All posts by Chanton ©

Mending Fences

One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on death row is the societal disconnect of being stowed away from the outside world.  Unlike other facilities, death row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens. Though outlets are provided as a source of information – like TVs, newspapers, and visits – the basic cable viewing and local coverage lacks the exposure to stave off the inevitable.

In June of 2016 telephones were installed on death row. This avenue for communication was an enormous leap from the single ten minute phone call that we had previously been allowed annually. The holiday phone calls, as the process was known, were administered under strict procedures and they often found their targets at work or unavailable, and if they were available, there was not enough time to speak with all those who were available and eagerly waiting. Not to undermine the value of those precious moments and the tender voices of our loved ones, but ten minutes a year is insufficient time to fully sense that you’ve spoken with someone. Today, things are different. The atmosphere on death row is alive with the promise for potential amendment. With the telephone installments, I am a notion and a few clicks away from breaching society.

The first call I made was to my mother, who relocated to be nearby after I was sentenced.  My mother has visited me weekly and provided for me in such a way that I am seldom in need.  She and I have sang, prayed, and cried together throughout the years to lessen the pain in each other’s eyes.  Just being able to talk with my mother by phone was an honor.

The second person I called was my Aunt Patsy.  Much like my mom, Aunt Patsy has been essential to my endurance with her continuous faith and optimism. She has visited, written, and sent funds, dutifully, as if I was her own son. Aunt Patsy has been a friend that I could confide in, and, right or wrong, she believes in supporting her family in every way she can – I admire that the most about Aunt Patsy.

After those two calls, I got around to making the most anticipated call that had been seventeen years in waiting. A call that came with hesitancy and doubt, and would either offer an incredibly wonderful experience or sizzle with awkwardness and discomfort. With jittery fingers, I punched in the digits. The phone rang once, then twice. Each clatter of the ringing that thrummed in my ear made the dissonance in my head more evident: desperately hoping someone answered, on one hand, while, on the other, praying to God that they didn’t.

Suddenly, the automated recording sprang to life as I resisted the impulse to hang up. What was I to say?  Where would I begin?  I was completely unaware that my breathing had stalled, until a sigh of relief escaped me.

“…Thank you for using Global Tel Link.”

Then I heard her voice, “Heyyy, Duck!”

And everything hit me at once, a plethora of memories and emotions from a life I once knew. A tear slipped out of my eye before words left my mouth as I realized why the moment was so endearing.  It was because nothing will ever be more important than family.  I’ve always stood by that philosophy, and I’ll die by it. I smiled as my worries morphed into joy.

“Hey, Aunt Pudding. It’s good to hear your voice.”

Aunt Brenda, whom everyone in our family called Pudding, was my mother’s older sister by one year. As kids, the two were best friends.  My mom looked up to Aunt Pudding and wanted to be just like her. Then, at 16 years of age, Aunt Pudding married and moved away from home to start a family, which left my mom to feel abandoned. Their relationship hardly suffered, instead, it strengthened as they grew. The dynamics of family closeness was similar with all my aunts and uncles. Whether a bill needed paid or someone needed a place to stay, they’d always provide for each other. This closeness was the inheritance for us children of the family. Aunt Pudding, herself, was the mother of six, though my brother and I made seven and eight. I spent countless Saturday mornings on her living room sofa watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and Soul Train.  In the backyard was an old pecan tree I’d climb while Aunt Pudding hung clothes out to dry.  Her house was a staple in the community for many of the neighborhood kids, and the lesson that our closeness reinforced most was that nothing was more important than family.

All that changed, May 17th, 1999, when our closeness went awry.  Aunt Pudding’s eldest son learned of my interest in a murder and covertly alerted the authorities.  After meeting with the detectives and detailing the crime, he was given an ultimatum: testify as to my involvement in open court or be criminally charged himself.  This act caused a rift in my family from which there would be no healing.

I never blamed Aunt Pudding for standing by her son.  It was indicative to how my grandmother raised her children.  It’s why my mom stood by me.  It was because, regardless of our children’s shortcomings, they are our greatest responsibility.  Still, the ordeal took a toll on my mother and Aunt Pudding’s relationship.  The sisters spoke occasionally, though careful to avoid mentioning their two sons. Other family members differed in opinions and ultimately chose sides.  Some doubted that the cousin would lie about something as serious as murder, while others were persuaded by the testimony of DNA findings.  It was an explosive circumstance that fragmented our family’s closeness with few whom I wondered if I’d ever hear from again.

Then about five years ago, while visiting with my mother, Aunt Pudding took ill and was hospitalized. Initially, the diagnosis looked bleak, but she slowly began to pull through. Many in our family gathered at her bedside to offer support and prayers. It was the closest we’d been in fifteen years.

Though I was unable to share in the experience, I agonized in seclusion.  I’d lost my grandmother and an aunt already; I couldn’t bear to lose Aunt Pudding.  There is no greater pain than the hurt I’ve felt in not being able to say goodbye. If I ever had the chance, I’d find a way to make things right.

With the telephone installments on death row, I was given that chance.  I expressed my eagerness to reconnect with Aunt Pudding, and my mom made it happen.  Aunt Pudding and I were in such high spirits that all the messiness seemed forgotten. Our conversation flowed like cool spring waters over the jagged stones of past controversy. It reminded me of more pleasant times, back in the days when Aunt Pudding’s doors were open to me, even in the wee hours of the night, or when I would raid her fridge to sate my appetite while she encouraged me to eat more. Back in the days when our love was unconditional and the only sides to be chosen had long been determined by blood. I will always love my Aunt Pudding, though amidst the chaos, I’d forgotten what that felt like, until now. And yet, nothing will ever be more important than family – the proof is in the pudding, just listen to her voice…

“Heyyy, Duck!”

“Hey, Aunt Pudding.”

What could be more important than that?

©Chanton

 

You Have No Idea

You have no idea what it’s like to be me – to have a father who delivers empty promises, to have dreams that are so far out of reach, attainability mocks you.

You have no idea what welfare tastes like or how the lump in the throat of a proud woman feels as her child gleefully laces up his used shoes.

You don’t know what it’s like – what early morning yard sales and a three mile trek to a fucked up job can do to your psyche or what it’s like to watch your hero bested by a villainous street drug, that special something in their eyes, forever gone.

You can’t know what that’s like because you’re not me, and you have no idea what it’s like to accept that everything you’ve done good was never really good enough; no idea what it’s like to have avoided near tragedy, only to have it claim your spirit, or what it’s like to, twice, be a victim of injustice because classism was instituted just for you.

You, seriously, have no idea what it feels like to believe in a country that doesn’t believe in you, one that has deemed you hopeless and washed its hands of your filthy soul – what it’s like to watch your brother’s lifeless body hanging from a bed sheet as an alternative to the daily cruelty he has suffered – no idea what it’s like to see your loved ones perish beyond a glass partition, to have that emptiness in your chest, and stillness on your tongue – no idea, the embarrassment of having to face your children, knowing that your shortcomings have victimized them, also.

You have no idea what it’s like to be drowned in struggle, encumbered by misery, yet still keep fighting because it’s all you have left.

What a life… you have no idea.

©Chanton

Salvation

The day I walked onto death row, I felt like an alien, my mind a haze of confusion and disbelief I’d never felt before. I wore sadness on my shoulders and disaster behind my eyes. The thud in my chest was of condemnation.

With leaden steps, I walked into a warped capsule that was desolate, though filled with men.  Men with empty gazes and dejected postures, like forgotten relics tarnished by the cruelties of incarceration. I had never seen a walking dead man before, I was now cast amongst the lot of them. I dragged what was left of my mother’s son and my state-issued property into a dim 6×10 single cell, collapsed onto the folds of a mattress, and cried. As sleep reached up to cradle me, I prayed that I would not wake up again.

The next morning was better than expected. Some guys woke me to see if I wanted breakfast. A part of me viewed the gesture as thoughtful, another part, suspicious. I arose, stiff and exhausted, yet feeling more like myself. My survival instincts kicked in, I had to get it together. I studied the cell which was to become my permanent residence. Along the back wall was a vertical window of thick Plexiglas, shielded by a steel plate. Each wall, scarred with graffiti and chipped paint, with globs of toilet paper plastered over a cooling vent, and a toilet that was crude, steel, and indecent. Worst of all was the place upon where I was to lay each night, a thin metal slab bolted to the wall beneath a tatty mattress darkened with stains. I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with the putrid smell of my reality, and found acceptance.

Later that day, I was informed by staff to pack up my property, and move to another block. There were two co-defendants expected to arrive and they had to be housed separately. I walked onto another pod, identical to the one I’d left, except this one seemed smaller and cramped. Metal-framed bunks furnished a day room area that resembled a military barracks more than a prison block. Stashed away in the far reaches of a darkened corner was a tiny cavity – the shower. Single-man cells spanned an upper and lower tier as inmates meandered from room to room. Some inmates loitered around the day room tables, while others sat wide-eyed before a blurred TV screen. There was one particular table designated as the gambling spot, where several men smoked stogies and drank coffee over a card game. The entire dorm was veiled in clouds of tobacco smoke, the air stale and suffocating.

I received several glances, though no one paid me much attention.  They carried on as if to make me feel less uncomfortable.  A tall, lanky guy sauntered over and indicated which bunk was mine. His accent was West Indian. I felt obliged though I couldn’t help but wonder what he was up to. We made brief introductions as I put my things away. He said that we’d chat later when I was done.

Suddenly, a balding, middle-aged white guy launched himself up from the card game, his face twisted and steaming. He slammed his palm down on the table, puffed his chest, and roared, “This muthafucka ain’t got a god damn thang! He’s just calling to be calling! I’ll tell ya what… call me one more time, sum-bitch, I’mma give you sumptin to call about!”

The threat permeated throughout the room in search of its victim.  I froze.  The West Indian guy assured me that everything was fine, and that the uproar was deliberate and quite common. I asked what were they playing and he answered, “Penny poker.”  Penny poker?  I had never seen anyone make such a ruckus over pennies.  Apparently, neither had the pudgy blond-haired guy who was being yelled at.  With his fingers interlaced and shoulders scrunched, his eyes roamed as low as the floor would allow. I felt sorry for him. I made a promise to myself not to gamble.

Several minutes passed before another guy approached me and introduced himself.  His face was mostly hidden under the bill of a cap and tinted shade, and he grinned as though he knew something no one else did. I was immediately suspicious, and nervous. His upper teeth were crowned with gold fronts and he talked with the exaggerated swagger of an old-school pimp. He was strange and mysterious; the type of guy that whispers for no reason.  In no time at all he was whispering to me.

“Aye, yo.  I’ve gotta way outta here.  You wanna get outta here, don’t cha?” Hell yeah, I wanted out of there, more than anything.  A longing for my family erupted inside me and bubbled over like fizzled cola. I didn’t know the guy, nor trust him, but if he had a way to break out of death row, I wasn’t going to pass it up.  He turned and headed for his room as I followed closely on his heels, cautious yet optimistic.  The guy entered first.  I checked behind me to be sure no one followed.  From the doorway, I observed a room that was well kept, with books lined neatly inside a wall locker and cosmetics situated atop a steel countertop. In the middle of the floor was an Islamic prayer rug. I was scared as shit when I entered.

The guy reached for a book, opened it, and began speaking to me about something he called the Pan African movement.  He said that we needed to elevate the conscience of black people to break loose the mental shackles of our oppressors.  What the hell?  I kept waiting for him to peel back the prayer rug to reveal an underground passage, one that he had tunneled out with a spoon.  He didn’t.  I was disappointed to learn that there would be no path back to my family. I began feeling smothered under the dense layers of captivity.

Later that night, while most inmates were locked in their cells, there were a few of us assigned to the day room bunks due to overcrowding.  I considered this a privilege since we were allowed to move around after lights out, stay up all night and talk.  The arrangement was similar to the county jail, so the transition was smoother than I imagined.  Around midnight, the door to the pod squealed open and in walked a clean-cut baby face young’un.  There were tattoos on his arms and a bob in his step, yet his eyes held a certain unexpectedness.  I was laid back on the bunk thumbing through an African book for my freedom.  The young guy put his things away, turned, and offered me a cigarette.  His courtesy compelled me to open up to him.  He and I talked the remainder of the night about nothing.

One day, young’un was upset with a mutual friend of ours, and wanted me to decide between the two. When I didn’t, young’un was upset with me.  The situation carried on for weeks, in which time we both learned things about each other that we didn’t like – young’un was stubborn, and I was frustrated.  Our friendship became strenuous after that.

A few years would pass, and I hardly recognized young’un. He grew troubled in a way that even his smile seemed to ache.  I know why he was hurting, the same as I.  It was the difficulty of living without his family.  I reached out to the young’un several times, but he shut me out.  The shadows of his transgressions were upon him and there would be no defeating his inner demons.  On August 5th 2007, young’un hung himself with a bed sheet.  He was 28.

Afterwards, death row changed for me.  Before, I had hoped for a reversal and acquittal. Suddenly, the chaos was real; the likelihood that I would not leave death row alive.  An anger inside me stirred for the executions past.  I thought about my legacy and how I’d be remembered.  I didn’t want the pain that I’d caused to be the end of my chapter.  I didn’t want my voice stifled away in a pine box. I didn’t want my children to wonder the kind of father I would’ve been, nor my accusers to determine the man I was.  I didn’t want my life to be a blemish on history.

What I wanted was to have a say in how I am remembered.  I wanted the people I loved to know that I tried to be a better man.  I’d seen how regrets could consume a man’s spirit, I wanted my regrets to be a tool for a change.  And if it should be that I would perish on death row, then I wanted nothing more than to be at peace with myself.  That is why I write.

© Chanton

 

Humanity Undenied

On April 13, 2000, I was convicted of capital murder.  Despite endless pleas of innocence, fallacious testimony of witnesses, and a substantial amount of physical evidence supporting my acquittal, a body of jury members determined that my humanity was beyond repair and sentenced me to death.  Hours later, I walked onto Death Row, a fragment of the aspiring young son that my mother raised.  I prayed that every door that clanged shut behind me was a pinch that would rouse me from the ghastly nightmare.  I was numb, and with the best part of me eroded, there really wasn’t anything left to be executed. I was deemed worthless and unfit, forfeited to venomous IV drips and decades of incessant mental anguish. That man’s life expired the day the world gave up on me.

Since then, I have ascended beyond the threshold of Death Row twice.  Once in 2010 for a court session where I was treated like a leper by citizens who held me at the leashed end of their opinions, and again today, December 16, 2016, when I was scheduled to see a dermatologist for possible acne.

The sting of ostracism was immediate as myself and two other Death Row inmates were escorted to an area in the prison known as ‘Receiving’.  Officers from different units shuffled to and fro, as though we were unnoticeable.  Some sported faint smiles, while their eyes held glints of familiarity. Their seniority was somewhat validated by their capacity to fraternize with Central Prison’s most notorious. Corralled in a holding cell that reeked of stale urine, we were put on display through dense Plexiglas like weapons grade cargo on a showroom floor.  Inmates from various statewide facilities scrutinized us, as though our red jumpsuits uncovered some penal myth.  A few nodded nervously, ceding to a hierarchy of status, while others held stares of sympathy.  I wanted to say, “Don’t feel sorry for me. We’re having our first ever talent show on Death Row today and a pizza party, later, to celebrate our accomplishments. With drama class, chess club, and journalism, we are changing the narrative,” but I didn’t.  Instead, I sat there, guarded, while their gazes pricked holes in my dignity.

Soon, a jangled sound filled the air announcing the arrival of chains and shackles. Our waists were girdled in iron, while a steel box and padlock outfitted our wrists.  After the other two Death Row inmates departed, I felt sullen and degraded. My eagerness to see the world waned in the confined loneliness. Finally, I was retrieved and ushered to a vehicle while my escorts discussed travel details. In proximity, I was no more than toxic merchandise to be handled with care, but once secured, they paid little attention to me.  Artillery joined our convoy as guns were collected at the gates.  My despair deepened as I realized their potential should I become overwhelmed by the desire for liberation.

As the big gates folded outward and we departed, I checked for vantage points.  I hoped to disconnect from the unsettling notion that these men were an incident away from destroying me.  They seated me behind the driver, which proved to be a visual hindrance, but then, the strangest thing grabbed my attention – a traffic light. It was suspended high above the earth like some sustainable relic from a past millennium, its illuminated orbs unbiased in providing safety for travelers.  With the advancement in everything else electronic, I imagined that even traffic lights had gotten smarter.  The familiar sight comforted me.

I also noticed the assortment of parked cars stacked like dominoes in their lots, and other things, like the brittle grass, and withered leaves.  It put me in a place of wonderment that made fretting over small displeasures seem trivial.  The vast blue sky vaguely resembled the same outside my cell’s window. Patches of trees along the highway took me back to when I was a kid taking refuge in the woods, where I would scale the colossal monuments with as much vigor as my inquisition could muster.  Seeing these everyday sights through the window, the feeling of confinement gradually dissolved, and I decided that any point from which to view life’s splendor would be fortunate.  I sat back to enjoy 18 years of societal evolution unfold.

The first person of whom I took careful notice was a pedestrian woman of Asian descent. She was saddled in a trench coat and scarf, while the silky strands of her hair danced in the morning breeze.  The young woman walked with a determined pace as the steps of her sneakers pounded to a drum of freedom in my head.  I guessed that she was an intelligent college student, who was running late for class.  Then, I thought how stereotypical I was being to think that all Asians were intelligent.  It could be that she hated school, and was on her way to work or anywhere.  I realized the pitfalls we create for ourselves, and others, when we judge people on sight alone. I quickly put my assessments in check, given the circumstances. People would be judging me soon enough, yet with the chains and shackles, it was unlikely that their opinions would waiver.

As the young woman faded from view, another pedestrian snagged my attention. He was a Caucasian male with cropped brown hair and an unsuspecting face. He wore baggie jeans and a hoodie, and walked leisurely as if having no particular destination. I was moved. How nice it must be to have the liberty to head nowhere.

Other daily norms stood out – a guy pumping gas into a brown Chevy, a caravan of drivers spilling through a fast food lane, and a gorgeous blond sitting at a bus stop reading a book. These simple acts of living filled me with inspiration and envy. As we passed shabby, destitute homes, I imagined the warmth and comfort of finding rest inside. I saw lakes and rivers with depths that held mysteries. I observed drivers along the freeway who kept pace with our detail – some I admired for their boldness to steal glances, others I despised for their obliviousness. There were roadway signs and billboards I read with the meticulousness of a good novel.  Some strip malls and hotel chains I saw were like oasis’s of renewed hope.  My head ping-ponged from side to side as I was engrossed from every perspective.

When our vehicle slowed and veered onto an adjoining roadway, I barely noticed. The sign read ‘Medical Facility’, which showed our arrival. Other transports from around the state departed, each with an inmate in back whose eyes held envy of freedom. There was an edginess that crept over me as I mentally prepared for the stigmatizing treatment to come. I made presumptions of a scripted encounter, where I would be objectified in a way that found many of the questions bouncing up off of the floor at me.  I remembered a guy on Death Row who once wrote about his experience with the outside hospital.  The focus of his composition was social ostracism. That message now resonated with me, strongly. He spoke of a particular moment when he felt eager to return to Death Row.  I dared to feel the same way.

I was peeled from my place of refuge by armed guards and escorted to an area marked ‘Outpatient’. There, an orderly awaited.  She was a petite woman with auburn hair and a tailored smile.  The orderly greeted us (or rather, the officers were greeted since she barely looked my way), then led us inside. Admittedly, there was a politeness and professionalism in her disregard for me that did not seem spiteful.  It was then that I realized that my lesson in being dehumanized had already taken effect.  As we moved about the corridors, watchful eyes landed on my crimson jumpsuit with cautiousness and curiosity.  I was overcome with shame.  The contemptuous stares and unsteady demeanors of others made me reject myself.  I wasn’t quite ready to go back to Death Row yet, but the idea seemed plausible.

We were shown to a waiting room and held up there for some time. The officers from Central Prison, along with those from other facilities, flung chatter over my head at one another, as though my cuffed hands prevented my grasp for understanding.  Eventually, their attention turned my way.  It began when the Sergeant who oversaw my transport detail asked, “So, when is Death Row going to perform another play?” Another officer asked, “What was the rehearsal process like?”  While another officer asked, “Did Death Row really host a Story Slam?”

I felt grateful to be in the position of being somewhat of a spokesperson.  I replied that our performance of the play, “12 Angry Men,” in front of guests from the Vera Institute for Justice, was a turning point, and that our Drama Club was excited about the potential projects to come. The rehearsal process was a grueling experience at times, but humbling in that it formed bonds among many Death Row inmates and staff. And the Story Slam was a competition in which Death Row writers performed short stories before guests and judges.

Afterwards, the questions from the officers poured in, while each response unraveled the fallacy of a woven stigma. Before long, we were engaged in stimulating conversation about life, politics, and other recent events.  The officers seemed genuinely interested in the many productive ways in which we were reshaping the Death Row image.  I recounted some of the other programs, such a Social Psychology, Houses of Healing, Speech / Debate, and Yoga.  They could hardly believe it.  I guess some of my own generalizations were beginning to unravel.  I still didn’t doubt their course of action should I have tried to escape, I just concluded that it likely wouldn’t be malicious.

A while later, a nurse came who seemed accustomed to working with inmates, even those from Death Row.  Her cordialness was refreshing, her eye contact, relaxing.  I almost forgot that I was an inmate or that she wasn’t in a prison.  Her interactions with me were not what I had expected.  I thought the distance she kept would be obvious, but it wasn’t.  I thought she would refer to me rather than speak with me, but she didn’t. There was a kindness and consideration about the nurse that was pleasant, it reminded me of a time I once knew.

The entire process took an hour or so, then, afterwards, we were back on the road to damnation. As I sat in the backseat on the drive back to prison, I bid goodbye to all of life’s liberties that I may never see again. I thought about all of the chaos in the world – the 49 civilians gunned down in a nightclub in Orlando, FL, for no other reason than their personal lifestyle, the nine church members in Charleston, SC, executed while attending service, for the capital offense of being black, the spectators bombed at the annual Boston Marathon, and the tiny bodies of innocent children that littered the hallways of Sandy Hook Elementary.

I thought about the heightened gang activity plaguing our urban communities and the politicians who pass laws that arm the mentally unstable. I thought of the victims of sexual violence and the random lives cut short by inebriated drivers. I wondered at the people who did not appreciate their liberties. Why, just being able to walk around, headed nowhere, was not enough to stay the hand of violence.  Just the other day, someone killed four people in my own hometown.  I wondered would their lives have been spared had the perpetrator known the trials and hardships of incarceration. How an inmate is devoid of all liberties, the decades of having lost friends to the cruelty of lethal concoctions, the segregation from a world that has moved on without you. And yet, you develop such a profound appreciation for all things that even trees and traffic lights can inspire.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity.  It’s where humanity is rediscovered and restored.  Death Row is where the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death.  We are all human beings, and as such we are genetically prone to make mistakes, but for many Death Row inmates we are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair, and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own, for we can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases, a second chance.  No matter what our personal or collective opinions are, no one will ever deserve to die.

© Chanton

Don’t Cry For Me

She sits weeping in the front pew wearing a pretty dress.
The ivory casket conceals what remains.
Don’t cry for me, Mama, you did your best.
In the eyes of the gathering is a terrible truth.
The ivory casket conceals what remains.
I am the good that I have done, and the bad.
In the eyes of the gathering is a terrible truth.
Joyous hymns ward off the minions awaiting my soul.
I am the good that I have done, and the bad.
What’s next for a guy like me?
Joyous hymns ward off the minions awaiting my soul.
Tear drops descended for a fallen son.
What’s next for a guy like me?
A long black chariot and a caravan of mourners.
Tear drops descended for a fallen son.
Six feet is plenty deep to bury my regrets.
A long black chariot and a caravan of mourners.
Words spat from Scripture can be swift and deceiving.
Six feet is plenty deep to bury my regrets.
I was meant to be so much more.
Words spat from Scripture can be swift and deceiving.
The portal opens and I am summoned forth.
I was meant to be so much more.
Farewell to all who knew me.
The portal opens and I am summoned forth.
She sits weeping in the front pew wearing a pretty dress.
Farewell to all who knew me.
Don’t cry for me, Mama, you did your best.

© Chanton

Joy Ride

My favorite childhood memory was of our first family trip.  We went to an amusement park in Virginia, King’s Dominion.  I can still remember when my older brother, Ray, first told me, “We’re going to King’s Dominion tomorrow.” I was eleven years old with no idea what King’s Dominion was and too afraid to ask Ray stupid questions.  He was fourteen years old and easily annoyed.  Besides, Ray seemed excited enough for us both.  I simply emulated his enthusiasm and listened to his descriptions of the park for the rest of that day.

By the next morning I had revisited the idea of the wonderland a hundred times.  Would there be a mighty King in regal garments with a jewel encrusted sword and a crown of gold?  Was there a magnificent castle with a moat, drawbridge, and subjects who paid the King’s toll to have fun? Were there dragons, guards, and clashes of steel?  I was psyched about going to King’s Dominion.

We were up before dawn getting prepped.  I chose my favorite pair of jam shorts, which I’d already worn earlier that week, a blue tank top, and my only pair of name brand sneakers, gray suede Adidas. Ray wore jam shorts, a t-shirt, and a pair of blue and white Nikes. His style was always fresh.  My mom fixed meals and got my sister, Sophia, ready.  At four years old, she seemed more irked for being awakened so early than stoked about the trip. To cheer her up, I promised her an amusement park ride together.

Shortly after that, Reotis arrived.  He and my mom were dating. Reotis was tall, dark, and liked to wear shades.  He was always in good spirits, accompanying every other word with a smile.  We liked Reotis a lot for being active in our lives. He talked with Ray and I about school, gave us money for arcade games, and took us all out for fast food.  On that day, he had promised to take us to King’s Dominion.  We all gathered our things, loaded up the car, and headed out.  I situated myself next to the backseat window to gaze through the glass.  I was a dreamer, and the world beyond our town’s limits had always piqued my imagination.  Within minutes we’d put the hazardous potholes of the E. B. Jordan housing projects behind us, and were cruising down the smooth, endless blacktop of highway 301.

The adventure began for me right away. I was transfixed on everything outside my window – rural homes, rivers and ponds, pastures with grazing cows. The simplest things fascinated me. There were radio towers that spanned the heavens, eighteen-wheelers that devoured our tiny car in their shadows, and roadways interwoven like knitted linen. The world outside our town of Wilson, NC, was everything I had imagined.

The mood inside the car was made livelier with the sweet sounds of Whitney Houston, “Oh, I wanna dance with somebody!”  It was my mom’s favorite cassette.  Ray and I played a game in which some of life’s luxuries were as easily obtainable as being the first to point and proclaim, “That’s my car!” or “That’s my house!”  After a while, I grew bored with the scenes outside my window and dozed off.  It wasn’t long before Ray shook me awake. “Git up!” he shouted, punctuating the command with a jab to the shoulder.  “We’re here!”  I sprang to life, anxious for my first peek.

There was a giant Ferris wheel that could be seen above the tree line, with its bucket seats dipping down below, along with steel tracks and the guardrail of a roller coaster ride.  I bounced from window to window as I took in the spectacle of King’s Dominion.  It was a timeless moment without breath or sound. The stillness lasted momentarily, then uproar.

Mom reiterated her list of do’s and don’t’s.  Reotis weaved through traffic to make the exit ramp.  Sophia pointed this way and that, while Ray verbally committed to every ride he saw.  I was enchanted by the sights alone – bright lights, colorful balloons, water rides, and candy.  I noticed that there weren’t any castles or dragons, but the disappointment lessened with each scream that came from within. Before entering the park, we ate cold cuts and drank canned sodas from a cooler stored in the trunk. Then, we made our way to the ticket booth, paid the fare, and were admitted.

We took a brief tour of King’s Dominion to get familiar with the premises, then enjoyed an hour or so of family time. Booth games. Arcades.  The carousel.  Reotis bought us sun visors, except Ray, who chose a purple sailor’s hat.  We were so happy just being together.  It was the first time I’d felt like one of the normal families I’d seen advertised in movies and on cereal boxes.  For one day I wasn’t poor, uneducated, and destined for failure by the dysfunctional circumstances of my environment.  We weren’t restricted to having black fun while everyone else had white fun.  It was the one time I can remember when the world was perfect, and racial strife was a thing that existed galaxies away. The only universe that mattered was King’s Dominion.

After a while Ray was ready to head out on his own.  His adventurous side had been quelled long enough, and it was roller coaster time.  The only stipulation was that he had to take me along and keep me safe.  Ray wasn’t thrilled about that, but I was.  I liked being Ray’s responsibility.  He and I spent the day screaming, laughing, and clutching each other as monstrous roller coasters whisked us through their courses.  It felt wonderful to lean on my brother when I was scared.

Ray and I later rejoined the rest of the family.  The sun was setting, and patrons were winding down from the day’s activities. It was time for us to leave.  Reotis snapped photos to capture the moment.

Soon, we were back on the road driving away from that magical Mecca of fun toward a more arid reality.  A reality where sugar water with cereal bespoke the absence of money for milk.  A reality that would discover Reotis with a wife and family, and fading from our lives.  Where, in just a few short years, Ray would become hooked on drugs.  The consequent neglect would cause me to harbor anger and resentment for my vulnerability and to turn to negative influences, trying to fill a void.  A reality where my brother and sister would grow estranged as adults for a theft three decades past.  One where I would battle tumultuous inner demons while serving more than half of my life in a cage.  That was what we were driving back to – the only reality for people like us. Yet, for one day, King’s Dominion allowed us to shrug off our fates, cast aside our burdens, and live in a moment of blissfulness that even reality could not disturb.

© Chanton

Things I Carry

Burden is a thing I carry as a consequence of donning the fabric of hardship red each day.  Oh, yes, hardship red is a color. It falls somewhere between credit department red and eternal brimstone red. Hardship red is the mark of cruelty and justifiable death. Its burden is the stigma that comes with those who are systemically unaware that my character is not defined by my circumstances.

Another thing that I carry is loyalty. I carry it to a fault.  I believe that power is vulnerability, and that even the mightiest of men have an Achilles heel.  Mine is the naiveté that everyone views loyalty the same as I.

There is a King James Version Bible that I carry, one given to me by the mother of a friend of mine in 1999. That Bible is my oldest possession and the thing I cherish most. It has been a chariot of hope and comfort throughout a taxing ordeal that can be spiritually depleting.

I carry an appreciation for social proximity and the opportunity to inspire. Evolution is not growth in isolation. Evolution is the necessity to impact one another constructively, as we are all vital building blocks to the future. It’s my fondness for proximity to others that has me strive for social compatibility. I like to think that I make friends easily, but the truth is, I’m not very good at it. The flaw is my hardened demeanor, with shoulders that are tense and eyes that are instinctively suspicious due to the hardship of another color. Proximity to others keeps me aware of my truths. It reminds me of our humanitarian duty to each other to accept people as they are. I’m reminded that it’s our very flaws which give us the strength of individuality and uniqueness.

I carry a liking for fantasy books and soap operas as a means to lose myself. Many would say that those pastimes are lame for a forty-four year old black man to enjoy, but what better alternative is there than fantasizing when my reality is so unkind.

I carry a passion for reggae music and its essentialness to the music genre. Music is a platform of global influences, and it’s the wisdom of roots and culture reggae that is the blue print for unity and world peace.

I carry the ashes of regret for the many bridges I’ve burned. My life today is a looking glass of my present self viewing my past. Maturity is about accountability and correction, yet, when the opportunity for correction is unavailable it can cause daily emotional strain.

But the thing I carry most is my undying devotion to family. I believe that blood ties alone should warrant trust and security. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “A man who has not found something worth dying for is not fit to live.” I stand here today, on North Carolina’s death row, willing to die for family. And though the sentiment is not always mutual, still, it’s something that I will never regret.

© Chanton

Full Circle

I caged a bird once when I was a kid.  I used a small box to build a makeshift trap equipped with string, a branch, and bread crumbs for bait. Then I crouched down in my shadowy perch and counted off the seconds as I lay in wait, imagining the thrill of victory. Before long a small bird soared into view, landed near the hidden dungeon, and ventured inside. Unable to contain my excitement and anticipation, I yanked the string, and the box slammed shut.

I was so elated to see that the trap had actually worked. I sprang towards the prize with little consideration for anything but my own sense of accomplishment. I had outsmarted the opposition and conquered it. I had won.

Initially, the commotion from within the box confirmed that the prey was inside, but then everything went silent. I contemplated my next move. Where to keep the bird? What to feed it? It struck me that, more importantly, the bird needed air. So while firmly holding the box with both hands, I lifted it just slightly enough for a crack of sunlight and air to creep through. Nothing happened. I started to doubt if I’d even captured the formidable adversary or if its innate elusiveness had something to do with magic. The curiosity was killing me. I had to know.

I eased the box higher, just enough to peep inside. That’s when the bird saw its chance and made a break for it. It shimmied out the slit, hopped several times building momentum, then took flight. I stood there motionless, disappointed, as I watched my victim escape. I felt duped and deprived, as though the bird was at fault for defying me and not conforming to an outcome that I had set. It had stolen that feeling of invincibility from me and it just didn’t seem fair. I was the greater force at work. My happiness was the only thing relevant.

Today, I was caged by a bird. It sat perched atop the windowsill outside my cell here on death row. At first, I tried paying it no mind, but its looming presence was impossible to ignore. Then I tried shooing it away. Unfazed by my frivolous antics, it refused to budge, instead peering at me here in the box with seemingly no consideration or regard for the victim trapped within. Its eye stoic, holding no empathy or remorse for the horrible conditions I suffered. I suddenly remembered a time when the roles were reversed.

The day I watched that bird escape and fly away, not once did I consider what an ordeal it must’ve been like for it. How afraid it must’ve been, being swallowed up in the darkness. The loneliness it must’ve felt. Confusion. The hurt and anger of being violated and victimized. And what of the consequences had it never returned to the nest. Would its family miss it? Would there be songs to mourn its absence? Were there young that depended on its safe return for survival?

I have known what it’s like to be the bird outside my window but not the one that I trapped in the box, until now. Today I am that bird, trapped beyond the cruel dark thresholds of North Carolina’s death row. Except here there are no cracks to breath, no slits from which to escape, and the only air to breath holds the aroma of death.

Sometimes I think it’s karma. The encounter with the bird was certainly not the only stain on my moral canvas. I would go on to do many things I regret. Other times I think maybe it was a test. That the bird was sent to metaphorically provide an escape from a gateway of terrible decisions and a path from which there was no return. Maybe the bird was never really trapped at all. Maybe it was me all along. If so, then here I wait – afraid, lonely, and confused, feeling violated and victimized, and desperately hoping for the day when a crack of sunlight will come creeping through.

© Chanton

I’m Still Breathing

You can cast me in the darkest pit
and turn from it while seething.
And erase me from this very world,
but baby, I’m still breathing.
Does it really make me worthless
and deserving of no love?
‘Cause the strength to overcome your madness
courses through my blood.
Just like town halls and chow calls
your antics are meant to weaken.
Just like fish under mountains of troubled waters,
still, I’m breathing.
Did you think that I would take it
now you want to unleash your wrath,
‘Cause I’m angry, black, and dysfunctional
the product of your bloodbath.
Do you really mean to demean
my legacy to a lie?
‘Cause I take your punches in the gut
while holding my head high.
You can dub me a gangster, thug, or crook
a hoodlum, or a heathen
and strip from me everything I love
but still, like wine, I’m breathing.
Do you really think that I deserved
the lashings on my back.
‘Cause I made it through your troubled storm
with my soul still intact.
Til the ashes of Mother Earth yields up the voices of my people,
I’m breathing.
Til the day when materialism no longer determines my equal,
I’m breathing.
Til chains, chairs, and chambers are no longer justices’ end and my fellow American can call me brother, regardless of my skin,
I’m still breathing.
When my past sins reinvent themselves as my present day regrets,
I’m breathing.
When the weight of the entire world is riding on my chest,
I’m breathing.
When reason enough for the war to be won
is just knowing that I’m somebody’s son
and I’m breathing,
I’m breathing
I’m still breathing

*This poem was written as an homage to Maya Angelou’s – “Still I Rise”

Chanton ©