By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on November 23, 2020
Some of my friends and supporters have asked why I continue to write and publish articles from my prison cell. They realize that senior officials within the U.S Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice are punishing me for doing so. I agree with their assessment, but the issue is larger than me.
Much of what the world knows about the black experience in America was written by white historians, novelists, and journalists over the last 400 years. I call them “scribes” who were free to reimagine the subversiveness, resistance and intelligence of Africans, African slaves and freed “Negroes” to confront the slave trade, colonial histories, legal codes, America’s Civil War realities, Jim Crow laws and customs, modern-day slavery under the 13th Amendment, the fascism within Trumpism, and political treatises and policies that pertain to the same people in quite different terms.
In the South, these “scribes” willingly participated in the legal and social systems that subjugated, degraded and harmed Black Americans. To a large extent, they still do. In Alabama, where I was first imprisoned, The Birmingham News, Montgomery Advisor, and Mobile Press Register are examples of media organizations that gleefully collaborated with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, as well as federal and state court judges, who railroaded and persecuted law-abiding Black citizens as part of the FBI’s notoriously racist COINTELPRO counter-intelligence program (1956 to 1971) and the “Good Ol’ Boys Roundup” (1980-1995) that targeted civil rights activists and political dissidents for persecution and destruction.
While these formal programs have been disbanded, informal versions of them are in full swing today in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The most hostile place for an African American today is inside a federal courtroom in one of these Deep South states. They will not call blacks a “nigger” in open court, but they certainly will treat us like one.
Reducing Oral Histories to Written Ones
Starting in 2013, I decided to tell my own story about life in the “Cradle of the Confederacy” and “Heart of Dixie”. I have done it on a continuous basis in my own words in about 900 vignette articles I have published since 2013. These articles cover every aspect of my life. Prison life is but one chapter in my 72-year stride toward freedom and dignity as a Black man. Since my imprisonment on August 28, 2019, I am still searching for adequate words to describe the egregious mistreatment of black and brown inmates who are technically and legally classified as modern-day “slaves” under the plain language of the 13th Amendment.
If Black captives do not write their own histories, our captors will. When they do, it is usually distorted, biased and ugly. Take the case of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. He spent more aggregate time in jail than me. Southern whites, including members of the clergy, labeled King a “criminal” and “outside agitator”. The FBI proclaimed Dr. King as the most “dangerous Negro in America”. They call the man who was my Sunday School teacher, pastor and BTU instructor a “thug”, a “filthy animal” and an “evil, abnormal beast”. The man who taught me the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-10) and held our small hands in a circle of Sunday School children as we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”, was on the receiving end of an unrelenting campaign by the FBI, Alabama media, and racist Alabama state and federal judges to force Dr. King to commit suicide in 1963. When their effort was unsuccessful, Dr. King was murdered.
I learned from Dr. King to define one’s self to the world in the books you author, the articles you publish, the speeches you give and through your good works under the most difficult of circumstances. It does not matter how our enemies define us. It only matters how we see and define ourselves.
The Biggest and Most Unforgivable Lie in American History
Finally, the biggest and most unforgivable lie in American history compels me to document my own journey. This lie involves white America’s reckless disregard for the truth about who really discovered the Americas. Whites universally credit the Italian born explorer, Christopher Columbus, as the person who “discovered” the Americas in 1492. This is an embedded lie in our American culture, history books, and folklore. We even celebrate Columbus in a national holiday. Thus, it is a “lie with legs”.
In truth, West Africans “discovered” the Americas as early as 1311 and traversed the Atlantic ocean in expeditionary fleets from 1311 to 1460. King Abubakari the Second of Mali established trade routes and villages in the Americas during this period. African tribes that established their presence in the New World from 1311 to 1460 included the Charrúa of Brazil, the black Caribs of Saint Vincent in the Gulf of Mexico, the Yamasee of Florida, and many other “true Negroes” from Africa who were well-known to Spaniards in 1492. Noted anthropologist Ivan Van Sertima meticulously documented this profound and deliberate omission from American history books in his critically acclaimed book titled, “They Came Before Columbus”, (New York: Random House, 1976). World famous historian James W. Loewen embraced Sertima’s work in “Lies My Teacher Told Me”. (Touchstone Books, 2007)
If American “scribes” will lie to us about who really “discovered” the Americas, how can we ever trust them to tell the truth about the life experiences of “Inmate No. 36223-001”? So, I must tell my own story, regardless of the adverse consequences from my captors. If I do not, those who have never lifted a finger to promote the fair administration of justice for people of color will use the imprimatur of their offices to write a version of history that favors and furthers their continued dominance over and abuse of people of color. The fire that is burning inside of me will not allow that to happen. Nothing but death will silence my voice and stop my writing.
For these friends and readers who still do not understand my attitude in this regard, they should read Howard Thurman’s book, “Jesus and the Disinherited” (Abingdon Press, 1949; republished by Beacon Press, 1976 and 1996). Dr. King traveled with this book everywhere he went.
Thurman’s book is relevant to this article because it explains why I fear no man, but I do fear God. It also explains why “hatred” is too much of a burden for me to bear, and why I must “love” my enemies. Finally, this book explains the importance of a recorded history that is free of cultural deception and bias. Only I can deliver a pristine recorded history of my life and imprisonment. Dr. King showed me how to do this in his April 16, 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.
Federal prosecutors in Birmingham recently said I have “disdain” for the federal criminal justice system. I do not. I only have “disdain” for those inside the system who pervert it.
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