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.
I was eight or nine years old when I saw my father after his first or second release from prison. (Memory is funny this way, like a stream of water, never quite sure of its beginnings.) I had not seen him in over six years and was excited to finally sit next to the man that helped make me. Face to face. Or elbow to elbow. He was larger than life with a name as loud as a wind chime. When his name hits the air–it sang. And everyone treated me differently after learning I was his daughter. He was a hood hero. Oldest of eight siblings. Fought anyone. Face to face. Fist to fist. He stood erect, shoulders expanded with both hands curled by his sides into hammers. This was his pose in every picture I’ve ever seen. They called him some kind of hell storm when he got his mind to thinking someone was trying to take advantage of him.
I was nine years old (or was it ten?) and I sat in the back of a four-door sedan as my father caught up on old times with an older cousin. They were both talking in rhythm, like Rudy Ray Moore, and both of them talked fast fast. My father spoke in rhyme when he spoke quick. It felt like he was selling something or stealing something. That’s how fast he spoke, water to a whale, and it was beautiful to witness. Just beautiful. I wanted to be a part of this dance too.
I never went to see my father behind bars. My mother relocated far away after their domestic issues took a toll for the worse. After his first (or second) stint in jail (or is it prison?) I was only ever able to see him under my grandmother’s strict supervision. So, I’m in the car, right. Sitting impatiently. Waiting to be seen. trying to become a part of the rhythmic dance. This is when I decide it is my chance to prove to him why he should never leave me again. I interrupt once. I interrupt twice. On my third attempt to gain his attention, my father rapped his knuckles against my mouth. I thought he bust my lip. He didn’t. He just bust my pride. I cried with my mouth covered. I ran up the red painted stairs on Helen Street. Back to the safety of my grandmother’s care. I don’t remember what happened next. Did I tell her what happened? Did she wipe my tears? Did I fear him after that? My father? I think I did. But I can’t be sure. I only remember that I don’t remember.
When I think of freedom I think of Nina Simone’s response to an interviewer’s question: What is freedom? “What is freedom to me?” she exclaimed, then fastened her eyes on the person holding the microphone to her face. “No fear!”
I call my brother on the telephone and explain to him my year-long writing quest investigating the mass incarceration system and its effect on women and children (with an intentional concentration on our family). My brother (finally off parole) says he is willing to talk. I ask him if he can tell me about fear. But I don’t say the word fear. I whisper it, like a shameful word. He reveals his mental state during his nineteen-month stint in jail and sighs, “Nineteen months of Saturdays with my son, just gone.”
He talks about the prison burritos made from ramen and beef jerky. He tells me about the books he read so loud he alarmed the guards into thinking he had several personalities. He remembers inventing an addiction to see different parts of the jail, how he was so convincing he almost believed it himself. He says so much I have to put the phone on speaker to take notes. He talks fast fast. Almost like a stream of water looking to return home. And I chuckle. What he is saying is not particularly funny. It is actually quite sad. How he’s forgone his name for a number (“They call me PID and a series of numbers. I decided to rename myself and took on the name Action.”) “Were you ever scared?” I ask. My brother slows down his speech. With a sloth drawl he responds, “I’m not twenty––I’m not trying to stay in the lion’s den and fight. I just want a plate to eat the meat off the bones.”
“No fear!” Nina Simone repeats. The grainy footage becomes a sea of her Black woman’s eyes, thick and smoky with a black pencil. Her stare is impenetrable. Staring into the interviewer’s face as if the idea of a Black person living fearless in this country is actually a possibility.
Almost fifteen years ago, I was offered a creative social justice opportunity. It involved a series of communications with my father in hopes of reconciliation. I declined the invitation. The last time I received word from my father, he offered an ultimatum. “If you don’t write, then I don’t got no daughter.” I am devastated. All of his absences throughout my life become an ice sculpture. No, that’s too poetic. All of his absences throughout my life become a palm reading. A ragged line on my right hand: I speak to men as if I am ready to fight; a curved brown line from palm to wrist: I don’t buy anything from anyone who talks fast a broken branch extends towards my ring finger: I will never be chosen by a husband. I repeat these phrasings like a mantra for the next ten years until they color into the ugliest heirloom.
Around an oak coffee table with family, someone says his name and the wind still carries it like a song. I think about family members living outside of those steel bars with the ability to still sing despite the emotional scars. I think about the survival skills of the incarcerated loved ones.
But I am unmoved. I believe I am truly fatherless. My favorite Aunt, his younger sister, says: “He didn’t mean it. You know he’s crazy.” The woman I’ve become looks back at the girl child I once was and wonders if my father’s interaction with me is informed by his time locked up or just poor parenting?
My brother is still talking. Fast fast. But he ain’t selling nothing. He ain’t stealing nothing either. “No matter the skill or education level, there is a fear of the perception of who people think I am because of my time in jail. Jail doesn’t define me nor excuse me. I gave my life away because of my arrogance in thinking I could fight the system.” He is silent. And so am I. He returns, the city traffic muffled in the background, steady and consistent. “I’m stronger and more prepared. I visit folks still locked up. I put money on their books.” I stop writing and ask, “What do you mean you’re prepared? Prepared for what?” Without missing a beat he replies, “I know what to do if I ever go back to jail.”
I want to believe my brother is immune from returning to jail. But I know the rate of recidivism: Within five years of release, over 75 percent return to prison. I know there are technicalities that make parolees prime for the reaping. I know the prison industrial complex is a dirty business of cheap labor and punishment, rather than rehabilitation and redemption. It is twenty years later and I still haven’t seen my father. He’s received a sentence that punished him for what they thought he was capable of doing, over what he actually did. Some would say, “that’s karma”; others would agree, “that’s America.” When I am nominated for a grant to talk about the thing I fear most: Prison. I feel like a liar. Every time I walk into a prison or through a high school metal detector to teach–I feel like a poser. When I walk out, grateful for the wind that waits to kiss my cheek–I feel like a betrayer of the people. I got the audacity to move throughout the world (seemingly free) when every man in my life has been sacrificed by the judicial fire traps.
I mourn. I am sleepless and refuse opportunities to teach for years if it means I have to enter a prison’s nest. I am restless. And try to bury the thing that renders me sleepless. I change my name. I hydrate. I love despite the fear burrowing a home throughout my chest. I work at alternative prison programs and prison pipeline facilities guised as schools. I teach at group homes with guards at the door and finally visit a boys’ lockup facility. Each time, I am afraid of who I will see. What child, or father or daughter or brother will appear before me and crumble my armor like a piece of loose leaf. I teach them how to write their feelings. I applaud their vulnerability. I create space where it is not foreign to feel, and I acknowledge those feelings. I invite them to name their fear and reckon with it on the page. Using rhyme and meter as a vehicle for reflection is nothing to most. But it can be life-affirming to a person who has to earn the right to use a pencil, or paper, or a book. I almost feel free.