As we know, I am currently in prison, which I have learned does one of two significant things to its occupants: brings the best out of them, or the worst. In some cases it’s a combination of both, but usually it’s one extreme or the other.
In 2001, I was involved in a riot at the Green Haven Correctional facility. After a mock trial before a Kangaroo Disciplinary Officer, I was given 36 months in SHU (Special Housing Unit), also known as solitary confinement. The SHU usually involves the deprivation of any personal property, twenty-three hour lockdown, one hour of recreation in a smaller cage (transported via waist chain and shackles) outside, three showers a week (if you’re lucky), and one visit a week from family or friends.
In this particular riot, two officers were injured, so on top of my disciplinary sanction, I was placed into a cell without lights, running water (toilet or sink), no mattress, no reading material. Absolutely nothing. Just the screams of anguish, frustration, and loneliness. As an additional spite to my already harsh surreal condition, the SHU officer lied and said I engaged in an unhygienic act, which subjected me to an additional sanction: dietary deprivation called “the loaf” — a dry chunk of bread (about ½ loaf) with cabbage and water twice a day for seven days. I am then given three hot meals for one day, and then another seven days of the loaf. This process is repeated until a total of twenty-one days is complete.
After about twelve days of the loaf, I started contemplating suicide. At some point during this thirteen days, I was issued a pen and paper, plus some other standard material (mattress, lights, flushing toilet, etc). I cannot honestly pinpoint when I started writing, but I remember it beginning with a terribly composed poem. My grandmother had recently passed away, and my cousin lied to me about coming to the wake. She said she had called the facility requesting that I be allowed to attend the wake, and that the facility denied this request due to security concerns. My cousin decided herself that I should remember my grandmother as I last saw her. I hated her for that. She robbed me of the last opportunity to see and kiss her face, to tell her that I was sorry, and to ask for her forgiveness.
That was fourteen years ago and I haven’t put my pen down since.
These “Autobiographical Notes” are inspired by James Baldwin’s “Autobiographical Notes” written in 1955. Unlike James Baldwin, I won no prizes, nor can I recall doing much writing. I did, however, read a lot of books. My grandmother had a library of a bunch of old silky books. I cannot remember the names of any of the stories I read. I do remember finding these unique treasures and artifacts, like really old black and white pictures or some antiquated coin from somewhere in Italy. I could never really ask her where these things came from, for then I would have had to admit to my snooping. But I know she knew.
In Baldwin’s “Autobiographical Notes,” he expresses:
“It is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself (life) and these affairs (of life) a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a look back… the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.” (pg 3)
This feat described by Baldwin, however, requires a certain amount of courage in facing one’s self, a sense of will and determination; it is an objective introspection that can break one’s sense of continuity of complacency. Many of us would rather accept the well dressed lies as they are told traditionally. The knife wound doesn’t seem to hurt as much if you just leave it alone. My past, it seems, had remained a horrible obstacle despite my attempts to honestly assess it. I dealt with my past regrets and grievances like one deals with the drunk uncle of the family. He remains a pink elephant in the room, as we justify and rationalize his behaviors. We then in turn enable or avoid him, by giving him money knowing very well where he’ll spend it.
I have grown dramatically in these fourteen years, when I could have easily withered away. Education, both offered and self-taught, has been a huge factor and advantage in my success, in my ability to rationally and logically deal with my attitude, my behavior, and the subsequent consequences. Education has given me the power to discard all the false and misleading principles and ideologies that I attached myself to in a state of ignorance. It was in organized behavior, social psychology, and world literature that I began to understand how one’s socioeconomic status plays a role in the decisions and paths we choose in life: how we apply learned behaviors and become classically conditioned through certain types of stimuli.
Through education and rehabilitation through the arts, I re-evaluated all that I was taught to believe, some conceptions so imbedded into my everyday way of thinking that I became unconscious of them. Like my use of the word NIGGA –- with its history, its pictures, its sounds, and its evoked intent of inferiority — was so ingrained into my everyday vocabulary that I needed the assistance of my peers to make me aware of when I was using it.
I’ve learned that I love Shakespeare, that I love acting, that I love writing, that I enjoy reading philosophy, that I love reading criminal law; that I love writing legalese. I have learned to embrace my middle name Preston and that it actually means “a high hill to climb.” I’ve learned that no matter how many times my heart has been broken, like Romeo, I am in love with the concept of love; I’ve learned that I am a romantic at heart, and a humanitarian.
But most importantly, I have learned to love and accept me. Can you believe that I once hated myself? Because of my mother’s and my grandmother’s whiteness, I thought I was adopted and abandoned by my real parents. Is this insane? It’s only through my course in child developmental psychology that I can understand this dysfunctional way of thinking.
Like Baldwin, I think that all theories are subject to attack or reconsideration. For at one time, sailors believed that the Earth was flat (if you went too far out, you’d fall off). I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t need organized religion to tell me what is principally wrong. The conscience is designed to inform us when we are going contrary to community. I’ve discovered that I am a collectivist as opposed to an individualist. I know what goes around comes back around. I’ve learned that my crime victims may never forgive my transgressions, but that should not preclude me from seeking their forgiveness.
In ‘Letters to a Young Poet,’ Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
“Confess to yourself in the deepest hour of the night, whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. Dig deep into your heart, where the answer spreads its roots into your being, and ask yourself solemnly, must I write?”
I MUST WRITE OR DIE!
Sheldon Johnson is serving 50 years in New York for 1st and 2nd degree robbery.
Sheldon P. Johnson #99A3011
Sing Sing C. F.
354 Hunter Street
Ossining, NY 10562