In 1985, Anthony Ray Hinton was picked up for a murder that he not only didn’t commit, but that he ridiculously couldn’t have committed: he’d been locked into a warehouse working an overnight shift miles away when the robbery and shooting occurred.
No problem for the prosecution, though – they just alleged he scaled a fifteen-foot fence to evade the guards at the warehouse, drove to a diner and robbed and killed the manager. They also alleged that the bullets at the scene had been fired from his mother’s gun, which when recovered, was filled with dust and hadn’t been fired in 25 years.
Under these circumstances, the state of Alabama sent him to death row, where he would remain for thirty years.
I actually read this last year and struggled to find a way to talk about it. I was moved, heartbroken, and uplifted by Hinton’s story — not because he was finally released after the tireless advocacy by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, but because of the way he processes and tells his story. Imagine coming through what he’s been through and not being full of rage, feeling cheated, or letting the anger, consciously or otherwise, eat you up inside.
But Hinton is, at times in his narrative, sunshine itself. He describes the kind of imagination and hopeful thinking that helped him through his time on death row, spins portraits of fellow inmates, and through such a personal take makes an eloquent argument against capital punishment, a powerful extension and underscoring to those in Just Mercy, Stevenson’s book in which Hinton’s story is introduced.
But the fact that it even exists, that he had to go through this in the first place, is horrifying and inexcusable. I’m so tired of hearing about our “broken” justice system including its penchant for mass incarceration as throwaway lines in news pieces or from politicians and then seeing how it affects someone so tangibly. I hate that this is even possible.
It’s heavy on religion, which I get given the circumstances (Richard Dawkins says there are few atheists in prison) and I’m glad there was something that helped Hinton survive an ordeal that I’m sure not all of us could. I don’t think I would’ve come through it with the grace he had. But I found it hard to read, which is the only way I know how to describe what I felt about the prevalence of it in the story. Still, this is an affecting look at our proverbially broken justice system through someone whose life has been shaped forever — and almost ended — by it.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin, March 27, 2018 by St. Martin’s Press
What is offended? Offensive? Is it simply because I am? Or, because you are? Am I in your way? That you step in my way? Do I know you? Can I know you? In your ways? Anyways?
Claudia Rankine’s Just Us feels like a punch, and beyond that it’s pretty indefinable. I read it in ebook format because the library wait list for the paper copy was longer, and although that was fine I’d say this is probably better as a traditional book if you can get it. It’s full of photos, charts, and notes that seem they’d read better in that layout.
The old cliche that to understand someone you should try to walk a mile in their shoes, or try to put yourself in someone else’s place and see through their eyes? This book felt like an immersive exercise in doing exactly that. It’s a visceral glimpse into Rankine’s mind and thought processes as she works through experiences that have troubled her, including disturbingly commonplace microagressions.
Rankine is interested in liminal spaces, like airports and airplanes, where people are lumped together and where some, namely white men, exercise an automatic authority or assumption of superiority.
She also looks at various topics that sparked her thinking, like Black women who bleach their hair blonde, and questions of presence and compliance, like when a white friend refuses to participate in a directive for white audience members of a play. Rankine describes the book as being interested in “perceptions of whiteness.”
I have watched white people reduce black people not to a single black person but to a single imagined black person, imagined animal, imaged thing, imagined ignoramus, imagined depravity, imagined criminality, imagined aggressor, superpredator, imagined whore, imagined poverty queen, imagined baby maker, imagined inferior being in need of everything belonging to white people including air and water while stealing everything belong to white people including air and water and on and on toward an imagined no one. All this wouldn’t matter if this same category of white people weren’t strategizing tests, writing exams, grading exams, funding schools, granting bank loans, selling property, making laws, suppressing voters, determining sentences, evaluating pain, teaching classes, creating and perpetuating master narratives, hiring, firing, demoting, killing imagined me.
It’s poetic, sometimes interspersed with her actual poetry. She also includes the writings of others, when she asks for their take on their actions or behaviors. This feels uncomfortable at first — confrontational — but it ended up being brilliant and creating the honest conversation that’s the point of it all. The bouncing back and forth of ideas, including Rankine’s as she turns theories over and considers them from new angles, was so illuminating. Her voice is rich and beautiful and incredibly deep.
The murkiness as we exist alongside each other calls us forward. I don’t want to forget that I am here; at any given moment we are, each of us, next to any other capable of both the best and the worst our democracy has to offer.
Just Us: An American Conversation, by Claudia Rankine. Published September 8, 2020 by Graywolf Press
Matthew Horace’s The Black and the Blue is a memoir and the author’s own perspective and investigation into the toxicity rampant in police departments and conduct. It covers his experience working as a federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Agent as well as his beginnings in law enforcement.
I had heard good things about this despite my initial reluctance to read anything from a law enforcement perspective, since most of the time it feels like ALL we get is their perspective. But Horace himself is Black, and much of the book consists of his interviews with fellow Black officers, describing why they started with the police despite obvious overpolicing and mistreatment of Black communities. This was really interesting and felt worthwhile to hear in their words.
Also worthwhile were the statistics he shared. Some are simply staggering. Like that “the life expectancy in 15 predominantly black Baltimore neighborhoods is shorter than in North Korea.”
Sometimes he really surprised me, like here: “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.” I’ve never seen my fellow white people so pissed off as at the rioting that happened this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. They were more livid about the luxury boutiques being boarded up in SoHo than they were about his death, which: exactly the problem. But surprising to hear this kind of sentiment from a cop.
Actually a lot of this surprised me. Horace believes a more peaceful and productive coexistence is possible between law enforcement and the public, and that working with Black communities instead of police viewing them as Other is the way. He has some great ideas, like programs to have police officers interacting with students in schools and increased training for helping the mentally ill. It’s sad that we have to work to humanize people to get police to see them that way, rather than knowing it already, but why am I surprised at this point.
His breakdown of the traffic ticketing that was happening in Ferguson pre-Michael Brown’s murder was one of the most powerful parts of the book. He also writes about the racism he personally experienced on the job, which was incredible — that he continued, that he was still so dedicated, and that he remains idealistic, if realistic.
Horace doesn’t let anyone get away with the fallacy of “a few bad apples” and pinpoints where the problems are and why. There are so, so many problems, but it did help to hear his actionable ideas about where change can begin, although he also sounds exhausted himself at points, like when interviewing people in Chicago. Much better and much more than I thought it would be.
The Black and the Blue: A Cop Reveals the Crimes, Racism, and Injustice in America’s Law Enforcement, by Matthew Horace with Ron Harris. Published August 2018 by Hachette