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.