Prisons & Youth at Risk
Through the practice of compassion meditation, Rosalind Harris transformed the grief of her son’s murder into solidarity and friendship with all young African-Americans, whose lives, marked by violence and oppression, are a national tragedy and shame.
The detectives who came to my office that cold rainy afternoon eight years ago told me they’d found the body of my eighteen-year-old son, Jamil, naked, riddled with bullets, wrapped in a blanket, and dumped near a pond on a farm in a county not far from where we live. Even through the fog of my pain and disbelief I could tell that these men were themselves shaken by the horrific details of the murder of such a young person.
Seven months later I was sitting in a courtroom behind the young man accused of murdering Jamil, awaiting his trial. My husband, my eleven-year-old daughter, and I had spent the time between Jamil’s murder and the trial in almost perpetual anguish and confusion. We were subject not only to the devastating pain of Jamil’s loss, but also to the troubling unreality of the accounts of Jamil’s life and death. The media peddled vivid stories about drugs and guns and gangs to make real and solidify for the public the spectacle of the African-American criminal “other.” Very little in newspaper and television portrayals of Jamil bore any resemblance to the talented, poetic, kind—and, yes, sometimes confused and troubled—young man who was our son, brother, and friend.
Sitting in the courtroom during the trial I found it difficult to sense what I actually felt about the young man accused of murdering my son. I knew what I was supposed to feel. I knew what the prosecuting attorneys, other family members, and friends expressed through their anger and rage: he was a cold-blooded, ruthless, heartless, young man with an extensive criminal record who had brutally murdered Jamil for an insignificant reason. But I wasn’t feeling that way. Oddly, there were even moments when I imagined that he could be my son. As the fight between him and Jamil was described during the trial, I could imagine it turning out differently, with their positions reversed. I wondered who he was, where he came from, what circumstances in his life had brought him to this moment?
As the stories unfolded at trial, I moved more deeply into myself.I found myself angry and enraged—not at the young man, but at a society that rests easily while violent dramas between young people play out over and over again, resulting in thousands of deaths and imprisonments each year. I just kept saying to myself that this was a deeply sad story, and now it was my deeply sad story. My son was dead, and another woman’s son would most likely go to prison for the rest of his life.
In the end, he received a sentence of twenty-five years to life. As painful as the trial had been, I realized, as it drew to a close, that I had expected it to bring a closure of sorts, or at least start a process of healing. Instead I found myself and my family re-traumatized and numbed by the details of the murder recounted during the trial.
Eventually we moved on to live new, “normal” lives. The numbness made it seem like we were doing fine—or even better than fine at times. But at a certain point, a grief counselor magically appeared in my life and told me, “Numbness often gets mistaken for courage.”
That message didn’t sink in at first. Family and friends had expressed relief at how I hadn’t disappeared from the scene or descended into a swirling tunnel of despair. I could talk normally about everyday things. I could even talk about “him” without collapsing into the gut-wrenching sobs that I knew everyone feared I would succumb to. They began to think it would never happen. When one of my closest friends called me her “hero” for my stoicism, it made me question my seemingly passive reaction to the heart-shattering loss of my son. I tried explaining to her that what she was seeing in me was not really courage. It was the skillful dodging of a reality too unbearable to process in my own lifetime.
In spite of my misgivings, however, I began to find the hero identity appealing. Adopting this role provided me with a place to hide as my life began to unravel around me. It seemed safe and elegant and, before long, it became solid and fixed. I was a hero even to myself. I imagined myself as a courageous bodhisattva, because I couldn’t think of anything else that would keep me standing and moving from one side of the day to the other, teaching, meditating, engaging.
Four years later, quite comfortable with my courageous bodhisattva identity, I sat upright and serene on the final day of a weekend meditation. program. Then we began to practice tonglen, the practice of taking into our hearts the suffering of ourselves and others and of sending out compassion. This practice had become second nature to me over the past four years, so as I began to move through the beginning steps, I was completely unprepared for what happened next.
As I breathed in, sobs rose up from unfamiliar depths. I found a young man named Germaine, a friend of Jamil’s, sitting right there in my heart. At five, Germaine had watched as his father shot his mother to death. With his mother dead and his father in prison, he and his brother and sisters were separated from each other and placed in foster care. By the time he was fifteen, when he and Jamil found each other, Germaine had lived in several foster homes and had spent time in juvenile detention. I met him briefly when he and Jamil got into some trouble at school. I found his detachment and simmering rage too hard to take, and I just wanted him out of our lives. Now he was sitting right there in my heart. Then another scene arose: Germaine sitting on our couch two months after Jamil’s death, in heartbreaking disbelief at the news of Jamil’s murder. He had been living out of town; he didn’t know.
As I continued to feel Germaine’s story take root in my heart, I tried to stop the tears I’d been holding back for so long. Concerned with disturbing the quiet in the meditation hall, I struggled to get Germaine out of my heart. I wanted this weekend for myself. I felt my composure, my hero identity, slipping away. I tried and tried so hard to shut Germaine out of my heart, but my resistance was turning the sobs into roaring waves too great to control. There he stayed, and with him his story.
The day when I told Germaine about Jamil’s death—and watched him sit, stunned, unable to cry, expressing love for a most trusted brother and swearing to take revenge—he met my attempt to embrace him, to calm him, with a cold rigidity that seemed to say, “I can never be loved.” I felt the cold rush through me as an accusation. Only later did I realize it was also an invitation.
Germaine was one of the many “others” that Jamil brought into our family’s life. As politically astute and progressive as we considered ourselves, we also didn’t want Jamil’s life, our lives, made messy or problematic by getting too close to people who had “those problems.” As quickly as he would bring them into our lives, we would move to banish them, to diffuse the scent of otherness, so that we could get back to the ongoing challenge of living the American promise of a comfortable, protected, middle-class life. As an African-American family living in a mid-sized, mid-Southern town that had not yet (and still has not) thrown off the vestiges of slave-plantation society, we were fully caught up in the daily strains of trying to make good on the promise of America. We were so caught up in our lives that we failed to notice something profound going on beneath the surface of our material life. Now, with what I had been through, with feelings welling up from deep within, I was beginning to take notice.
I began to notice how children present us with deep questions about the contradictions in our lives—questions we need to examine as individuals, as families, as a nation. The United States is the wealthiest nation on earth but has the worst record of material, psychological, and spiritual care for children among industrialized countries. A litany of dismal statistics—high poverty, homelessness, hunger, homicide, suicide rates—tells us this. Yet, it is individual stories, like Jamil’s and Germaine’s, that might finally capture our attention and arouse our compassion. We might finally notice just how many marginalized young people are haunted by our society’s disregard for who they are.
It is these young people we have chosen to ignore who can shake us out of our apathy and immersion in materialism. They can help us to get in touch with the deep currents of meaning and communion that are the basis of real society. In a reversal of the heartfelt processes by which ancestors and elders guide youth, our youth today can gently—and at times not so gently—guide us back to our humanity, back to a sense of our basic goodness and all that it implies. When he arose in my heart that day in the meditation hall, Germaine brought that message to me.
Some time after that experience, I found myself sitting and talking with another of Jamil’s friends, Joshua. Jamil had called him a brother and asked that we call him a son. Joshua had told me his story many times before, and as he told it again I heard him calling to my heart through the silences and tears, asking that I take my role as elder and help him find his way. Before this conversation, I had not listened deeply. For once, it was time to listen to what the children and their stories had been trying to teach me, teach all of us.
When Joshua was fourteen—by which time he had got himself into a fair amount of trouble—his mother put a gun to his head and told him to get out of her house, out of her life. His father was already out of his life, serving a lengthy sentence in prison. With his grandmother’s help, Joshua found a place to stay and lived what he admitted was a wild and crazy life for a while. But then, at a certain point he stopped trying to escape from the overwhelming pain in his life, and something deep began to take hold. By the time he was eighteen, he was visiting his father and his friends in prison regularly, bringing them messages of encouragement and support.
Through intensive reading and deep conversations with his grandmother and with men and women his own age, Joshua began to put the pieces of the puzzle together for himself. He began to understand where history had placed him and why. As a young black man who had lost many family members and friends to drugs, prison, and homicidal and suicidal death, Joshua began to realize something profound: that the kidnapping from Africa, the Middle Passage to America, and life in slavery on the plantations had not annihilated the spirit of African-Americans. But the silent, unacknowledged, physical and spiritual genocide of their children would—if something didn’t change.
It would be natural for the recognition of this injustice to arouse in Joshua a rage that would fester just beneath the surface—the kind of rage that settles in the heart of so many colonized and subjugated peoples. But something else happened. He realized that he also carried the blood of the Cherokee Nation and of the Scots-Irish of Appalachia. And although the racial codes of our society discourage most of us from claiming all of who we are, Joshua found himself able to do so. Underneath his rage, he found grief, and within his grief he found his broken heart. From the compassion he found within his broken, open heart, he has been able to do something.
As Joshua prepares to leave after a long and rich conversation, he thanks me, as he has so many times before, for offering him a place to be heard, a home in my heart, and sometimes a message or two that moves through me from some ancestral anguish-wisdom. How can I begin to tell him that he has offered me so much more, without confusing his desire to respect me as elder and express his gratitude?
Before he leaves, he removes a picture from an envelope that had rested between us as we talked. There they are, the three of them—Jamil, Joshua, and Rasheed—the wisdom brothers, as they called themselves and were called by many. They offered each other community, connection, and understanding. They made music and poetry together, to share with us all as they tried to heal themselves. And somehow, through their confusion and pain and rage, they had made their way to the river beneath the river and answered the call of the ancestors to begin the journey back to their hearts. In the process, they opened a way and invited us all.
Looking at the picture of the wisdom brothers, Joshua and I are both crying now. We see that in the picture they look like warriors. The weight of what they know—their penetrating wisdom, what they see in the world, the reality they’ve experienced, so different from the fantasy of twentieth-century U.S. material culture—is evident. So is their courage to make a difference. Neither of us can find the words to express the anguish this picture holds. Of the three depicted there, only Joshua remains. We lost Rasheed to murder a year after we lost Jamil. Joshua whispers through his tears, “I should not be here. It’s only a matter of time.” I hold him close, connecting with the sense of powerlessness I know I share with my enslaved African ancestors, whose children were ripped away from them with a brutal force.
As he leaves, Joshua reminds me about a gathering that will take place the next day. Over the last year, he has been bringing together the youth of the community to talk, to cry, to rest for a while knowing they are not alone. In this safe space, they acknowledge the broader historical, political, and cultural contexts that have given rise to the trauma and estrangement they experience in their communities. Having such a space is important to them, because they know the costs in shame and self-blame that come from not having a broader understanding of their situation.
During these gatherings, these young people invoke the mighty warriors past and present to help guide their healing journeys: Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni.They revive ancestral rituals. Through the pouring of libations, through prayer and reflection, they reconnect with sacred communal space. This is a deeply spiritual experience. For them, spirit is political, and it is in communion that they begin the personal healing that will help them move forward to heal their communities.
Joshua asked that I come to the gathering, as an elder, to provide centering energy and wisdom. I felt intimidated by his request. What could I offer that wouldn’t intrude on or weaken the intention of this gathering? What could I offer that would truly be helpful?
I thought of my Jamil, carrying the blood of Africa and the blood of indigenous people here and from the Amazon. I thought of his pained and tumultuous journey and his friendships within the war-zone communities of the United States. I thought of my Jamil and I knew—from that place within that always knows the truth—that his life and his death are profound teachings. They’re teachings about the urgency of seeing, really seeing, and working to heal the oppression and cruelty that has developed over many decades within these communities. Joshua’s request was calling me to do this urgent work, and I realized why I had been so afraid. I had been afraid of convincing myself, and of convincing these young people, that I have a solid and certain answer to offer. I was equally afraid that I had no answer to offer at all.
In the end, I found the courage to go and offer whatever I could as an elder, and to learn whatever I could from the young warriors there. I went there with my broken, open heart. I went where Jamil guided me that day in the meditation hall, by reminding me of Germaine’s story of tragic oppression and isolation. I have now decided to stay in a place of vulnerability where Germaine’s story lives, where my story lives, where my tears flow into a river that carries me through Jamil’s heart. It is my vulnerability, my story, my tears, and the teachings they bring that I share as comrade, friend, and elder with the young people at the gathering. As we journey through each other’s hearts, we prepare ourselves together for our work in the world, for Jamil’s work, and the work of all who have left a message of what we still have to do.