Guest Contributor: Obie Weathers
“When I came to prison I was quite inarticulate and made an oath to myself that I wouldn’t ever again allow someone else to tell my story. I would be the one from here on out telling it.” – excerpt from Obie Weathers Artist Statement
For the first half of my life I was told what to do, how to do it, where to do it, and for how long. The way my parents raised me in the 1980’s and 90’s in the American South, where so much grew out of the culture of enslavement, there wasn’t any room for me to think independently–nor was anyone enabling me to. There was the continuation of the culture of enslavement manifesting in my home in a number of ways: from the rod my parents spared not, to the way I was taught to see other people. Be it white people, brown people (and never the mention of Indigenous people), there was always suspicion and never any bridges being built. It wasn’t until I came to prison did I have the revelation that people are people and all people are both beautiful and can do ugly things. So many people are suffering in the same ways that I had, and continue to suffer from the same sources.
Coming to prison was such a good experience. In some sad and beautifully twisted way, one of the greatest experiences I ever had. It speaks of the poverty of experience that characterized my youth. And the way I lacked enlightening and enriching outlets. All I had was the Baptist church. Although this isn’t to say my beloved community isn’t bursting with good people with varied and vast experiences. It’s just that, for some reason, these stories weren’t shared with me. At least not enough to unlock the potential within me. Just enough to keep me afraid and locked within myself.
While in prison, I had a chance to study the effects of slavery on Black America, and having this understanding helped me better understand my family dynamics. Both the toxic and resilient aspects of that. It also helped me understand why someone can arrive at death row and, for the first time, feel they are seeing what the world really looks like. I have never traveled out of Texas where I was born and am presently held under sentence of death. It’ll be a miracle if I’m ever able to cross the state line. But in so many ways I have seen the world through the eyes of men I met here and people I have corresponded with from around the world. This has been my education in a place where I’m not offered a formal one.
In the public school system I endured, I got the impression that the creation story of African Americans arose on some southern plantation. With the benefit of books passed among prisoners, I learned this wasn’t so. And more, I discovered an eerie resonance between the fact that my enslaved ancestors weren’t allowed to read and the reality that the prison forbade and punished us for passing books among ourselves. Prisons in America, for the most part, are nothing like those in Europe. The primary point of prisons in the states seems to be to break people and create as much suffering as possible. That as opposed to helping a person move towards healing and a relationship with others and the world. Just think of the parking lot sized cell I’ve lived in since I was 20. Today I’m 40. This has been the greatest experience of my life next to being born. But the purpose of my being sent here was for this to be the worst experience of my life. And it has accomplished this while offering no healing to those who need it most–those I have harmed. The millions of tax dollars the state has used prosecuting me nearly out of existence? I wish it had been spent helping people I harmed put their lives back together. That’s what we do when a terrible storm destroys our communities. We give aid directly to the people in need, who are picking up the pieces of their lives, trying to put them back together the best they can. But in the event of violent crime we spend our vast resources prosecuting the storm.
I have taken this little torture chamber and converted it into a meditation cell. Here I have grasped the extent of the suffering I caused and that was caused within me. This has also been part of my education: learning how humans cause one another so much suffering. My elementary school principal beat me for being a child in elementary school. My middle school coach allowed us to opt out of P.E. class exercise time. This in exchange for his weird privilege of us pulling our pants down in his dark, cluttered office and being bent over his desk. One middle school principal and two high school principals testified on behalf of the state to help secure a death sentence for me, the child our community entrusted them with. To nurture into excellence. Yet what’s been the greatest lesson this death row cell they banished me to has taught me, their student? In the words of The Buddha: “hatred will never cease by hatred; by love alone does hatred cease.”