We’ve known “What” since stepping foot off slave ships. We’ve known “What” since the crack of the whip. We’ve known “What” since Lynch mobs and sharecropping. We’ve known “What” since overseers, paddy rollers and colored signs. We’ve known “What” since the back of city buses and Jim Crow. We’ve known “What” since crack, ghettos and foster homes. Indeed, if there is anything black people are familiar with, it is what. The question is therefore not what, the question is why? Why the haunting images of public executions of black men? Why does the protests of Black Lives Matter mirror that of the Civil Rights Movement when we should have moved passed this? How is it that what happened 50 years ago and DIDN’T work, will somehow work today? Have we not marched? Have we not protested? Have we not already sang freedom songs and willingly gone to prison? Why are black people at the bottom of every single ethnic group and society there is? Why have we been here for nearly 400 years and have yet to produce the economic standing of nations who have been here not even half that time? The question is not what, the question is why? Why are things always so black and white? Why is it always black against white?
In the book of Exodus there is a story. This story is about the Israelites. Pharaoh said to kill off the Hebrew boys for fear that the Hebrew population would grow and that they would overrun the Egyptian population (Ex 1:9-16). More so, they will do unto the Egyptians what the Egyptians have done unto them. Fears of uprisings among African Americans can be traced back to the days of Nat Turner. To think this fear has been lost or has gone away is not to have been alive. You see “Why?” has been around for centuries and on the tongues of every prophet. “Why?” is in the blood of every black man and woman walking this earth today. It is in every breath we take, and every move we make. “Why” is in our very DNA, our living souls breathing proof of the covenant we made so long ago. Do not tell black people that they should not be angry when our sons blood cries out to us from the ground. Instead, ask “Why?” Do not ask What, Ask Why because why is the key to everything. Why is understanding that what is happening out there is bigger than any man. “Why?” is understanding there is a reason black lives do not matter in this land. “Why” is understanding the story of Israel, the covenant they broke, and its connection to the black man and woman in America today. You see, “Why” is the key when you are the people of the book, when the police is Pharaoh, and America is Egypt.
There’s a woman
laying in the hospital
and armed with the next generation in her womb,
and she’s about to give birth real soon
in another breath as her body jerks,
to the sound of the television… it is the news.
reporting another mass murder of black men
inside of her
tucking his head underneath his soft bones
at another kick
to her ribs
his tiny fingers have just curled around them
holding her insides with the delicate force of a newborn
he hesitates “This is it.”
The end of nine months only to see another nine years
this new place
leaving no more space
for his body to stretch out
than his face
pressed tightly against
the skin of his mother’s uterus.
Of this new world he thought he’d be curious
but the sounds of the outside has only made him furious
the sounds of police in the distance
he kicks again this is resistance
forcing the woman into painful sensations
but he kicks
cause this is not an invitation to leave
it is a plea to stay
“Don’t worry lil man”, the doctor says, “Mama’s just a lil tense,
but he shutters at homelessness
debating to himself if to pass up his first breath is worth it
his ground iron
his heavens bronze
his prayers polluted like falling stars
trying to break lose what’s already bent
rocking his mother’s body once more
this can’t be heaven sent
it’s too late
something has pushed him out of his place
and its holding him tightly,
his screams echo, “let go of me.”
but he has already lost his authority
and he doesn’t even know his name
and these are just the beginning
of his birth pains.
*Note: This article was not written by The PBS Blog, it is featured as part of the continuation of an ongoing series and is written by Laura Dimon. This is the last part which includes my commentary. Please view our Guest Feature or Article Section for Parts 1 & 2*
In King’s trials, the juries were all white, with one black person. This past March, Glenn Ford, 64, walked out of Angola a free man after 30 years on death row. He was Louisiana’s longest-serving death row prisoner, yet he’s just another black man who was convicted and sentenced by an all-white jury. King said Angola today still reminds him of a slave plantation, but not as much as it reminds him of a graveyard. “There seems to be an artificial sanitation that is disturbing to me,” he said. The land is “beautiful, whitewashed, looks like a college campus.” But underneath, “The bones are rottin’.”
Angola exists in the shadow of slavery, a time when black men did not have rights. In a state with the motto “Union, justice and confidence,” there is certainly a lingering stink of a bygone, ugly era for which “union and justice” is simply not a fitting description. The other two members of the Angola 3 are Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace. There is overwhelming evidence of their innocence and accordingly, state and federal judges have overturned Woodfox’s conviction three times, citing racial discrimination, misconduct by the prosecution and inadequate defense. But Louisiana’s Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell holds the ultimate power, and has contested the rulings, claiming they were based on technicalities.
To this day, after 42 years, Woodfox remains in solitary confinement in Angola. He’s thought to be the longest-serving inmate in solitary. In the documentary film, he says, “If a cause is noble enough, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. And I thought my cause, then and no, was noble. So therefore, they would never break me.”
“They might bend me a little bit. They might cause me a lot of pain. They may even take my life. But they will never be able to break me.”
Wallace was released in October 2013 with advanced liver cancer. King went with Woodfox, who was permitted to leave briefly, to visit their friend and tell him he was out of Angola for good. “We told him,” King said. Wallace couldn’t move or respond. “[But] we saw it in his eyes. … He knew he was getting out.” Wallace took his last breaths a free man, after over 40 years. He died three days later.
King continues the fight for Woodfox. So when he is asked about his own release, he responds with this apt adage: “I was free of Angola, but Angola would not be free of me.”
Image Credits: AP, Peter Puna, Robert King
The disturbing reality, is that no so called African American should be surprised by this article. At some point we must realize that under the fine print of America’s democracy you were never intended to be citizens. Your stay here in this country was never received with the certificate of adoption and thus you were never granted the same rights of America’s children, and that is why such institutions such as the Angola Facility still exist in the first place. You have Civil Rights but you have no Human Rights. It is no surprise then, that the mental state of the African American people is worse today than it was during slavery. Even during the Civil Rights Era your state of consciousness was not like it is now; for Freedom Rides denoted an understanding that you were not free here and you understood that. But the worse thing about mental enslavement however is that if the mind thinks itself free it doesn’t really matter what happens to the body. You can continue to mistreat it and it will still not grasp the understanding that it remains confined. You can put it in a hog pen, lock it up inside the inner rooms, isolate it and because the mind has been warped it will still think it possesses some kind of freedom. In The Mis-Education of The Negro Carter G. Woodson said it best, “when you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.“
*Note: This article was not written by The PBS Blog, it is featured as part of the continuation of an ongoing series and is written by Laura Dimon. Please view our Guest Feature or Article Section for Part 1*
In 1972, the prisoners were virtually all black. Merciless guards — all white men, called “freemen” — worked the inmates like slaves. Sugar cane was the main crop, King said. In the documentary film In the Land of the Free, it’s stated that the inmates labored all day every day for a measly $.02 per hour. The abuse didn’t stop there. As NPR reported, “There was a prisoner slave trade and rampant rape; inmates slept with J.C. Penney catalogs tied to their waists for protection.” King was one of three men who formed the famous Angola 3 group, leaders of the Black Panther Party’s Angola chapter. King said they were fighting for equality, but he later realized their efforts had been misaimed: “We were focused on civil rights, but we didn’t have human rights,” he said.
In our most recent conversation, I asked King, “How’s it going?” “It’s … ongoing,” he replied. It’s easy to see why: Little has changed at Angola. It remains a time warp, a living, breathing relic of a shameful past. Of about 6,000 inmates currently in custody, roughly 70% are black and 30% are white. In October 2008, NPR reported, “In the distance on this day, 100 black men toil, bent over in the field, while a single white officer on a horse sits above them, a shotgun in his lap.” The context of this modern day slave plantation is unfortunately appropriate. Nola.com wrote that Louisiana is the world’s “prison capital,” with 1 in 86 residents serving time — nearly double the national average. The racial skew is extreme. One in 14 black men in New Orleans is behind bars; 1 in 7 is either in prison, on parole or on probation. Louisiana is “notorious for racial disparities in its justice systems,” Andrew Cohen wrote in the Atlantic.
One highly concerning aspect of Louisiana’s judicial scheme is that, unlike in 48 states, a unanimous jury decision is not required — only 10 jurors have to vote to convict someone, even for a life sentence. Oregon is the only other state with this system, but it doesn’t have the same tremendous racial component. Cohen wrote, “Prosecutors can comply with their constitutional obligations to permit blacks and other minority citizens to serve as jurors but then effectively nullify the votes of those jurors should they vote to acquit.” It is one of “the most obvious and destructive flaws in Louisiana’s broken justice system,” he wrote, arguing, plain and simple: “Louisiana is terribly wrong to defend a law that was born of white supremacy.”
A Duke University study examined more than 700 non-capital felony criminal cases in Florida and found that, in cases with no blacks in the jury pool, blacks were convicted 81% of the time while whites were convicted 66% of the time. The researchers concluded that “the racial composition of the jury pool has a substantial impact on conviction rates” and that “the application of justice is highly uneven.”
Image Credits: AP, Peter Puna, Robert King, Google Images
This post is part of a 3 day Special Feature Post on ThePBSblog, located under our Articles and Guest Feature section. The author’s name is Laura Dimon. Laura graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2013. She has been published in the Economist, the Atlantic, and the Daily Beast. I ran across her article on the Prison system and its striking similarity to the Slavery Plantation and thought I’d share it here. However, it is a lengthy article so I will be breaking it down into 3 separate post to give you room to process the information. I will also wait until after this series (Friday 10/17/14) before adding my own commentary, though you may comment after each segment as you wish.
It was 1972. Thousands of American troops were battling communist forces in Vietnam. Nixon had won re-election by a landslide, but Watergate would soon usher in his demise. Space travel and technology were advancing rapidly.
Change was brewing across America, but one place stood still, frozen in time: Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola. When Robert King arrived that year, he felt as though he’d stepped into the past.
Angola sits 50 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. It’s the largest maximum-security facility in the United States and one of the country’s most notorious prisons. In the book The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, the authors wrote, “Tough criminals allegedly broke down when they received a sentence to Angola. … None of them wanted to be sent to a prison where 1 of every 10 inmates annually received stab wounds and which routinely seethed with black-white confrontations.”
Angola’s expanse covers a vast 28 square miles — larger than the size of Manhattan. Tucked away in a bend of the Mississippi River, it’s surrounded by water and swamp on three sides. It’s an isolated penal village — the nearest town 30 miles away — and it’s the only penitentiary in the country where staff members live on site. Generation after generation grow up, live and die on Angola’s land.
When King, now 71, arrived at Angola, his first impression of it was that it resembled a slave plantation, he said. And it used to be just that. Its name is derived from the home country of the slaves who used to work the land. Today, the comparison remains sadly accurate: Inmates are disproportionately black. They’re forced into hard labor and monitored closely by armed white staff on horseback. There is a sex slave trade behind the bars and many black inmates are deprived of basic constitutional rights. King landed a tough lot in life: He was born black in Louisiana in 1942. In his 2008 book From the Bottom of the Heap, he wrote, “I was born in the U.S.A. Born black, born poor. Is it any wonder that I have spent most of my life in prison?” He went to Angola when he was 18 for a murder he did not commit and remained there for 31 years, 29 of which he spent in solitary confinement, before he was finally freed in 2001.
*Note: Image Credits: AP, Peter Puna, Robert King