Monday, August 29, 2011

Locked Into The Locked Up

I remember the first time the subject of prisons and prisoners was presented to me. It was 1971. I was in San Francisco, working on an underground newspaper, the San Francisco Good Times. Black Panther Huey P. Newton had been released from prison the year before. George Jackson had just been gunned down in cold blood by guards in California’s San Quentin Penitentiary during an alleged “escape attempt” that nobody believed. And former prisoner “Popeye” Jackson of the United Prisoners Union dropped by our collective to engage our interest. I spent that afternoon listening to his tales of what was really going on behind the prison walls. But it would be another few months before I locked into what I call “the prison abolition movement.”

I was living now in Iowa City, Iowa, recuperating from a broken jaw I received while riding in a BMW that managed to wind up under a snow truck during a blizzard. Thanks to what I had learned in San Francisco, I was quick to pick up on a conversation in a bar that soon led me to the Prisoners Digest International. When I arrived, the collective was busy fighting efforts of the administration at Attica Prison to keep a special 90-page Attica uprising edition complete with photographs out of the hands of the prisoners inside; the courts eventually said otherwise and we shipped hundreds of copies into the institution.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Yesterday, I got my student evaluations from my spring courses. I was glad to know I'm "cooler than John Travolta" (whatever that means), that most students gave me high marks and that a healthy handful wrote that I changed their lives. One student even said I should get a raise (a sentiment with which I heartily agree).

But, needless to say, a few students were made uncomfortable enough by my admittedly somewhat ruthless examination of racial issues that they felt the need to mention it. A few always do. Sometimes graphically. This time, for example, one evaluator suggested in three different boxes under "Improvements Needed" that I hate White people, suggesting that the improvement would be to put more Black people in my classes "to make [her] happy."

These are, of course, my favorite evaluations. In fact, if my boss doesn't see enough such potshots, he thinks maybe I'm losing my edge. Nevertheless, I know they don't mean it to be funny. They're trying to communicate something. Some more than others. My first academically-related death threat, after all, was over the phone in the middle of the night while I was in the process of teaching my very first course ever.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I had to go through four passwords to figure out how to break into my own Blogger account. I guess that says it all, huh? I've been scared to death for the last couple of weeks that I was never going to blog again. After more than five years, that was a disturbing thought to me. I hate being the last one to know something -- especially about myself. Which happens more often than I like, as it is.

But here I am. After all. And maybe there's a few more words in the old girl yet.

It's been a hairy summer.

I thought it was going to be a down time when I could consider my overdriven life and make sense of what to prune and what to keep or even -- Goddess help me -- what to add.

Then, as I mentioned in passing in June, I was blindsided by needing exploratory thyroid surgery with only five days' notice. Everything turned out fine, though I now have a faint but permanent three-inch smile in my neck and the jury's still out on whether or not I'll need replacement hormones to take up the slack for the half of my thyroid that got left where it was.

Exciting? Yes. But, though still in a serious state of recuperation, the initial physical, psychological and emotional trauma of the operation was pretty well over by the time I started teaching full-time again for the month of July.