Books to Increase Awareness of the Cycles of Poverty, Race, and Incarceration
When yet another Black boy is shot down or locked up, it’s a wake-up call to all of us to understand and challenge the systematically enforced racism that allows—in fact, ensures—this to happen. We are way past the crisis point. If you, your friends, or family members haven’t experienced the societal trauma of living in America being Black or Brown or poor, one of the many things you can do is to increase your awareness. If you have, the following selections can provide hope and context on this dire situation.
Lionheart: Coming from Where I’m From by Rayshawn Wilson is my current top pick for youth and adults alike. Wilson grew up in Columbus, Ohio, knowing how to cook up a batch of crack, steal food from the grocery store in order to survive, and lie—all learned experiences due to his environment at birth. When he was six years old, his house was invaded by the police, guns drawn. He was put into the backseat of a police cruiser, terrified, watching as his crack-addicted mother was handcuffed and taken away. Thus began a journey that too many African American, Latino, and poor teens in this country have experienced: foster care, sexual abuse, and life on the streets. And for some, breaking into people’s homes and dealing drugs. “Crime was as constant as breathing and provided more promise than tomorrow,” Wilson writes.
After serving two years for a crime he did not commit, the young man became the first person in his family to graduate from college. How he got from his beginnings as a child of a single, drug-addicted mother (and fortunately, Wilson shows us a depth beyond that label) to multiple college degrees, among many other accomplishments, is stuff that will keep teens engaged and turning pages. Self-published, the book is well-written with a forward-moving narrative and just the right mixture of the young kid and teen action-filled years balanced with his later more adult transformations. There is too much type on the page and not enough white space, and I personally think the title and cover are a bit strange, but these are slight downsides of this terrific memoir.
Only a handful of countries condemn children to death row, and the United States is one of them. Most people are not aware that theone commonality of people on death row is the race of the victim. If the victim was white, the perpetrator is 11 times more likely to be condemned to die than if the victim was black. Unacceptable: black lives matter. In heartbreaking and personal detail, Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption interweaves real stories with these statistics and his fight to change these injustices. Stevenson was 23 years old, studying law at Harvard and wondering why, when he accepts an internship in Georgia, where his first assignment was to deliver a message to a man living on death row. This brought him face to face with what became his calling: representing the innocent, the inadequately defended, the children, the domestic abuse survivors, and the mentally ill—— the imprisoned. He writes specifically about the South — though he covers these topics at a national level in the book. It’s as much a story about Stevenson as it is about the many people of whom he writes.
Chapters either feature one complete narrative, such as the story of the Confederate loving guard who makes Stevenson strip search before he’s allowed to enter the facility or an entry that moves the overall narrative further at a fast pace. Included are stories of children, teens, and adults who have been in the system since they were teens, including the story of Walter as a through-line. Walter was at a barbeque with over 100 people at the time of the murder he was accused of committing, and spent more than six years on death row. This book is a standout choice for teens and adults, illuminating the big picture and personal details of the unjust experiences faced by too many black, brown, and poor people in the U.S.
I can’t see many if any teens reading The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, mainly because it’s written at a distance from the protagonist by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s college roommate. Still, it’s a book that has stayed with me since I read it months ago, and felt it important enough to include here. Peace grew up in poverty in New Jersey with a hardworking mother and drug dealing father, both of whom valued and encouraged his education. Peace was inherently and effortlessly brilliant, graduating from Yale University with a major in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Several years later he was murdered in a basement apartment where he was selling marijuana. NPR has chosen it as one of their top books of 2014. Shannon Rhoades, NPR’s Morning Edition staffer says, “Reading the book, you become witness to tremendous potential lost, and you’ll think about race, education and poverty in ways that perhaps you hadn’t before. It can make for excruciating reading at times—excruciating, yet essential.”
Let Me Live: Voices of Youth Incarcerated is an anthology of writings by youth from four different national lockdowns. It’s published by a volunteer organization in St. Paul, MN, Save the Kids. There is some good stuff in here. It’s simple to read, and black-and-white graphics created by young people are included. The poem titles are in nice hip hop–type style, and the voices are raw (no moralizing here!). Typed versions of each selection with mostly corrected spelling are displayed alongside a photocopy of the real piece each kid wrote. Overall, it’s real, authentic and relevant.
Here’s an example of a poem I liked which shows a lot of insight as to the pointlessness of prison:
“Time In Here” by Dion
It’s not different from the streets it seems
in there the colors is gray and green
in here I hear people talk smack
sometimes it makes me mad, and sometimes
it makes me wanna jap.
I hear foul language
I hear kids bein’ angry
and that makes me stay the same me.
While some are less insightful, the simplicity is important as it shows the immaturity of the youth.
“Sometimes” by Dominique
I’m in jail n’ it feel like hell. Ma don’t pick
up the phone sometimes I feel all alone
Sometimes I call on people but still I’m alone
Sometimes I feel right. Sometimes I feel
Bottom line, these are the voices of incarcerated kids and we need to hear them. We need to read books written by and about people in the underground— review, purchase, and have them in our collections in order to serve our communities. And in so doing, perhaps we can make a dent in the profound and horrifying inequities and injustices in our so called democracy.
The reading list below includes not only the books mentioned above, but examples of essential books to read to increase awareness and become as educated as we can.
Reading Challenge: In the comments section, please suggest more titles that can inspire readers to do something about cycles of poverty, race, and incarceration.
ALEXANDER, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New Press. 2012. 336p. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9781595586438.
BEAM, Chris. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care. Mariner Bks. 2014. 336p. pap. $12.67. ISBN 9780544103443.
BERNSTEIN, Nell. Burning Down the House: The End of Youth Prison. New Press. 2014. 319p. Tr $26.95. ISBN 9781595589569.
HART, Carl. High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Harper. 2013. 352p. Tr $26.99. ISBN 9780062015884; pap. $15.99. ISBN 9780062015891.
HOBBS, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. Scribner. 2014. 416p. Tr $27. ISBN 9781476731902.
MAUER, Marc and Sabrina Jones. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling. New Press. 2013. 128p. pap. $17.95. ISBN 9781595585417.
PARSELL, T.J. Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison. Da Capo Pr. 2007. 336p. pap. $12.00. ISBN 9780786720378
RIOS, Victor M. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York University Pr. 2011. 173p. pap. $24. ISBN 9780814776384.
SAVE THE KIDS. Let Me Live: Voices of Youth Incarcerated (Poetry Behind the Walls). Arissa Media Group. 2013. 138p. pap. $10.69. ISBN 9781936900220.
STEVENSON, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 352p. Tr $28. ISBN 9780812994520.
TAIBBI, Matt. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Spiegel & Grau. 2014. 448p. pap. $12.95. ISBN 9780812983630.
TILTON, Jennifer. Dangerous or Endangered: Race and the Politics of Youth in Urban America. New York University Pr. 2010. 242p. pap. $27. ISBN 9780814783122.
WILSON, Rayshawn. Lionheart: Coming from Where I’m From. Legendary Publishing. 2014. 196p. pap. $15. ISBN 9780982786321.
Published originally in School Library Journal, Dec 16, 2014