1. Inside Out

I write a lot about prison, and most of what I write about are the terrible things that happen to people inside. But along with the sad and tragic and painful and unjust things, there are also moments we don’t talk about as much, moments of compassion, and resilience, and transformation that we don’t think of as existing inside prisons.

So this week I wanted to share with you (with permission) a letter written from one prisoner to another. They are both doing hard time. They spent time in the same prison, and now have been transferred to separate facilities. Both men are “gangsters,” probably what people picture when they picture men in prison: big “macho” men with tattoos. One man wrote to the other about the difficulties he’s been going through, and the struggle he’s had in coping. At the end of the letter, he came out and said he understood if that was the end of the friendship.

He was in fear to come out because he didn’t want to face reprisal from his friend who isn’t gay and from the rest of the people in the prison. He had been hiding his sexuality and living in secrecy for years, never giving any indication to anyone.

This is the response that was written to him. It was shared with me because his friend wanted to know if it was the right thing to say. I asked if I could publish it with personal details that could identify the men removed because I think it’s a letter that challenges so much of what we think about relationships and manhood in prison.

Prison is never a safe place to come out, so to trust another man enough to tell him something that could endanger his own life without knowing how he would react takes incredible bravery. And while we often think about the homophobia in prisons, this response shows that men who are in a place where they face violence every day, and where showing weakness and vulnerability can be fatal, can still show each other tremendous love, and can transcend the conditions they are living in.

Here is the letter:

Fuck dude, you know I was wondering why you haven’t wrote me back. It’s real good hearing from you. I’m sorry the jail that you’re at didn’t work out…can’t believe they done you like that. Yeah fuck, the G [gangster] thing, it never ends good for guys like us. There’s a lot of fake Gs here where I’m at. I keep to myself and I do me.

Sorry my letter found you in a bad place, in the hole and mentally. Yo, pick yourself up, look in the mirror every day and tell yourself you love yourself and you’re number one. And I don’t care about [situation in previous prison]. That type of situation I probably would have left the range too…

If I get free, I’ll take of you. You need this time and hardship to find you. You will. I can’t even count how many times I cried myself to sleep. You’re still alive and on your feet. Fuck all that shit that happened. Let it go. You know, lessons learned. I know shit is hard right now, but you’ll make it.

And about all this ending it crap. Yo, keep that shit out of your mind. You’re stronger than that. I’ll always recognize you brother. We all go through changes. I’ll never abandon you. We’re brothers for life. There’s nothing wrong with opening up to your P.O. Hopefully it will help. I get free, I promise, you’ll be good.

About you being gay, you know what man, good for you. I mean that shit. Be happy. I don’t know why you didn’t tell me earlier. I’d never judge you. I see you for who and what you are: my brother. Do whatever makes you happy and make yourself well. Focus on you. It’s up to you to get your mind right. Can’t no one else do it but you.

I’m not going to overload you. I’m good. We need you good. Got your letter yesterday but I want to touch base before Xmas. You’re never alone. You’re my brother and I love you and I miss you. 

Your brother forever. 

There are unimaginable hardships for LGBTQ people in prisons. This letter touches on the serious issues that can affect people from being forced to live in secrecy in prison, issues that are then intensified by the institutional response to mental struggles, such as being placed in solitary confinement.

We so rarely think of prisoners when we think about equality or justice for LGBTQ people, and we don’t necessarily think of prison justice as also being an issue of LGBTQ rights. We don’t think about whether there are supports for people coming out in prison, or what a “safe space” could possibly look like in a penal institution for gay people, or how LGBTQ prisoners can be connected to a gay community, or what the mainstream movement for gay rights has to do to the relevance of lives of prisoners in solitary, or self harming, or hiding their relationships, or being sexually exploited.

But it also shows the tremendous humanity and love that is found inside prisons. We think often only of the bad things that come out of prisons, and even though we say these are places for rehabilitation, we don’t often think about how people inside find transformation, how they change their lives, or how they maintain humanity and care and love for themselves and others. We may not think of prisons of places of tolerance, but this letter reminds us that our ideas of who prisoners are and what they are capable of should never be limited.

2. Thirteen Ways of Looking At My Blackness.

Last week, I was writing about Viola Desmond. In that article, I pointed out:

It also can’t be escaped that the popular image of Viola Desmond, a light-skinned, attractive woman, fits the image of acceptable Black women that are universally promoted in the media. Again, this is not to denigrate Desmond or deny her achievements, but to recognize that darker-skinned women face particular discrimination and are specifically dehumanized. Desmond’s narrative — a light-skinned, respectable, professional business woman, who fits already determined civil rights histories — in this sense is much more palatable and more easily placed into the Canadian narrative.

With Rosa Parks, most often compared to Viola Desmond, left out of that history is the dark-skinned teenager Claudette Colvin, who refused to move on the bus nine months before Rosa Parks, but who was seen as not respectable and middle-class enough to become the symbol of the boycotts.

These dynamics aren’t incidental to these histories, they’re ingrained still in the ways Black women move around society, in criminal justice convictions, in who is more likely to be disciplined in school, in who is more likely to get a job, in who we are willing to see as beautiful, as valuable, and as closer to human.

Image from thecanadianencyclopedia.ca

Examiner contributor and legendary journalist Evelyn C. White encouraged me to reflect on my personal experiences as a light-skinned Black woman and how that has affected my identity. So here are some fragments of my history.

1) I am four or five years old. We live in a small village in England and my mother’s sisters come to visit. I have never seen Black people before. I do not think of my mother as Black and definitely not myself as Black. I am puzzled by and scared of these strange people in my home and I cannot figure out why they are there. It is only years later I will realize it was my aunts visiting. At the time, I only remember being afraid.

2) My mother doesn’t believe in buying dolls. She thinks chemistry sets are a more appropriate toy for making future doctors. But we have a babysitter, and one day she gives my sister and me her old dolls. My sister names her favourite doll Dorothea. She has long golden hair. When we are older, my sister will tell me that after she was teased at our all-white school for her “witchy hair,” she brings in a comb with Dorothea’s golden hair tangled into it. She tells the other girls her hair is blond at home, but she has to hide it for school.

Eventually, our cousins visit from New York and they must notice that we only have white dolls, so they send us Black ones. I find this doll later on, and I notice that I have taken glue and tissue paper and made casts for her limbs. The white dolls’  bodies are untouched . I’m not sure what this means, if I hated this doll enough to harm her, or if I was trying to care for her, if I wanted to give her visible signs of being fixed somehow.

3) I am five years old and we are painting self-portraits at school. I go to line up to get the pink paint like everyone else, and the teacher tells me no, I have to wait until everyone else goes so that she can add brown to the paint. When she adds the brown, the paint turns a horrible diarrhea greenish brown and I am forced to paint myself with this. Looking back, I think my teacher was trying to be helpful.

My next teacher uses me as a lesson to the class. There are people in this world who are darker, different than us, she says. Like El.

My Dad is Welsh and we go to the Eisteddfod and wear daffodils to school on St. David’s Day. So when my teacher singles me out for being different, I say, that’s because I’m Welsh.

4) I am standing with my friend on the corner and an older boy cycles by. “Paki! Paki!” he yells, coming back on his bike over and over.

I don’t know what this means, and I ask mummy. Your friend wears glasses, she says. He was probably yelling “speccy.”

This experience actually becomes part of the first spoken word poem I write. “Someone called me Paki. They weren’t even good racists!” I exclaim.

5) I have been waiting to join Brownies forever, because my sister is in it. She comes home and teaches me the songs they sing. Only as an adult do I think about these songs. They sing songs about Hiawatha. They sing a song about “We’re from Nairobi we do the Watutsi.” They sing some song about “Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver” where the chorus has fake Indigenous singing sounds.

When we actually move to Canada, I join Brownies, and I wear my uniform to school and someone tells me my uniform is the colour of poo, just like my eyes. Poo eyes, they taunt. That is the last time I wear my Brownie uniform to school.

6) My first memory of racial consciousness is when I am seven or eight and the teacher is reading us a fairy tale and I notice that the good sister always has blond hair and the ugly sisters and the witches are always dark. This angers me.

7) I am in competitive gymnastics, and we do an exercise where we are supposed to lie on our backs and squeeze every muscle as tight as we can. Our coach tells us, if your body is tight there should be no space between your back and the floor. Except my body doesn’t go flat no matter how much I squeeze.

Later, as an adult, suddenly everyone is into “ghetto booty” and Jennifer Lopez and then Kim Kardashian are being celebrated everywhere, but I remember being in gymnastics and looking at the girls whose bodies were flat all the way down and knowing something was wrong with me. Gymnasts don’t have bums or stomachs, our coaches say.

One day I wear spandex shorts to school and a girl makes fun of me because my butt sticks out. Which is why it’s funny now, how the same girls who mocked our bodies then are now doing squats and talking about #bootygoals.

8) We go to a cultural festival and there is a steel orchestra. My sister and I want to join but my mother says no, the other girls will pick on you. They won’t like you because you’re lighter than them.

My grandfather was an early pan man. He stole garbage cans and hammered music out of them. He bailed singers out of jail. There is a recording of him in the Smithsonian speaking about calypso history. But I have never learned how to play the pan.

9) I am the golden child in junior high. I get the best grades and I am a star on the track team and I play in band and I volunteer for everything. I win athlete of the year and the prize for highest grade average. I am the only kid who isn’t white in the gifted program.

In Grade 9, there is another mixed-race girl in the class and we make friends. Now suddenly when we talk, we get kicked out of class. We get accused of cheating on a test in math class. At the time, I don’t understand what has changed, why I am getting in trouble now, why this friendship is so dangerous to my teachers.

In high school I quit track. That year they “accidentally” miscalculate my GPA, and I don’t win any year-end awards. My mother is furious with me until my report card comes. Then she sees that they have left out a mark completely and averaged the grades without it. She complains to the school. They correct my average but they never give me the award.

After I quit track, they tell me I won’t be able to get a scholarship to university. I am in the AP program and I have no marks less than 90 per cent.

At the time, I understand none of this.

10) I take Driver’s Ed and for the first time I am with students in the “regular” program. My sister goes to a different school, but she takes the class too, and she hangs with the Black girls. They ask her, what’s wrong with your sister, isn’t she Black? Why doesn’t she talk to us. I don’t know what my sister says to them.

I walk by the front doors and the Black girls say, what’s up, hey, why don’t you come over here, what, you think you’re too good for us? It’s a decade after my mother’s sisters coming to the house, but I still don’t really understand who I am. Nobody has taught me anything. The only book I can ever remember reading where the characters weren’t white is Underground to Canada. I remember my mother telling me how the Black girls won’t like me. I don’t know that I can go over there.

11) My mother once shares with me that she was scared we would turn out “Shabeen” which is a Trinidadian word for people with, quote, “hard, red hair.”

bell hooks writes about how with white babies the first question is are they a boy or a girl. But for Black families, the first question is are they light or dark? This will determine the child’s chances in life.

My mother also tells me that when I am born my eyes are slanted and the doctors are convinced I am “mongoloid.” I don’t know if this is her word or the doctor’s. Anyway, my mother has to convince them that no, that’s just how our eyes are, the baby is fine.

My mother grew up in a colonized country. Every sister in her family is aware of where they stand in terms of skin shade. The sister next to my mother was the lightest, light enough to be able to go to a different school. On her first day, a white girl comes up to her and spits on her and says, my mother says she’s not going to let me come here any more, now that they let niggers in.

My aunt stops going to school at some point and Grandmummy is called in. Her sisters are terrified for her, thinking she’ll get a beating when Grandmummy gets home. But whatever happened at the school must have been serious, because Grandmummy pulls her out of school, tells her she doesn’t have to go back. Nobody ever knows what was said.

My mummy tells me once that her nursery school teacher made the Black kids play under the table. They weren’t allowed out.

My mother’s oldest sister was the first Black girl to attend the convent school. They didn’t have a choice: on the 11-plus  exams she comes third on the entire island, the highest a girl has ever placed. Plus, Grandaddy is Catholic. My aunt loves to sing, but they tell her she can’t be in the choir, her legs don’t match the rest.

The paper bag test is real, that you had to be lighter than a brown paper bag. Mummy tells me the test in South Africa was they had to pass a pencil through your hair. Our parents grew up with this, it’s not some ancient history. Breaking down our body parts into specific categories, labelling us, deciding if our nose was too flat past human. My mummy once says to my sister that the reason why her nose is so flat is because she used to press on it with her own hand when she was a baby. Remember that when they pull over Philando Castile the police report says the suspect has a “wide set nose.”

So understand that when I tell you about my mother, don’t misunderstand her. Everything she did, everything she said, was about escape, about not having her children live through the same life she did.

As a child when she told us stories about discrimination they always had a happy ending. “Then I went back and showed them my degree and told them, who’s the nigger now?” my mum would say. Or she would tell us about our uncle studying medicine in Edinburgh, and how on New Year’s Day everyone would ask him to come to their door because it was good luck to see a dark man first thing in the new year. So he would go house to house and get all the food and drinks. She also tells us a “funny story” about how one of our relatives worked in a bakery and the children were convinced the brown bread was his skin rubbing off. Her stories always had a moral, that our family was a success, that our relatives had triumphed, that nothing could hold us back.

As an adult, I began to think of these stories and ask myself, but who said they had to come in a different door? Who said her legs were wrong? Why? My mother never told these stories as being about race or racism, they were meant as motivation for why we should get the best grades, to be twice as good to get half as much. But inadvertently they will form the foundation for my racial consciousness, when I think about the systems of oppression that said all the legs in the choir had to match.

I am grateful to my mother for teaching me pride in who we are. That is something I never doubted, not since I was born.

Image from blackthen.com

12) I am invited to perform at When Sisters Speak, a showcase for Black spoken word artists in Toronto. I do my set, and when I come backstage, one of the dancers runs up to me. Your set was fire! She tells me. When you started speaking we were all like, who is that? And then we were so shocked, it’s the light skinned girl!

At my first national poetry championship, a white man says nigger from the stage. I am in the bathroom and I walk out just in time to hear him say it. I run back in to my friend. “There’s a white man calling us niggers!” I announce. His teammate is in the bathroom and she argues with me that the poem isn’t racist, it’s about racism. Her Black teammate later tells me that after this encounter she was puzzled at why I was angry. “But she’s pretty, she could almost be white,” she says.

13) I get in an argument with a famous author when I meet him in Halifax. He talks to me about how mixed race people have it the worst, we experience racism from white people and discrimination from Black people. I say, no, it’s because so many mixed-race people carry internalized white supremacy with us from growing up in white communities and families, and that’s what Black people are reacting to. They don’t hate us because we “have the good hair,” I argue, they are objecting because so many of us believe we have good hair.

I say, being mixed race isn’t some special condition. The Egyptians fucked the Phoenicians. The Libyans fucked the Romans. There’s been mixed race kids since the first slave ship departed African shores. It’s not some separate condition from being Black, it is the same Black experience. Put me on an auction block in the South in 1800 and see if they sell me, I say.

And my mother met my father, in a university in Wales. My Dad’s parents don’t attend the wedding in Trinidad. Mummy claims it’s just that they didn’t like to fly. Maybe that’s true. My sister tells me that once she was digging through boxes and she found letters from my grandmother hoping that she wouldn’t have “wooly haired” grandchildren. When we visit, she leaves the house to sleep at the neighbours, but Mummy says it’s just because we were loud. It could be. At the end of her life she is convinced there are “gypsies” living in the fields across from her constantly playing music and making noise. Who knows what she felt, really. Mummy writes her every week to the end of her life.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. I agree with all of today’s commenters, probably for the first time ever.

    Thank you, El, and thank you to the writer of the letter you shared with us.

  2. Always enjoy Saturday Morning File, most often for the humour-to-outrage ratio that I find so well dialled. Today’s packed an extra punch, for me, and provoked tears. Starting Saturday with a good cry, oh my. Thank you.

  3. Profoundly moving. Am awed, transfixed by your undaunted courage and humanity despite a lifetime of racist wounds to your heart, spirit, and intellect. If cruel hearts and minds can be changed, your words, your experiences could/should accomplish it. In thinking about its powerful impact on me, I can only imagine its potential to affect those students who feel/are lonely and excluded by virtue of different skin colour or appearance – and those who might inflict and perpetuate it. If it were within my ability, and you were in agreement, I’ve have your piece printed and distributed as required reading within the entire school system.