No justice, no peace

November 01, 1995|By Mary Ellen Dougherty

THE DAY OF the Million Man March in Washington, I was at the Maryland Penitentiary teaching a college writing class to men on the other side. Most of my students at the prison are young black men who are intelligent, articulate, creative and concerned; men who, had they not been incarcerated, would have been at the march.

A father's death

The class is conducted as a workshop, using student papers for discussion. The assignment we were discussing in this class was to write a short essay describing a past event in your life, explaining its impact on you. We began with a paper titled ''The Death of My Father.'' This is an excerpt from it:

When I was around 9 years old my father was murdered horribly. It is said that corrupt police executed my father for something he knew. When I first heard of his death I was playing in the backyard. My mother came out of the house . . . crying. I knew something was terribly wrong and I ran to her side. She hugged me and said that my father's body was found in Druid Hill Park Reservoir that very morning. My sadness was true, deep and everlasting. . . . From that moment on I would be irreversibly changed.

The same year my father was murdered, I failed in school and became a problem child to my mother. I always got in fights in school and my grades dramatically dropped.

The following year I got more news of my father's murder. A witness saw a helicopter hover over the murder scene . . . and drop something into the water. . . . Other witnesses later said they saw the police following and harassing my father just days before the murder. And then other witnesses stated they saw my father taken away by the police, the last anyone saw him alive.

As I grew up, I felt a tremendous distrust for police. . . . When I thought of police . . . I'd get a vision of them killing my father. Then I'd perceive they were going to murder me if I was caught being bad growing up.

One day . . . my motorcycle was stolen and I found out who did it. Instead of calling the police for help, I went to get it back my self. . . . The man lost his life in attacking me over my knowing he stole my bike. But if I had trust in the police, I wouldn't have killed him for attacking me and stealing from me.

When the student finished reading his essay, the men around the table were silent. Eventually, they re-read their copies of the paper quietly, and talked about why, as a piece of writing it worked for them and what might make it work better. Nobody talked about the police, or the convict's father, or the convict's grief, or the need for him to take responsibility for what he did. They did not talk about any of the victims: the father, the son, the dead man who stole the motorcycle. If the facts are accurate and if they are equal to the truth, the tragic implications were clear. The story did not shock anybody, or even surprise them. Nevertheless, the students were obviously affected by the essay. On every level, there was an implicit assent to what it said.

March on the mind

I continued with the class, concentrating on each paper and each student. But, at another level, I was at the Million Man March. I thought about how my students represented the types of statistics that created the need for the march. Many of them, sentenced for life, will spend a major portion of their adult years on the other side of every march for dignity.

The next morning at the College of Notre Dame, I was in the duplicating room. Outside the door were two young black men, college employees, who were speaking proudly about the march, the numbers, the tone, the intent and the effect. One of them said seriously and with wonder, ''And nobody got killed. Nobody got killed.'' Had these been two white men speaking, I would have thought the comment was racist, an indirect statement about the expectations of the white society when black men assemble. From two black sympathizers, however, I interpreted it as another poignant comment on contemporary urban life, the kind of life that drives the decisions of men like the ones I eventually see in prison. We expect violence. We wonder at peace.

Mary Ellen Dougherty is an associate professor of English at the College of Notre Dame.

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