Poet as Witness
By Abdul Ali
Imagine Portrait of an Artist meets the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Here the protagonist turns to books and prepares to meet the world outside of prison on his own terms—a world that doesn’t allow for redemption or keeping the past at bay. This is the major tension of the work. The memoir is told in medias res (beginning in the midst of action) so the reader doesn’t get to know the R. Dwayne Betts before the carjacking, we simply live in the present where each minute feels an eternity, where times loses its power, and days are measured in letters, phone calls to your mama, and trips to the library. A Question of Freedom is a witness account of the transformative power of literature and one man’s search for his own light.
I met Dwayne like many writers meet each other—at a writing retreat on the campus of American University some years ago. Immediately, it was his way with words that caused mini combustions, something to be admired from arm’s length. We’d run through a list of poets we thought important the way some people might trade sports trivia at the barbershop. The next day in workshop when it was time for him to read his poems, there was a silence that enveloped the room. We all leaned in to hear his poem and I scanned the circle and mused at the awestruck expressions on everyone’s face. His response to all of the attention was unexpected. He was intense but not aloof; he was self-conscious but never braggadocio.
This summer marked the arrival of R. Dwayne Betts’s literary debut and a much-needed conversation about a sometimes hushed topic in the community. In his memoir, A Question of Freedom, the author chronicles his experience as a juvenile tried as an adult for carjacking. We’re given a glimpse of what it was like for Betts to come-of-age in prison over nine years, a place where he writes unsentimentally that he learned from his fellow inmates and found his voice. He recalls how poetry entered his space, literally—someone threw a copy of Dudley Randall’s Black Poets into his cell.
Comparisons to other works about prison can easily be made (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Makes Me Wanna Holler, and Soledad) and similar to those texts, Dwayne Betts never accepted the label that society was too quick to brand him: criminal. He sums up his carjacking stint as a moment of insanity, thirty minutes that irrevocably changed his life.
The critical response to A Question of Freedom has been overwhelmingly positive. The New Yorker says on their “Book Bench” blog “what makes this piece particularly interesting, aside from the natural and forthright style, is Betts’s chosen coping mechanism: books.” Let’s not forget the numerous television appearances, including Tavis Smiley and the invitation to be the National Spokesperson for Youth Justice.
Despite the positive energy circling this book, the sheer numbers of dissident voices found on many of the articles available online about this book’s release brings to light how difficult society makes redemption and starting over for those who’ve experienced a “moment of insanity.” More to the point, what does this say about our culture—are we a nation of stone throwers living in glass houses?
R. Dwayne Betts took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his writing and life after A Question of Freedom.
Q: The first line of your book “sixteen years hadn’t done a good job on my voice” raises the subject of voice—a preoccupation for both adolescent males and writers. In a way, your entire book deals with your voice, and its development.
RDB: The book does deal with voice, but I think it’s dealing with voice in the very specific context of coming-of-age in prison and how that filter affects the way I see things. So much of the emphasis on the book is on how prison allowed me to grow into a voice. I wanted to suggest that one of the dangers of prison is that people lose their voices there, and for juveniles sent to prison, they often never develop a real voice and spend their lives in a state of mimicry.
Q: You make a point to not use your father not being around as a crutch. But, do you think that his absence may have contributed to carjacking being one of the possibilities that you speak of?
RDB: No, my father’s absence was a circumstance that black males in America unfortunately just deal with far too often. But what our community fails to acknowledge is that the whole idea of “[it takes] a village to raise a child,” references the need for a number of mentors and adult figures in a child’s life. We talk about the absence of a father being the cause of delinquency as if these are the model or ideal fathers who are missing, or as if we aren’t aware of a simple fact of success: it’s the product of multiple mentors and opportunities—never just one.
Q: Many parents who read your book whose sons are also smart, curious, and restless as you were may want to know how they can deter their teens from a similar moment of “insanity.” What advice would you offer parents?
RDB: Statistically, black parents, even of middle incomes, are more likely to live in high crime areas. That means that there will be crime and violence in their world that other kids don’t have to navigate. But more importantly, this means that the parents have to introduce their children to a world broader than their neighborhood. There has to be more than just a push for intelligence, there has to be the cultivating of mentors and the confronting of life’s complexity and harshness head-on.
Q: Aside from the prison thorough line, what about Etheridge Knight’s writing appeals to you?
RDB: Knight is a poet of great skill. He has very obvious formal tendencies, but is such a good craftsman that it’s easy to not notice how some of his poems have regular rhymes and always a strong play upon the phonetic sounds words create. But then too, Knight always wrote poetry worth breath. At his best, he wrote things I wish I’d had the wisdom to think of and say before I’d read his work.
Q: Why did you choose the poem “Shahid Reads His Own Palm” to open your memoir? Tell me what’s significant about this poem, what’s happening?
“I come from Friday night’s humid and musty air,
Junk Yard Bank cranking heavy in a stolen Bonneville,
a tilted bottle of Wild Irish Rose against my lips,
and King Hedley’s secret written in the lines of my palm.”
RDB: It’s just a poem of remembrance, but remembering a personal history and recognizing that the future is often coded in the way we see our histories. With that point, I wanted to collage all of these disparate parts of a person’s identity and life to create a piece that I hope echoes with many folks, echoing where they come from and where they may be going.
Q: You mention King Hedley’s secret in this poem, a reference to one of August Wilson’s plays. Is King Hedley’s secret a reference to fatherhood?
RDB: King Hedley’s secret is definitely about fatherhood, but more than that it’s about this mistaken idea that we get all of who we are from our fathers, or that we don’t play a role in deciding whom we will let father us. In Two Trains Running, King Hedley II believed a man was his father who wasn’t, and he framed his identity, in part, around this man’s violence. At the end of the play, the question becomes how different would his life had been if he’d known the truth, and how different would his life been had he chosen a different truth to hold on to.
Q: Redemption is one of the unsaid themes flowing through your work. How do you reconcile all of your success with your moment of “insanity” which informs your narrative?
RDB: Every life has a journey at its center, and as someone who has had a public moment of insanity, I’ve been able to always remain conscious of my journey. I don’t feel a need to reconcile my success with my failures—I’ve come to realize that I can’t allow myself to be defined by my failures, by my crime in particular. My success is more a product of a lot of blessings, good fortune, and hard work.
Q: In what ways, has your life changed since the publication of A Question of Freedom?
RDB: Honestly, my life has been changing since the moment I committed myself to being a writer. The publication of the book has allowed me to travel and recognize how important words are in the lives of others, and how important it is for me to be aware of how I use words. I’ve met more people, in more places than I would have without the book and I like to think that, in going inside of prisons, detention centers, in reading at universities and book stores, I have taken steps to doing what good writing always does—that is give voice to those who can’t speak for themselves and add a bit of awareness to people willing to look for it.
Abdul Ali is a culture writer. His commentaries and reviews appear in TheRoot, Essence, NPR, and Black Issues Book Review. Visit his site, www.poetscorneronwpfw.wordpress.com