Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Angola 3 Member Albert Woodfox Freed!

Oh, what a long and winding road it has been for Albert Woodfox. Journalists all over the world are busily crafting magnum opus style accounts of his life, his adventures, and his thoughts as he enters a world he left in the late 1960s and re-entered on his 69th birthday two months and one day ago.

Those of you who follow this blog are already aware that I've been knowing this man -- and loving him, as many do -- for seven years now. After corresponding by mail and talking on the phone for several months, we had our first all day visit face to face, perched on the shelves on either side of thick metal mesh in the tiny CCR visiting room at Angola State Penitentiary on July 10, 2009. The energy was so high we couldn't stay in our seats. We wanted to see and hear each other better. We wanted to touch, to miss nothing, to defy the authorities that controlled our lives.

Make no mistake: those that controlled Albert (also known inside the walls as "Shaka" and "Cinque"), held many others in abeyance through the years. We did not fight to free him for him alone, but for our desperate, frustrated, resolute selves. At some point, in all such scenarios, while the person behind bars is the focal point, the ties between him or her and all who wait on the outside looking in are so strong that no power can deny them access, can prevent their strengthening, can destroy their determination with anything short of death.

We lived, dedicated to the struggle to keep him alive, to keep him sane, to keep ourselves from despairing. And in the end, he walked though the door into the "free" world in New Orleans like the champion prison had turned him into. When I commented on how protective his brother Michael looked in the photo taken at that pivotal moment, he confided it wasn't out of concern for who might be out there to hurt him, but that, as he crossed the threshold, his knees buckled.

"Michael put his hand on my shoulder and whispered in my ear, 'I got you,'" he remembers. "I never thought, after all I've been through, that anything could make my knees go out, but as I came through the door, that's what happened."

There was a less than effective attempt to make the coming out event quiet. There were concerns about his safety, for one thing. Not everybody was equally thrilled with Albert's release. But there was also an understanding among those who had long been active in the Campaign to Free the Angola 3 that this man who had survived the onslaught of a million slings and arrows for sixteen thousand days would be tender as he took his first free breaths and for some time to come.

Parties and gatherings and second lines and endless conversations one after another followed. I stayed away for the first forty-eight hours to give him his space. I was too overcome to share him with a bustling crowd of others. I cried for no reason. I looked at the photos appearing online. I thought back to the more than fifty visits we had after Angola, at David Wade Correctional Center and, eventually, at the West Feliciana Parish Detention Center, too. I talked with other Campaign members, but only very briefly with Albert.

And then, on Sunday afternoon, there he was, in front of me, standing in a kitchen in a house in New Orleans like an ordinary person just hanging out with friends. His sweat pants had his DOC number stenciled on them. I noticed a tattoo I had never seen before. It was like meeting him for the first time. We hugged and I let myself cling to him for a few moments with my arms around his neck. He was real. He was alive. He was free.

Two weeks later, he called to tell me he was moving to Texas to stay with his brother for a while and if I wanted him to come to speak at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I teach, I better seal down a day while there was still one available. We settled on Tuesday, March 15th, which only gave me a few days to organize the event, but that was okay because we wanted it to be low key. It would be his first event before a room full of strangers. His first school presentation. His first time speaking before the mass public, who might after all ask anything. The risk was great and he was still painfully new to the outside world. He was so nervous, he wanted me to sit on the stage while he spoke. And I was so nervous for him that I was more than happy to hover.

But an hour and fifteen minutes later, he had birthed the public persona he was going to have to be. He had made them laugh. He had made them applaud. And dozens of them lined up afterward to speak to him, to shake his hand, to take selfies with their inspiring new hero -- a truly famous, yet truly humble man.

He calls me  now at 7:00 in the morning from conferences in other states and tells me about the trip he's going to take to stay in a cabin in Yosemite Park with friends. I can call him if I want to now instead of having to wait until he calls me from a closed front cell. And I won't have to visit him in a prison ever again.

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