Story and photos by Pete Shaw
There is an odd moment at the end of the first section of Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces (published by AK Press), that only reveals its peculiarity in retrospect. While visiting her adopted brother, Kakamia, who is in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, Imarisha meets a man in a wheelchair who reveals to her the great kindness with which Kakamia treated him, including volunteering to share a cell with him and providing help as needed. “I don’t know if I would have gotten through it without him there,” the man tells Imarisha. “It just reminded me that someone cared, when it felt like nobody, not even God, did some days.” It was something Imarisha likely expected was within Kakamia, but the information still clearly surprises her. Kakamia, having gone to make some popcorn, returns and asks Imarisha, “Hey, miss me?” Her response, “Always,” is fraught with ambiguity, but revelatory all the same.
The moment is odd–at least by one reading of “always”–because Imarisha does not overlook too many things. Whether writing about Kakamia, or Mac, a hitman for the vicious Irish Hell’s Kitchen gang, the Westies, or her own experiences with an absentee father and a former boyfriend who assaulted her; Imarisha is always searching and finding. What she finds never stands in isolation. The personal is political, writ large, small, and all points in between. But because she is constantly questioning, reflecting, finding conclusion, and then doing it all over again, she must always be missing things. When she finds them, she also finds more that she has missed.
Such is intellectual restlessness. And such is the foundation of this book that makes a cogent and persuasive argument for abolishing prisons. Not just because of how they destroy the lives of the people behind their walls and the lives of those friends and family left outside, but also because they reflect and augment the deep ills of a society that so often is an inversion of the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness it claims to represent.
Imarisha writes, “Prisons are not about safety, but about control and containment of potentially rebellious populations.” At least in the United States of America, that has long been the case. As she notes, the current prison system’s disproportionate concentration of Black people began with the end of legal slavery (contrary to popular opinion, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution did not completely outlaw slavery, allowing for the exception “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”). “It’s not what you do,” she notes, “but who you are that lands you in prison.”
We spend billions of dollars to put people in prison, but have a very tight purse when it comes to making sure people have health care, education, wages, child care, food, housing and other social goods that ultimately help keep people from committing crimes. Imarisha encourages her readers to consider what her, Kakamia’s, and Mac’s lives–and ostensibly their own lives–would have been like had our society been organized around principles which promote those goods instead of punishing those who–so often lacking those goods–end up in prison.
Full disclosure: Walidah Imarisha is my friend. I have a profound respect for her keen intellect whose boundaries are constantly expanding, and my regard for her compassion for others runs even deeper. Those qualities are on full display in Angels with Dirty Faces.
The book is divided into three sections, each telling distinct stories that overlap and create a kind of feedback loop that demonstrates that intellect and compassion. It also invites readers to engage in the same rigorous questioning and reflection. Two of those portions center around prisoners–the aforementioned Kakamia and Mac–and the other, sandwiched between, on Imarisha. All involve a search for self: if not a fully defined or redeemed one based in a nurturing and loving community, then one that grasps for the fruits of that community while standing on its shoulders.
Truth is an important consideration here. Not “the truth”–which I am not sure has any importance, or even meaningful consideration here–but something far more fluid, adaptable, and ultimately of greater value. Clearly, facts are important. Kakamia is in prison for taking part in a heinous crime. Mac is in prison for committing many heinous crimes, the end products of which often were literally scattered across the water. Imarisha was physically, mentally, and spiritually violated by someone in whom she had placed her trust.
But all the facts in the world–the truth as it were–in the end only serve to obscure if we do not know the full story surrounding them. Without context, these facts define complexity singularly: Kakamia as a criminal, Mac as a murderer, Imarisha as a survivor.
Behind those dangling facts lie people, full of contradictions, and possessing collections of experiences, circumstances, and possibilities that have brought them to where they are and will, for good or ill, help guide them toward their future stories. They cannot be defined so easily, though the state does define them as such, allowing for justification of the deplorable conditions under which prisoners exist.
Mac grew up in poverty and eventually found himself killing people for the Mafia. It was a job that provided a path out of destitution and helped pay the bills. That side of him–his business side as he might have put it–coexisted with a man who lovingly cared for his wife, mistress, and girlfriend, as well as the 4 children that were part of these relationships.
If he had been a soldier, volunteered or drafted like so many
Others, he would have gone to Vietnam. He would have been
ordered to participate in the My Lai massacres, and the others
we do not know the names of. He would have done it. He
would have come home with a chest full of medals and the
exact same nightmares. If Mac had been a cop, like his friend
Jackie had wanted so badly, he would have received
commendations for his use of violence.
America does not abhor violence. The concern this nation has
is not people killing for profit, but that it is done in the service of
Private acquisition of wealth, rather than corporate wealth.
The state does not have a moral objection to murder; it has a
Monopoly on it.
The state also has a monopoly on determining the truth, which in the case of those imprisoned, denies their fundamental humanity. Admittedly, it is difficult to see the commonality between us when people who look more or less the same have committed unspeakable horrors. Yet during one of Imarisha’s meetings with him, Mac pulls from his hands–the ones that ended so many lives–a beautiful rose formed from three delicately folded white napkins. It is a disturbing contradiction. He promises her a bouquet of them in blue, a phenomenon, Imarisha notes, that does not occur in nature, “an impossible gift of eternal hope from the hands of a killer.”
Kakamia, who is friends with Mac, is equally complex. Like Mac, he also grew up in poverty, and was faced with stark daily choices. Some of those choices included acts of violence. Like Imarisha, he had a father who was barely present.
Kakamia is an artist, his talent for drawing only budding after he was imprisoned. He has known the disappointment of being turned down for parole, once even passing through the parole board, but finding his path blocked when the governor refused to sign his papers. He practices Buddhist chanting and meditation.
Imarisha felt such a bond with him–and he with her–from their various correspondences that they adopted each other. In the eyes of the state, their sibling relationship is a fiction. Actually, it does not exist. In their eyes, however, it is a truth as profound as the deepest poetry.
That word “poetry” is a very important one. Imarisha is a poet. She understands the subtleties of words, both on their own and in combination with more words, and the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters they inhabit as she ferments them into story. Those words are the essence of truth, and in her hands–sometimes literally as when near the end of the book Imarisha is “caught” smuggling notes out of a meeting with Mac–they are molded, unflinchingly and lovingly.
Those words add great color and depth, both in what is revealed and what lies hidden. They service broader truths. The realities of prison “bleed” over the walls. History is “not just the past, but a living legacy, continuing to crush the breath from our lungs,” a legacy harkening back to the “living specter” of the plantation. Neoliberal economic policies, which include privatizing prisons and thus fueling the need for more prisoners in order to increase profits, make the world “tight as a noose around the necks” of working people. Those truths lead Imarisha to conclude that “many prisoners’ lives were cages before they ever stepped into a prison. I have learned that poverty confines, hunger contains, homelessness chokes, powerlessness restricts, and oppression destroys.”
That knowledge is not limited to those who are so obviously confined: “I have learned we all have prisons in our lives, and most of us are too frightened to look directly at them.” Imarisha does not excuse Kakamia’s and Mac’s crimes. But she also refuses to run from examining their motives.
At some point–to be precise, in the second section titled “Walidah,” which is a quasi-memoir as it, like the rest of the book, is qualified by Imarisha’s doubts about objectivity and memory–the poetic language wanes, becoming sparse if not extinct. The metaphors are quiet; the similes set further apart. Consisting of little more than her facts, she shifts gears to a narrative that paints just enough of a personal picture so that in some bare areas of a canvas whose subject has already been partially revealed by the compassionate insight she displays when writing about Kakamia, tone and texture are added.
That shift, I don’t think, is a coincidence. As she notes, Imarisha has a healthy ego, as even a brief look at her Facebook page will show. We learn of an absentee father, a tough as nails mother, and their young and growing daughter who finds the so-called conventional world stifling because of the lies it both projects and protects. Those points are written with an eye to the details Imarisha finds important for the reader, but without the verve of the prior pages as well as what follows. One might well glean more narrative from a baseball box score. It is a calm before the storm.
Rather suddenly comes the tempest binding individual and world. Imarisha’s boyfriend assaults her. Or rather, to use her language, “His dick slipped out of my vagina behind me. There were no words between us. Then I felt its pressure on my asshole. In my asshole. Barreling in. Rearranging.”
It is a horrible image, compounded infinitely by the reality of it being committed by someone whom she trusted implicitly. Someone with whom she envisioned a bright future. Violation, savagery, and dishonesty–a complete breaking of that trust–combine to create a very ugly froth.
If you take part in any sort of movement that demands a radical change from the status quo, you will inevitably encounter naysayers who want to know how you will better handle certain situations, often bringing up a worst-case scenario. “You think we should get rid of prisons? Would you still feel that way if you were raped?”
Imarisha offers a nearly unequivocal yes, an answer that, she emphasizes, is hers alone. But it took a bit of time before she got there, and as “nearly” implies, she occasionally waivers. She questions herself. What just happened? Was that an assault? Does it really count? This was not like in the movies where somebody in a mask dragged her into an alley, and with a knife at her throat had his way with her. Further onward, is there possibility for redemption? Does she also want punishment? The path forward has hardly been linear. Indeed, life is “much messier and more painful…on your skin than on paper.” But ultimately, Imarisha realized what she, her boyfriend, and their communities needed was healing.
“I absolutely believe communities need to hold people who do harm accountable, while also holding them as humans who can change. Redemption cannot be unattainable if we are all to remain human.” That truth she saw not as confined to only those who lived in the nominal freedom of life outside prison, but one that should also be available to those whose freedom exists only on the smallest of margins.
But where do all these truths lead us? What meaning lies in them?
Do we want a society where people–the imprisoned and their families, friends, and communities–are brutally punished–or as Imarisha puts it, have their bones, bodies, connections, and hearts severed, sliced, and broken–with no consideration of their circumstances and innate humanity? Or do we want one that recognizes that a system that works just fine in controlling and containing “potentially rebellious populations,” must be destroyed? As Imarisha writes, “Too often the state uses the word ‘justice’ when it should say ‘maintain the social order.’ Justice and order are often not only antithetical but in direct conflict with one another.”
Is redemption possible? Do we draw lines in the sand determining who is capable of it, and who will be forever stained by their crimes? Can people like Kakamia and Mac truly be forgiven and admitted back into the world outside of his walls? Can we forgive those who have harmed us? On any given day, perhaps yes, and on many given days, perhaps not. Humans are complex creatures, constantly recreating themselves in response to the world around them. That world is too often not a kind place.
There are many alternatives to jail that are not based upon the vengeance and retribution that are the predictable byproducts of dehumanizing people and decoupling them from the world which created them. As Imarisha says, there are no magic solutions or perfect endings. And healing is hardly guaranteed. But however one goes about it, “alternatives to incarceration need to focus on more than restorative justice; we want transformative justice, because we don’t want to restore what was unequal before, but to transform it into something new.” Imarisha suggests starting down this road by asking, “’What would be the healthiest for the individuals and community involved?’ rather than ‘Who should we make pay?’”
That is a question for everyone, and the complexity of its answer requires much more than a consideration of innocence or guilt. “If our movements and our communities are not addressing the very real ways oppression is enacted upon individuals’ bodies,” Imarisha notes, “we can never hope to fundamentally transform the current system.”
One key is recognizing that there is little to no difference between individual violence and more systemic forms of it: the former predictably follows the latter.
Any movements for justice where we do not see the ways that
larger societal oppression is replicated by individuals we know
and even sometimes love–where we do not create mechanisms
to address serious harm that is done within our communities–
achieves no real justice at all. Instead, we just reproduce the
brutality of the larger system.
Angels with Dirty Faces covers a wide array of issues, both individual and collective, ranging from prison abolition to accountability measures offering redemption, and perhaps, forgiveness, with many points in between. In exploring these through Kakamia, Mac, and herself, Imarisha not only sees things big and small, but also how those things work together. She has invited us to consider a world where we would create new systems that focus not solely on truly just outcomes, but on achieving the just conditions that would likely keep people like Kakamia and Mac out of prison.
That moment with which I began this review–the one where the man in the wheelchair reveals the great kindness and generosity Kakamia is capable of–is not only odd. Rendered by Imarisha’s sensitivities and talent for words, it is also a gorgeous reminder of truths that so often remain hidden behind the monolithic labels used to paper over the complex reality of human lives in a land where all people are clearly not created equal; roses struggling to bloom, sometimes doing so in the most unlikely of colors.
Walidah Imarisha will be reading from Angels with Dirty Faces at Powell’s on Hawthorne on Monday March 14 at 7:30 PM.
Angels with Dirty Faces is available from AK Press as well as local bookstores.
For more information on Walidah Imarisha’s upcoming events, go to her webpage at: www.walidah.com.