IN CASE ANYONE WANTS 2 KNOW!
I am a writer, and from a very young age, I clearly understood that this obsession would either purify or crucify me. To date, it has done both but neither the purification nor the crucifixion has made my literary journey any less troubling. What else truly puzzles me sometimes is that I don’t honestly know if writing has ruined my life or if my life has ruined my writing. Either way, it—this obsession– struck early.
As a boy, I toyed with the alphabets like most kids my age played with marbles, and before long I had discovered how to make them perform their magic for me. I became so intimate with their immense power and glory that I was able to entice, arouse and to finally seduce them until they gave birth to all the fantasies that lived inside my head even though I was well aware that I would have to pay a terrible price for this intimacy. Lord knows, I have paid my dues. However, I am still enslaved and I imagine I will forever be so enslaved until I tell the tale of who I am and how I fashioned the writer I now am.
I was born on a Monday that rained. It was September 1, 1952—Labor Day—and for the next twelve years, lived in exactly the same place where I had been born; a brown, three-roomed, shotgun shack sandwiched between poverty and pain in a run-down Charlotte slum.
Even as a child, everyone proudly believed that I was destined for greatness. I was celebrated, the most beloved nigga on Sixth Street, the peewee Messiah who was going to make shit happen once I got big enough to make it do what it do. How little did they know.
I had been a brilliant kid, equipped with all the mental tools required to claw my way to the top. By the time I was ten, I had won numerous awards for my writings, had read more books at the public library than any other child in the city, and was probably the only nigga in town with a desk and a typewriter. I was a whiz at Scrabble while most of the other children on my block struggled with spelling their own names, and I had completed my first novel by the time I was twelve. Yeah, I could have been something special, but when I was thirteen, the lure of the streets become so alluring that I adopted it as my new home. A year later, I was in reform school for assaulting a police officer.
While at Stonewall Jackson Training School, I was the first black deemed smart enough to work in the Print Shop where I became a prized reporter for the institutional newspaper. I fell in love with the intoxicating scent of fresh ink on paper, but after serving a year and a day writing all the chain-gang news that was fit to print , I hit the block with a vengeance that was beyond my years. With hardly any delays, I embarked on a personal crime spree where I enjoyed nothing more than starting my day off by breaking the law.
At fifteen, I was tried as an adult and sentenced to prison although I was still a juvenile. At Polk Youth Center, I was the youngest convict there, but I rapidly evolved into Public Enemy Number One. I held the record for going to the “Hole” for rule violations such as fighting, extortion, and my all-time favorite, starting a riot. It was at the Youth Center that I met a teacher, Maurice Baker, who became my mentor. He encouraged me while the other teachers despised me. He taught me words that I never knew existed. He taught me to approach the dictionary with a reverence that today remains unmatched except by my awe for the Holy Quran. It was Mr. Baker who talked the education department into letting me take the GED at sixteen rather than to wait until I was eighteen which was the legal age. As expected, I passed. Shortly, after my graduation, I took over the Sunday morning church services with the Superintendent and his wife in attendance and announced that “the white man was the devil. I burned down the cornfields, went to solitary confinement, wrote my first play, turned militant, and when released from prison at nineteen, went to New York to join the Black Panthers where I was to be the editor of their newspaper.
What I ultimately discovered in Harlem, though, was heroin and I immediately turned my back on both writing and the revolution. I was a junkie so what else was I to do? Yet, I never stopped writing. I returned home in desperate need of a fix for my life, so I enrolled in a government-sponsored program called CEP which was designed to teach inner-city kids a trade. To be quite honest, I wasn’t very good at dry-walling, and when my counselor wanted to know why I was squandering such a golden opportunity, I told him that I wanted to write. He then challenged me. He requested that I let him look at some of my work and that if it was good enough, he would introduce me to a friend of his who might be able to assist me. This is what happened.
“And you think I’m that big a fool to sit here and tell you that I honestly believe that it was you that wrote this?” S.W., a tall, blond, counselor at CEP, shook the sheath of notebook paper like it was a poisonous viper he wanted to strangle. ”Do I actually look that stupid to you?”
I didn’t flinch at the counselor’s temper tantrum although I didn’t appreciate the fact that the white motherfucka talked to me like I was a mentally-retarded stepchild.
“After all,” the counselor ranted, “what sense does it make to try to take credit for something that you know good and damn well you didn’t do?”
“But I did do it,” I said calmly. “It was me that wrote that shit.”
Upon hearing that, the counselor’s face turned beet red. He pointed his finger angrily. “They got a word for what you’ve just done. It-it’s called plagiarism.” He gazed at me in utter contempt. “So my instincts didn’t fail me. I’ve always suspected that you were a crook of one sort or another.” He glared across the desk. “Stealing ideas is no better that stealing a ham from the deli. Neither belongs to you.”
“I wrote that shit,” I argued. “How many times I gotta keep telling you the same thang over and over again. I wrote that shit.”
“I see that you are going to remain faithful to that lie. Okay, I understand.” The counselor blew air through his nostrils heatedly. “Get out of my office and don’t come back. I’m terminating you from the program.” He shrugged casually. “Go play your silly games with someone else because I, for one, simply don’t have time for that sort of nonsense. It only serves to destroy my faith in mankind. Now, please…. just go.”
My face turned serious. “Why sugarcoat it? Yeah, I know what your problem is. You refuse to believe that a nigga can write that damn good.” I sneered. “You ain’t no different from the rest of your cracker friends. A’int none of y’all willing to give a nigga his due, think that all a black man is good for is stealing your shit and fucking your women.” I stood. “Well, for the motherfucking record, I ain’t got to steal shit and I can’t stand no white bitches. Truth be told, I wish y”all white motherfuckas didn’t even exist”
Without warning, SW jumped to his feet. “Leave!”
“Give me my shit and I’ll be glad to get the hell away from your racist ass.”
The white counselor glared at the paper liked it suggested that his life was about to come to an abrupt end. “Here, take it……and go.”
Snatching the papers, I shook them angrily in the counselor’s face. “One day,” I sneered, “the whole world gonna know I wrote this shit. They gonna know and then they gonna bow down.” I beat myself in the chest with my clenched fist. “One day everybody in this big, ol’ world we live in gonna know who the fuck I am.”
Stomping out of the cluttered office, I tore down the narrow hallway, slipped through the exit by the bathroom and made my way out in the fresh sunshine. I felt the need to vomit, to throw up all my pent-up frustrations, and to spit them out right there on the cracked pavement where the flower-bed was aglow with roses in brilliant bloom.
Walking up Stonewall Street towards North Tryon, I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a direct link between people like SW and the universal belief that niggas weren’t capable of producing great works of art. Suddenly, I didn’t give a damn about what people thought. I could write my ass off.
“So be it,” I muttered to myself as I pitched my writings into the green dumpster in front of the Goodyear Tire Company. “So be it.”
Walking solemnly down North Tryon Street, I felt naked as if I had just shredded my soul, ripping my guts out in the process, leaving an ugly, open sore where my wounded heart should have been. Writing, for me, had been the only thing I could put my hands on that could help me understand the complexities of life. I felt that since I had just given up writing, nothing else in the world would matter because what else could there be that life could offer me that would possess the power to heal me? I was utterly convinced that there was nothing the universe, in all its awe-inspiring vastness, could dig up that would be better for me than writing.
The next day, I robbed a bank!
It was 1972 and although I robbed bank after bank, I felt that these robberies I committed were nothing compared to the robbery that had been committed against me. I had been robbed of my dreams. How could I live if I couldn’t write? Why would I choose to? Even though I sometimes now pretend that all is right and beautiful with the world, I still bleed from a thousand unseen literary wounds. How could I ever be free if I was not free to do what sets my soul on fire?! Instead, I have spent my life trapped inside a literary maze.
After serving ten years in the feds(1973-1983) for multiple bank robberies, two of which involved shoot-outs and high speed chases in broad daylight, I served another ten years(1983-1993) for a robbery I didn’t commit. Then I served another ten years in the feds (1997-2007) for being the alleged “king-pin” of a notorious heroin distribution ring.
In prison, I turned back to what I had turned my back on: writing. I studied journalism, started a writer’s colony, mentored other aspiring prison writers, four of whom are now published. I edited and founded various newsletters, performed freelance editorial services for outside writers while quietly perfecting my craft.
Hailed by some as one of the greatest prison writers ever, I was interviewed by numerous TV and print outlets. My writings have even been studied in an English class at an university where I was invited to lecture.
During my last bid. I wrote every day for 10 years and I was even placed in “the hole” for publishing my first book. The administration in the Atlanta pen said that what I did by publishing a book was tantamount to “running a business while confined”. I fought the case and after thirty days was let out of segregation, but this is what earned federal prisoners the right to publish a book without fear of reprisal. Now, federal prisoners would get a chance to have their say because of me. Maybe, that is a s good as it will get for me. Maybe my gift to the world of lit will be that I opened the door for prison writers.