The Impassable Divides of the Prison Visiting Room
John Edgar Wideman Visits His Brother, Faruq
Sometimes going to see my brother in prison is like when you hear a person call you nigger, a somebody you maybe don’t know, a stranger who suddenly becomes intimately close by establishing a boundary line, by drawing it and crossing it simultaneously with the n-word as if the two of you, separated by his line, have known each other a lifetime, and nigger declaimed by him or her restores with absolute authority a prolonged, familiar, shared history whether or not you have ever laid eyes on one another before, that person with nigger in their mouth, drawing a line that divides, claiming a compelling relationship of intense distance, intense intimacy as if neither you nor she nor he have any means, any right or reason to deny that word nigger once it’s up in your faces, you with no more power to erase or nullify the line or the nigger word than colored boys in Cleveland or New Orleans or Seattle have power to erase or nullify bullets police officers shoot into their bodies, guns fired for many of the same reasons in every case, though the news media say, and we the people say, don’t we, each case is also, yes, yes, a separate case with differing, yes, extenuating circumstances, differences sometimes as obvious as difference between night and day, black and white, or different like different sounds of nigger depending on whose lips speak the word, differences private, public, acceptable or not in terms of law or public opinion, differing acts, but all validated by the same rule, a rule old at least as this country, a rule continuing to persist, and though we may disagree about its appropriateness or application in each circumstance, it persists predictably, along with its often unarguably fatal, direct consequences, that rule which originated when some of us in a position of power abused that advantage and enslaved people, used power’s brute force to seize and imprison the bodies of others and treat them as inferiors, as if those enslaved others born members of a different group, a kind or variety or race not exactly deserving to be considered human beings, and once designated as such, treated as such, remain different forever, a rule that still rules today, dividing us into separate races, declaring that each person’s designated race stays the same always, stays in force today, and though the rule may operate covertly or blatantly, it remains present every time in every case to reinforce and justify whatever other motives a person might conjure up for calling a person nigger or imprisoning niggers or segregating niggers or shooting many many bullets into a young nigger body, then it’s too late, always too late, too long, bang, bang, victim dead, don’t fuss, don’t protest, the rule’s the rule, a prerogative in place too long, suspects presumed guilty, no defense against being called nigger, nor do unarmed colored boys girls women men possess any magic to stop bullets that armed citizens of various colors designated as officers, deputies, cops, agents fire into them, no power except perhaps to remember always the time-honored, hoary prerogative, remember the rule of a line dividing separate races and embrace it, seize it and turn it around as self-defense, as battle-cry, use the rule to stigmatize and abuse others before they use it to hurt and destroy you, before they call you out your name.
It’s never absent, though I seldom hear anyone say nigger out loud in the prison visiting room, the word rings in my ears each time I visit. Need it, I admit, so say it to myself in order to deal with an otherwise intolerable situation. Need it to answer a question tearing me up inside when I look around and see a busy, crowded visiting room filled mainly with people my color, the many colors of my family.
Why such an overload of us in this terrible place? Why us a question with an answer I have been taught already, learned in childhood, an ancient answer known before my very first visit to a prison and known for all the visits, all the years and years since: this is the way things are, have always been, and shall be forever.
But that answer instilled when I was a boy beginning to ask questions about a world perplexing him, that answer too ordinary, not stunning enough, not satisfying enough in the prison visiting room and it gives me no peace when I try to make sense, try to account for faces surrounding me, far, far too many faces colored like mine, and no answer truly explains our disproportionate presence, nor my outrage and sense of defeat, no answer sufficient to compel me to accept the evidence my eyes confront, no answer, only confirmation of a line drawn long, long ago, before I was born, a rule that divides faces I see into two groups, unalterably divides them into two separate groups and then I am able to remind myself, say to myself, nigger, niggers of course, that’s why, and no other explanation required, what else would I, should I, would anybody expect.
Nigger, the word we need to shout out loud or whisper inside ourselves and that word reveals why.
The line there. Hard, rigid, premeditated as the prison visiting room’s bolted-to-the-floor, plastic seats arranged side by side, in aisles and sections, all seats in each section facing in the same direction so eye contact impossible with a person beside you unless you twist in your seat, lean over a metal rail that divides one seat from the next. You talk sideways, as close as you can get to a visitor’s ear.
Awkward conversations, minimal privacy in an overcrowded space that also isolates. None of the humming discontent, the simmering helplessness and frustration a person experiences upon entering the prison visiting room is accidental. Room’s layout conceived, like the rule to divide races conceived, in order to execute a plan. And plan works. The architecture’s visible scheme—expressed by unmovable steel, by concrete of floor and ceiling, by locked doors, windowless walls—boxes you in.
Visible lines repeat the ancient, invisible injunction to consider yourself either one kind of human or another kind. Choice drastically limited. No choice except to go along with a program long in place. Once entered, no exit. No way out except to scream loud enough to bring walls tumbling down. And who’s prepared to spoil a visit. Prepared to risk imprisonment. To resist guards, sirens, clubs, guns.
No. When you visit you follow house rules, rules posted on the walls, rules that define and reduce your choices, eliminate all other options. Nigger rules that humble and humiliate and impound.The idea of a last day is nothing but twist, glimmer, less than nothing as it passes too quickly to follow and disappears into the abyss. . .
At one end of the visiting area, far end from where my brother and I occupy adjacent seats, a play corner reserved for small children, an area supervised by an inmate and furnished with bright plastic toys. Good job, my brother says, nodding at the corner. Only trustees get it. Playing with kids. Out the goddamn cell 4 to 5 hours at a time. Wouldn’t mind doing it myself, ’cept everybody knows the guys you see over there too tight with the guards.
Only way you get the best jobs in here. Wouldn’t let none my kids go to those guys. Don’t mind me, man. Some them guys just guys like everybody else. But ain’t nothing free in here.
You know they starve us. Always hungry. Worse since they brung in that private company and started counting calories. As if grown men supposed to exist on what those charts say enough. Everybody walk round here all day hungry. Hungry wake you up in the middle of the damn night. Shame how they do us, bro. Getting so bad some these guys kill another guy for a bag of chips.
Remembered to bring quarters this time. What’s the rule now? You allowed to push buttons or not? No, no. They see me touch a vending machine, visits over. Ass outta here.
What you want, then. Knock yourself out. Plenty quarters today.
You know I like them wings. Package of chicken wings. A cheesesteak. If they outta cheesesteaks, a double burger. Bag of popcorn if any left. And some grape juice or some kinda juice, or pop if that’s all they got. Don’t matter really. Junk all they put in them machines, but you know something, it tastes kinda good, brother dear, after slop they be feeding us everyday in here. And nice to feel kinda halfway filled up half a minute. Thank you.
I wait in line behind a very young, very pregnant woman who punches in choices like she’s been here before, inserting quarters one by one from the see-thru bagful she holds in her off-hand. Then wait my turn at a microwave oven on a table beside vending machines. Don’t turn around to look at my brother, but I listen, and our conversation starts up in my head while I wait, while he waits, and I wonder how we always find so much to say, more to say, never finish saying it.
Tape runs, etc, etc, etc in my mind . . . I hear it word by word. Visit again, smell the warmed-up bag of popcorn from the machine, taste cold apple juice, hear my brother beside me, here, there, wherever we are.
Wonder if he ever daydreams a last day, day a guard delivers clothes for outside, a paper shopping bag for transporting property my brother accumulated inside, receipts for bag and possessions he must sign, wonder if he daydreams about that day and I want to ask him what he might feel if and when, ask him what he thinks he might be thinking when the steel door of his cell slides open, Spivak or Crawford or Jones or Valdez standing there in the passageway waiting, looking at him, less curious than I am about what’s on his mind, looking through him, past him, past this task to the next, one task closer to the end of same ole same ole slog of guard duties imprisoning them with him night and day until punch-out time, one guard or two, three, maybe the whole dreary crew of them, living and dead, every single officer hired and fired by the state department of corrections since day one, every single sorry one of them in uniform again to escort him down long rows of cells, through more gates, then across the yard, vacant, quiet this early, to the final gate, rank after rank of silent guards crowded into the narrow corridor just beyond his cell’s open door, guards sternfaced, grinning, scornful, accusing, no, no, no, just standing, just impatient, just wanting it over with, whatever, peering through him as if he’s already gone, simply not there, or there like a shit smear in a toilet bowl their duty to maintain spotless, this day of leaving no different for them than any day they are paid to watch him, their eyes, the expressionless expressions soldered on their faces giving up nothing, as his eyes, his expression give nothing back, keeping each other at a distance way too vast to cross, distance any sane person has no reason to cross and decent folk know better than even to imagine crossing because everybody understands, don’t they, what’s over there across the line, nothing’s there, an abyss, a bottomless pit over there in which people burn up, become nothing, vanishing fast as prisoners sentenced to life supposed to vanish from life, like him, like me, though I want to believe I might escape my cell by asking him how he thinks he would feel the last day, except the idea of a last day is nothing but twist, glimmer, less than nothing as it passes too quickly to follow and disappears into the abyss, the cauldron, and to protect himself from plunging even deeper into nothingness, would he allow himself even that idle thought of freedom, freedom, an excruciating stab of pain until it’s nothing again after a thought of free flies, slinks past, nothing again, he remains behind bars, in a cell, so why bother to think differently, as if inside and outside not absolutely separated, as if there’s a chance of release, of being elsewhere other than where he is, nowhere, nothing, consumed, disciplined by the business of survival while he perishes here, in this nowhere place where he is, there where it’s impossible for him to take me or anyone else, except maybe in daydreams he dreams in his cell, so I teach myself to resist the temptation to ask, and pretend instead that we are both inside when I visit the prison, or pretend both of us outside, pretend that words we speak, words I write bring us closer together, and for his sake and mine (my response a bit like the guards, I’m ashamed to admit) I try not to wonder too much about his daydreams, do not ask to hear them, nor ask if he ever thinks about what he might feel or do last day.
From the afterword to Life Sentences: Writings From Inside an American Prison. Used with the permission of the publisher, Belt Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice.