The Pledge of Allegiance, Little White Lies, and All that Jazz!

It has been more than 50 years since I was in elementary school in the New York City public school system, yet I remember, word for word, the “Pledge of Allegiance.”  At this time, I thought nothing of it, but more than 30 years had passed when I last recited it.  I was at an event, a graduation, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was on the Program.  Without hesitation, I recited the Pledge, word for word.  I then thought, what a number had been done on me, enculturating and indoctrinating me as a child!  (James Clavell deconstructs the Pledge in The Children’s Story.)

Similarly, when I was in middle school, I remember studying World War II, in which my father, a native Southern son, was drafted as a teenager.  Specifically, I remember the lesson of the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Beyond the facts, the instructor said that dropping the bombs on these two Japanese cities were necessary and “saved American lives,” that is, the war ended sooner.  We didn’t learn anything about how 127,000 Japanese Americans, the majority U.S. citizens, were interred in concentration camps in the western interior of the country after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

In this country, I was born and designated a “Negro” (on my original birth certificate) at the very beginning of the Decisive Decade (the 1960s), where leaders, Black and White, were assassinated, where there was unrest on the streets.  The mythical Camelot of JFK’s short presidency morphed into LBJ’s Great Society, until Richard Nixon, running for the presidency, declared the modern War on Crime (1968), stating that the Great Society had become “lawless.”  (This is part of the origin story of mass incarceration, but that’s another story.)

That year, 1968, was pivotal.  Although a child, I remember not only the Pledge of Allegiance, but also the slogans of the Black Power Movement, and the hit songs of James Brown – “Say it loud: I’m Black and I’m proud!”  I also remember the assassination of Dr. King, and the refrain of the adults: “They killed another good Black man!”  I was 7 years of age, but from the adults’ response to Dr. King’s assassination, I knew that something cataclysmic had occurred, something that has continued to reverberate in American life and politics, and recently resurfaced in the Culture Wars.

The so-called Culture Wars is a nod to white supremacy, buttressed by “little white lies.”  Those opposed to Critical Race Theory prefer the sanitized and mythological version of American history, where even Rebels who seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America are memorialized with monuments and statues, as if they are heroes, not villains!  Nowhere in the annals of history, except these here United States, to my knowledge, do “losers” in a Civil War get to tell a counter-narrative about what exactly happened.  In short, the Union, hellbent on reuniting the Union, let the Confederate States of America reimagine slavery, in the form of sharecropping, segregation, and a Penal Code that took advantage of the Exception (to slavery) Clause.  (Another part of the origin story of mass incarceration.)

Many white Americans are nostalgic about the “good ol’ days,” but the good ol’ days were very bad, and not only for Black Americans, but also for people of color, including the Japanese, and the Chinese.

I’m not surprised that part of this so-called Culture War is being waged in elementary school.  If we plant certain ideas in fertile young minds, they will grow and proliferate, and we have no such Treaty with ourselves about the Nonproliferation of Propaganda and Little White Lies.

Posted in Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, crime, Growing Up, John F. Kennedy, Justice Chronicles, Lest We Forget, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Patriotism, Politics, raising black boys, Revolution, Slavery, Streets of Rage, urban decay, Urban Impact | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Racial Reckoning & Reparations

As a society, we (Americans) have talked about a “racial reckoning,” and reparations for the descendants of Africans who built this country.  Neither a racial reckoning nor reparations have happened.

A racial reckoning has not happened because most white folk think the very idea is punitive, that they should not be punished for the sins of their fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers and great grandfathers and great grandmothers, not to mention their sins of today….  But as Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has stated in talk after talk, the racial reckoning is not about punishing white folk.  Most importantly, the racial reckoning has not happened because we have not developed a language to talk about race, to have a conversation across the racial divide (chasm).  It’s not impossible to create a racial Esperanto, a language that Black and White speak and understand, a language that doesn’t imply that Black is evil and White is pure, a language that doesn’t judge or condemn, a language that is not steeped in anger from historical wrongs that haunt us to this day, a language devoid of “little white lies” and white supremacist notions, a language that isn’t burdened by living history.

We live in the shadows of this history, most of it unreconciled, unreconciled because there’s been no racial reckoning, unreconciled because there’s been no reparations – the two go hand in hand.

Reparations haven’t been paid because there’s a disconnect in white thinking that the wealth of America was not built, in large part, on the unpaid labor of Africans and their descendants.  In fact, this is the very foundation of America’s wealth.

W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the “gift of sweat and brawn” that Africans brought to this land.  America is not a great nation simply because of white folk.  America is a great nation because of her Black and Brown people.  America’s greatness has nothing to do with Manifest Destiny and the White Man’s Burden.  When you think about it, in America, the burden has been borne by Black folk.

The racial reckoning must begin with lifting this burden.  This burden has become almost unbearable over the years because we have been telling the wrong stories, over and over again, stories that make white folk look good, stories where you don’t find bad white folk, as if they don’t exist.  This storytelling has become so distorted, that even villainous white people have been remembered as heroes, and memorials and statues have been erected in their names.  Additionally, we have to admit that much of American history that is taught to the masses, and exported overseas, is actually American mythology, built on “little white lies.”

Little white lies may have sustained America all these years, but it is the root cause of our discontent, on both sides of the racial aisle.  We must develop that racial Esperanto.  I know we can’t talk our way out of this, but the starting point is with a conversation, with a question.  My question to white folk: Why are some of you so afraid of Critical Race Theory?

Posted in Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, ezwwaters, Lest We Forget, race, Slavery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Constantly Evolving Lifespan: A Review of “This Life” by Quntos KunQuest

A life sentence in prison is life, that is, there is living to do in prison, even under a life sentence.  Quntos KunQuest, in his novel, This Life, demonstrates that life goes on inside of prison.  Since 1996, KunQuest has been living, and writing, in prison.

I have a long history and engagement with writing and writings from prison, with “prison literature.”  For a number of years, I volunteered with the American affiliate of PEN International, the writers’ organization, PEN America, in its Prison Writing Program (PWP).  As a poet, I sat on the subcommittee that judged poetry submissions from people in prisons and jails from across the nation for PEN’s annual Writing Awards contest.  I, myself, have garnered seven PEN Awards, and four Honorable Mentions, in poetry, drama, and nonfiction.

Writers and aspiring writers in prison would submit their works to the writing contest.  Aspiring writers often begin with poetry and soon, as John Steinbeck wrote, discover that it’s the most demanding form of writing, and move on to the short story, another demanding form of writing, and finally settle on the novel.  Nonetheless, poetry was and continues to be the most submitted to category for PEN’s annual awards contest.  Much is awful religious and love poetry.

In This Life, KunQuest is by terms poetic in his prose, though it is informed by Rap and Hip-Hop culture.  (The book, itself, is divided into “Verses,” not “Parts.”)  KunQuest is a “musician, rapper, visual artist and novelist.”  Note that KunQuest is not described as a poet, which bears mentioning, because there is a fine distinction between a rapper and a poet.

As I read This Life, it struck me how music deeply informs Black culture, wherever Black people are, on the plantation, or in the penitentiary.  KunQuest, born in 1976, the year America celebrated her 200th birthday, is deeply informed and formed by Rap.  As one of the main characters, Lil Chris, KunQuest’s alter ego, or better yet, a composite sketch of young Black men, goes through the brutal prison rite of passage, one sees the evolution of his Rap, from signifying about life on the streets in the Game to a more elevated social commentary, looking at the streets and how they serve as a pipeline to prison, the ultimate social control mechanism.  This social commentary critiques and deconstructs the prison-industrial complex and hyperincarceration (what we call “mass incarceration”), and the forces that led to the United States locking up more people in prison than any other nation in the world, and holding them for longer periods of time than any other nation in the world.

People writing from American prisons, from the very beginning of this uniquely American experiment, critiqued the prison system, as documented by James McGrath Morris in Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars.  These critiques have made it to the Academy as well as PEN America.  A number of years ago, my colleagues and I participated in an American Studies Association Conference panel we proposed, which was a presentation to argue “prison literature” into the canon of American literature.  And I recall conversations with members of the PWP Committee, where I articulated that I believed there was a writer somewhere in prison in America who was laboring over what could be the next “Great American Novel.”  I don’t think my fellow committee members were convinced of this, nor am I suggesting that This Life is that novel.  But This Life must be added to the canon of “prison literature.”  The author Rachel Kushner writes that “KunQuest has dreamed up, molded, hammered, and shaped a new mode of fiction: American, poetic, wonderfully free.”

From reading thousands of poems from prisons submitted to PEN’s annual writing contest, one would dig through a lot of rubbish, but would ultimately come across all kinds of jewels.  I would hazard a guess that there are jewels among all the other categories, even more remarkable in that the overwhelming majority of people writing from prison have no formal training or education as writers.  They have had to forge their craft in the fires of prison.  In fact, as Jimmy Santiago Baca, award-winning poet and educator, writes in an essay, “Coming Into Language,” in PEN’s anthology, Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, edited by the late Bell Gale Chevigny, a former Chair of PWP, people in prisons who have taken up the pen have had to emerge from the darkness of illiteracy into the light of literacy.

In This Life, KunQuest illuminates a cast of characters – to name a few: Lil Chris, Gary Law, No Love, and Mansa Musa – as memorable as characters in the best of fiction, including one of my favorite characters, Edmond Dantes, from The Count of Monte Cristo.  Though Alexandre Dumas’ novel is not thought of as a tale of crime and punishment, of reentry and reintegration, it is.  It is also a coming-of-age story, in prison.

One of the tragedies of the American penal system, is that, as Norman Mailer discovered when he was researching and writing The Executioner’s Song, and wrote in his introduction of Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast:

There is a paradox at the core of penology, and from it derives the thousand ills and afflictions of the prison system.  It is that not only the worst of the young are sent to prison, but the best – that is, the proudest, the bravest, the most daring, the most enterprising, and the most undefeated of the poor.  There starts the horror.

Out of the horrors of the prison system, in spite of, not because of, these proud, brave, and daring men are forged, only to languish in prison for their natural lives or the best years of their lives, only to die shortly after their release.

Rise, one of the main characters in This Life, who is ultimately released through a successful petition to the courts, gives an orientation to the new arrivals at Angola State Penitentiary, a former plantation, nicknamed “The Farm,” in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, the setting for this story.  He quotes Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, comparing God to a blacksmith.  “We are the metal.  The fires of the furnace are the trials of life….  The things we go through in life are what shapes us to become the people we are.”

What has shaped Quntos KunQuest?  What has shaped This Life

 In reading This Life, one will encounter real life characters and leaders who could give master classes on Constitutional Law, Civics, and Philosophy.  They are Lil Chris’ (KunQuest’s) mentors.  Despite the prospect of living their lives and dying on The Farm, these characters find purpose, and become conscious of the “infinite potential…of… [a] constantly evolving lifespan.”  As a society, we must redeem these lives.  Any outstanding debts owed to society can be paid through their contributing their talents to society, not spending the rest of their lives in prison.

Posted in crime, Education, Growing Up, Justice Chronicles, Life Sentences, race, raising black boys | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present

My award-winning book.  Perfect reading or gift for this Black History Month!

This Black History Month, read by award-winning book. It’s available on Amazon.

Posted in Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass, Education, ezwwaters, race | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Treatment Not Jail – “Fostering Benevolence”

In October of last year, I had the honor of appearing on a Podcast, Treatment Not Jail, to talk about this issue as well as others connected to the criminal legal system. Please check it out!

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“The Jailhouse Lawyer,” by James Patterson and Nancy Allen

As I was working on my collection of short stories, “One Day in the Life of a Jailhouse Lawyer,” I got a notification that James Patterson, along with Nancy Allen, had released a novel, The Jailhouse Lawyer.  Patterson is a master storyteller, and has created a cottage industry of best sellers, on his own and collaborating with various authors, even former president Bill Clinton.

The title of the “new” Patterson novel, published in 2021, piqued by interest.  Would the novel truly be about a jailhouse lawyer?  I have met amazing jailhouse lawyers who could hold their own in any court against prosecutors with the vast resources of the State behind them.  In fact, I know a jailhouse lawyer, now a practicing attorney, who scored high on the LSAT while he was still in prison.  There are two other formerly incarcerated individuals I know who went on to law school, passed the Bar, and are practicing attorneys.

I have read almost everything by Patterson, and I believe that a good writer can write on almost any subject, despite the fact that when people take up pens to write, they are almost always instructed to, “write about what you know.” I wondered if Patterson was in a lane he should not have been.

Most of us have heard that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, which basically means, “Don’t judge a book by its title.”  So, I kept an open mind, as any good juror or reviewer should, and suspended judgment until I finished The Jailhouse Lawyer.

The main character, Martha Foster, does not become a member of the jailhouse lawyer profession in any way resembling the typical path: arrested, tried, convicted and given a lengthy sentence, and later learning about all the legal niceties, including the U.S. Constitution, that was not followed in one’s case, and setting out on a quest for justice, studying the law like one’s life depended on it, and in many ways one’s life itself is at stake.  Foster, like a good jailhouse lawyer, takes on a  criminal legal system in Erva, Alabama, that’s corrupt to the core, and is similar to most court systems in the United States, where the main characters are zealous career prosecutors, indifferent if not incompetent defense counsel in cahoots with the prosecution and the court, and judges that fancy themselves “king makers” and boast about their conviction rate, a sure sign that justice is not being administered in that judge’s court.

Foster, not indifferent nor incompetent, becomes the public defender in Erva, Alabama, and she quickly realizes that if she does not get with Judge Pickens’ program, who says from the bench, “We have our own system in Douglas County,” then she’s going to have a hard time in Douglas County Court with Judge Pickens presiding.  And you can bet, if a jailhouse lawyer is involved, then the system more than likely failed people at every stage of the process.

In law school, Foster earned the nickname, “Jailhouse Lawyer.”  She “was arrested at a civil rights protest in Selma for getting mouthy with a cop, and was held overnight in the local jail.” No charges were filed against Foster, but she spent that night in jail listening to stories of injustice and dispensing legal advice.

Later in the story, because Foster does not get with the program of Judge Pickens, she is held in contempt of court and sent to the local lockup.  There, the jailer, Jesse Robertson, as complicit as the court, raises his voice in the common area for all the incarcerated women to hear, as he introduces Foster, “You bunch of skanks got y’all a genuine jailhouse lawyer in here.”  Of course, Foster helps a woman or two.

During her short stint in the county jail, Foster experiences the psychological and physical torment of incarceration, what criminologists euphemistically call “the pains of imprisonment,” which only strengthens her resolve not to get with the program of Judge Pickens, and to bring him down.

Far too many members of the Bar, prosecutors and defense counsel, simply get with the program, prosecutors seeking convictions at any costs, including knowingly using false testimony, over that sacrosanct role of seeking justice; and defense counsel are almost as overwhelmed by the criminal legal system as are the people charged with crimes; and judges, for the most part, turn a blind eye to injustice, or knowingly and willingly allow injustice to prevail in their court.

Foster, practically through a trial of ordeal, experiences firsthand what happens when injustice goes unchecked.  She is better positioned than most jailhouse lawyers to do something about this corrupt court.

The jailhouse lawyers I know who became practicing attorneys can speak to the book’s ending: “Sometimes the best education a lawyer can have is a…stretch of hard time.”  Now imagine a criminal legal system where prosecutors, defense counsel, and even judges are held accountable for not seeing evenhanded justice done.  Now imagine them behind bars.

Posted in crime, ezwwaters, Justice Chronicles | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

A Time to Live

Today our baby brother, Whitney, NOT Houston, turns 55 in Paradise.  Although Whitney is no longer with us on this physical plane, he lives on in our hearts and minds.

If you know my brother, then you know he’s a comedian.  Every couple of days, I smile or chuckle or laugh out loud thinking about something by brother said.  Right now he’s visiting  Coolio in Gangsta’s Paradise, and they’re having a good laugh.

I try not to think of shuffling off my mortal coil, but when you reach a certain age you know sooner rather than later you’re going to meet your Maker.  I almost always imagined that my baby brother would speak at my Homecoming, and I imagined him saying something funny and people laughing, because we should live our lives like Comedy, knowing that there will be tragic moments, but that, in the final analysis, life is for living, and laughing.

As it was, on behalf of our family, I spoke at our brother’s Homecoming, concluding with a lyric from the signature song of my junior high school chorus, from Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning”:

Wasn’t it me who said that

Nothing good’s gonna last forever?

And wasn’t it me who said

Let’s just be glad for the time together?

We are glad for the time we shared together with our baby brother.

When it’s my time to join my brother, if you attend my Homecoming service, then please share a time I made you smile, chuckle or laugh out loud.


Posted in raising black boys, Streets of Rage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Emmett Till — On this day in history, August 28, 195…

…Emmett till was kidnapped and murdered.

In my latest collection of poetry, “The Black Blood of Poetry,” which I am shopping around, the title poem begins with the murder of Emmett Till. For those not familiar with poetic forms, “The Black Blood of Poetry” utilizes the Pantoum, a Malay form, which lends itself to eulogies:

His beaten and bloated corpse for the world to see.

Look what white folk did to this little Black Boy!

“No way I could describe what was in that box!”

Mamie Till Bradley said of what had been her son.

Look what white folk did to that little Black Boy,

This “’Chicago boy,’ stirring up trouble” in Ole Miss.

Mamie Till Bradley said of what had been her son,

Beaten beyond recognition, pistol-whipped with a gun.

This “’Chicago boy,’ stirring up trouble” in Ole Miss,

White Citizens’ Council of America members declare.

Beaten beyond recognition, pistol-whipped with a gun –

Lynched as an example for which white folks do stand.

White Citizens’ Council of America members declare,

Violence as a tool to keep Black folk in their place –

Lynching as an example for which white folks do stand.

His beaten and bloated corpse for the world to see.

In the Blood Cotton Fields of Ole Miss,

Perhaps a clue to Till’s kidnapping unearthed.
The Association’s Field Secretary, disguised as a cotton picker,

Makes his way through red soil fecund with Black blood.

A clue to Till’s kidnapping unearthed in the Blood Cotton fields of Ole Miss?

The River, his penultimate resting place, his beaten and bloated body buoyed,

Floating, not wading in the water – not found in the soil fecund with Black blood.

Look what white folk did to that little Black Boy!

The River, his penultimate resting place, his beaten and bloated body buoyed,

Revealed, a Testament of white Southern violence writ large on Black bodies.

Look what white folk did to that little Black Boy!

An Apocalyptic American Nightmare, foreshadowing the fire next time.

A Testament of white Southern violence writ large on Black Bodies –

Burn, baby, burn, white folk sing as beaten Black bodies burn on bonfires of hate,

An Apocalyptic American Nightmare, foreshadowing the fire next time,

War in the Blood Cotton fields of Ole Miss.

Posted in Lest We Forget, Murder, Politics, race, raising black boys | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Nineteen Sixties

I have written elsewhere about the “Decisive Decade,” a phrase coined by Samuel Yette, about the 1960s.  I found this poem, “SOS,” by Imamu Amiri Baraka, in The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall, in the section about poetry of the 1960s.  Given the mass murder in Buffalo by a white supremacist, and the “replacement theory” crap espoused by these white supremacists, I thought this poem by Baraka is as relevant today as it was when he wrote and published it.


Calling black people

Calling all black people, man woman child

Wherever you are, calling you, urgent, come in

Black people, come in, wherever you are, urgent, calling

you, calling all black people

calling all black people, come in, black people, come

on in.

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My Friend Kathy Boudin

News of Kathy Boudin’s demise quickly spread, as quickly as news spreads through the prison grapevine, and I had hoped that it was greatly exaggerated!  When I Googled “death of Kathy Boudin,” many articles popped up on my screen, far too many from the Crass Media.  I chose not to read any of them beyond the headlines.  I also glanced at the pictures.  In one of them: Kathy as a mother in prison in Bedford Hills Correctional facility, her son, Chesa, on her lap. I stopped at that picture.  That’s how I want to remember Kathy, not from a mug shot.

I met Kathy shortly after she was released from prison in 2003.  We became fast friends.  We both shared a passion for justice, and a love of poetry.  Poetry is everything: it’s philosophical; it’s political; it’s prophetic; it’s probing; it’s penetrating.  Poetry is also about love, a love that burns so bright it sets the world on fire, and it’s revolutionary.

I’m often taken aback how in a country that has its roots in a revolution, how almost any talk of revolution is thought subversive.  One of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, said, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”

Kathy spent a generation in prison.  When she was released, immediately she thought of the women she left behind at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, far too many with lengthy sentences, far too many the survivors of abuse and exploitation, on the outside, which often led them to prison, only to continue inside.  The passion for justice, and the love Kathy possessed for the women she left behind, led Kathy to continuing her education and earning a PhD at Columbia University, and to found a justice organization at Columbia.  While pursuing her education, Kathy was involved in advocacy for justice, specifically around executive clemency and parole., for the women she left behind at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Kathy and I shared many stages, and although our parole advocacy is one thing I’m most proud of, there were other platforms where we got to be poets and read poetry.  We supported the work of PEN America’s Prison Writing Program (PWP), and showed up at PWP ceremonies honoring people writing from prisons and jails, reading their award-winning works.  When Kathy and I last talked, we talked about getting together for a “poetry night,” to read our works to each other, as well as other poets.

When I was teaching at York College, I invited Kathy to speak at my class, “The Psychological Impact of Mass Incarceration on Society and Families.”  The students often Googled the guest speakers I was bringing.  One student, whose father was in law enforcement, after Googling Kathy, said, “You’re bring her to speak at our class!”  Or course Kathy showed up.  She won over that student as well as all the other students who couldn’t help but feel her burning passion for justice.

One event with Kathy stands out.  Her son, Chesa Boudin, invited me and his mother to the Rebellious Lawyers’ Conference at Yale Law School, where he was a student, to talk about our parole advocacy work.  I could see how he was so proud of his mother, and she, of course, was very proud of her son.  Years later, Chesa would introduce his mother when she delivered the 19th Annual Rose Sheinberg Lecture on the politics of parole and reentry at New York University Law School.  It was a great introduction.  Just having Kathy at that lectern was revolutionary.  We both knew about the insidious intrusion of politics in the criminal legal and punishment system, and specifically how it was impacting parole determinations which, to this day, are arbitrary and capricious.

Kathy, in her legacy, leaves us a blueprint on how to “do justice.”  People in the Crass Media who would simply reduce this remarkable woman to a crime – shame on you!  If you look at some of the body of work of Kathy, you’ll see that she was big on “accepting responsibility.”  She didn’t make excuses.  She didn’t pick up and throw stones at people. Like the chronicler in one of my poems, “Chronicling Sing Sing Prison,” Kathy looked to dismantle an unjust criminal legal system built with stones of law, stone by stone, stone by stone.

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