'Listen, man, killing won't cool you off' A letter from the penitentiary

H.B. Johnson

September 23, 1992|By H.B. Johnson

LISTEN, man, killing a man won't cool you off. Crushing a skull or slitting a throat won't make you a man or bring you any cool comfort. Not if you're sane.

So listen:

Before you commit an act you think makes you a man, an act you think marks you clearly in the minds of those who question your manhood, consider two things. First, you are searching for something you will never be able to identify if you think foolish acts of fear-thickened violence have anything to do with what manhood is about. You might as well blindfold yourself and claim you can see the sun. For, you see, being a man has nothing to do with how violent you can be, with how ignorant you strive to be.

Manhood is a condition of being a human being, a contract with life that says you are not shallow, that you are not a confused and embittered child.

It is a certificate of your duty and responsibility to care, to be courageous and sensible at all times. That is one thing.

Another is this: Real men are reasonable men. And reasonable men do not go around questioning the manhood or lack thereof in other men. They are much too thoughtful for that.

They are far too secure in themselves to seek solace in the superficial levels of consciousness that come to fools during their search for shortcomings in others.

Real men are indeed worthy of the title and, I assure you, violence does not impress them one single bit. Among real men, fools are not honored, bullies are not feared, and the sly nature of cowards is wisely considered. Juvenile violence has no place, and you should know that.

I have been a black man in this country for 46 years, a black man and a poor man.

For at least 29 of those years, I have walked the halls of this nation's prisons, refusing to let my dreams die.

Your anguish is very clear to me. But the strength stolen by your confusion is not. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it isn't. For, you see, there is no excuse for your confusion any longer.

Any man who has stood before a judge in the United States of America knows the value of a good education.

Any man who goes to prison can look around him and see, clearly, the value that a big brother has to a little brother -- as a source of pride. If you missed it on the streets, you certainly will not miss it in here.

This is a note of fairness and love -- fairness to you, and love of something that includes you but is greater than both of us: the love of humanity. This is also a warning. People will no longer be held in check, will no longer honor a code of silence that sanctions murder. They will not sanction the killing of their children with bullets and dope. They cannot be silent while you do a thing like that, man!

Don't confuse methods with objectives. We are, in and out of prison, fighting for recognition as human beings. Educate yourself. Get hip to what's really going down. Drop that knife. Pick up a book. Take those hands with which you have been trying to build that little clay monster and build yourself into the giant you are meant to be.

Stop making it easy for the enemy to do a job on you, on the people who have cared about you and nourished you all your life.

If you cannot measure up, leave us. Go seek safety and support in the camp of the invisible slave master you serve, whom you so richly deserve.

I am here to tell you: Poor people and prisoners can help build a better world and future for themselves as well as anybody. And that's just what we are going to do -- with you or without you.

Better get in step, my man. It's a new day, and there ain't no turning back. With your hands cluttered with dope on the street and your mind thick with indifference while you search for your manhood in the exposed blood of some frightened and confused soul, you look ridiculous as a beacon of strength and freedom!

Should you defend yourself? Absolutely. What the hell do you think I'm talking about?

But ignorance is self-defense misplaced, and abandoning your people is cowardice.

H.B. Johnson, a poet and author of the prize-winning play, "A Gift From the Hunters," writes from the Maryland State Penitentiary in Baltimore.

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