“I recently spent time in Memphis, which was deep, dirty and delicious. There are many stories I could share but the most life-affirming/transformative event happened on my flight back to Brooklyn, when I took a seat next to this man. Robert Hawkins.
I almost didn’t sit next to Robert, as he had a cane and a support brace around his waist so I didn’t want to make him get up and move just so I could get my window seat! But Robert insisted I sit, and we all got settled in. I was so blessed that I ended up in that seat, at that very moment in time…Robert told me that he had been released from prison that very day and that this flight was his first taste of freedom, and our conversation his first with a person who wasn’t his family, lawyer or prison mate in 26 years…intense, right?
As Robert shared his story, I gave him my respect and compassion for the tough life he had been forced to live behind bars. Not surprisingly his was the classic tale of yet another strong Black man who was seen as having too much power and money by some, so was hunted down and captured with almost no evidence yet given the most severe sentence possible. A decision taken in one moment by a very powerful, deeply institutionalised racist system that took away a man from his community, his 4 children, his wife for 26 years. They also took his money, over $10,000,000 confiscated, as they didn’t believe that a Black man could have such wealth without being involved in criminal activity. Robert had however, made his money in real estate, a norm we see many from other races enjoying freely without question. This weekend I looked up Roberts story. He told me I should and every word he spoke sadly, was true…
Robert shared his strength and vulnerability with me. He was nervous about the way that society would treat him as an ex-convict and was moved that there was ‘youth’ (ahem) like me who saw the humanity in the incarcerated. He had never spoken with somebody from the UK before and couldn’t believe how close our lived experiences were between the haves and the have-nots. We spoke at length about the unbelievable prison statistics of Black men and women in the US/UK and we spoke about the trauma in families linked directly to the ‘stealing’ of large numbers of Black men from our homes by the State. We spoke about this ‘New Jim Crow era’. This new form of Slavery.
Listening firsthand to Roberts story and his to mine, was so deep and unbelievably cosmic in its timing and connection, as not 24hrs before that flight, I had stood next to the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. MLK Jr., a man with such revolutionary power and influence that the only way to control him and his message was to kill him, as incarcerating had only made him stronger.
I spent over 5 hours in the museum, in the company of great knowledge and engaging with evidence of the successful actions taken by ‘everyday’ Black people to dismantle oppressive systems, at the risk of their own security/life. People who could not stand by in silence, apathy, inaction as people suffered and their humanity was being taken away, even if that meant imprisonment.
Our conversation meandered as I showed Robert images from the Civil Rights Museum. A place he has never been able to visit as his freedom to travel had been taken away when he was my exact age. An activity I sometimes take for granted, but will never do so again. Since 1989 when Robert was imprisoned, technology has transformed. Here we now were with the museum and other moments, such as ‘The Movement for Black Lives Convening, in Cleveland’ right there on my computer screen. A revolutionary tool in my hand, ready to use and share with somebody whose access to knowledge and education had been deeply controlled and restricted. There on that plane, on that day, with no prior planning – a revolutionary act was taking place.
I’ll end the sharing of my 2 hr journey with Robert, with his statements about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He was fully aware of the movement, if only through the lens of the media on TV, but he told me that Brothers were watching the actions taken by those in the movement from behind bars and it was giving them energy, strength, power and aspirations. He told me to never stop doing what I do, that he wanted to participate and for his family to participate as they healed and entered a new chapter together in life, one not restricted or limited in their capacity to be, dream, thrive. Robert saw the movement as Love. Love for Black people who are (de)humanised by society/state. Love for the (re)humanisation of Black people within ourselves and our communities. Love that can connect two people from very different places/realities, who may one day be blessed to share a little time on the same journey – like on that very day when our paths crossed and we spoke to each other using liberated terms and language that gave us the freedom to break down barriers and see each other honestly/authentically, as just two compassionate, loving, conscious human-beings. The movement is about Justice, Rights & Accountability, but it is equally about Compassion, Respect, Love & Solidarity.
36 years on this planet and there is so much I am yet to learn, know, experience and deconstruct. I am blessed to be able to travel on this global journey and to meet people like Robert along the way.”
091/100 of #100DaysofConfessions Instagram Project
**Natalie Jeffers is Founder and Director of Matters of the Earth, an organisation bridging the gap between the academic, activist and creative worlds by unarchiving, reimagining and visualising knowledge for engagement and mobilisation. You can also keep up to date with Natalie on Twitter**