DC Book of the Day_A Question of Freedom
On June 26, 1978, Johnson killed two Prince George’s County Police officers at the Hyattsville police station. He was 15. His case divided PG County along racial lines. Whites said Johnson was a cold blooded cop killer while blacks, familiar with a police force that at the time was and has since been investigated by the Department of Justice, believed Johnson acted in self-defense.
Amongst a swarm of controversy Johnson was released from prison in 1995. He attended UDC’s Law School and was seen in the community as a redemptive hero.
Out of this forgotten era emerges R. Dwayne Betts, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison”Absent the visceral portrayal of nihilistic street violence, drug addiction, and a young criminal’s life in 1940’s and 1950’s Harlem contained in Claude Brown’s seminal coming of age novel, “Manchild in the Promised Land”, Betts memoir is a subtle yet gritty survivor’s tale of an 16 year old honor roll student from Suitland High School facing life in Virginia’s adult prison system.
In 232 pages, with an epilogue taking aim at a bureaucratically entrenched Howard University Admissions office, the reader is taken back in time when Bill Clinton was recently elected to his second term and Wu-Tang was at the peak of their influence. (When I was in the 7th grade Wu-Tang tags were everywhere in the hallways and on our desks.)
Before December 16, 1996 Betts straddled the line between being claimed by the violence that dominated the streets and the headlines of the late 80’s and early – mid 90’s Washington, DC, with being on a basketball court passing around a fat blunt after school.
The first time Betts held a gun he carjacked, with the aid of a friend, a man sleeping in his car at Springfield Mall. The next day, Sunday, they returned to use the man’s stolen credit card and were identified by suspicious mall management.
The arrest stunned his family. In an effort to console and strengthen Betts spirit, his Aunt told him the story of Terrence Johnson’s release, which at the time was in the news. If Johnson could do it so could Dwayne, his Aunt encouraged.
His aunt spoke of Johnson before February 27, 1997. On this day, his 34th birthday, Johnson robbed a bank in Aberdeen, Maryland. When surrounded by police he turned his gun on himself.
His aunt never made the mistake of uttering Johnson’s name again. She did not tell Betts Johnson had killed himself. Betts learned of the tragedy of Terrance Johnson from within the confinement of the Fairfax County jail while he awaited his own trial.
This lesson began the ominous education Betts would receive in America’s prison system as a teenager with “similac still fresh on his breathe” according to one of the thousands of men he would rub elbows and exchange conversation with over the next 8 years of his detached and intensely inward learning.
Betts, who earned his Bachelor’s in Arts from the University of Maryland in 2009 and gave the student Commencement Address, reveals with intimacy his experiences while incarcerated without the self-aggrandizing prevalent throughout Nathan McCall’s “Make Me Wanna Holler”.
He earned his high school diploma awaiting trial while befriending tattooed members of MS-13 in the Fairfax County jail. (Ed Note: This foreshadows the oncoming violence in years to come as MS-13 would grow substantially in the DC metropolitan area before local law enforcement and the general public was fully aware of the violence the gang was bringing to the area.)
Moving through the adult prison system of Virginia while his peers were just beginning to make their college plans, Betts was in the second wave of prisoners held in Red Onion State Prison. Word spread amongst inmates that the Correctional Officers at Red Onion had never seen black people before in their lives.
Opening in August 1998, it was part of an ambitious prison-building program launched by then Governor George Allen whose tough-on-crime advocacy lengthened sentences, abolished parole, and swelled prison population.
Betts arrived in December.
“A jail cell will take away a man’s shame, make him wear fuck the world on his forehead and the makeshift scowl he learns to wear on his face.”
For years, Betts went by Shahid meaning witness in Arabic in respect to the relationship he had developed and respect he had earned from the Five Percenters.
“It was strange wanting to be a witness in a place no one cares about,” writes Betts.
Throughout Betts describes the gentle moments of prison life that survives a teenager as he tries to avoid the smothering hopelessness that surrounds him.
“A handshake, not dap like we gave on the street, and for a moment the two of us weren’t in a cellblock but somewhere else. Outside of a church, or a school, a place where black men shake each other’s hands when they meet. And then, before I could say my name, we were back on prison, a place where black men go to meet each other’s pain.”
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 Betts was doing push-ups.
“I wondered what would happen if someone dropped a bomb on a prison, then I realized that no one would think to bomb a prison. And if we didn’t feel patriotic it was because somewhere we’d turned the American dream into a prison sentence.”
After being in prison for years, Betts received letters from his cousin who after beating a manslaughter charge wrote to Betts that he sounded “soft” and “wasn’t on that thug shit anymore.”
“I funded my education for four months with the money I got from one dude for tobacco. At night, I’d think about it and know it was wrong to have this dude’s family sending me money. But I was nineteen years old and I wasn’t ready to turn down what was essentially free money. I rationalized selling tobacco, told myself that I couldn’t get the books to read and study without his money. There were no programs, no ways to further my education.”
Reading between the lines of “A Question” provides existential insights into prison life from a young man who has survived to tell it.
“They didn’t tell anyone what the tests were for, and because the IQ test cut into the short amount of time we had to go outside, most people marked anything in a hurry to leave the room. They probably created statistics about our intelligence with those tests.”
This book can begin an honest discussion of the prison industrial complex, myths about getting free on appeal, abolishing parole, and the transition to 85% time sentenced requirement. Betts has done criminal justice classes across the country a favor in giving innumerable public policy suggestions based on empirical first hand evidence that academics and policy wonks cannot ever dispute.
A close reading will give you a sense of claustrophobia hard to shake well after putting the book down. Betts says a part of him will never leave the cells he entered, the people he met, and the books he read while in prison, a part of this book will never leave you.
“A Question of Freedom” fills a gap. It’s the answer to a late-night call from a distant voice you haven’t heard in years and thought you’d forgotten, but once you hear a clear word or two old memories are brought quickly back to life.
“A Question” joins an exclusive fraternity of transcendent historical works within the cannon of American memoirs. Over the last decade, Washington, DC’s cultural renaissance has matured and in this Betts memoir is a hometown story which will be standard reading on college campuses for decades to come.
By capturing the contemplative moods and visceral feelings of his lost generation through his own personal story, this work is surely the beginning of a rich career for Betts whose living history will now be remembered in a way in which Terrance Johnson’s is not.
Betts is introduced around 27:00 mins.
The Syndicate first met R. Dwayne Betts in the last month of 2005 while working on Anu Yadav’s one-woman show, “Capers“. The Syndicate recollects Betts, amongst a group of artists, pacing the room with his laptop in hand chatterboxing about about an essay he was working on for a class at PG Community College. Very few in our generation, “Millenials”, fervently MOB for the written record; putting down their own place in history. Betts does and has and will continute MOBBING. Get hip.
On Sunday, April 18, Betts, with other local poets, will celebrate National Poetry Month at the Historical Society of Washington from 2:30pm – 4pm with a reading from Full Moon on K Street: Poems about Washington, DC.
For more on Betts from Wash Post, (not their review which was such bullshit, we won’t link it), Tavis Smiley (video & transcript), excerpt from The Atlantic, CNN, NPR (audio, “Should Juveniles Be Sent to Jail for Life”), USA Today, NPR (audio & transcript, “Ex-Convict Writes About ‘A Question of Freedom’), Kojo Nnamdi, in memory of Lucillle Clifton in The Atlantic, Campaign for the American Reader, Wikipedia, poem from The Collagist, Library of Virginia, 41st NAACP Image Awards -winner Outstanding Literary Work � Debut Author, The Root, Hip Hop Wired interview, Baltimore Sun, Op-Ed, and a reading guide from Penguin Group.
“The book has the virtue of rawness – conveying as it does the confusion and circuitous thinking experienced by a child locked up with adults – and some beautiful writing.” – from Judith Tannenbaum.