incarceration. I just thought, they leave for a little while and return years later but they never forget your name.
He was my favorite uncle, until he went to jail. When he returned, he was someone completely different.
And today, Russell and I talk on the phone. This is after our shared space during the convening and emotionally strained conversations following our Whitney Plantation tour. Today, we talk about how our art has sustained us despite the mass incarceration epidemic. “When I witnessed family members acting crazy, I thought they was just nuts,” he begins. “But now I see it as trauma.” Uncle D and his reclusive behavior, Uncle D and his angry angry fists, Uncle D and his silent treatment after he’s returned the last time. After prison, Uncle D no longer cared about my kid stories. He mistook my usual jokes as a mockery towards him. He became a combative, more aggressive version of my kin. Soon, our relationship withered into nothing but nods in passing. I blamed him for one of my favorite uncles gone, missing.
“Trauma in the black community, we need to talk about it,” Russell adds. This is when I remember Russell’s demeanor clearly. We are sitting at a table amongst fourteen others in a salon-styled restaurant tucked in the French Quarter. The lighting is dim and everyone is comfortable enough to share bottles of wine and easy laughter. Except Russell. He isn’t laughing. But he isn’t engaged either. He watches the door entrance from a seat against the wall. His red hat covers his eyes. He is taking inventory of movement. At first glance, I am struck with the familiarity. How I can gauge his energy without ever speaking. “I was a foster kid. Foster homes and group homes, as a young person, are also prison. So, I taught myself how to read and write. I was all about art. My whole twenties was taken by prison, so I had to block it all out, like Bird Box. Have you seen that?” I have, I reply, and he laughs suddenly. Here, we laugh together. The connection is easy and organic. “I’m really into pop culture,” he interjects. Me too, I add. “But word, I taught myself how to read and write, like the movie, I used that time to learn and focus and to block it all out. But now that I’m out, I find myself chasing shit I missed in my twenties. I never feel fulfilment. And that’s trauma too.” It all clicks.
To be told to: Stand up. Sit down. Eat. Don’t eat. Fight. Sleep. Wake up. Shut up. Shut up. Read. Don’t read that. Don’t talk. Speak louder. Lie down. Stay down. For days on end. To endure this traumatic setting with your emotional health and dreams intact is a miracle.
I revel in our exchange. I am able to speak to Russell like family and locate easily how our humanities intersect with one another. How we differ and how we shine. Russell shines with his ability to engage. He is nothing like I remember, and everything like I remember. By the time we speak candidly on the phone for an hour, I will have immersed myself in the photos of his many art exhibitions and refer to his art in relation to J. Cole lyrics—as blueprint and hymnal. He will appreciate my ability to talk to him in a language where we both feel seen. I will not tell him the story about my Uncle D and how he reminds me so much of him. How Uncle D died months before this piece is even an idea waiting to be named.