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The Official Black History Month Prison Tour
The Official Black History Month Prison Tour
By: Malikah Hameen
So, I get a call from Lizz Straight telling me that she wants to spend Black History Month touring as many prisons in Florida as she can and she’s asking me to come aboard. It’s ironic because at the time I was outlining a three part prison support program for the Jacksonville chapter of FTP Movement. She gives me a list of dates that she has secured and asks how many I would be available for. I tell her I’m down to hit them all. She’s excited about doing the work and about how many people she has gotten to get on board. I share in her excitement but caution her to not expect too much from others. I remind her that it is our mission to liberate our people, but for some it really is just poetry.
Time passes quickly and before I know it the first date on the tour is here. It’s Saturday February 17th and my alarm goes off at 4 am. All of the “confirmed” poets from Jacksonville cancel and Lizz asks me if I’m still down to roll. “I’m a soldier!” I remind her, “My showing up is not contingent on what anyone else does.” So I get dressed, wrap my locks, and head out to Hamilton Correctional in the not so friendly town of Jasper, FL. And as fate would have it, my mapquest directions only lead me to the city, but not directly to the prison. So, as I am exiting I-75 North I call Lizz only to realize that her metro phone is too far out of range. I pull over to a convenience store only to have the three cars of traveling poets and revolutionaries from Tampa pull up right behind me. All is well. We get out and greet each other and then continue on to our destination. As we get closer we begin to pass dilapidated houses, open fields, railroad tracks, and finally a grave yard. My heart gets heavy and all I can think about is the genius of our oppressor to have been able to recreate chattel slavery and even mimic the look of southern plantations. The energy feels too familiar.
We pull into the prison parking lot and are greeted by Mrs. Daniels who prepares us to go inside. Tensions are high. For many this will be the first time that they have entered a prison and from what we are being told we are not being welcomed with open arms. We are searched and led to the chapel of the main building where the first program is to be held. The guard gives us small alarms and we are told that if any disturbance breaks out we should press the button and defend ourselves. I remind everyone that these are our people and that we are here to give them what the prison seeks to take away… love and dignity and that there is no need for fear. And then it happens, an ocean of Black Men pours into the chapel and I am awed by their beauty and overwhelmed by the number of us that they are holding captive. I already know that this will be an emotion filled day.
The program begins with a brother singing an old church hymn. The energy builds quickly as he calls others up on stage to join him. Everyone looses their anxiety. It isn’t long before Lizz is called up. She greets the brothers with love and explains why we’re there. We are eight poets strong and begin with Wally B who does a poem about the hardships that are faced after prison. The brothers can relate and are comforted. He is followed up by Daniel, Sin, and Richard. Sonya turns up the fire with a lyrical flow unmatched by many and then its Blackberry’s turn. None of us, not even her, was ready for what was about to happen. She sang a song about her life growing up the with a crack addicted mother and an absentee father entitled “Through a Childs Eyes” that stirred up the emotions of everyone present. Before I knew it I had a stream of tears running down my face and as I looked around I realized I was not alone. Lizz recited “Mississippi” and spoke of the racial tensions of the South. Lastly, it was my turn to speak. I wanted to begin with a poem, but instead what came out of my mouth was “You’re Beautiful!” I said it over and over again and it became obvious that many had never heard those words. The title of the program was “From Slavery to Freedom” and I cautioned the brothers to be mindful of how we think of ourselves. I reminded them that regardless of what is told our history did not begin with enslavement. I reminded them that yesterday doesn’t exist and all that matters is today and the possibility of tomorrow. Bars alone could not hold back the power of the Creator. And, then finally I too did a poem.
Throughout the day we would visit three different areas of Hamilton. By the time we made it to our second stop we were feeling rather unwelcomed by the guards. They were all around, pacing back and forth, and limiting the movements and expressions of the brothers. While I had been able to keep my head covered during our first visit I was quickly made to remove my wrap before continuing any further. Our emotions ran high as we watched an elder that could have easily been in his mid to late seventies wheeled up to the stage. He was helped to the podium and while we were sitting there feeling saddened by his condition he taught us all a lesson about what freedom truly is. He told us that he was free. Said that too many of us want freedom without doing the work and then he proceeded to sing “Lord Don’t Move my Mountain, Just Give Me the Strength to Climb.” Spirit overcame us and we gave honor to the majesty of The Divine. Everyone left with a renewed sense of self and knowledge of how much work needs to be done.
We had only been able to get one of the women’s facilities to agree to let us come in and as fate would have it they called the morning of the program to advise us that they had declined. The reason given, too many people on the list with criminal backgrounds and even though there were many who did not have them they just decided not go ahead with the program. It makes one wonder what the conditions of our sisters behind enemy lines are to have received such opposition.
Now, the date is February 22nd and we are scheduled to speak at both Polk and Desoto Correctional. As expected, all of the other poets are “unavailable” and it is just Lizz and I. I decided not to wrap my hair this time only to be greeted with a totally different energy. We walk into the chapel at Polk and find it decked out in royal RBG fashion! Red, Black, and Green streamers are hanging from the ceiling, there is a large Black History Month banner hung above the stage, pictures of our freedom fighters line the walls, and there is even a bulletin board with little know Black History facts! There is a full band on stage and as much as we were prepared to share with our brothers they were equally as prepared to share with us. Brother Khatib X takes the stage and masterfully delivers two poems “I Went to Prison and Found Religion” and “That One Bad Chick.” By this time Lizz and I are totally crunk! We engaged in an intense back and forth display of poetry and performed our heart outs for our beautiful brothers and shared tears as I discussed the love that we as sisters have for them and how much our children need them. I performed my poem “Bag Lady” as Lizz and the band backed me up with the Erykah Badu classic. Before we left we had them screaming “I AM BEAUTIFUL!” Surprisingly we were presented with certificates of appreciation. And we left with a commitment of returning for two other dates to continue our work.
We leave Polk and head out on the two hour ride to Desoto Correctional. By the time we arrive we are tired and sore, but all of that would soon change. Without being searched we are escorted out to the yard where no less than 1200 brothers were waiting for us. The gates opened and we were greeted by a band of Muslim brothers ready and waiting to escort us through the crowd and to our seats. Above Lizz’s seat is an elaborately drawn picture of her dressed in a dashiki and sporting the Angela Davis afro with the words to her poem “Black Butterfly” surrounding it. The corners of the poster were adorned with black fist holding a burning spear! In an effort to show their gratitude for all the work she’s done they gave several reggae performances in dedication. The sun was blazing and we were sweat drenched standing in the middle of an enormous sea of Black Men. The energy was intoxicating and before we began I poured a libation asking for the energy of our blood line Ancestors and freedom fighters to join us in this place of bondage. We engaged in an exchange of love and expression. Again, the mission had been successful.
By this time we had spoke and performed at three prisons in the course of five days leading up to our Black History Month finale at Coleman Federal Prison where political prisoners Dr. Mutulu Shakur and Veronza Bowers Jr. are being held. February 24th is a day that we will all remember for many years to come. This time Lizz and I were joined by Daniel, Sin, and Exotica. We arrived at 9 am and were placed in a waiting room for several hours awaiting the arrival of other comrades coming from Atlanta, Virginia, and even as far away as New York. Slowly the trickling in of people began. A van pulled up and out of if came the father of Shaka Zulu of the Disturbing the Peace Family, Dr. AK Umoja of Malcolm X Grass Roots and the head of African-American Studies at Georgia State, Baba Jamal, and a host of other MC’s, poets, and activist. We were all searched, stamped, and escorted down a long corridor that would eventually lead to the yard. As we got closer we began to see clusters of men gathered in the halls greeting us with black fist raised and smiles. We entered the chapel and were greeted by Dr. Mutulu Shakur. He was surrounded by many brothers and introduced us to his media team, hospitality team, and team of escorts. We sat and listened as he went over the agenda for the day. There was to be two concerts, one out on the yard and an evening performance in the chapel that we had gathered in. Papers were handed out listing workshops that would be going on through out the day that we were instructed to sign up for. He was excited to see us and lead us out into the yard where a blues band was playing.
The energy was high and with a lack of guard presence I almost forgot that we were in a prison. It was a party and one of the best celebrations of Black culture that I had seen in a long time. The bands rotated from blues, to reggae, to Latin, to go-go. We performed poetry in between band performances and spent the rest of the time on our feet dancing. Others who were not there to perform were lead back inside to help facilitate such workshops as “The Healing Process” and “The Media’s Role.” While the go-go band was playing and the brothers were demonstrating the “Hee-Haw”, a dance out of D.C., Dr. Mutulu Shakur decided to aid in the demonstration and I gladly joined him! Shaka Zulu’s father spoke about seeing the faces of his grandchildren as he looked out into the eyes of the brothers standing on the yard. Baba Jamal spoke about the trap that is waiting for them once they are released and cautioned them to not fall victim to it again.
Energy and spirit filled, we are moved back into the chapel. It is announced that Jah Rule and Chaz of The Black Hand are on their way. And, while I am excited for the brothers because I know this will mean a lot to them I am wondering how it is that they choose to show up over six hours late and miss all of the work that was being done during the day. We get the program started before their arrival and it is brought to a halt as Jah Rule and his entourage walk through the crown shaking hands and taking their seats around the stage. Jah Rule takes the microphone and begins by saying that it’s good to be here and proceeds to explain that he didn’t bring any of his music and that he is not quite prepared with something to say which leaves me to wonder what his purpose in being here really is. At the urgence of the crowd he performs a capella speaking of his money, jewelry, and women. Not one word about the brothers is given. Not one thing uplifting and inspirational is said and, again I question his motives for being there. A part of me wants to thank Jah Rule for taking time out of his busy schedule to be with the brothers, but I find that hard to do when the reality is it’s a deed he’s obligated to fill. These are our people. So, instead, I will say that it would have been nice to see a little less Hollywood and a little more activism. It would have been nice to hear a little less about bling and a little more about liberation. It would have been nice to hear a little less about Jah Rule and a little more about the prison industrial complex. And lastly I will say that at the end of the day I pray it was more about our people and less about a photo opportunity.
Before leaving we were fed an elaborately prepared meal by the brothers. We fellowshipped and exchanged information and thus began the road to an ongoing prison support program. By this time it was a little after 9 pm and I was headed back on my four hour drive to Jacksonville. Tired and inspired I reflected back on the work that had been done and began mapping out a plan for continued work in the future. I called in to Lizz’s “Poetry Is” radio show and gave shouts out to all the brothers we had come into contact with letting them know they would not be forgotten. I recited a poem for them and encouraged them to write to us. As of today Lizz has received over 35 letters.
We started out with a mission to do a Black History Month prison tour and ended with a renewed commitment to making sure that the walls of this new modern day plantation are broken down and that our brothers and sisters come out whole men and women!
DARE TO STRUGGLE… DARE TO WIN!
"African champions must break the chain that links African ideas to European ones and listen to the voice of the ancestors without European interpreters."
-Jacob Carruthers, "Mdw Ntr"
Ma ku Mbôngi, ka matômbulawanga za ko.
"The community's political institution does not borrow foreign dialects to discuss its' political matters or to educate its' members"
- Kikongo proverb
I am too lazy to set my status.
too lazy to select my mood...
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