I’m not what most would consider a typical prisoner serving life without parole. I’m black, but I didn’t grow up in an impoverished inner city with other African Americans. I was reared on the mean, manicured streets of upper-middle-class America.
As a child, it was hard to fit in with my white peers. I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t like them—sometimes by bullies but mostly by my own deep insecurities. I had no black friends, no idea of what it meant to be black. When people looked at my skin, they expected me to be one thing, but when I spoke they realized that I was something else. I didn’t speak the improper patois of the ghetto. I dressed preppy like my white friends. I listened to rock and alternative music. I was much different than what most people expected.
In my teens, I moved in with extended family to a lower-class neighborhood where I was surrounded by other blacks, and I really didn’t fit in there. A lot of those kids were poor and members of dangerous street gangs. More than once I was accused of “talking white” or ostracized because I was “weird.”
Throughout those early years I assimilated as best I could, but I was too black to gel with white kids and acted too white to hang with the black ones. I didn’t fit in anywhere.
In my quest to find a fitting identity I fell in love with hip hop—specifically gangsta rap. My insecurities forced me to make the same mistake a lot of young black men make. I took the lyrics of rappers to heart and tried to live up to the idea of what I thought a black man was supposed to be. Those characteristics were pumped into every facet of American life like an IV dripping liquid cocaine straight into the bloodstreams of our nation’s impressionable youth.
My slang and lingo came from endless hours of memorizing and rapping along with the lyrics of Nas, Jay-Z, and The Notorious B.I.G. My style of dress came from movies like Belly and New Jersey Drive—from rap videos I watched on “The Basement” hosted by Big Tigger. I don’t blame rappers or anyone else for my current situation, but the circumstances leading up to my incarceration were a direct result of low self-esteem and a lack of personal identity—problems exploited by the corporate music industry.
The lifestyle they sold was alluring because it broadcast a visual of the black identity that, to me, had always been an elusive mystery. My life was dedicated to living up to those images, whether I knew it or not. My mouth watered for the champagne they spilled in the videos. I dreamed of doing donuts in a vacant parking lot behind the wheel of a black-on-black Escalade with an exotic female laughing and hanging on for dear life in the passenger seat. Those platinum-teeth-chomping, Rolex-waving, Bentley-buying thugs became my heroes. I looked up to them so much because I looked down on myself. I couldn’t see them for what they truly were: just entertainers trying to make a buck.
Relaxed values were a by-product of that admiration. I knew the difference between right and wrong, but I ignored what my mother taught me and bent my morals on a curve that met the standard of what my heroes claimed they did in their lyrics. Things like selling drugs and robbing people became acceptable. I treated women badly and played the promiscuous field because that was the cool thing to do. I created a fake persona of something I wasn’t and took it too far.
My façade landed me in prison for life.
Once incarcerated, I searched for a better way to live, a new identity. I turned to Christianity. Prison was chock full of men seeking forgiveness, change, or salvation to escape the regrets they felt for crimes they’d committed. Religion seemed the only outlet because that was what the prisons primarily supported. So I studied the Bible, and despite my misgivings about some of the content that lay within, I once again tried to push a round peg into a square hole and force myself to believe, when I really didn’t.
I convinced myself that a devil and a savior were playing tug of war with my soul, and I was no more than a pawn on the chessboard of the world. I looked down on homosexuals, cursed people of other faiths, and ignored any explanation of humanity that wasn’t sanctified. I strived to live up to the Christian identity.
But after years of literal study of the Bible and countless other religious books. I felt that I wasn’t getting the full picture of who we, as humans, truly were—that our identity was linked to a doctrine promoting blind faith instead of a provable truth. Creationism was too far fetched, and stories of Jesus too geared toward mysticism than reality.
I couldn’t believe in anything so unbelievable.
I stopped cursing a devil for my failures. I stopped giving a god credit for my triumphs. I grabbed hold of the reins and realized that I was not a pawn in someone else’s game, but that I had always been the sole controller of my actions. When confronted with a problem, I first asked myself, “Did I do something to cause this?” Sometimes the answer was no, but mostly it was yes. That meant that it was on me, and only me, to fix the problem. This led to the belief that no magical being would drop out of the sky and save humanity. I reasoned that humanity had to find a way to save itself.
I became an atheist long before I knew what humanism was.
A black-and-white perception of the world had been a hindrance my entire life. But black and white were just labels meant to categorize—meant to separate and place everything in its own neat little box; like Indian, Chinese, Muslim, Christian. I pushed away the labels and began looking at the world for what it was, a spectrum of colors that all originated from one light of individualism.
Most men in prison believed in some form of god. Because I didn’t, I became an outcast once again, but this time it was okay. I learned to embrace who I had become and focused on building the strengths that came with individuality.
Sadly, individualism is not a respected principle of religion. In fact, religion preaches the opposite: for its followers to find peace and love in an outside source instead of within. There is no greater example of this than American politics. Supporters of one political party or the other follow shepherds like mindless sheep. This folly forces the layman to accept the immoral values of another—values that he wouldn’t normally support—for the sole sake of being part of the team.
Like religion, politics pits Christians against Muslims, tells you that it isn’t okay to love who you want, and shames you into believing that they know more about what’s best for you than you know yourself.
People blindly follow the words and ambitions of preachers and politicians in the same way that I erroneously followed the words of rappers when I was an impressionable child. They too search for an identity higher than how they view themselves, but in the end, it will only lead them down the wrong path.
I say to them what I wish I could have said to my young self so many years ago: “Embrace who you are, not what someone or something says you should be.” To me, this is the ultimate purpose of humanism: a warm embrace of oneself.