For this week's installment of #SolidarityStories, we will share a story submitted to us by a veteran of the movement, Roger Barriteau. If you'd like to share your own Solidarity Story, just send us a PM.
In 1978 I taught Black Studies in Marion Correctional Institution - Marion OH. The course I presented was the best parts of what I had been teaching in my Black Studies Courses at Ohio State over several years.
My time with the fellas in Marion was fortifying to me. The most astonishing moment was when I decided to hand back graded midterms outside of class. I asked for and got help from a couple of officers who let me in to where the guys were lining up for lunch. I was handing back the exams when out of the blue a very tall and very big Brother who I had never seen before came up to me. I looked up to him towering over me and he said: “Are you the brother who is teaching a Black Studies Course?” I said – 'Yes” .
“I want to thank you for bringing those books in here – I have been borrowing them from ... and they have been helping me to realize just who I am”. Those words continue to give me such fulfillment. I know that those Brothers really wanted me to be there and they have so much Hunger for self knowledge.
The class was not large and the men were Black – except for four White guys. Their very presence in this course which was about Black lives as revealed in our history obviously raised questions. “Why are they here” was certainly on my mind as well as on the minds of my Black brothers. I elected to make no mention of their being different and to get busy with what turned out to be my most satisfying experience as a teacher. The course was given in a wing where there were inmates and educators but no officers – so I got a chance to observe and to some extent live under Inmate's rules. For example I was not to ask where an absent inmate was – the inmates risked coming off as tattlers or worse by answering that question. But I found that out by asking the class why they could not simply tell me. One of my students explained the rule to me and I asked the class to guide me with such stuff so that things would go more smoothly. That set the mark for an easy give and take between us.
One of the 4 White men commenced to open one of his texts, lean back and place it over his eyes – he remained like that for the rest of the class session – but in subsequent sessions he quit doing that. The White students never asked questions – while there was considerable discussion among the rest of us.
I made eye contact with my students – my feelings were with them and they still come to my mind quite often. I could see the White students were taking it all in. I was interacting with other White inmates who worked in the office and I also learned from them – one of the men working in the office was helpful to all and quite likable. One day we were exchanging a few words and he suddenly looked me in the eye and blurted out to me "I killed two people - I don't know what happened - I will never get out of here!". I did not even blink - I looked him directly in the eyes back and I said "I like you - I am glad that you are alive". He was a bit stunned and then he turned and walked away. One of my White students had written a very fine midterm and when I handed his graded exam back to him in that line up for lunch I mentioned above – I was able to lay a little praise on his work.
On the last day of class I was very moved. I was gratified with what I had learned from the inmates – my own class prejudices had been broken down some and I was joyous over what they had brought to the course – how they had shared with each other and how HOPE had been stirred by what we learned together. I thanked them for this course and promised them that I will tell what I had learned from them. As they stood to walk from the classroom I took a position by the door and shook every man's hand as he left. The White student who wrote the superb exam was startled that I offered to shake his hand. I gave him a look of ' please accept me in this ' - we shook hands and he was clearly moved.
Later I saw one of the Black students and he asked me “Did all the White guys shake your hand?” - and when I told him with a smile “Yes, every one did” he smiles and shook his head. There was much self regulated racial segregation in the joint. These 4 White men had to negotiate with the rest of the White inmates over why they took this class with all those Blacks. I don't know how that worked out but I am convinced that the White inmates had a similar Hunger for self knowledge and a perception that knowing more about us Blacks would help them to discover themselves and their situation.
I took a lot with me from Marion Correctional:
■ Maintaining a calm demeanor is the Way. Its the way to get by.
■ That Inmates care for and look after each other. That friendship is a great prize.
■ That while I was behind the walls I wanted to be out.
■ I wanted to share what I knew and the skills I had – that was my motivation. But on several occasions an inmate ( student or a clerk in the office) - would speak to me from the heart. That deepened my compassion.
One of the most powerful slogans of our organizing in the last few months has been, "Solidarity trumps hate!" What is solidarity exactly? In these stories from the history of the struggle for human liberation we share examples of the power of solidarity and the many creative forms it takes. We will share another #SolidarityStory each Wednesday. If you have a story of solidarity you'd like to share, please send them to us!