There was something stifling in the way the tumblers turned, clicked—and cascaded into deep silence. Inside four walls comprised of painted blue cinder block, with only a pencil thin window to survey the outside world, my landscape had suddenly turned from the vibrant street culture of hand-to-hand combat, the confrontations in back alleys and stairwells of dilapidated tenements, to physical confinement. It was like going from one hundred miles an hour to zero. Not able to put my finger on the detachment that possessed me, I tucked the bottoms of my orange jumper into my socks, took off my flip-flops, and laid on the cold steel bench with my arms propped under my head. I descended into memory, rewinding the visual tape of my life. After a few hours I realized what it was that I could not put my finger on. It was silence. It was within the context of prison blue that the totality and seriousness of life had finally satiated into reality.
Like a lead anchor traveling to the bottom of a murky riverbed, I had fallen fast and hard for the glory of the streets, not able to realize my descent until I grazed bottom. Here I lay, having digressed into a real live statistic in somebody’s weekly or monthly report, playing right into the infrastructure of a society that was waiting patiently for me to fail. I had been cuffed and chained like an animal. It was as if the system welcomed me with open and un-loving arms, knew I would be coming, and had my room dressed in concrete and metallic gray.
However the situation presented itself, I couldn’t blame my disgrace on lack of education or not knowing right from wrong. With both parents being educators, our house was a place that nurtured reading and intellectualism. Both of my parents have master degrees. My family foundation was solid. There was a father who was always there, always; and a mother who was a great role model, a champion of the public school system for better conditions to educate young people. The conscious decision to be a negative influence and a non-productive member of the African-American race was my burden to bear alone. From within a cyclone of razor wire held together by leather-neck guards waiting for me to breathe wrong, I used this silence to discover who I was. I was a black man who could not effectively communicate emotions and feelings.
Up until my incarceration, reading and writing made as much sense to me as a hooker working the nightshift on 14th Street with stiletto heels. It just did not seem practical. The only use I had for words came in moments of aggression when I verbally forced my will on a weaker human to intimidate them, or sometimes I would stare them into submission with rage in my eyes. Written language never proved useful for a society-deemed criminal like me whose sole intent was to be rebellious. What I’m saying is that I always believed written language to be nothing more than a paper trail leading to jail.
It should be noted that since I came from a very educated family, I did have the intellectual capability to use language as a tool for empowerment. I participated in all the college prep courses, graduated high school in the middle of my class, migrated to Howard University, and was in a position to obtain a degree in Economics in four and a half years. However, I was drawn to the mystical intrigue of street culture more than I was a classroom or textbook. I experienced an incessant yearning for the darker side of life, which eventually led me to unbelievable zeniths and guttural lows.
Six months after my epiphany of silence, I stood in the day room with a blue jumper tied at the waste and listened to Pat Parker tell me and a group of about twenty guys how she was going to let words be our healing power. She wanted us to get in touch with those traumatic experiences that brought us to this place we called the “bricks.” The concept of Jail Addiction Services (JAS) was to place inmates in an environment away from the day-to-day brutality of prison life, where every day a homemade shank lurks behind someone’s hand. However, in JAS inmates could share their life experiences and hopefully find threads of commonality with which to address behaviors of aggression and deviancy. The main reason I was in this program was because I heard an inmate could get time reduced from their sentence. I was facing a total of eighty years, so to me it was a matter of pure mathematics that I be involved in this program.
Every Thursday, Pat Parker, a big-boned, brown-skinned, very attractive lady lead a discussion around the dynamics of group interaction, and how we inmates could possibly benefit from emotional expression. The first assignment she gave us was a series of questions that introspectively examined our behavior. She methodically explained that in order to get to the root of pain and trauma, there has to be some kind of outward expression that originates internally, and that placing words on the page can free one of mental guilt. Maybe she was talking to me when she said those words. I had not talked to my family in six months, and they did not know I was incarcerated. I would be sentenced soon and knew I needed to call and make amends to those who loved me regardless of my shortcomings. The thought of me letting them down once again was a source of internal anguish.
That night on my top bunk, by the half glow of a broken moon outside my cell window, I stared at two simple questions on a sheet of paper Pat Parker had given me to answer. The first one was: Do you feel that an interpersonal relationship has been broken between your parents? These are the words that came from my clear plastic pen:
My parents have been greatly disappointed by my life choices, my self-destructive nature, and my inability to grasp the concept of life and its responsibilities. During our on again off again, sometimes tumultuous, sometimes joyous relationship, our ties have been severed because of my inexcusable and self-destructive nature. My actions over the years have slowly opened a deep wound, inflicting tremendous pain on both parts; only each time their unyielding love for me outweighed the lacerations I had created. Their love for me outstretches the feelings of bitterness and hatred that might have been lodged in their heart. However, it is difficult for me, after all the forgiveness and open-heartedness they have shown me, to have a relationship without feeling some sort of guilt on my part. They did not, and do not, deserve to endure so much humiliation on my behalf.
Those words came out of me effortlessly and honestly. For the first time in my life I cried, and my tears fell softly on the yellow legal paid as I transcribed guilt in its rawest form. The second question was just as mentally tough as the first: Do you feel worthless as it relates to your current situation? For the first time in a long time I was being forced to examine the real Randall Horton:
As I meditate and search within myself to locate the reasons why I am here, I know that I have not been all that I could have been up to this point in my life. I feel that I have shortchanged and deprived myself of the quality of life that comes with accepted social behavior. However, to call myself worthless would be to start putting nails in my coffin. I am not resolved to give up and to accept that my life will only consist of drugs, hustling, repeated failure, prison, and eventually death. My mind cannot conceive of such a notion; call it vanity, arrogance, or whatever you must. I categorize it as a will and never-ending desire to change, to want a better way of life; especially one that I know is obtainable.
During the next group session, I read my answers aloud just as I had written them on paper, and for the first time in a long time, I had gotten gut-level honest with myself. I believed the words coming out of my mouth. The exercises Pat Parker gave me began my love affair with words. For the first time in my life, writing became something I craved at night. I began to read more books from the prison library. There are three books that were critical to my development as a reader and writer: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holla, and Carl Upchurch’s Convicted in the Womb. Each one of these books spoke to me as if they understood the jagged path I had taken. Then too, the Donald Goines series of streetwise literature became a must read. I read every last one of his books during my first year of incarceration. The books I read became a guide on how to use punctuation, grammar, and syntax, something I lacked in college. I would read so much that when I fell asleep and began to dream, I would reenact the stories and scenarios I had read earlier in the day. Not only would the characters come alive, but the words reappeared on the page as subtitles, as if they were showing me the proper placement of nouns and verbs to create cohesive syntax. This was very strange to me as English was my worst subject in high school and college.
The circuit court judge in Montgomery County, MD sentenced me to five years of prison time in Roxbury Correctional Institute in Hagerstown Maryland. I went upstate to serve three years and was brought back before the court on a motion for reconsideration where I was granted an early released. The entire time I was incarcerated I read books and wrote essays, so when I went back to school to finish a degree (this time in English) that I had started almost twenty years earlier, I was prepared for the rigors and determination needed to complete school.
Seven years since writing my first essay in Pat Parker’s group I find myself at Chicago State University’s MFA Creative Writing program. It is the only one I would seriously consider because of its concentration in African-American literature. Although I had been accepted in another program back east, I knew I had to be critiqued by my own ethnic group and study a literature that best reflects my personal needs and aspirations; a literature which will empower me with the necessary tools to confront the illiteracy and short comings of my own ethnic generation. That’s how it is with me, nothing personal. I’ve come to terms with my ethnic mores and have learned to accept people for who they are; yet, I need to be around the beauty of the African-American vernacular, the way my people walk and laugh while hugging street corners; the beauty they see in the ugly.
One thing I realized when I left prison was that I had enough material to write consistently for the rest of my life. Also, I had read and critically thought enough to conclude that everything I was going through would prepare me for the moment when I would be able to expose the human condition for what it is as positively as I can. What makes me write is the insatiable hunger to put the African-American experience in print, as well as free myself of my past demons. I have a debt to pay to my own community. I seek atonement as its prodigal son. Each time I write a poem or short story, while remaining true to our human condition, I breathe easier because I feel that I’ve made an impact.
While in prison, I can remember the exact day I felt like I was going to write my way to redemption. I liken it to Anne Dillard’s description in her nonfiction book The Writing Life of what it feels like to have a thought bursting in your brain, “The line of words finger your own heart. It invades arteries and enters the heart on a flood of breath; it presses the moving rims of thick valves; it palpitates the dark muscle strong as horses, feeling for something, it knows not what” (Dillard, 20). This is the kind of feeling I experienced in the confinement of a six-by-six cell. With each pen stroke, I punched my way out of darkness; yet it is only now that I have really begun to understand the complexities that attach themselves to writing. For me, writing would become more than words on paper; it would involve activism, community outreach, and keeping my hands on the pulse of the African-American community. This is the part that I couldn’t find detailed in a book; that part only comes from writing, reading, and thirsting for more.
I don’t think I was overly socially active growing up; however, I like to think I understood what it meant to be black growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. I knew the duality of the city predicated that blacks didn’t interact with whites and vice versa. When I was growing up in the 70s it felt like I lived in an all-black world that functioned efficiently without white people. The elasticity of racism reaches far and wide, which is why when I moved to another city on the east coast, I found that I had escaped nothing. There was the same racism, just bottled up and packaged differently. This revelation has followed me to every major city that I have lived in. I liken this experience to that of Richard Wright as well, who deals with the subject of racism, its brutality, and the effect that it had upon him, both in the rural south and in the north in Black Boy. In his The Horror and the Glory section he writes, “Though the Negro is an organic part of the nation, he is excluded by the entire tide and direction of American culture” (272). In other words, while we are allowed to populate these cities and believe we somehow have an advantage, America has its on agenda and only compensates when it feels absolutely necessary. While I in no way shape or form endured the hardships that Wright did, my eyes have laid steadily upon situations that have had a profound impact on my human nature.
My grandmother was a third-generation bootlegger. She sold fifty cent and dollar shots of state store whiskey every day and moonshine occasionally. There were four rooms in her house designated for the use of men and women to engage in sexual activities. She charged three dollars for fifteen minutes. This money sent my mother to college and allowed her a chance at an education that my grandmother never received. The host of characters who congregated in my grandmother’s large clapboard house were both comical and educational. These were the people that Wright had talked about. Characters like Catbird, who worked sparingly, yet always had enough for a drink, always caught my interest as a little boy pouring shots for her occasionally. Other men like Blue Jay, Bookie, Bip, Paper Boy, and Lee Lawyer were perfect examples of invisible black life within a white-dominated culture. People like them were on the bottom rung of society and didn’t even know it. For them, life was good times and social escape. Their richness came from living in their own world. These people did not exist outside of the realm of southern black culture. I’ve come to understand that these are the people that I need to write about.
There is an inspiring line written by Martin Espada in the collection of essays Facing the Lion, which discusses the issues writers face when dealing with craft, and uses the lion as a metaphor for all the intangibles that come along with writing. In my opinion, Espada’s mandate on writing directly ties into my burgeoning ideology and what I wish to accomplish as a writer. He writes, “I am an advocate when I write poems speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard, for one of the curses of segregation and subordination of class is the imposition of silence” (48). Not only should these voiceless people who were so integral to my daily existence growing up be dialogued and heard, but also the people of Washington, DC (where I later moved), who lived under the illusion that somehow their human and social condition was better.
Once I decided that I was going to be a part of the counter-culture, I became immersed in a subculture that was propelled by drugs, drug selling, and all acts of immorality. Now, I reflect back to the many young women on the streets of Northwest Washington, DC, who prostituted their bodies, performed oral sex in abandon cars, and walked 13th and 14th Street looking for tricks who could feed that insatiable desire for drugs. And the men were no different. Their manhood was totally taken away from them. They robbed, stole, slept in shelters and abandoned houses; did whatever for whatever. I’ve seen men lose their lives in a battle over five dollars. I’ve seen the young guys who stand in front of tenements with paper sacks full of drugs in open-air markets, where police refuse to restore order; yet as soon as they are incarcerated, they become subjected to mandatory sentencing instead of drug-treatment facilities. These young men don’t have any hope. Their parents had no hope. Who will hear their voice?
After finally coming to terms with who I am, one of the most important things I can do is write. In not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I realized I was preparing for the time when I eventually gained a consciousness. Like Espada says, “How could I know what I know, and not tell what I know?” (49). This philosophy is one of the major themes I invoke in my writing. It has only been recently that I realized the humanity I felt, even in the most inhumane situations, was planted there by my mother and father. People would always tell me I didn’t belong in the life I was leading, and they were right. I showed compassion, one of the most dangerous traits to have in an underworld whose main objective is to be as cruel and inhuman as possible.
Eventually, if incarceration had not been my downfall, death would have most certainly been. When I saw men and woman degraded, having lost all forms of dignity, I felt something; it bothered me knowing kids were going to bed hungry because their parent sold the food stamps. How could I have lived in a subculture where there are so many variables working against each other to create disharmony and not speak out? How can I ignore the human stories and not share them? In everything, there is beauty, and the binding glue to these dysfunctional relationships and attitudes are their existence and refusal to lie down and die. More often than not, I saw a willingness to be blissful, even though they were killing themselves.
Believe it or not, there is a direct correlation between early American literature and its exclusion of an Africana existence and the literature that is being accepted and massed produced today. Although the presence of black people in literature has to be recognized, there needs to be a conscious mind set as to how these images will be seen, as well as remembered. I believe this to be paramount in today’s conflicting images of urban street machismo and a dwindling bourgeoisie that is so far assimilated in popular culture that it doesn’t even know its own identity. With merit, there is some good literature being produced by black people seeking to shape and give voice to our identity. However, it will never be mass produced for the economic consumption of those who posses the monetary power to control images.
I agree with the necessary portrayal of the black urban culture, as I was ingrained in it for some time. A lot of the things written about in our community are true because I have witnessed and experienced them first hand and can attest to their validity. I’ve seen the disgruntled black youth rebel through language and illegal behavior because there are not any outlets for their frustrations. There is a hatred that oozes within the community perpetuated by unequal distribution of economic power. The images that we see today in mainstream neo-modernist street literature evolved from early rap/hip-hop, which also coincided with the major drug push of crack cocaine as a viable way for underprivileged youth to realize any type of economic brevity. With that said, I believe more literature with a consequential-based theme and redemption quality should be inserted into these word pictorials of urban street poetics and literature.
It just so happens that my youth was filled with racial conflict, exposure to illegal elements, love, invisibility, as well as the usual coming of experiences of a boy. Only now, while reflecting back on my youth, am I able to appreciate the dynamics of family life in a way that can give me some type of closure from the culpability I’ve felt over the past years since emerging from prison on my writing journey. The lessons my father and mother taught me never left, I may have taken the wrong fork in the road, but when I was ready, those lessons were there to boomerang me back on the right path. I feel very capable of facing the lions of my past. The biggest asset is my having grown a socio-political-and economic conscious in my darkest hour. That conscious will be my road map as I continue to emerge from silence.
Randall Horton is the author of The Definition of Place (2006) and Lingua Franca of Ninth Street (2009), both from Main Street Rag. His poetry prizes include the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award and the Bea González Prize for Poetry. He has an MFA from Chicago State University and a PhD from SUNY Albany. Horton is a Cave Canem Fellow, a member of the Affrilachian Poets, and assistant professor of English at the University of New Haven. He also serves as senior editor for Willow Books and editor-in-chief for Tidal Basin Review.