An Intricate Part of the Whole

This article on Black History Month by Judith Tannenbaum was originally posted on on 2/4/11

Say how ya doing
Outside world?
Do you remember me?
I’m that intricate part
Missing from the whole
The one y’all decided to forget …

Coties Perry wrote these words 25 years ago at San Quentin. For more than three decades, I’ve shared poetry in public schools and state prisons, and because the youngsters and prisoners I’ve worked with are most often unheard and excluded, I cherish Coties’ poem.

Who do we (those of us with some power) forget when we talk about history, public policy and what it means to be human? Which children do we nurture? Which do we shun?

These questions led me to say yes when Spoon Jackson — like Coties, my student at San Quentin long ago — suggested that we write a two-person memoir.

Spoon grew up in the 1960s in a cement shack in Barstow, Calif. The second youngest of 15 boys, he was beaten both at home and at school, by white teachers and black teachers. As he writes in By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives,” the book that we wrote on his suggestion, “It was equal opportunity paddling on me back in those days of the Civil Rights Movement.”

I grew up 10 years before Spoon, in a large, extended Jewish family. Los Angeles isn’t that far from Barstow, but we were worlds apart. Our mothers both loved us, and we were both children with lots of curiosity and imagination. But my life was filled with opportunity, whereas Spoon’s elementary school principal pulled the little boy aside to tell him, “Boy, you will never graduate from high school.”

The adults around me talked all the time — stories, questions, musings, opinions — and they wanted to hear what I had to say.

Spoon, on the other hand, writes, “Pre-prison, my life had never been one of words. I could barely read, and I spoke as my father did to me, in one-word sentences, shrugs or by nodding my head.” 

But then:

During the months I was on trial, I sat stunned by all the words the DA used. I had no idea what these words meant, and I told myself then that I would not let unknown words trap me. I started studying the dictionary in the county jail and reading all I could. I began to awaken the sleeping student inside me and took my first steps on my journey.

Spoon’s journey forced him to “wake up”:

I checked out all the books I could get from the prison library and education department. In one notebook I wrote down definitions. I used my favorite words in sentences in another notebook. I became enraptured with words and reading. I said certain words aloud many times and pondered a word in the way I thought of the garden in front of the prison chapel, or a sparrow singing in the tree by the captain’s porch.

As Spoon says, “All rehabilitation is self-rehabilitation.” But self-rehabilitation is nourished, as Spoon’s was back when our prisons offered a wide range of programming, by opportunities like the ones I was given as a child. Opportunities all children deserve; opportunities that would certainly lead to fewer people in prison.

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Black History Month honors the forces and flows that shape a people and our nation. Coties Perry and Spoon Jackson — along with Elmo Chattman, Smokey Norvell and so many more former students — are part of black history. Not only as representatives of statistics about black men in prison, but also as individuals with particular human experience — the child each was, the adult he’s become.

Each man: an intricate part of the whole.

Judith Tannenbaum has been a community artist for 40 years, sharing poetry in a wide variety of settings from primary school classrooms to maximum security prisons. She has written widely about this work, most prominently in the memoirs “Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin” and, with Spoon Jackson, “By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives.” She serves as training coordinator for San Francisco WritersCorps. Read her blog on Red Room.

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