The recent Netflix docu-drama “When They See Us” by filmmaker
Ava DuVernay and the Oprah follow up special on the OWN network “When They See Us Now” is affecting me emotionally because I have had specific close experiences with young black men who have been imprisoned mostly for petty crimes like selling weed or back talking to a police officer, “resisting arrest”.
My experiences were in the late 70’s early 80’s during a time when my mother sang in a gospel group that traveled every month to a minimum security prison in upstate New York to sing as part of a prison ministry. Those memories flooded back to me as I watched part four the Korey Wise prison episode of the series.
During that time, my strongest memory was sitting nervously in the chapel along with my other friends who were also children of the gospel group. I watched the musicians set up their guitars, drums, and keyboards and watched the singers at the mics holding hands in a small prayer circle before the next flock of souls who needed salvation entered the room. I watched about 15 or 20 young beautiful black men walking in a line file into the pews, one after the other in their grey uniforms as they sat to listen to my mother and her contemporaries sing about salvation and then pray for and with them as they went through this portion of their lives. I wanted the service to end so we could load our minivan to drive to the local deli for lunch. Before every service began, I usually thought about my sandwich, always chicken salad on rye. Prison was not my reality I was a visitor I didn’t care. The group had one preacher who dispensed wisdom in a 45 minute sermon. I don’t recall having seen any other ethnicity represented on the pews that were now almost to capacity. Maybe there were white, latino or asian men who attended. The black faces were in abundance, those faces were all I could remember. So it’s possible that those images overwhelmed my 12 year old observation skills.
The men were always respectful as they engaged with the group walking up to the alter for prayer after the sermon was over that the preacher asking if anyone was interested in salvation. The ones who were interested seems grateful to be spending time at an aside private prayer council session on the other side of the chapel. Before the officer came inside to usher the men back to their cells, we had a brief time to mingle and chat – always supervised. They shook our hands and introduced themselves to us while being minimally inquisitive about us. I have no memory of any dramatic interactions like an emotional outbursts, raised voices or any attempts to harm. They were always well mannered and kept a respectable personal distance unless one of the group members initiated a hug, or hand touch or shoulder touch. I do recall one or two taking bibles with them.
I never thought about any of them in between the times before we returned for another visit. The group had a standing monthly visit for a few years. I and a few of the other children [mostly peers] would often accompany our parents. The group had invitations to sing and minister at maximum security prisons as well. However children were never allowed to attend those trips. I only listened to accounts from my mom about what she and the others experienced while visiting Sing Sing prison. She said, “I see why no children are allowed.” That’s all she ever say about those experiences. Thankfully no negative events happened while my mom and the group visited any of the maximum security prisons. Hopefully the group was able to touch a life or two giving them some comfort and council.
Anyway, my experience of the depiction of this story was being emotionally uncomfortable pretty much the whole time, I watched all four parts of this mini series in succession. These brilliant actors depicted Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise flawlessly and painfully. I never thought about the men I visited in prison once I left the building, but they had to live within the conditions of the prison system every second of every day until they were released. I never though about how they were not encouraged or ever told they were loved or smart or funny. I never thought about physical abuse endured every day, how eating or showering or sleeping could end their lives. I never though about their dreams, families, mental health or any of their specific circumstances. I didn’t care, I was only an mere observer, a visitor – actually the daughter of a visitor – I had no investment at all in this experience.
Each of those young beautiful black men in that upstate prison [the prison name as well as the names of those black young men I can’t recall] and each of the men who survived this ordeal whose nameswe should remember: Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise could have easily switched places with the nine brilliant artists who portrayed them: Asante Blackk, Justin Cunningham, Caleel Harris, Jovan Adepo, Ethan Herisse, Christopher Chalk, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, and Freddy Miyares.
I’m haunted because I watched a broken cognitively impaired Korey Wise carry himself as proudly as he could – in the Oprah form he shared with the other men – given the fact that he spent almost all of his prison life in solitary confinement starting out as a minor with a learning disability, enduring a harsh mother, no present father, brutal beatings unthinkable to you and me, no help from prison guards. His junior high, high school and college years were spent being shifted through the adult male prison population. My heart was breaking for all of them. But in particular for
Antron McCray who cannot forgive his father who got caught up in the system begging Antron to take a ‘deal” and plead guilty and for Korey Wise who to this day needs cognitive help.
I’m haunted because in 1989 my last year in college, knowing how unspeakably horrible this was for her, when Trisha Meili was brutally attacked and left for dead in Central Park, I remember saying callously “why would anyone jog in Central Park at night? I’m a New Yorker, I know better.”
I’m haunted because if any of Kevin Richardson’s, Raymond Santana’s, Antron McCray’s, Yusef Salaam’s, or Korey Wise’s circumstances were different, if they would have made different decisions which prevented them from being in the park that night the world in some way would be different today.
I’m haunted because if Asante Blackk’s, Justin Cunningham’s, Caleel Harris’, Jovan Adepo’s, Ethan Herisse’s, Christopher Chalk’s, Jharrel Jerome’s, Marquis Rodriguez’ and Freddy Miyares’ circumstances were different and they were in the park that night getting caught up, the trajectory of nine more families could have shifted and collapsed.
I’m haunted because in my life are so many men of color to whom this can happen. And I adore the men in my life! The next generations of my family are procreating black men in New York City.
I’m haunted because I still have conversations during my down time about the fact that white privilege and racist law enforcement systems are globally systemic.
Even with the ghosts swirling around me, I applaud all of the filmmakers and artists for the creation of such a powerful piece of art. Through my tears I say Great job!!
I urge you to please watch both the mini series and the Oprah special. Be uncomfortable, let this story get into your bones that right is right and injustice can no longer be tolerated. It’s worth you time, it really is.
Finally to the former New York prosecutor (who spearheaded this witch hunt) for whose name I will bring no light, KARMA is a REAL THING. What’s happening to you is a direct result of your actions this story is NOT about YOU. Suck it up, and deal with what your life will be like from this day forward. I know you’re haunted.