'Black is the culture': Celebrating Black History Month in prison
Author’s note: I attended this event at Stafford Creek Corrections Center just three days before Washington announced the nation's first death from COVID-19. Less than a month later, outside visitors were banned from prisons to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Prisoners remain isolated today with limited activities, and COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly at Stafford Creek and other state prisons. I've thought about this story a lot over the course of 2020 because, in some ways, it reminds me of those simpler pre-pandemic days: It's about coming together to celebrate and grieve, to share a meal, hear beautiful music and exchange ideas. But, as with many stories set in prison, it was also a window into all of the social ills that have become so apparent this year: poverty, racism, violence and injustice. In what is hopefully the twilight of this pandemic and as we yearn to return to "normal," this story reminds me to challenge that idea and reimagine what "normal" might be. (This story originally aired Feb. 27, 2020.)
Prisons aren't known for being friendly places. But the Black History Month event at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen is a joyful occasion.
About 240 incarcerated men and outside guests crowded into the prison's visiting center Wednesday for a daylong program of speeches, performances and music. The program was organized by prisoners.
African Americans are overrepresented in prisons nationwide. In Washington, they make up almost 18 percent of the state prison population, but only 4 percent of the total population.
Many of the speeches and performances Wednesday spoke to the ways race intertwines with incarceration in the U.S. Guest lecturers and prisoners spoke about policing, gang violence, and generational trauma stemming from slavery and subsequent discrimination.
But the day also was a general celebration of black culture. The men created art for the occasion: banners representing different African countries, a large backdrop featuring black icons, and several abstract pieces. An outside choir known as the Northwest Gospel Team sang, backed up by a band made up of incarcerated men. The crowd sang and danced with them.
Andre has been incarcerated for about four years, spending the last two at Stafford Creek. This was his first time coming to the Black History Month event. The Department of Corrections has asked we only use prisoners' first names out of concern for victims' privacy.
"It's tough in here," Andre said. "It's a blessing to be able to have some difference, to be able to come to an event like this and be inspired by outside energy."
The event also is an opportunity for the men to show off their own skills. In his poem "What's Black," Desmond starts by describing negative stereotypes about African Americans.
"Black is when you're used to your father not being in your life," he says to the crowd. "So you're in and out of prison, afraid of commitment."
The crowd nods and affirms. But then the poem takes a turn.
"That's because y'all don't know black," Desmond continues. "Black is the culture. Yeah, we might shake our dreads and sag our pants, but when that Cha Cha Slide come on at that barbecue, I'll bet you everybody know how to line dance. Black got rhythm. Black got soul."
That line gets applause and cheers. Desmond goes on to list the things that make him proud to be black, citing historical figures such as Madam C.J. Walker and George Washington Carver.
Another incarcerated performer, who goes by the name "Stack," says these conversations about culture are happening all the time in prison. He's part of the Black Prisoners Caucus (BPC), which often organizes internal events and education programs. Founded in 1972, the BPC has chapters in prisons across Washington.
"You guys coming here right now are getting a dose of what we're going through," Stack said. "While at the same time in here, it's a moment of reflection for us."
Stack and several other incarcerated men pointed out that most people in prison get out eventually, adding this kind of reflection and cultural appreciation is key as they work to get out and reintegrate into the community.