Set the Captive Free

I read my friend Dyana’s Art House America essay about her brother “definitely going to prison, and probably for a long time,” and the air went out of my chest. The fear and anger and helplessness were so heavy, almost palpable. I had to turn away from the essay a couple of times during the reading and just look at nothing and breathe.

Sweet quirky Dyana. Her brother. No.

I remember the long shuttle ride from an MFA residency to the airport I took with Dyana several years ago during which she told me about her brother: he was in some trouble, but he was a good kid and she loved him. “I think you guys would like each other,” she said to me. I thought we probably would.

Now he is in prison, probably for a very long time. Dyana has occasionally lashed out angrily at the system, for making her brother feel like less than a human being, for making her and her family feel helpless before a massive, Kafkaesque justice system. I see her posts, and I too get angry.

The circles in which I move these days are full of academics, people who are of as much interest to the local police as the trees lining Rivermont Avenue. If I do a mental checklist of my friends and acquaintances, I cannot think of a single person who has been locked up. The corrections system isn’t something that comes up much.

Only days after Dyana’s essay went live, my wife and I watched the documentary The House I Live In, an indictment of both the so-called War on Drugs and the for-profit prison system. Among other things, the movie argues persuasively that the war on drugs is not primarily about drugs at all, but is a powerful machine for controlling minorities and the poor.

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The March on Washington: A Personal Anniversary

Guest Post

By Christine A. Scheller


“Many of our white brothers…have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963


I was born on the first anniversary of the day these words were spoken. My black son was buried on the fortieth anniversary of the day their author was silenced. I’ve been pondering this bit of providence ever since.

I didn’t expect to mother a black child and certainly didn’t expect that brilliant, beautiful child to kill himself in the year America’s first black president was elected on a message of hope and change.

Growing up in a small, lily-white New Jersey town, I briefly had a black friend. One day, she came home from school with me and my mother advised me that it would be best if she was gone before my late father got there. My father had grown up in Newark and had gotten beaten up regularly by black boys, my mother says, at least until he became a gang leader and Golden Gloves boxing champion. (Men who worked with my late father in urban ministry in the 1960s have told me they never saw any hint of racism in his interactions with people of all races and ethnicities. I believe that like all of us, he was a product of his time and place, a man who sometimes rose above his circumstances and sometimes did not.)

The afterschool play-date was my formal introduction to the concept of race and it was startling. I had no idea what it meant. All I know is that the girl, whose name I don’t recall, disappears from my memory after that.

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Black Boy, 2013

One of my boys is reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy for his English class this coming semester.

One of my sons has already read the book, and in a couple of years my daughter will read it. They will see that it was published in 1945, closing in on seventy years ago. They will see how hard it was to be a black boy in the United States back in 1945.

I was never assigned Black Boy in school. As a matter of fact I cannot remember being assigned a single black writer until I took an African American Literature elective in college. I was raised in a place that was not only lily-white, but white with a red neck. Black people did not willingly venture up the Elk River.

In an autobiographical sketch, Wright speaks of the “dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set.” He says, “While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro’s skin… makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”

That’s what it was like for a black boy back in 1945. [Read more...]

The American Divide

This is not an essay about politics but I have to begin with politics because it stands between you and me and what I want to say to you, which concerns our darkened hearts and our dreadful tribalization of a country whose motto is E pluribus unum.

The politics are this: I have an unfashionable view of human rights and nature. I stand for localism and classical education and reverencing life; I stand against warmongering and utilitarianism and corporate cronyism. As a consequence, I have no place among Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians. If your guiding lights are not restraint and community and Holy Scripture, then I want no part of your goddamned party.

None of which is to say that you are a bad person for being a Republican or Democrat or Libertarian, or even one of those undecided Independents journalists like to interview before elections, as if inability to commit is evidence of wisdom. One or both of us is wrong, and it doesn’t matter; I’ve retreated to my rural corner and you may have the world for all I care, just leave me and my family out of it.

All this is to say, however, that I have no fondness for our current president’s worldview. Nor the one before him, nor the one before that one. It’s not their fault; they are harbingers of the times. They give us what we want, because our wants form the standard of justice. Politicians cobble together electoral majorities with empty words because we will tolerate no less and no more.

My lack of fondness for President Obama is only relevant because it accentuates the praise I want to offer him—while perhaps in the process damning a fair portion of the rest of us. [Read more...]

Remembering Deacon Patenotte

On Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at more or less the same time that I was standing in a Greek Orthodox cathedral for the memorial prayers honoring the second anniversary of my mother’s passing, the Funeral Mass for David “Deacon” Patenotte was about to take place at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in my hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi.

I am a longtime Mississippi exile by this point, but I would have given anything to be in both places at once. As Father Steve censed the icon of Christ and asked for my mother’s memory to be eternal, I lifted up Mr. Patenotte’s name, too.

David, or “Deacon,” as he was known by most folks, was the owner of Patenotte’s Grocery on Grand Avenue: the expansive, tree-lined street that led out from the nineteenth century downtown to houses that were gradually newer, and finally to the flat streets of small 1950s and 60s houses that had been carved out of what had originally been the Curran family’s plantation. [Read more...]