Down that dead end street of a neighborhood I never got to leave, sat our small, red shingled house, surrounded mostly by trees, but on one side there was a hill so steep, none of us kids cud ever ride our bikes up it.
On one of those days back then, my little Brother and I played on bedroom steps leading up to where our Mom’s slept at. Out the corner of my eye, there appeared a strange man on the steps with us. I’d never seen or felt such a presence before, so to be honest, I didn’t know what the correct response was. I can only remember the dark fabrics he wore, that blends his image into the back ground scenery of a memory that still unsettles me today. I can still see the ski mask he wore, covering all but the white of his eyes and the flesh of his lips, to which, he rose a single finger to in the Universal sign that even a 6 yr old cud understand.
“Jason?” my Mother called from her bedroom, “is sum one down there with u?”
“No.” I lied, as this strange man creeped past my left side. I turned to watch his broadness become smaller as he reached the top of the steps to do what strange men break into single Mother’s homes to do….and I didn’t say nothing.
U see, saying nothing became a running theme of my life. From a sheltered childhood, to an ackward exploration of High School, to meeting up with this older dude who took me a ride I have yet to come back from. Instead of saying ” I’m not doing that! ” I did what I’ve always done, I didn’t say nothing, Ended up quieting my victims voice more then my own. More then the three words making the entirety of my vocabulary the whole yr I went back and forth to court.
Two of those words, “NOT GUILTY”, cos that’s what my Public Defender told me to say. The third word, well, that one was ” GUILTY “, cos that’s what my Mom told me to say. She said it wud be better to take the deal the State was offering me so at least she’d be able to come visit me in prison versus having to go visit a grave cite cos the Judge had given me the death penalty.
So at 18, I was on my way to prison, having received the longest sentence handed out in my counties history, supposedly, in exchange for a sentence other than death. The problem was, I still didn’t have a voice and that wasn’t going to work for me in prison. In here, the voiceless become victims. It was either find a voice quick, or, well, have sum one break into my house like dude did my Moms, and I cudnt have that right? So I decided to jus act like I knew what I was talking about, even tho mos of the time I didn’t have a clue, was jus able to make it sound like I did. Spending half my time saying what I didn’t mean and the other half afraid to say what I did. Talking myself into as much trouble as I talked myself out of. The trouble I cudn’t talk myself out of, usually landed me in isolation, aka ‘the hole’. Locked down 23 hrs a day, behind a 3 inch steel door, not keeping out ne of the no less then five conversations going on at the same time, all the time, even at 1:05 in the morning.
There I was, sitting on the edge of a steel slab, waiting on the C.O. to bring me a mattress to sleep on, reading the names of the past residence of the cell I was now locked in. Those who “was here” or where they were from, scrawled all over the four and half walls I was now stuck starring at for the next 30 sum odd days.
Quickly learning it was basically only two things u cud do back there to keep ur mind right, talk or read. Talking definitely wasn’t my thing, it made me have to keep track of too much, so I read. Come to find out, I liked romance novels. I wud use the situations and circumstances the author wud take her characters on, as my way of experiencing sum thing more then the redundancy of a prison routine. More so, beginning to help me come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have much life experince to begin with. I lived mos of my life in my imagination, still do, so it was easy for me to live a little piece of life thru a good book. Mos of all tho, I was fascinated by the way the author cud affect the very way I was feeling about myself, simply by how she ordered her words on the page. Made me want to see if I cud order my own words in such a way. I started writing my thoughts and feelings down on paper, sealing them up inside an envelope and mailing them out to whom ever was listening to me at the time. Speaking to sum one on paper, from a safe distance, was much easier practice then face to face. Gradually transitioning from forcing out a voice I thought I had to use, to not being afraid to use the voice I wanted to, the one that sounded like me, instead of sounding like who I thought I had to be.
About three or four yrs ago, while looking for a cure to my boredom without it landing me back in isolation, a sign up sheet on the bulletin board caught my eye, asking if I thought I cud write poetry. I thought to myself, well hell, I probably cud write sum poetry. So I signed up. Little did I know the class wasn’t jus about writing poetry, but performing the poetry we wrote. I was like, hold up! No one said ne thing about me saying out loud what I wrote, especially in front of ppl. Before I had a chance to trip out in my head ne further than I already was, this cool ass looking white dude says he has a piece to spit. He stands up, as all performance poets do, and proceeds to drop a fire ass piece of poetry, about how his life was one long hall way. I remember thinking, if he, one of the only two white dudes, in a room full of fifteen other gangster rap dudes, can stand up, with that amount of confidence and spit his poetry, I can too.
And I did! Winning my first two poetry slam competitions. The first I was favored to win, which is a different kind of pressure. The second, I went up against several of my own crew members and was suppose to lose. Both wins made me very happy with myself. But I lost my third by jus a point, and then my fourth by two points. I took both loses hard, in very different ways, being in two different places in my life as a man and as an artist at ea of those times. Quite frankly, I was told they weren’t going to let me win three in a row and when it came to the fourth, I believe my closing poem was jus too much, too emotional, too personal, took men to places they are not comfortable going to in front of other men.
This poetry thing has opened me up in ways that if I cud’ve seen coming, I probably wud’ve ran from it. It has gotten me skyped out of this prison to more places then I ever even thought about seeing when I was out there. Its introduced me to into ppl who otherwise probably wud’nt even know my name. I’ve stood on sum big stages, I’ve said sum big things, I’ve affected the way whole rooms full of ppl felt about themselves.
Like I did back at the One Billion Rising event held annually here in at the prison, helping bring awareness to and eradicate all forms of violence against women. A friend of mine invited me to write and perform sum thing at the event, handing me a white sheet of paper with bullet points on it to help spark my creativity. There was nothing jumping out at me until my eyes reached the last point, where it asked me…if I cud talk to my victim, what wud I say? Those words too affected the very way I felt about myself. U see, for the longest time I hadn’t been saying too much of ne thing, and that pretty much ruined my life, so I figured if I was going to start saying sum thing, I was going to start by saying “I’M SORRY!”
Words I wish I cud’ve said to my victims Mom back at my sentencing hearing. Where I watched her out the corner of my eye, come before the Court, telling stories of how beautiful and special her daughter was. How her daughter wud be missed by all those who knew her. I remember how distraught she looked standing there, how distraught she sounded, cos it was the same look and sound coming from my own Mom at the back of the court room. Two Mother’s whose hearts were broken, not being able to comprehend how all this had happened to their babies. Both of them, along with every one else in the room, looking at me to answer the single question of ‘WHY?’
So there I sat, quiet as ever. So much so, my Public Defender had to lean down and whisper, ” Jason, do u want to say ne thing? ” Putting my head down, shaking it “NO”, feeling like I was six yrs old again, staring at a white eyed ski masked man telling me to be quiet.
So, I guess my early experiences had more of an affect on quieting my voice then I imagined. Here lately tho, I’m better understanding the impact of my voice, that its not jus about what I’m saying, but the attitude in which I’m saying it. Whether I’m trying to get my girl friend to not be mad at me after I’ve hurt her feelings, whether I’m kicking it to sum young cat who jus wants to know what I think, or if I’m given space on stages like this to speak life into these mics.
So let me be an example of what a voiceless life once looked like, and then, what can happen when that life finally finds its voice, and stands right here, and says to u, its never too late….to speak up, to speak out, or to speak life instead of silence.
Jason B. Thompson
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