Memoir from the Black History Program as seen through “Poetic Justification’s” eyes.
Finally, “Black History Month’ closing program “Giant of a Woman” arrived. For us here in the Ashland, KY ‘Twilight Zone’ it started February 20, 2018; at noon, inside our gymnasium, while schedule to end at 2:00 PM.
Six days before: Wednesday February 14
We were just ending rehearsal, I stopped to wait on Twilight, who was wrestling to win the support of the only black male Unit Team Manager (UTM). Although there was only three black male staff here, period. But the one Twilight was confronting, was something to reckon with.
“I’m telling you, you ain’t never seen anything like this.” Twilight pressed on. “We’re going to bring something different.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…same ole bs.” The UTM paused to glance around, “I don’t want to hear all that rap shit. Same shit every year.”
I’m thinking to myself, why is Twilight talking to this fool? I had heard the UTM say a year earlier, while scanning inmates IDs during our lunch meal, “I can’t stand black people with gold in their mouth, they think they’re all that.” Speaking openly to no one but himself. As much as I wanted to challenge him I held my peace and judged him for what he spoke.
Now, here I am facing someone I believe had self hatred toward his own kind.
“Hold up,” Twilight gives me a look that passes with understanding. “Dee, give the UTM a paragraph…”
“I’m telling you, I don’t want to hear that shit.” UTM forcefully interrupts.
“Dee, give him a paragraph.” Twilight said with a more authoritive tone, disregarding what the UTM said.
I said, “My message is a ‘Giant of a Woman.’ This giant is none other but Mrs. Coretta Scott King. I’d like to tell you a few things about Mrs. King that is not common knowledge…” I went on with that a few more lines before I was stopped.
“Alright, that’s enough…Now Townsend-El, give him your portion.” Twilight said, while in his take charge mode. Seeing that he had cracked the UTM’s attention
“This ‘Giant of a Woman’ that I will be talking about stood 6’5″ and weighed 200 pounds and quoted, ‘No man ever helped me or picked me over a puddle…” Townsend-El would go on with his natural Southern Atlanta gift of gab and smooth oratorical skills.
“Alright, that’s enough. You see, this is what we’re bringing!” Twilight said, with a bit of open satisfaction. Accepting his victory as proof that persuasion comes first with hearing and then seeing.
“Hum! That’s something, we’re going to see how this turns out.” The UTM responded with a stunned look wearing on his lips and eyes. He was at a loss for words.
Twilight, seeing that he was in awe, pushed the UTM further before we exited back to our housing units, “Make sure you bring all your coworkers with you. We’re going to give Ashland something they have never seen before!”
We all walked out of the gymnasium listening to the UTM’s final statement, “I’m’a see what I can do.”
Two days later: Friday February 16
“General work call, recreation, education.” Was an alarm blasting over all the intercoms at 6:45 AM throughout all federal ‘zones.’ Unless it was a holiday, weekend, an incident prior disrupting the security and safety of the ‘zone,’ or some administrative meeting that required a significant amount of staff to attend in one area.
For the last two months I had barricaded myself in the education department for every open hour that the department made available so I could finish a self-help/game conscious book I was working on. Due to a prohibited act I was placed in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU).
Friday is one of the department’s shorter days, closing at 3:30 PM and reopening for another short day on Sunday. But today, I have other things that shortens my schedule: two hours of rehearsal (8-10AM), lunch hour (10:30-11:30) and a Nation of Islam service (2-3PM). It roughly leaves me a maximum of 4 hours, if normal operations run systematically. But that’s never the case in the ‘zone.’
It was shortly after 7 AM, I had just finished loading an old 1980’s style electrical edition IBM Wheel writer, with it’s wheel, type ribbon, and paper. The typing room was no bigger than a double size car pool. Providing 8, 60″ tables, 10-14 typewriters (if none were broken down that day) two clerk desks, a book cart with dictionaries, thesaurus, writer’s books, storage cabinet, as well as a big glass window that ran down the length of the right side of the room with only a view of several large cooling units.
You would think having 14 typewriters divided amongst 1025 inmates (at this time) would be scarce, but it’s the other way around. Most of the time there are very few inmates using the typewriters. Often times it’s the normal writers with occasional jail house paralegals who routinely govern this paradise.
“What’s up youngster?” Rafee greets me while pulling up at the table that we’ve grown accustom to sharing. The typewriter beside the one I’m using seems to have some sacred value, because all the other ones can be open and he’ll still sit next to me. However, I feel the same.
He hasn’t quite gotten my name down pat, or it holds no importance, since it is simply ‘Dee.’ Also, it could be that he’s been in the ‘zone’ for 27 years (from what I heard) and doesn’t take to people so easily. This environment seems to have that effect. In regards to each encounter I sense a gain of respect.
“Oh, what’s happening Rafee?” I say with a quick glance, still concentrating on the task at hand.
“Man, we’re going to have to get Skool back before Tuesday. He’s the glue.”
Most people refer to Twilight as Skool, Ol’ Skool, or Mr. Hoard, but I call him Mr. Hoard.
“I know…he’s probably back by now and sitting in the SHU.” I felt the worry in my own voice and stopped typing to look at Rafee. It was yesterday, Thursday, most of us in the program had learned that Twilight had been taken to the SHU on Wednesday night for an outside medical appointment,. This is normal security procedure when being transported for medical appointments. He had told me weeks before he would be leaving but didn’t know when. Unfortunately this landed with unexpected timing and no one knew what his medical conditions were and how long he would be gone. Despite the circumstances, one thing we all knew, verbal or unverbal was that we had been navigated by him and things would not be orchestrated the same if he didn’t make it back on time.
“Yeah, even if he’s back, they don’t do SHU releases on Friday. That means he will not be returned to population until Monday at the earliest.” (The SHU is a jail within a jail, and works like the local county court system. Unlike outside the zone, we only have 4 working days to be released on our own recognizance-OR; Friday starts the business closing hours. However, there are always exceptions to the rules.)
“You’re right, I forgot all about that. Now that you mention it, we’re in more trouble because Monday is a holiday, President’s Day.” (The rules for the holidays are the same as weekends.)
Let’s just hope that he’s here, cause he’ll be able to make it out Tuesday morning. We only have a few more minutes before they call the move. We’ll see how we do in this last rehearsal.” Rafee says while I start to unload my typewriter in order to return the wheel so I can retrieve my ID from the clerk.
Gymnasium 8 AM Rehearsal
As everyone files in, there is a silence in the atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be said to speak what is there. It’s Twilight’s absence. Their bodies are speaking more than words can say. We had lost a little hope and began to discuss who was best suited to fill Twilight’s shoes.
Physically nothing had changed for me. I was walking around the gymnasium meditating and reciting my speech. I was sure, more than words can say, in faith, that he would make it on Tuesday morning. Even if Mr. Breckenridge had to talk to the warden, the overseer of the ‘twilight zone’ himself. We all had worked too hard to let the vital organ, the heart, cripple us with a sudden stroke.
Sensing a thick weary aura, Mr. Breckenridge himself took charge, “OK guys, everyone move to the left side of the gym. Set all the white chairs here.” He pointed to an area under the basketball rim. “Who has the roster showing the order each of you participate?”
“I have it right here.” Brunson Bey said.
Brunson Bey is another older gentleman with brown skin, salt and pepper gray beard and a small fro. He doesn’t smile much, carrying a no-nonsense attitude. I just met him two and half months ago at a Moorish Science Temple service. He was giving a lecture about Amexem before it became Africa. I was captivated by his ability to drive his points and keep the message interesting. His speaking skills are unmatched when it comes to the old cliche, “words without emotions are dead.” He definitely has emotional fire which may explain his serious but well mannered demeanor. So for this reason and his keen knowledge with history, I assume, he was chosen as our anchor.
“Let me see it.” Mr. Breckenridge responds, “Okay, we’re going to sit in the order that each performance is to be called…Boyd, you first, George, McRath, etc..” He calls out until everyone is seated and organized.
“Now look, Mr. Hoard isn’t here…,” he said to give us a motivational pep talk. “He has put a lot into this, this is the last rehearsal, let’s do this for Mr. Hoard!”
What he was saying was correct, but someone still had to fill Twilight’s shoes as the Emcee.
“Rafee we need someone to take Twilight’s position or get familiar with it, just in case he doesn’t make it back.” I said.
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“How about Townsend-El?” I said, feeling he was the best speaker amongst us, aside from Brunson-Bey, who had to give the longest and strongest closing of the program. He could not be compromised. Again, I felt Townsend-El was the man who could do it all.
Rafee gives me a look of confirmation needing no more words to be spoken. “Townsend-El, you’re going to have to fill in for Skool just in case he doesn’t make it back.” Rafee said with a voice that I didn’t know he had.
“Alright, I got it. I was ready for this.” says Townsend-El. He gets up, grabs the program and takes position at the podium. Before calling up the first speaker, Townsend-El, mistakenly reads Rafee’s typed out introduction speech. Nevertheless, he’s going in!
Instantly, I look around and see relief in everyone’s eyes. The spirit in the gymnasium is back to talking!
As things play out and parts are being finished, small groups and discussions are taking place again. I couldn’t quite pin-point what was going on, but the gym had an eerie way of speaking more so today, than all the other days. Following my intuition, I decide to investigate. I got up from my chair and sat with Rafee at a chess table. He is rearranging names on the program.
“Rafee, what’s going on? I can feel a change in the atmosphere.” I said with a subtle concern.
“We’re changing things around. The Black History program is about giving the people the History, not all this singing and stuff. When you see Black History Programs out on the streets, you don’t see singing, rapping, and concerts. Do you?”
“Naw.” I said to agree, not really knowing.
Rafee said in an attempt to make his point clear, “I’m trying to do what is best for us all, the right thing, and how things traditionally go.”
I eased away from Rafee and breathed down on Brunson-Bey who seemed to be too quiet sitting by himself.
“Brunson-Bey, what’s up? Why does it seem like something is going on?” For some reason my spirit connects more with him and my words seem to open an avenue for him to breathe in the frustration that I’m witnessing on his face.
“They’re changing things around from how Twilight intended it to be. Skool has to make it back or this isn’t going to be anything.” Though he was speaking how he felt, I felt something different and mentally asked myself what have I gotten myself into? Things had been going on that I had no knowledge of. I could see now that the others had their own agenda and I was out of the loop.
For the most part the rehearsal was impressive, everyone did an excellent job. Other than some people were taken off the program, the music and plays were pushed back to the second hour, when most people were expected to leave. Singers now wanted band equipment and certain individuals were bickering to have their way.