SEEN is a prison portrait and poetry project. But more importantly, it’s a Minnesota portrait and poetry project. Through photography, video, and written word, we share the poignant brilliance of poets and prose writers in Minnesota state prisons, and work together to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unseen seen. Mass incarceration is dependent upon the ignoring and erasure of the human beings we cage. In collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) and the thoughtful, intelligent, humble, and deeply gifted writers on the inside, WAAC challenges and disrupts mass incarceration by clearing the pathways for people behind bars to have their voices heard, faces seen, and humanity recognized–and for people on the outside to reckon with the inhumanity of our country’s mass incarceration mass disaster.
This page is dedicated to Jeff’s work. For more poets and essayists, check out the SEEN page.
Burn Baby, Burn, an excerpt
On an early January morning, my mother tossed me out her bedroom window from our second floor apartment. Tumbling through the air like a meteor before impact, my yellow shirt rippled against the brisk winter wind. I landed in a stranger’s arms; a passerby who heard the screams and saw the black smoke coiling out the windows towards the turquoise sky. I was four years old and I had just set the house on fire.
Somehow a T.V. Guide found its way into my left palm, a BIC lighter leapt into the fingers of my right hand. Curiosity consumed me. I tossed the burning magazine on to a recliner that was covered by a quilted rainbow colored blanket my grandmother made. The blanket quickly sizzled into choking black smoke as flames shot up like a Jack-In-the-Box. Terrified, I ran to my mother who was sleeping in a bed adjacent to a wall with two large windows and a framed family photo of three generations–my grandmother, and her siblings, all their children, and a few of the children from my generation, including me.
Mom flung me out the window to save my life. Nine months pregnant with my little brother, she opted to wait for a ladder while sitting halfway out the window. By the time a ladder arrived, the fire had consumed the entire apartment except my mother’s bedroom, which eventually burned up as well, including the treasured family photo. My mom was able to escape the fire I ignited. But it was a close call. She has always been like that though–saving everyone even if she risked getting burned.
Excerpt from The Black Cloud Over Golden Grahams, Classical Music, and My Curiosity
Sitting in a circle of other first-graders on a blue variegated carpet with our legs crossed like pretzels, my arm shot up and twitched with enthusiasm. My hand waved frantically.
“Yes Jeffery?” My teacher asked. She was reading Pippy Longstocking to us and asked a few recall questions. I loved reading. At six years-old, outside of medical or scientific terms, there were few words I couldn’t read.
I was the curious child who would trail behind my mother on walks and pull at the bottom of her shirt insistently while asking a thousand questions before I could take a breath for her to answer the first one. I was born to be a student of life and a lifetime student. School was my Heaven. The sun colored school bus with olive seats was my chariot that carried me to the pearly gates of a treasure land-a carpet with numbers and letters pictured in it, an incubator where I’d watch little chicklets hatch and learn about fetal development, school plays and performing on stage in the choir-there was no other place I wanted to be other than my first-grade class in Dennet Elementary school.
Then total upheaval occurred. Without warning, my mom told me we were leaving Massachusetts and moving to Minnesota within two weeks. A cold distant place I’d never heard of. We arrived in Minnesota a month before the school year and I enrolled in the second-grade at North Star Elementary in Minneapolis. The outside walls of my school in Massachusetts were made of wood planks. North Star appeared to be one solid concrete tomb.
In the 1980s, children in a class were divided up into reading groups based on ability, and assigned textbooks indicating their reading level. In Massachusetts, I was in a high reading level, something like 8 or 9. Things changed at North Star.
Without being assessed, the teacher placed me in a reading group where I stayed for the whole year. There were about six of us in the group. On the first day we took turns reading out-loud, I quickly became frustrated. Hardly anyone in the group read well. The kids were fumbling over words I found easy to read. I began shaking my leg under the table due to my impatience and felt the bursting desire to blurt out the word for the struggling students. With my elbow on the table, I placed my head in my hand. Every stutter or incorrect reading of a word caused me to huff. I began reading two or three pages ahead of the group.
Later in the week, I remember talking to my teacher during lunch. “Ms. Smith,” I said, “May I go to a different reading group? If you test me I’m sure I’ll pass.”
“You’re in a good reading group now,” she said.
it all started with a word.
it all started with Black man.
it was all fine until the end of the sentence
ended with Black man. the problem,
according to my ninth-grade
english teacher, was the capital “B.”
“it’s just an adjective,”
the teach told me. another in a snaking line
of racial diminishments of Black men.
it all started with a word.
it all started with “I am.”
“I am more than an adjective!”
leaped from my deep African throat.
deeper than the roaring Atlantic
that swallowed my ancestors’ leap to a freedom
that only death could bring. I am
the word when God said “Be!”
and I was–Black man.
my Black is no hue or pigment.
I’ve seen kola nut, cocoa bean,
baobab bark, and Sahara colored men.
but I’ve never seen Crayola black skin.
I don’t accept your European trademarked label. nah teach.
when I speak of Black man, I speak of a culture.
the culture of kings like Sunjata, queens like Hatshepsut,
warriors like Shaka, billionaires like Mansa Musa,
engineers like Imhotep. I speak of the wisdom taught in Axum,
the drum beat of the Ashanti, the dance of the Bantu.
I speak of Black spirituality, Black food,
Black universities like Grambling State and Timbuktu.
Black language and Black fashion, Black love and self-determination–
yeah you know what it is–
Black power! Black power! Black power!
I am not an adjective in the sentence of life.
I am the proper noun. I am the verb, object, subject,
and the predicate.
so give my culture it’s due and spell Black man…
nah, nah, nah. don’t give me nothin’. I’m demanding and taking!
I ain’t askin’. & I don’t need your correcting.
when you see capital “B,” bow down
and let my culture be! for we are
Black men, created in the image of God. Black men,
the cradle of civilization. Black men,
the father of all cultures. we are
Black men! Black men! Black men!
NOTE: this a call and response piece where the audience responds to “Black man/men” with “Capital “B!”
Burn Baby, Burn, an excerpt
It was a year after graduating from college and the best date I ever had. I still remember it well. I recall peering through a rain-splattered windshield on a late, humid afternoon in August. I drove with just my left hand on the steering wheel and my right hand holding Sasha’s hand while she sat in the passenger’s seat. Sasha was one of those “handsey” people. She always had to be in some kind of physical contact with people she was talking to. I enjoyed it. It felt perfect.
Chattering away in the backseat was [my niece] Maree and Seleena, Sasha’s daughter. We were on our way to the Minnesota Science Museum. We walked through the museum holding hands, letting the girls rip and run just a little. We took them to all the interactive exhibits: a room that lets people experience being in a prairie house during a tornado, a compressed block of metal weighing one ton that everyone would test their strength on, a bed of needles that one could press their hand under to reveal the shape of a palm, and our favorite–several flights of musical stairs.
We got to the stairs about 40 minutes into our meandering. We stayed for the next hour, maybe hour and a half, running up and down the stairs, holding the kids’ hands and hopping up all the stairs together, laughing and tripping, filling the stairwell with piano notes and giggles. Everything felt natural, easy, and joyful with Sasha and Seleena. When I brought Maree home, I told [her mom] Mo-Mo that I could easily picture Sasha, her daughter, and I as a family; sitting in the living room of a sturdy home, quilting our own heirloom; a loving family where domestic violence didn’t exist. Mo-Mo said she thought Sasha was a good match for me. Life was looking good. Unfortunately, some embers of my past were still burning inside me, and would soon be kindled by lighter fluid doused into my life.
Painting the World the Color of Heritage (a cento)
What if truth can be crafted
out of bad angles rooted
Born in the soil of soul,
like the truth I
don’t gotta dance.
Even if you over-rotate slightly,
like the river we are music.
Someone says that is only
a poem. But blind folk
heard it wrong. I wish
I knew how love could pluck
the gray grit. I’d free
all Black diamonds and pearls.
Their minds captured in rusting
chains, they run along crooked
teeth; hope to stumble upon
how it would feel to be free.
Hateful men love the sound
of grinding teeth. American tradition
teaches us you can
get to heaven by dance.
One time, not yours or my time
(depending on who you ask-
I’m still undecided), we danced
like that and sang every note
loud–especially the wrong ones–
and no one called us home.
Dancers danced that glorious
suicide. Torn between two worlds,
we danced away from Africa.
That hour was dark. Everywhere,
all dark. As a result, botched
dreams intrude upon fact.
And we believed all of them.
What remains of our origins?
No matter what, a poet
makes use of dissonance.
No matter what, even when
we break, we spit kaleidoscopes,
the promised light. Detonation begins
in the slim inch between
the dancer’s body and
the spiritual unknown. Paint a picture
outside the lines, spirit hopped out
something compelling. Spoke
only of Georgia-clay red,
saffron yellow, endless black,
and sashaying green making
a paradise. A place to raise
kids in. God had been listening
all this time, like he had planned
the feat all along. I think
he is laughing at the hateful
men and their wives, blind and deaf
to an African firefly. But they saw
us glowing anyhow. Some might
call it the Holy Spirit, the Godself.
Revolutionaries, gather around.
Raise your fist and practice
risk. We don’t gotta dance
to be free. We be eternal
music making a world
somewhere in America
boogie to our rebels beat.
(A cento — Latin for patchwork — is a poetic form composed entirely of lines from poems by other poets.)
Fresh 5 a.m. January snow undisturbed.
A sparkling blanket muting
Earth’s music, except for a whirling
winter wind like the distant howl
of a moon-eyed wolf. Midnight-blue
partition between yesterday and today,
giving way to the sun.
A fallen pine cone, rigid, browned, ashy
–the blossomed dead–
blown across the snowy field,
leaving fast-disappearing tracks
as snowflakes float from above,
down past the yellowish-orange street lights
in the projects. A fallen pine cone
–the blossomed dead–
rolling into yesterday’s shadow.
Away from the promise–
light on the horizon.
Crisp corpse-covering draped
over a bullet-riddled
boy’s brown body.
His music silenced.
thump-thump thump-thump thump-thump
thump – thump
A calling in the distance.
Partitioned from the flesh,
traveling HOME, brown boy floats
above blue and red disco lights
and leather jackets with golden
brooches reading MPD.
The 18-year-old’s hand protrudes
from under the tarp partially
indenting the twinkling snow,
grasping a Black ballerina-angel
encased in a glass globe,
filled with water, glitter flakes swirling.
A world within a world. Safe.
Mother’s gift from his
overnight warehouse job
paying for college.
But in MPD’s imagination,
reserved for departing parties
howl. Mother’s mouth gapes
in anguish, “Why!!…?” Hot tears
ambered by the projects’ haze of light,
arms stretched to the heavens
for her fallen son, rigid, brown,
soon to be ashes,
–the blossomed dead.
I write to transcend internal and external barriers (e.g. introvert personality, incarceration) hindering my ability to participate in the world by engaging people, building community, and contributing to and stimulating conversations about issues that matter to me.