Day 4 (and final day) of the Juvenile Detention Tour: Contra Costa Juvenile Justice Center

To round off my time in Northern California, jumping around from county to county, juvie to juvie, I spent some time at the Contra Costa Juvenile Justice Center. The great part about this particular experience was actually the teachers and staff at Contra Costa. The first class I walked in on, the teacher was basically giving a history lesson on systemic racism in America, and all the issues black and brown people face in this country, including the prison system. I was pretty shocked to see a teacher giving this information to the young people (because it doesn’t seem to be being given to them on the OUTSIDE of prison) but I was happy he was and only hoped that everyone was listening. But just in case they weren’t, I spent a lot of time during my talk driving home the points the teacher was trying to make, and even included the incarcerated youth in the equation, because it’s easy to talk about race and inequality as some abstract thing, but when you tell a bunch of brown teenagers to look around the room, and think about how much money is being made on their backs, from their struggle, their pain, their anger, their ignorance, it tends to set in a bit more.

Another class, was led by this really interesting guy, Mr. Repetto. When I came in he was teaching them an english lesson. I gave my talk, a talk I had given, every single day, three or four times a day, for three days in a row. A talk that delves into violence and retaliation, love and community, gangs and codes. But this time, one of the young guys raised his hand and asked me what did I expect him to do if someone killed his friend. He couldn’t fathom ever letting it go. He told me flat out that he couldn’t, he wouldn’t. Another young man chimed in, a latino kid with bright red hair. He explained that he was a “Northerner” and that they have beef with the “Southerners” and that’s just the way it is. And when it’s time to shoot, you gotta shoot.

Out of respect for these guys, I won’t get into all that was said, but I’ll tell you that afterwards, the teacher came to me and explained that he had had that discussion several times. That same talk. But the boys didn’t respect him they way they did me, mainly because this english teacher was white (and wore Hawaiian shirts.) I, of course, asked him why he got into this line of work. His response blew my mind. Turns out, Mr. Repetto grew up in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. The only white boy in an all Spanish neighborhood. One night, in the middle of a gang initiation, his grandmother was killed by a young dude trying to earn his way into a crew. He vowed to dedicate his life to stopping that from ever happening to anyone else.

He also brought up the red-haired kid — the “Northerner.” He said that what these kids who fight in these gangs don’t know is that the Northerner/Southerner beef started in the sixties between two guys, over a practical joke. One had hid a pair of shoes from the other in San Quentin, and the other got so upset (mainly due to embarrassment) that he killed the guy. And the cycle of retaliation began. Fifty years later, these kids…KIDS…are still shooting back.

I don’t have anything deep to leave you with besides a plea for you to reach out and love on our kids. No matter what. Love on them. Help them. Talk to them. They are not perfect. But even when they are devious, even when they are far from innocent, they are still children, sometimes spoon-fed a poison of the past, other times dealt a hand without spades. They need us, now more than ever.

To everyone who helped me out on this tour, thank you all so much. Thank you for the work you do. And thank you for encouraging me to work harder.

Day 3 of the Juvenile Detention Tour: Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center

Yesterday I visited the young people at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. Three classes of young men, and one class of young ladies. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t more of the same, that it was an unfortunate repeat of the last two days: good kids, bad decisions, desperation buzzing in the air like fluorescent lights. It was all that, but there was one thing I found super interesting.

When I was taking a break in the library, the librarians were flipping through the books, ripping out certain pages and sometimes throwing whole books in the trash. When I asked what they were doing they explained that sometimes the inmates tag the books with gang signs or notes and sometimes even prayers. It’s almost like they exercise their frustration by scribbling in the books. Better yet, they declare and stamp their identities on the pages, then tuck them away amongst the rest — a meta-articulation of their everyday lives. I imagined a kid, writing a message to God in a book, then coming back to check it out and read it every few weeks, reminding himself that God was there. Somewhere. Hoping that God was listening. And this note written on the pages of a novel, was in fact his message in a bottle. The desire to survive breeds creativity, and that creativity perpetuates survival.

Here are a few of the torn out pages the librarian, Amy, saved and taped to the wall of the library bathroom.

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Day 2 of the Juvenile Detention Tour: SF Juvenile Justice Center

Yesterday I visited the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center to meet with three classes, one of which was maximum security. When I arrived in San Francisco in the morning, the first thing I did was hit the center’s library to see what kinds of books were available, and to ask the librarian which books are being checked out the most. The interesting thing is that some of the most popular books for the young brothers, are romance novels. I thought it would’ve been the urban stuff or biographies, naturally, but turns out, the guys are really into love stories. And honestly, after thinking about it, it makes sense. Here they are, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, locked away, closed off from one of the most natural experiences in adolescence — intimacy, curiosity, and experimentation with love and sex. So they search for any semblance of it in cheesy teen novels. The books are pretty much…juvie Playboys.

Though I found that fascinating, one of my favorite parts of the day (and there were many) was actually hanging out with the kids in max. There was one kid in particular sitting a few rows from the front. He was attentive — really attentive — as I talked about the importance of their stories, and how though today’s music can give them something to strive toward and party to, it’s not at all talking about, or even thinking about the fellas exiled from their families in this facility. “You want a diamond watch, but not nearly as much as you want your freedom,” is what I think I told them, followed by “Who’s writing your songs?” The kid was all in as we spoke about the G CODE and the no snitching rule. He was even one of the kids who had read, WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST which is why I wasn’t surprised when he raised his hand and asked me if I knew how to knit. I explained to him that I learned to crochet when I was younger and used it to make hats and scarves for myself and others in college. I told him at first it was kinda corny, but then it became kinda cool — an easy hustle that also taught me discipline and patience and the feeling of seeing something through to the end.

His response: “Yeah I know exactly what you mean. I learned how to knit too, when I was at The Ranch.” The Ranch is another facility in the Bay. “But we used these little thingys that you just put the yarn around a bunch of times and then you have a hat. We even put the little ball on top sometimes. Y’know that little ball thing? Yeah. It’s cool, man,” he explained, using his hands to try to get me to picture the pompom and the loom he was describing. Several of the other boys agreed. They too had learned to knit. Then the young man added, “So, you telling me you never sold drugs?” He said it like he couldn’t believe it. Like it was an impossibility. There was a kid in the class before his who asked how did I realize that basketball and rapping and dealing weren’t the only ways out. It’s a heart-breaking question but it came from the purest of places.

“No. I never sold drugs,” I replied. “But I did sell hats.”

He cocked his head to the side, then looked around the room at some of his friends. I could almost hear their brains working, the wheels turning, their genius recalibrating.
“Word,” he nodded, flashing an innocent smile.

Word.

(Note: San Francisco is only 6% black. Yet, the librarian told me today that they have ZERO white inmates. ZERO. Chew on that. #blacklivesmatter)

My time at the Sacramento Juvenile Correction Facility

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting down with about thirty young black and brown men, ranging between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. I talked a bit about my life, where I grew up, my family, and the writing (some of them had read WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST.) At the end of the session, one of the young brothers raised his hand and said,

“There’s is nothing that I’ve ever done that I didn’t think was the right thing to do at the time. And now I’m in here, and I know that the path I’m on ain’t gon get me nowhere, but it’s hard. What am I supposed to do? They tell me to cut my hair, and talk different. They want to change me, so how do I change but still be me?”

My answer was a simple one. I looked him square in the face and told him that no matter what anybody says, he’s valuable. He’s valuable. Even in lockup, he’s valuable. Even with long hair and tattoos, he’s valuable.

But that wasn’t the kicker. The kicker was that after the session, the librarian told me that this was a maximum security system (she hadn’t mentioned it before.) These young men were going to be there on lockdown until they were eighteen, and then they were going to federal prison to complete there sentences. Some were in for a decade. Some shorter, some maybe even longer. These were all the kids that everyone was afraid of. Yet, I didn’t know that. I couldn’t tell. Because despite the labels that weigh heavier on them than their guilt, fear, and anger, they were still…kids. And the innocence and purity of childhood was undoubtedly the thickest energy in the room.

Young fellas, I know you all can’t read this because you can’t use the internet. But trust that I’m with you all. And I’m waiting, eagerly, for your letters.

FERGUSON

black kids born with peppered eyes
and backbones built by sturdy pole
have time-bomb brains that tick to lies
all spat from alabaster guys
with snaky tongues and hearts of coal

black kids have to pinch their lips
forced to fear who fears them most
crushed beneath the thing that grips
the cattle prod the cracking whips
the grotesque gun the badge of boast

and so black kids are found in piles
just thrown about and out the way
such melting hearts such fractured smiles
such folded hands and absent trials
such futures darkened by the day

Montserrat: The way the carribean used to be

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of going on an adventure to the beautiful but little known island of Montserrat. Montserrat? Where’s Montserrat? It’s right next to Antigua, a tiny volcanic, lush place with only about 5,000 people living on it. Oh, and the way you get there…well…you have to take a TINY twin engine plane. I mean, like a plane the size of a car. NOT COOL, but still kinda cool. Ha!

I was there attending the Alliouagana Festival of the Word. That’s right. This tiny island has its own literary festival and it’s pretty cool. So cool in fact that all of you writers out there should get involved and see if you can take a trip to paradise, or as the Montserratians say, “the way the Caribbean used to be.”

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The flight. Yes, that’s the pilot sitting RIGHT in front of me!

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Totally worth the wild flight.

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Fresh fruit picked straight off the tree. Bajan cherries and black berries.

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Nope, that’s not a lobster. It’s a CRAWFISH!

Do some research and find out about this gem. Thank you to Gracelyn Cassell for the invitation, and to Norman for the tour, and to alllllll the incredible people I met. I will be back!

Fam Mail

This bit of “fam mail” is from a high school student. Not sure where he lives but his honesty is pretty awesome. Check, check, check it outttttt.

From Brandon:

I must say, I’ve never had that much enjoyment in a book except for reading war books. I’m a high school student and being able to sit down and read a book is rare for me. I hate reading and looking at your website seeing that your goal to only make entertaining books sure is working. I’m planning on getting your other books to read.

Then came the rub. Hahahahaha.

I do have one question to ask because I am working on a project for school and I have to do research on the author so my question to ask, What is a quote that you would relate to When I Was the Greatest? I know your most likely busy and I hope you have the chance to write back, but if not I understand and just want to say again I loved the book and am planning on reading the other ones. Stay motivated, stay at peace, and keep writing.