Searching for Ubuntu

Tag: mutuality

Looking Into George Stinney’s Eyes…

by Ryan Dalton

Dear John,

I was delighted to receive your letter. It indeed found me in the most well of well places, thank you; right smack-dab in the middle of Spring Break, well-rested, well-fed, relaxed. Give that sweet little Callie a big squeeze from me. I can’t believe how she is growing! Her birthdays are relentless, with another one coming up this week. Time has surely sped up; when I was in elementary school, an hour seemed to drag on and feel the length of a week, but now a week feels like a minute. Nevertheless…

Though I expected no less, I am thrilled to hear that you are enjoying your work with EJI! I can, however, only imagine how frustrating it must be to daily grapple with, and fight against, the all-too-rife injustices found within our American “justice” system. But as you know, your work is most definitely not in vain.

Speaking of your work, thanks again for the EJI calendar. It hangs on my wall as an, often disturbing yet, important reminder of where we have come from as a nation, alluding to why we find ourselves in many of the circumstances in which we currently live. As hard as some may try, we cannot separate ourselves from that terrible history, though we can battle to ensure that it does not carry on, or repeat itself; it is shocking that some individuals are still so resistant to allow that pertinent battle to ensue. Mama Maya Angelou said it better when she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” though I am not sure we always display the courage and resolve needed to guarantee that it not be lived again.

george stinney cal

This month, for its duration, George Stinney’s unfaltering gaze is watching everything I do. I often make uncomfortable eye contact with him, which, several times, has ended in a blur of tears on my part. Face on, his eyes are brave yet tired, strong yet surrendered, innocent yet tricked, tough yet sad, childlike yet forced to grow too soon…defeated. It is only in the profile shot that his eyes begin to reveal fear, insecurity, anxiety, concern, unease. He was only fourteen-years-old, the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century. I read somewhere that his “confession” was coerced with the bribery of ice cream, that he was innocent of the crime he was forced to accept the guilt of, that he was deeply loved by his family who—before his one-day trial—were run out of town with the threat of them all being lynched, that he was so small they had to stack dictionaries on the seat of the electric chair for him to sit on, in order for his head to reach the head-piece, so he, a small child, could be electrocuted to death—barbaric, tragic, inconceivable, unjust, tormenting. And now, we boast in being so far-removed from atrocities like this, yet it happened only 69 years ago; our grandparents were alive at that time, our parents not far from being born. We boast in advancements, yet, as you mentioned in your letter, we continue to be the only “developed country” that sentences children to life with no parole, a mere small step up from execution; not to mention the systemic racism that continues to contribute to which children are sentenced.

Anyway, our youth, such as Trayvon Martin and Kimani Gray, are still being executed; the venue has merely moved to the streets, and the unfair trials are even shorter and more nonexistent than they were in the past.

I know privilege is blinding, but I do not see how so many people fail to see the connection between the injustices of the past and the injustices that plague our communities today—unless, of course, they are conveniently not making any attempts to see the connection. Dr. King understood that connection on the deepest of levels, and, in the end of the Civil Rights Movement, he immediately transformed his work and energy into fighting the history-created ills of the ghettos of Chicago, for he knew the struggle was far from over when segregation was abolished; that the toughest struggle had only begun. I wish he would have been spared to live, and fight, and die of old age. Having seen the 45th anniversary of his assassination pass by last week, it is fitting, for a number of reasons, that you chose to refer to that particular quote of his:

“[A]ll mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”

This inescapable mutuality Dr. King speaks of is the heart and soul of humanity, and the purest definition of Ubuntu. It is astonishing to see how some of us put forth such elaborate efforts in trying to escape that inescapable reality, never actually escaping, but sometimes convincing ourselves we have escaped, if only in the gated communities of our minds. I think you are right that the individualistic nature of our societal constructs poses a threat to mutuality, evolving into other community misfortunes and social ills. Selfishness tears down anything Ubuntu wishes to build up, and as I mentioned in my letter to Chris, we use fear to rationalize and justify our egocentric life choices and stances.

Ubuntu recognizes the I in you, and the you in I—maybe, because we are so focused on our selves, a starting point would be to ask each other to simply look for our individual likenesses in others, hoping our self-awareness is at a level that we would  actually recognize ourself when we see it. I don’t know. I just want the best for us—for us all.

Let me end this letter here. Give all my love to Darcy and Callie. I will certainly pass your greetings to Dayde and Kyle; they are doing well and continue to bring youthfulness, joy, community, and conversation to my life. It seems Spring has finally sprung up here, and I hope it is here to stay. I am enjoying the longer days and the warmth it has already brought. I hope you are too.

Love and warmth from Brooklyn,

Ryan

An Inescapable Network of Mutuality

by jwdalton

Dear Ryan,

I hope this letter finds you well and that you are enjoying a peaceful and relaxing spring break in Brooklyn.  You certainly deserve one.  Things are good here in Montgomery.  It’s unseasonably cold down here, but the flowers are beginning to bloom and small green buds are beginning to appear on trees.  Darcy is doing great and Callie is growing every day.  You wouldn’t believe all the new words and phrases that she says daily.  She is very excited about becoming a big sister.  I look forward to Callie and Tessa getting to spend some quality time with their Uncle Brown sometime in the near future.

Work is going good as well.  I still love my job with the Equal Justice Initiative.  I couldn’t imagine doing a job that brings me greater satisfaction than my current one.  Though I have to say, as I deal with the criminal justice system more and more, I try to determine what the root of the problem is.  Why does this country have such a love affair with mass incarceration?  Why are we among the world’s leaders in putting people to death? Why are we the only country that throws our children who commit crimes into prison for the rest of their lives with no chance of life outside of prison?  As I have thought about these issues, I often come back to the lack of community in our society.

I have found that it is much easier to treat strangers a way that you would never treat a loved one. If you have a loved one who is struggling with drug addiction, you try to help them through the problem and, in some instances, even stage an intervention to help get them into rehab and on the road to recovery.  Or when you are raising your children, you teach them that everyone makes mistakes – in fact, I remember Big Bird driving home this point on Sesame Street when I was younger.  I even remember Grandmom telling me (over and over) “no matter who you are when you grow up, or what you do with your life, even if you were to do something like commit a murder, I will always love you.”  That love is such a powerful thing.  Typing that memory brings tears to my eyes; just knowing that someone loved me through and through.

But we don’t treat strangers with nearly the same compassion as we treat our loved ones. In this country, if you have a drug addition, we don’t provide treatment for you.  Instead, we throw you in prison – the “War on Drugs” has vastly increased our prison population to never before seen numbers.  And if you are a child in this country and you succumb to peer pressure or do something impulsive and irresponsible (as fourteen year olds often do), then we can throw you in prison for the rest your life without giving you any opportunity to show that you are reformed, or that you deserve a second chance.  And in this country, we have no problem with the State ending the life of a human being – a permanent, devastating punishment that is unique in its finality and cruelty – despite the fact that one in nine individuals who are sentenced to this ultimate punishment are later exonerated.

I think the universal thread that runs through all of these issues is that people are comfortable with the actions being taken by our society as a whole, because they are being taken against nameless, faceless individuals.  Our society is self-centered – people often take the approach that if it doesn’t affect me and my friends and family, then why do anything. They don’t seem to see that the actions being taken against these individuals directly affect them.  Sometimes I feel that if we could foster a greater sense of Ubuntu in our society, maybe people would realize how these policies affect them:  How mass incarceration is damaging to the society, breaks up families, and causes destruction.  How throwing children away to die in prison illustrates our lack of humanity.  How allowing the state to end the life of another human being is a cruel and medieval practice that provides us with nothing but hate and vengeance in our hearts.

As I write this, I am reminded of the words of Dr. King:

[A]ll mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.

But how can we get this individualistic society that we live in to realize this truth?  How can we foster Ubuntu in a society so based in individual identity?  How can we make people realize that what is best for them is what is best for all, rather than what is best for one?  Sometimes it feels hopeless, but I know that we must maintain hope and I will wait for the words of encouragement that I hope and trust you will be able to provide.

Please write and let me know how things are in Brooklyn.  Give Dayde and Kyle high fives from me.  I hope they are doing well and I know they are lucky to have you in their lives.

All my best,

John