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Sunday Post 11/22 - Recording and Reflecting

meerajay's picture

Sula and I are currently in Philly at a studio for a recording session with our acapella group, the Extreme Keys. We’ve had a little down time for a while as the solos are being recorded, so we are reading Eva’s Man in the lounge, our friends milling around us, talking and humming and harmonizing and giggling. I am so comfortable and warm in this space right now, so far from campus but surrounded by friends. For me, singing is like sleeping (or maybe better, because I’m a far better singer than sleeper), it allows for a silence, a break in my constant stream of anxious thoughts. I can instead revel in these enchanting harmonies or even shake off my heartache by getting funky and down with a 90’s style rap. I love the versatility of our group, as we slip easily into different styles. But mostly I get an indescribable sense of peace when performing with this group of people. What makes us so cohesive with our voices is that we are so deeply in tune with each other’s emotions, our states of being. We see each other’s voices as only a small facet of our personhood, perceive even the tiny fluctuations in our voices when we have been afflicted by the burden of a difficult day or are euphoric from being young and in love. We tailor our voices to the fluidity of our loud, dynamic, many-layered personalities. The meticulously rehearsed, precise silences in our music, between gorgeously swelling melodies, are chock-full of meaning. We acknowledge our own humanity, we understand that we are greater than the sum of our parts, and take that into account every time we sing together. People who watch us sing understand that we hold secrets inside us. This is our freedom.

I hold every group that I am up to these standards (though the Keys, like any other group of large personalities, have our incognizant moments) and the prison on Friday felt like a step in the right direction. Last week broke boundaries, peeled away the layers until we felt vulnerable and exposed; this past week was a rebuilding of what had been lost, a regaining of some of our dignity. We wrapped up Brothers and Keepers with a straightforward discussion, where I felt that more people felt free to voice their true opinions of the book. Then we moved on to some personal poetry, with I Am From… poems. I was introducing the activity, and I wrote down a few of my thoughts beforehand, because I felt especially passionately about this one. I felt like if I could just open it up with the correct sentiment, people would feel safer to share. After we read out loud the example, folks spent a few deliberative minutes writing their poetry, and then many of us decided to share.

I think that what happened next could only be described as compassionate. We all showed such compassion for ourselves in reading aloud, not blaming ourselves where we slipped up or felt silly, always believing in the importance of our own stories and also being kind to others as they shared. The poems were a powerful form of expression because they allowed people to be as cryptic or explicit as they wished. People were able to retain a piece of every story for themselves, keeping it like a secret…because aren’t our stories the only things we truly own? Some wrote two poems, the first one highlighting the positive, and the second more truthful about painful experiences. We talked about how no matter what anyone has been through, there is a fight to keep things positive and self-affirming.

We cannot treat things like they are perfect, because they are far from that. But Friday was still a relief, a moment of comfort after last week. The poetry gave us a lens to see each other more clearly.  

In order to keep thinking critically about the readings alongside our time in prison, I was also thinking about how this relates to Gaskew’s “Developing a Prison Pedagogy”. In class, I expressed that I felt conflicted about the Humiliation to Humility theory. Despite its emphasis on exploring the power dynamics within the justice system and an afro-centric education, it seemed to urge self-blaming at its essence. And while a part of the blame does land on the perpetrator of the crime, I believed that in order to be positive and self-affirming, it should begin with more of a community history rather than a personal one. However, this book club has made me see things differently. I began to see how sharing stories could be empowering and affirming, and how it can be a framework for understanding larger histories and structures, and how they have affected our stories.