Many incarcerated individuals develop a cultural or racial consciousness they ignored when they were free—and prison authorities encourage it as a healthy way to build character. But there’s a dark underside, says a Washington State inmate.
Prior to being confined, I had never heard of Kwanzaa.
I knew nothing about Juneteenth.
During my short time in the free world, I met nobody who celebrated such things.
Then, following my arrival at Washington State Penitentiary, a prisoner that I lived on the cellblock with offered me a “Happy Kwanzaa” card during the holiday season. I looked it over and could not hide my bemusement, and I said to him “Why the f—k would I send this to my family? We never celebrated no shit like this.”
He looked at me with scorn and faux sadness, and, after letting a few seconds elapse to add emphasis to his words, replied to me by saying, “It’s so pitiful that so many brothas don’t know about their own heritage.”
This was my first up-close encounter with someone suffering from a malady that I have since labeled “contradictory racial consciousness.”
It is a mental illness that hopefully will be included in a future edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Its symptoms include the constant display of affinity for one’s culture once deprived of one’s liberty.
It is prevalent amongst men who spent their time in society killing, robbing and selling drugs in their communities; then, upon being confined, begin to spend their time trumpeting the culture of the peoples they exploited while free.
Having lived benighted lives and accomplished nothing worthwhile through individual means, they seem to gain self-esteem by reimagining themselves as a faithful member of a culture that is worth celebrating.
It readily takes hold of the minds of prisoners who subconsciously need to feel vainglorious by proxy.
African-American prisoners are not unique when it comes to this contradictory racial consciousness. Remaking oneself as a culture warrior is a popular pastime among those with different races and ethnicities; and, here too, there is a bit of irony.
For instance, Native Americans come to prison and grow out their hair, burn sage and don medicine bags, and take up beading—while on the streets, many were members of the Bloods and Crips or, alternatively, practiced ways no different than The White Man.
Mexican Americans start to espouse Brown Pride, read books on Cesar Chavez, and study the Chicano Movement; all the while engaging in gang warfare throughout the prison system with those who share their culture and resemble them—so much for La Raza.
Not to be left out, White prisoners will become experts on European history to add grist to their ethnocentric concepts, seemingly oblivious that their swastika tattoos would be utterly repulsive to their European kinsman.
There are exceptions. However, these are representative examples of many prisoners that I have seen embark on cultural quests during my 26 years of confinement. Strange as all of this seems, the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) allows prisoners such as these to hold annual events aimed at fostering cultural awareness.
Several times a year, prisoners can go to the visiting room and eat ethnic dishes with their family and friends, and watch their imprisoned brethren perform tribal dances.
I am quite serious. Allow me to regale you with a tale of one such event.
A Requiem for Kunta Kinte
Years ago, as sort of an anthropological study, I attended the annual Juneteenth celebration at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. The food was delicious; but frankly, the entertainment made me nauseous.
There was spoken-word poetry about how we need to cherish our sistas; never mind the fact that most of the brothas in attendance were in relationships with white women.
There were rappers whose lyrics on any other day of the year promoted getting money, buying kilos of cocaine, and exploiting women; but for this special occasion, they heaped praise on Malcom X, Marcus Garvey and Angela Davis.
The grand finale was the worst of it: I had to bear witness to a dozen gang members in Afrocentric garb (from where it came is a mystery) dancing to West African drumming from a sound system. These men had been allowed by some administrator to study dancers from Senegal on DVD, and they decided to mimic them as if they had arrived at Stafford Creek live and direct from the Motherland.
It was the damndest thing I had seen in a very long time.
Of course, there were prison staff watching the performance, and I studied their faces, wondering what was going through the minds of those who were crypto racists. I doubt the fake African dancers would have found it very funny.
As for the honorees in attendance, they thoroughly enjoyed the performance. These African- American women, who were respected community activists, were enthralled as they watched these men gyrate and prance to the music.
“Look at our handsome brothas,” I could hear them thinking. I could not stop sneaking glances at them as I steadily ate pieces of chicken.
Finally, the show ended: The Africans morphed back into convicts; and, when all the prisoners returned to their units, many of the brothas who had been extolled to cherish sistas got into the phone line to call up the white women they were in a relationship with (myself included).
Behind the Billing of Cultural Diversity
Were you to ask a senior WDOC administrator about the purpose behind allowing such events, the answer would likely be that they further prisoners’ understanding and appreciation for different cultures, and thereby reduce racial tension and conflict within WDOC facilities.
But this is fantasy, not reality.
In truth, the events testify to the fact that correctional systems across the nation operate in a state of de facto segregation, and prisoners remain the force behind maintaining this separate and equal stasis.
Consequently, you will not see Latinos eating gumbo with the brothas celebrating Juneteenth; whites will not be attending Hispanic cultural events listening to Mariachi; and blacks will not be going to any pow wows to share fry bread with Native Americans.
As for the European Day event that occurred at Stafford Creek, there might as well have been a Whites Only sign hanging above the visiting room entrance.
Quite simply, segregated activities are exactly how most prisoners want them to be.
When viewed through the lens of social psychology, such prejudice does however make sense.
The U.S. Supreme Court notes that prisons are filled with countless men “who have repeatedly employed illegal and often violent means to attain their ends. They may have little regard for the safety of others or their property or for the rules designed to provide an orderly and reasonably safe prison life.”
In light of the dangerous company in a prison setting, prejudice seems inevitable. As psychologist Michael Lovaglia observes, “We are prejudiced to the extent we feel threatened or fearful.”
The Final Act
In the end, cultural celebrations in WDOC are a win-win situation for all parties. Prisoners extract events that they can participate in with their families and friends outside the presence of the others.
As for WDOC, it can bill itself as an agency that is open and accepting of the cultures of those whom society has rejected.
Hypocrisy, prejudice, and contradictory racial consciousness aside, there is one thing that I can guarantee.
No matter if these events were multicultural and the skin tones of those in attendance encompassed the color spectrum, and all the prisoners were sincere in their quests to gain cultural enlightenment, it would be a cold day in hell when you would ever see me dancing like a Zulu in the midst of this misery or applauding a spectacle endorsed by those who imprison me.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers.