ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Home (Books, DVDs, Music)
In jail, language breaks into little pieces; it ignores syntax and grammatical standards; it transgresses
for the sake of transgression. Speech imitates the retarded correlative of the environment.
Speech imitates the erasure of human rights, the compromising of civil rights
Books by Jerry W. Ward Jr.
* * * * *
Imprisonment in Holding Cells at Tulane and Broad
Seeing Things from Inside the Circle
TKP: Friday, July 14
I resist writing about my arrest and imprisonment in the famous holding cells at Tulane and Broad. When I was a scholar-in-residence at Talladega College, I spent several hours in a federal correctional institution, reading my poetry to some of the inmates and discussing Native Son with them. They were an intelligent group. In a different time and place, some of them might have been my friends, my colleagues. Until June 28, those brief visits, and a fact-finding inspection of a juvenile detention center, had been my only contact with the inner workings of a jail.
The experiences I had from the early morning of June 28 to the late afternoon of June 30 were so dehumanizing that I refused to acknowledge that they happened.
They did happen. They were complex. They were signs that within the criminal justice system the guards and the guarded abandon civilization. One guard who weighs 350 pounds walks the halls like a bull rhino.
The experiences were adorned with fears, the shock of verbal abuse, disgust, shame, sympathy for prisoners who suffered greater agony than I. The experiences resonated the Arab slave caravans over the hot sand and the European slave ships cutting the cold water of the Atlantic. Body odors, shit, piss, vomit. Privileged information about the thought patterns of the temporarily criminal men who are being initiated into permanent criminality and the permanently psychotic officers of the law who will never be mentally well until they die of natural or unnatural causes.
I can not lie and say the policemen arrested me under false pretenses. They did not. I broke a law. I can not lie and say that I still have respect for policemen and policewomen. I don’t. I don’t because they embody corruption of the worst kind. I respect the bravery of people who put their lives on the line 24/7 as they try to keep a semblance of order in this world. I do not expect them to behave normally, especially while they are having post-Katrina stress problems. When they become corrupt official agents of repression, when they cross that line, I have no respect for them. I have come to understand, much to my sorrow, why some people are very anxious to kill policemen, as if killing a policeman would solve a systemic problem. I can not lie and say the poisons that growing up segregated spread in my person, the matters I have long repressed about my Army service in Vietnam, and this new claustrophobia of jail have not enlarged my anger and hate. They have done a wonderful job of expanding my capacity to coil like a huge immortal serpent who is waiting for the right moment to strike any number of life problems.
In jail, language breaks into little pieces; it ignores syntax and grammatical standards; it transgresses for the sake of transgression. Speech imitates the retarded correlative of the environment. Speech imitates the erasure of human rights, the compromising of civil rights imitates the current postures of our government. Civil rights are dead. The New Orleans lockup is the site for enactments of America’s racial contract, and it is a laboratory for observing the dynamics of benign genocide. Abandon hope, charity, and faith all ye who enter Broad and Tulane.
Defecation and urine stuff non-working toilets. They complement the invisible filth that covers every inch of the lockup, the filth that wants to invade the bodies and the minds of the inhabitants. The smaller cells have benches along two walls. The larger cells have benches along three walls and a steel toilet behind a four foot privacy barrier.
One very large cell has two rooms and a shower that has non-working showerheads.
If more than two prisoners try to negotiate a cigarette behind the barrier, a guard may threaten to do something unpleasant to everyone in the cell. If the prisoners are negotiating marijuana deals behind or in front of the barrier, the guards say nothing. I am sure the guards can not sniff marijuana. The police academy modifies the brains of men and women so that they can no longer discriminate smells or segregate terror from discipline.
In the best case scenario, the guards supply the marijuana to carefully chosen dealers to minimize the number of prisoners who will act out. Those of us who do not smoke the reefers can have free contact highs to keep us calm. This primitive containment plan works poorly. Too many of the inmates opt not to be smoked into zombiehood.
Fifty or sixty men are shoved into cells designed to hold thirty. I think of the slave cells on the Isle of Goree. One cell in particular crawls and claws to the top of memory, the cell where the bravest African males were murdered. The biologically-altered Africans in the cells at Tulane and Broad in New Orleans are shadows of their ancestors; they are brave but they lack pristine bravery. Those who managed to retain pristine bravery are dead, or perhaps they are alive somewhere south of Key West, Florida.
Fifty or sixty men are in cells designed to hold thirty. When you are arrested, you do not expect luxury housing. Nevertheless, you do not expect housing that is fit only for animals, that ASPCA might condemn. You do not anticipate that for more than two days your identity as a human being will be contested and mocked. You are unprepared for vile intimacy. You do not anticipate that the most frequently used word at Tulane and Broad will be bitch.
In the lockup, bitch does not refer to a female dog. It refers to males whom other males scorn. The plain gender violation is not sufficient in the lockup. The word must be modified, and those most hated must be called pussy-bitches. Such language of outrage is addressed to the guards. It angers them, makes them less receptive to hearing any legitimate pleas from prisoners who are diabetic or who have other medical conditions that require monitoring. Let the men who unthinkingly call one another dawg suffer. In the minds of the guards, the bitches inside the cells can suffer. The guards gaze upon suffering with inhuman glee, their eyes glimmering like those of a predator. Their behavior is amoral. They are corrupt.
The Latinos huddle together and speak Spanish. Some of them do not understand the language around them. It has to be translated for them. The whites who have previous prison records conduct business smoothly with blacks who have prior knowledge of how to behave in prison. The blacks, whites, and Latinos who have never been in prison are forced to take a short-course in survival, to learn the business. I learn real fast.
Prisoners in the lockup are fed two sandwiches per day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Troubled with a drastic loss of revenue, the city of New Orleans and the parish of Orleans can not afford to feed prisoners more than that. The city must husband its borrowed dollars so it can afford to evacuate people when the next hurricane blows through the city.
If it were not an utter violation of human rights, I think the criminal justice system would not give prisoners any food and would force them to live on water. I eat nothing for two and a half days. I give my sandwiches to my comrades, my fellow prisoners who hunger for something more than white bread sandwiches. I can afford to lose a pound or two. Those who eat the sandwiches do not die, but I suspect that the bread and meat (or imitation meat) contains something which might induce behavior modification. I live on water alone for two and a half days.
One prisoner tells me he was beaten by the police before they brought him in. He is in pain. He begs me to help him get up from the floor. I help him to rise. The suffering must help the suffering to rise.
And I sleep in short stretches of no more than five minutes, either sitting on a bench, or sitting with trepidation on the floor, or standing up. My legs and back ache. The air bag slammed into my ribs when I totaled my car. Air bag. The air bag .Air bags are vicious lifesavers. The police who arrested me did take me to a hospital to have an examination before they brought me in handcuffs to Tulane and Broad. The law requires that they exercise minimal human decency. The doctors or internsI am too dazed to know to whom I am speakingdetermine that my ribs are bruised not broken; they put a band on my right wrist and send me on my happy way. Or unhappy way. It depends on who is controlling the perception.
My ribs hurt. I will not lie down on the filth-ridden concrete and use my shoes and shirt as a pillow. Will not. Will the levees hold when the next hurricane comes? Will not.
I do not know what time it is. The time I need to know about is not at Tulane and Broad. It is in the classroom where I am not. It is on Poydras Street, inside the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, sleeping on a comfortable bed in Room 2843. It is back at the hotel where I should be preparing to administer final exams and to attend Dillards baccalaureate and commencement. It do not know what time it is. Time knows what it is. It is flowing past the hotel on the surface of the Mississippi River. I have lost count of how many times I have asked to be allowed to make the one free phone call I am entitled to make. The NOPD gives as much attention to civil rights as it gives attention to grammatical issues in Sanskrit.
My tee shirt is uncomfortable, sticky. It is beginning to smell. I should wash it, put it in the washing machine at home. I am beginning to smell. I no longer smell Catholic. I smell Sunni or Shiite. I should wash me. I want to take my shoes off. My shoes tell me they want to stay on my feet. I taste blood in my mouth. I scratch my face. My beard is growing. White hair is growing on my brown face. I need a shave. My face says it is June 29.
The walls are grey or green or some ugly color only a convict could love. The lighting is bad. My eyes are not giving very accurate reports on what they are looking at. My hearing is good, though, too good.
My ears are weary of sounds of discomfort of the bitches shouting wolf tickets at the guards who are bitches the nonstop cursing the bitches bitching the awkward success of the young guys to create rap rhythms why dont they hip hop jazz complaints about the lockup blues if they so fucking bad as they claim they ought to rap criminal injustice I say loud enough to be heard. The guy next to me looks surprised. You are a professor he says. You are not supposed to talk like that. I guess he be knowing what he talking bout. But I dont give a shit. The rappers stop trying to rap. They go back to burning their lips with roaches.
The marijuana trade thrives in the lockup. The police officers have blind noses. They can neither smell nor see the inmates who openly suck on joints.
And how does the marijuana get inside the panopticon of the lockup?
I need to be outside the lockup. ClaustrophobiaConfinement and I have never been friends. The articulate young man from Atlanta sitting next to me is sleeping. His head keeps falling on my shoulder. I nudge it off. He jerks upright without awakening. His head falls again, and again I nudge it off. It falls a third time. Let him sleep. I may need a strangers shoulder one day.
Meanwhile, one inmate, a skinny little guy, is performing a one-man play on why one should not do drugs. He complains loudly that fleas are biting him. He scratches and slaps his arms, his legs, his head, his thighs. He punctuates his performance with apologies. He calls for his mother. He repeats his scratching and slapping with precision. He says it is heroine. He mumbles. Im sorry. I shouldnt be this way. Im sorry. Some of the brothers who are trying to sleep tell him to shut up. He ignores them. Im sorry. The brothers forget him and go back to sleep.
I grab my chest frequently. Several of the inmates ask if my heart is o.k. Yes. Im still breathing. Cant you motherfuckers see that I am still breathing? Goddamn.
The wearier I become, the more I slip into the role of the jailbird, become a member of the clan. It is good to see things from inside the circle. You can witness the mutual destruction of humanity, how quickly people devolve into the state of nature. You can feel the moral ground being swept from under your feet. You can have microscopic views of vulgar madness and racially motivated random violence.
Despite having experience in Vietnam that now serves me well, I am not prepared for the fresh reminders of why soldiers abuse the enemy and feel no guilt. I do not want to contemplate why torture is so delicious, but I do think about torture. I feel tortured. I think of people who were tortured in Mississippi, Rome, France, Uganda, Cuba and Japan, tortured during the period of the Inquisition, tortured in Latin America, in Nazi concentration camps. I think of those suffering the continual rape of their humanity in Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq, in the hidden, top-secret interrogation centers in the hidden geographies of the world, centers that our President and our CIA do not know exist. My flesh screams. This is not New Orleans. We are in Baghdad. We are not in Tulane and Broad. We are in Abu Ghraib. Or Haditha. Or Guantanamo. When I tell one inmate that we are in Abu Ghraib, he smiles and tells me that in New Orleans every African-American male gets arrested or is threatened with being arrested. He says we are not in a foreign land. We are at home. I am glad he pulled my coat and pulled me out of fantasy.
I have been in jail for more than fifty hours before the authorities decide that I can make one free phone call. My friends Thomas (Tony) King and Lolis Edward Elie engineer my getting out of the lockup. I am allowed to make a phone call at 5:15 AM, and I call Tony, instructing him to notify the Security Chief at Dillard about my whereabouts and to call Lolis later in the morning, because Lolis is not an early riser. Lolis called the jail when he got the news and arranged for me to be released on my own recognizance. Despite the noble efforts my friends make on my behalf, NOPD takes its own sweet time to process me out. I have to be moved to three different cells as they process the paperwork. My legs have to be shackled when I am taken upstairs to Traffic Court. After I have admitted my guilt in traffic court, I have to be retained several more hours.
When I finally reach the area for out-processing, I have to suffer more humiliation. The young women who have the job of giving us papers to sign and the envelopes that contain personal belongings that were confiscated when we entered are obviously more interested in their plans for the weekend than they are in getting the job done promptly. They laugh and chatter. They behave like Millennials, like contemporary heifers. A few of us are anxious and restless. Two guys move toward the opening near the counter to see what is the holdup. One of the women looks into the mirror that is angled so that she can see us in the hallway. She yells, “If you don’t sit your asses down, you will not get processed out today.” My ass sits down on the hard bench. When she calls my name, I think of Walter “Wolfman” Washington singing “Ballgame on a Rainy Day.” I feel soaked. It is slightly after 3:00 PM when I walk out into the sunlight.
In every country, including our highly civilized society, women and men who have chosen to preserve law and order or sacred traditions transform their jobs into legalized excuses to shed civilization the way a snake sheds skin; they can not resist the temptations of barbarian power. They love to see people cringe. They have orgasms as people suffer. You have to be there to know it. If you have never been in jail in New Orleans, I strongly recommend that you get yourself arrested on a minor charge and spend more than a day in the lockup. You will have an awakening. You will be enlightened. In jail, God speaks more plainly than He does at a Quaker meeting or in a Greek Orthodox church. Your new neighbors will speak plainly also as they spew yellow elixirs of vomit and unwashed language. You will not have to read Dante’s Inferno. You will not have to read Amiri Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell. It will incorporate you. You will think that Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) describes a suburb of Heaven.
Reprinted by permission of the author from The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (University of New Orleans Press, 2008)
* * * * *
#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
* * * * *
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
* * * * *
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarcerationbut her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.Publishers Weekly
* * * * *
From The World and Africa, 1965
* * * * *
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
online through PayPal
* * * * *
Browse all issues
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
posted 26 November 2008