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Lynden Harris: American apartheid

May 23, 2014 

My husband has a particular genius for random acts of ... randomness. Passing through my writing space the other day, he said, “You know, if I were going to clone something ... it would be a sweet potato.” And he was gone.

“Sweet potato” was my mother’s pet name for me. Thinking he was perhaps suddenly hyper-intuitive, I called after, asking if he knew that.

Nope. His reasoning (which is a generous use of the word) was that sweet potatoes were so irregularly shaped, no one would know if you were successful or not.

A few days later, visiting the prison, I asked some men whether they had nicknames as children. One laughed and said, a little sheepishly, “Lump.”

He rubbed his shaved scalp and confessed, “I always thought it was on account of having a big head. But my mom finally told me it was cause I was my father’s only boy. She had kids from other relationships but I was my father’s only. And she told me that when I was born, he kept kissing and kissing on me. He couldn’t stop. So she –”

He fell silent, jaw muscles clenching. Finally he continued. “She asked my father how come he wouldn’t stop kissing me, and he said, ‘Cause this here’s my little lump of sugar.’”

Together in that barren sky-less place, we remained hushed. So much unspoken, of tenderness and grief. Then he shook his head in disbelief. “I learned as a kid that real men don’t cry. Man, you wouldn’t believe some of the beatings I got. Never cried. No matter how hard my mom beat me, I refused to cry. But now? Shoot. I can’t even watch ‘Extreme Home Makeover.’ I’m serious,” he insisted over our laughter. “It’s like all those tears are now coming back.”

A soft-spoken man related a different kind of home makeover, “I remember me and my little brother, we’d clear stuff out of the closet and that’s where we’d play. Climb inside the closet with a box and play solitary confinement.”

I thought about my own children, how they built teepees and tree houses and forts. How they never once played prison. They didn’t even know what it was.

“My mother was in prison, my grandmother was in prison, and so, yeah. That’s what we played.”

No other society

No other society in human history has imprisoned as many of its own as we do here in the U.S.

The skeletons in our closets are real men and women shredded by mental illness, violence, abuse, and poverty. As one formerly incarcerated twenty-something said, “Poverty and prison go together like Kool-Aid and sugar. Without sugar, you ain’t got no Kool-Aid. Without poverty, you ain’t got no prison.”

Scholars from around the world refer to our current state of incarceration, and the population locked behind bars, as “American apartheid.” Oddly, that gives me hope. If South Africa somehow managed the most extreme makeover imaginable, perhaps we might do the same.

It was a nearly impossible challenge. How do you convince a people, who have only experienced the legal system as a violent tool of racism and oppression, that the law is suddenly their recourse to justice? How do you build on such a sordid foundation?

From their own raw materials of hate, the government pieced together something new. They built the Constitutional Court on top of the old prison complex, the infamous No. 4 that brutally incarcerated Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, among countless others. Bricks from those former structures were left exposed in the new building, as if to acknowledge the power of the past to inform our transformed future. The Court’s glass front, rising like a tree, promised transparency.

Blue supermarket bag

A decade later, its walls are ripe with art. One piece will bring you to your knees.

During the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, an artist listened to a security officer explain how one young mother had been detained by the police, stripped and locked naked in a cell. The young woman managed somehow to fashion an undergarment from a blue supermarket bag. The police officer ended with, “She was brave this one, hell, she was brave. She simply would not talk.” 

The woman asked only one thing: to kneel and sing “Nkosi Sikelele,” the national anthem, before he shot her. When the woman’s body was excavated from its shallow grave, all that remained was her skeleton and the tattered plastic bag.

As a tribute to the woman, the artist pieced together a dress. From blue plastic bags. Inside she wrote: “Sister . . . Memorials to your courage are everywhere; they blow about in the streets and drift on the tide and cling to thorn-bushes. This dress is made from some of them.”

Every discarded grocery bag reminds me. What can we piece together from a damaged life?

What can we reclaim from the thorn-bushes of our world? Is it someone’s sweet potato? Their lump of sugar?

Truth. Reconciliation. Reclamation. We have far to go but it is a path we’re walking together, whether in South Africa or North Carolina. Bless our bluest sky.

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices, a nonprofit telling the stories of under-represented communities. You can reach her at lharris@hiddenvoices.org

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