The awakening of the American white mind

I am an outlier in higher ed: a Black professor, who's been to prison, teaching many white criminal justice majors

Published August 22, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Classroom whiteboard with a quote from Audre Lorde written on it (Getty Images/Salon)
Classroom whiteboard with a quote from Audre Lorde written on it (Getty Images/Salon)

Each semester for the past ten years I have taught creative writing, composition and post-colonial literature. I am a poet and creative nonfiction writer whose PhD dissertation creatively and critically explores the effects of cultural memory and trauma within the Black tradition. In every class throughout my decade-long existence in academia, I have never failed to address racism, gender biases, sexism, classism and the white power structure. I have never facilitated a class that didn't have some component that pointed out these inequalities within structural governances. This pedagogical preference is rooted in the belief, influenced by James Baldwin, "that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." To borrow a phrase coopted from the Black experience, I want my students to be "woke." I want to give them a learning experience that awakens a moral drive to challenge systems of oppression.

One could say the mere fact I am allowed to set foot on University of New Haven's campus is perhaps miraculous given I am very likely the only tenured full professor in America with seven felony convictions. However, when I was released from prison in the early 2000s, one in three African American males were being incarcerated in comparison to one in every 17 white males, and if you juxtapose this statistic to today in that African American males are being incarcerated 5.8 times as often as white males — I am a total outlier in higher learning. Many students I teach are enrolled in the Henry Lee College of Criminal Justice, and these hopeful young minds will soon enter into various professions within the field. The majority are white and I am a Black man that has been to prison.

This is the perfect collaboration regarding race and the criminal justice system. Though, at times, I've wondered if the students believe I am speaking an indecipherable tongue when discussing privilege influenced by the total sum of history. I want them to know that one can always tell the climate and social condition of a nation by the literature that it does, or does not produce. Sometimes silence operates as historical fact. At some point during the semester I ask both Black and white students, "What privileges of race are you not willing to give up?" This is usually the mic-drop moment, as the room goes into deep reflection. In order to deconstruct white privilege there needs to be an inherent understanding of one's own privilege and how that privilege affects those that have been relegated to other.

After the George Floyd public execution in Minneapolis, along with the subsequent and ongoing protests across the nation and around the globe, I received an email from a young woman majoring in criminal justice whom I've the pleasure of mentoring off and on since her freshman year when she was 18 years of age. I will call her M. M began the correspondence by letting me know the past few weeks had led her to reflect deeply on the issue of race and inclusion as it pertains to the United States. M wanted me to know that, "Dr. Horton, I was a product of a broken system that failed to tell the whole truth, and without being enrolled in your first-year composition class, I easily could have stayed that way. You were the first black teacher/professor that I ever had (and to this day, the only one who has educated me on such important topics)." This short but impactful confessional made me reflect on the day I lectured on the Central Park Five case from 1990 to M's class, which none of my white students were familiar with. I remember their utter disbelief and questioning of how a system of justice could convict these five young men and have them endure a trauma from which they are still trying to recover.

But I also reflected on the day I was granted a reconsideration of sentence in Montgomery County, Maryland, after serving time in Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Maryland. That day the district attorney stood before the court and informed the judge I would never be a productive human being, that I had no promise of a positive future, and that the hope that Mr. Horton would change and make a positive contribution to society was a pipe dream at best. The image of this man who talked about me as if I were the worst human on the planet lingers to this very day. Every day, I have tried to prove him wrong. Every day, I feel confident that the district attorney never could imagine me as Dr. Horton.

There is always value in experience; and yet, I would not wish incarceration on anyone, nor being entangled within the justice system as presently constructed. I've known my value within a university that has a prominent criminal justice program and of course, I think about the irony every day I teach class. I also think often on the long list of Black boys that never had a chance to be me, beginning with my indoctrination to the violent nature that is America in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, during the '60s.

There had always been a lineage of Black boys to draw context from, beginning on September 15th 1963 at 11:15 a.m. Central Time. Two years after I was born, my baby crib shook and rattled from a dynamite blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls on the most segregated day in America in 1963, a day where color was divided by the place of worship. That day, after the bombing, Virgil Ware, sitting on the handlebars of his brother's bicycle as they pedaled down Docena-Sandusky Road, caught a bullet to the chest from a shooter riding shotgun on the back of a Confederate flag-yielding motorbike. The end result: face down in a ditch. Johnny Robinson, angered by the bombing, reacted to a group of white boys in a car yelling, "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate" and began throwing rocks at the white teenagers. When the Birmingham police arrived, Johnny Robinson and his crew dashed down 8th Alley North. The police car blocked the alley and an officer, Jack Parker, pointed a shotgun out the window — and make no mistake, the police account mattered more than the victim.

The usual responses came after the fact: he lunged, reached, thought he had, looked suspicious, made a move, they always flee, the police fired in the air, fired in self-defense, because Black folks be magical, hang themselves by themselves, turn water into wine, slip out of handcuffs, be looking like every other Black person, do other Black people's time in jail: real and imagined, make freedom disappear in handclap, or turn it into a life sentence; or, worse yet, Black boys like Johnny and Virgil get shot dead and the world changes the television channel, unbothered, unfettered, unmoved.

However, M did not change the channel. Instead she has reflected on the moment we are currently living and has used every inch of knowledge through the various critical and creative text I taught that dealt honestly with systemic racism and the white power structure. These conversations came between poems, short stories, and critical essays, thereby sparking intense and rigorous discourse. I would like to think that when M witnessed the life squeezed out of George Floyd in eight minutes and 46 seconds, or when M watched Ahmaud Arbery enjoy a casual jog, and then get gunned down in cold blood — maybe one of these was the lightbulb moment and M became one of the many young white people we have seen across the country, standing side by side with Black Lives Matter, yelling, screaming — demanding change in cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, New York City, Atlanta and Birmingham. Perhaps M placed herself in Breonna Taylor's body the moment before it was affirmed race matter(s). If Blackness is non-monolithic, then this new movement should be, too. 

I try to give students a two-for-one experience, as in teach the material they signed up to take, and use the course as a platform to collectively change the world. This approach in turn allowed M to formulate her own opinions as evidence in her epiphanous correspondence that continued with, "I'm sorry that you were a victim of a system that was created to keep people like me in a position of privilege and opportunity. And I'm sorry that we are still fighting that system today." Of course, as a teacher and one invested in the young American mind, I felt a sense of pride that M was able to articulate her point in a way that let me know she really wanted societal change. I really had no clue that M was listening that intently, though I had given her a copy of my memoir to read and maybe those experiences I'd written about prompted her curiosity.

M never took another class with me until her senior year; yet, after our composition class ended and we would run into each other on campus, M always stopped to ask how I was doing, often inquiring about sections of the memoir, as if trying to reconcile the person in the book that was an international drug smuggler to the teacher that she befriended. M came to my office from time to time to talk about life, aspirations, her plans for her future, never about race. This past semester, her last, M signed up for my Prison Literature course, and I could sense the maturity in her opinions and thought process that comes with being a 23-year-old woman who has been doing some deep contemplations on life. She raised her hand and shared in-depth opinions during discussions of texts such as "Are Prisons Obsolete," "Felon," "Locking up Our Own," "The Residue Years" and "Until We Reckon." Then, COVID-19 hit.

Prison Lit went online in March and the dynamics of the class shifted, as I needed to be mindful of the traumatic impact to my students, both physically mentally. Their world was turned upside down in a finger snap and in another finger snap they were asked to navigate uncharted territory. Prior to COVID-19 the class appeared to be on the brink of gelling into a creative think tank. The students had begun to offer better ways of policing in neighborhoods of color, alternatives to incarceration—restorative justice. When classes went virtual we lost that connective tissue as I needed to meet each student where they were in terms of stability and the ability to complete assignments.

M was no different than many students in the class who required extended deadlines and flexibility on my part. I had not taught Prison Lit in four years and had wanted to give the students a class they would remember. I'd given up on that sentiment until I heard from M three weeks after the semester ended in early June. I will admit I was blindsided in a good way when M told me, "The current events that we have been watching unfold have been weighing on me heavily and have pushed me to reach out to let you know what a large role you have played in my journey as an activist." M went from a criminal justice student to a young person wanting to change the world for the betterment of humanity.

I truly believe we are living a flashpoint moment. The idea of addressing systemic changes within society requires mobilization and action by young people of various cultures and ethnic groups, and yes, white people are crucial to this movement. My student was letting me know the American white mind is awakening. However, in this woke state, M added, "I recognize it should not be the job of black people in America to teach white people about systemic racism and how it has fueled the issues of police brutality and our corrupt criminal justice system." This is the reflection of an awakening mind filled with fire and passion, ready to dismantle the old power structures in search of something more equitable for us as human beings.

M has read several critical and creative texts on the Black experience and the effects of racism on a society, allowing her to formulate an opinion rooted in understanding. M has listened deeply to the experiences of those who consistently feel a never-ending pain inflicted by the original sin of slavery. It is apparent that M holds on to the quote I frequently use in class by the poet/writer Audre Lorde, which emphatically asserts, "Your silence will not save you." Between M's freshman and senior year, years that have allowed the killing of unarmed Black people to be displayed through national media outlets — a transformation — an awakening took place. Unwittingly, through her correspondence, M was informing her former professor that we are living in what James Baldwin described as "the fire next time" — and the time is now if the American experiment is to succeed.

By Randall Horton

Randall Horton is the author of "{#289-128}: Poems," which received the 2021 American Book Award; "Dead Weight: A Memoir in Essays;" "Hook: A Memoir," which received the Great Lakes College Association 2017 Award for Creative Nonfiction; and three additional poetry collections. The recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature, Horton is a Cave Canem Fellow and a member of the Affrilachian Poets, as well as the experimental performance group Heroes Are Gang Leaders, which received the 2018 American Book Award in Oral Literature. He is the co-creator of Radical Reversal, a poetry/music band dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system through the installation of recording studios and creative/performance spaces as well as programming in Department of Correction facilities in the United States. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he now resides in New Jersey and is a Professor of English at the University of New Haven. 

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