By Darryl Robertson
He wrapped his dark chocolate-hued, sooty, sweaty, muscular arm tightly around my neck before saying “give it up.” Seconds seemed to tick slowly, allowing my mind to catch up to what my body was already prepared for. The object pressed against my neck is sharp. Oh shit, it’s a knife. He told me to give it up. Damn, I’m being robbed.
As troubling as this robbery was, it was expected. So, the robbery didn’t cause me to become bitter. I was already aggrieved, aggressive, hyper-aware, and circumspect. Since my innocent childhood days of growing up in Columbus, Ohio’s Windsor Terrace Housing Projects, my body had been trained to expect violence. The robbery only added another layer of hyper-awareness to my existence.
While serving a prison sentence at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman for drug possession, I started reading the writings of George Jackson, which enabled me to gain awareness of the trauma living inside my body. Also thanks to Jackson, I realized how I had, unconsciously, prepared myself for prison.
Jackson writes that Black men who are fortunate to experience their 18th birthday can expect to find themselves on the receiving end of a prison sentence. Jackson further theorizes that Black men come into this world with the idea of being captured already embedded within them. The familiarity of Jackson’s theory, and the duality of hopelessness and aspiration in which he writes, moved me to reflect not only on the history of America, but also my connection to jail and prison.
Confinement has been a part of my life since I was an adolescent. My Uncle Hurk received a seventeen-year prison sentence for possessing 9 ounces of crack cocaine; the FBI raided my grandmother’s home looking for Uncle Charlie, who was later convicted of drug related conspiracy charges; my favorite cousin, Bernard, who referred to me as his baby brother, was given a 52 year sentence for aggravated assault. As for me, I began going to jail at the impressionable age of ten years old. Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center (FCJDC), which sat above I-70 in downtown Columbus, became a revolving door for me. I remember seeing long-faced sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds leaving their cell blocks to board a prison bus that would take them to state prison. Watching my peers walking toward their uncertain future made me wonder whether or not I could survive prison.
Not only was prison, in a literal sense, a part of my reality as a kid and unconsciously part of my future, but geographically and architecturally as well. The buildings in Windsor Terrace Housing Projects, where I grew up, spread over 14 streets. Metal prison-like bars connected the buildings. Later, I learned that prisons and housing projects were purposely designed to share similarities. The open space behind the project buildings and courtyards, similar to a prison recreation yard, made it easy for police to surveil residents. The prison-like bars running through the projects reminded me of jail so much that I would wrap my palms around the rails, pretending to be in jail like I’d seen men do in prison movies.
Police presence in my projects was highly uncomfortable, too. Police officers would cruise through the neighborhood with their car doors ajar, gazing into our eyes, ready to jump out at any sudden movement. This type of police presence occurred regularly, and seemed normal, but this aggressive presence always made me angry, forcing my body into protection mode. My body was in a constant state of constriction, bracing for violent encounters. As a kid, I felt, but didn’t have the language to explain, the stress of racial profiling, pending police violence, and the everyday violence that lives in neglected spaces.
Jackson writes with the tautness that I have always felt inside of my body. The constriction felt in his words, especially Soledad Brother, run parallel to the hyper-awareness that I experienced in the streets, at Parchman, and later at Rikers Island. There’s also the duality of hopefulness and brokenness found in Jackson’s writings. “This camp brings out the very best in brothers or destroys them entirely,” Jackson writes in Soledad Brother. “But none are unaffected. None who leave here are normal. If I leave here alive, I’ll leave nothing behind. They’ll never count me among the broken men, but I can’t say that I am normal either. I’ve been hungry for too long. I’ve gotten angry too often.”
In one letter addressed to his mother, Jackson surmised that if he’s ever released from prison, he may not be a nice person. “I can still smile now, after ten years of blocking knife thrusts and pick-handles, of anticipating faceless sadistic pigs, reacting for ten years, seven of them in Solitary,” he writes. “I can still smile sometimes, but by the time this thing is over I may not be a nice person.”
Jackson struggled, and rightfully so, to relieve himself of the tautness that lived inside of him. He theorized that man is brutalized by his environment. As he shows through the feelings of dejection found in his writing, violent environments bring about disorder. “I was captured and brought to prison when I was 18 years old because I couldn’t adjust.”
Not being able to find relief is what produced the hopelessness in Jackson. Inside of a cell for twenty-three hours a day, however, Jackson was able to discipline himself to his studies of Marx, Lenin, Fanon, among others, but he steeled against the relief that he wanted so desperately. “I have completely restrained myself and my thinking to the point now that I think and dream of one thing only,” he wrote in the summer of ‘67. “I have no habits, no ego, no name, no face. I feel no love, no tenderness for anyone who thinks as I do.” In an exchange of letters with Angela Davis, he writes: “I’m not a very nice person. I have been forced to adopt a set of responses, reflexes, attitudes that have made me more kin to the cat than anything else, the big black one.” This tone comes from one who understands that people will violently hurt you, if given a chance.
Jackson’s conflicts stretched to his parents as well. For Jackson, his father wasn’t intelligent enough to climb out of economic slavery. For his mother, there is a dualism, again, of love and rejection. “I feel that you have failed me Mama,” he wrote. “I know that you have failed me. I also know that Robert (Jackson’s father) has never held an opinion of his own. You have always had the running of things…You are a woman, you think like a bourgeois woman. This is a predatory world.”
Unlike Jackson, my parents were not a part of my life. I entered Parchman with a strong conviction that I was unloved, which took my aggression to another level. I, also like Jackson, wanted, and needed, something to hold on to. To survive, I needed to believe in something bigger than me. As seen in Jackson’s Blood in my Eye, he chose to give his life to the revolution, something that was bigger than him. His intent, it seems, was to find relief through death while simultaneously living for the revolution. Today, while I still struggle with finding relief, I view my life through the lens of Black resistance, similar to how Jackson lived for the revolution.
Jackson’s writings not only voiced my experiences with being prepared for prison and violence, but he also taught me courage, and how to examine and live in my truth. Most importantly, he provided a blueprint for me to be a part of something that’s bigger than me.