“What to the Prisoner Is the Fourth of July?”

Incarcerated, disenfranchised, and condemned by society.

The 4th of July is one of those holidays I never know what to do with.  Go see some fireworks?  Not a big thrill.  Catch a parade and wave the flag?  That’s not my style.  Attend a cook-out and eat some burgers and brats prepared on the grill?   That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t make me feel particularly plugged into celebrating the nation’s independence, especially when I know that precious independence quite purposefully excluded the African slaves forcefully brought to America.

For over a year I tried and failed to find a Black-oriented website interested in running a story about The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander.  Maybe it’s more my fault than the editors I submitted my pitch to.   Maybe I assumed wrong that they would be interested in the shocking and sobering facts Alexander’s excellent book  reveals such as “There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Or maybe I just made a lousy pitch to the wrong publications.  It’s possible.   It’s also possible we as a people prefer to forget about the men and women we lock away even as also forget most of them will be coming out someday.   What does a Black man who has been incarcerated, disenfranchised and deprived of any way to better  his circumstances come out to except the high probability he will end up back in prison?    Even if he spends this national holiday as man freed from a cell, is he truly a free man?

Alexander wrote a book that should stir a movement.

In any case, rather than celebrate America’s day of independence, instead take a moment to remember there are nearly 900,000  Black men behind bars (my nephew is one of them), some that deserve to be there, but many more who are casualties of this country’s racist War on Drugs and ask as Frederick Douglass did in this edited version of “What, To the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?”

It works almost the same way if you change “slave” to “prisoner.”

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. …

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? …

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Douglass would not have wasted this day watching fireworks.

The War on Drugs is a War Against Black People

I must confess I feel a certain amount of guilt that I have largely squandered much of my talent on trivialities and stuff that doesn’t amount to what the little bird left on the tree limb (another one of my father’s colorful metaphors.  Thanks, Dad!)

Everyone who has a gift needs to use that gift and everyone is gifted at something.   Maybe it’s nothing more meaningful than being able to crack your knuckles or fart upon command.  I never said it had to be a useful gift.

I know how to write.  That’s my gift.  And I don’t think I’m going to get much better at it than I am now.  I can always fix some things and tweak some others, but for the most part, where I am now is about as good as I’ve ever going to be.   Having said that what I need next, what I need most, is a purpose.  Unfocused talent has no meaning and no purpose and is betrayal to the gifts God has blessed you with.

I believe I may have found that purpose.

More important than whether the next fall TV season will depict a middle class Black family or how many Black coaches are in the NFL or even whether Barack Obama wins a second term is ending the War on Drugs.

At its dark little heart, the War on Drugs is a barely concealed War on Black People. It imprisons Black people, destroys Black families, fails to make Black communities safer and puts those caught up in it in a revolving door from prison to the streets where they find themselves marked for life by a criminal record, lack of opportunities, voter disenfranchisement and more than likely a return to breaking the law and returning to prison. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

Cotton’s story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals—goals shared by the Founding Fathers. Denying African-Americans citizenship was deemed essential to the formation of the original union. Hundreds of years later, America is still not an egalitarian democracy. The arguments and rationalizations that have been trotted out in support of racial exclusion and discrimination in its various forms have changed and evolved, but the outcome has remained largely the same. An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is a law professor from Ohio State University and would probably be described a liberal activist, but ending the failed and misdirected War on Drugs is a rooting interest for conservatives as well such as John McWhorter, my colleague at The Root:

My suggestion: Making black America better will entail battling the senseless war on drugs. Police forces assigned to trawl black neighborhoods create thousands of young black people wary of whites — and thus less likely to ever succeed in a world full of them. When drugs are illegal, you can make money from the markup that selling them entails, and thus, so very many young blacks step outside of legal work to do so — especially when their schools are bad — and end up in prison or a coffin.

Their children grow up in communities where two-parent families are rare, are subject to the disruptive home lives that make it hard to be a good student, and often end up recapitulating the lives of their parents. Selling drugs means turf wars wielded with guns, which kill people, including little girls and grandmothers caught in crossfire.

Take away the war on drugs and all of this dissolves. With one generation of black inner-city boys who have never known cops as the enemy; who think of “slingin’ on them corners” as something old-school that no one could do now; and who stay in their neighborhoods to help raise their kids, black America would turn a corner.

Paradise? No. Decisively better than now? Certainly. Think about it: If there were no war on drugs, The Wire’s Felicia “Snoop” Pearson wouldn’t be in jail right now, despite how hard her childhood was.

The economy offers no work to young black people? Out of the many answers to that, here’s the most important: Anything whatsoever that black boys do besides sell drugs on street corners — anything at all — would be an improvement, and we all know it. Hard drugs available at stores? Yes, in standardized (and certified clean) doses — along with funding, now used to terrorize inner-city blacks, freed up for rehab. That’s a sane trade-off, especially given that there has been no addiction epidemic in countries that have relaxed their drug laws.So: I would like to see black America rise up, indeed — against the real problem: the war on drugs. No more “Black America in the Age of Obama” powwows; what are they for in 2011, really? Let’s do something real.

Write your congressman. Follow Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. If you want to attend old-style forums, too, bring up the war on drugs in the question-and-answer session. Actively observe how the war on drugs snakes through almost everything that looks like an unrelated cluster of black-neighborhood problems.

If it helps, call the war on drugs “the New Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander does in her book that just got an NAACP Image Award. Just fight it. Fight something that can change.


After I watched Alexander’s speech I went out and bought her book that same day.  It wasn’t news to me how disproportionate the price that has been paid by Blacks in America’s misguided “war” but I’m still capable of being stunned when she reveals how there are more people in prison now for drug related crimes than for all reasons in 1980.

Even more shocking according to Alexander,”More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”   That’s Black men whom aren’t being fathers to their children or husbands to their wives or working, paying taxes and making a positive contribution.

Mind you, I’m not calling for the legalization of drugs, though it’s not something I’m opposed to either.  People like getting high and no law has ever stopped them from getting high and never will.   It is not enough though to be informed about the issues.  Every so often you have to choose a side, pick a fight and put some action behind your beliefs.

The fact that I have a nephew whom is now locked away in a Ohio prison gives me a personal interest in this matter. The prison industrial complex is real and with Ohio’s governor wanting to privatize the prisons he is creating an economic incentive to lock up Black, Brown and poor White people.

There are a host of excellent reasons to end the War on Drugs, but for African-Americans it could be the critical civil rights issue of today.

The War on Drugs has made our streets more violent and less safe.  The War on Drugs has filled up prisons with thousands of people of color.  The War on Drugs has created a new business mode predicated upon keeping those people of color locked up.   The War on Drugs has made Mexico and other countries war zones where violent gangs butcher innocents and corrupt everything they touch as they battle it out to feed America’s nasty habits. The War on Drugs is a war against Constitutional and human rights.  It’s a war on everything BUT drugs.

This is a racist war and it must be stopped.  I must play my part in stopping it before it hurts my community, my country, and my people anymore than it already has.