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By Terrell Carter
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. As children our psyches have been stamped with the patriarchal idea of Eve being the progenitor of sin. Because of this, every time something goes wrong we look for someone to blame-it was Eve’s fault that humankind was kicked out of paradise. This has created in us laziness as we seek simplistic answers to life's complexities. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Hopefully as you travel out of the loving arms of a West Philly home and into the cold , hard embrace of penitentiary walls you'll began to understand the choices we make--not unlike Eve's choice--are a bit more complicated than human beings simply exercising their free will to do the wrong thing.
My early life is best described in two different stages: the first stage from birth up until the age of twelve was not filled with stories of an absent father, drug addicted mother, abject poverty, and stomach rumbling hunger. I didn't have to take care of my younger siblings while my mother lost herself in a week long crack binge. My early life was the exact opposite of these things. Although my mother and father were separated, my father, who was a drug counsellor, was a steady and positive influence in my life. My mother's husband, my stepfather, was a high school teacher and both he and my father tried to guide me, save me from myself. My mother, who was a first generation college graduate, tried to show me through the example of her life that I could achieve whatever I wanted out of life. I grew up in a home that was full of love and positive influences. My only worries at the time were the pursuit of childhood ambitions: how to acquire Hot Wheel cars, stuffing my belly with as much junk food as I could, and how to avoid homework. So coming out of an environment where most of my friends did not have the advantages that I had, how could my life end up with me being condemned to die in prison and theirs didn’t? Maybe it was because of who I was.--a youth unafraid to take risks, who was ripe for the right circumstances to arise that would push me head first into a bottomless pit of pain and misery. So even with all the love and support that I had it still wasn't enough to help me resist the bright lights of these mean Philadelphia streets. It's not that I was a weakling who jumped at the first opportunity to take the easy way out. That wasn't it at all; it was just that by the time I was old enough to succumb to these negative influences I had already undergone years of conditioning.
As far back as my memories go I can remember being taught through ridicule by those around me, and through the images I saw, that my very dark skin, my blackness, was a curse, a bad thing, evil, ugly. The very first thing that gave me a sense of self shamed me at the same time. This assault on my being had a devastating impact. So although I had a loving family, and did all the things that normal children do, by the time I was five my self-esteem was virtually destroyed. This self-hatred was like fuel leaking from my soul, leaving a trail behind me as I travelled the road of my life.
The next stage of my life, from twelve to twenty-two, started with a gun in my face. I was robbed for the jacket I wore, and that incident ignited the fuel that trailed behind me engulfing me in flames of self-destruction. Not only did I lose my jacket--I lost my freedom. No longer could I just be a boy who did boyish things. As I lay on my back blinking back the tears, I took myself to trial, found myself guilty of weakness and fear and sentenced myself to a life of thuggery. Never would I be a victim again, I would be the victimizer. I became not what I wanted to be, but what forces outside myself determined: a slave of negative circumstances.
So there I was, a boy still, who at sixteen would become a father, but knew nothing about what fatherhood entailed, but I loved my daughter and would do anything for her. You would think that the birth of my first and only child and the love of my parents could pull me out of the hole that I had fallen into. But as my present situation bears witness, neither of these circumstances did. Instead I had become a student of my environment and the streets taught me well. I paid rapt attention as society taught me how to hide my vulnerabilities behind things that sparkled, and that I could cloak my life-long shame underneath expensive clothing with European names stitched in the labels. The problem was, I was a child--impulsive, impatient, and like most children, lacked the capacity to understand risk. Yeah, I could have gotten a job like most young people who existed in the same environment and who suffered from the same conditions. But that gun sticking in my face as a twelve year old taught me a valuable lesson: sheep trapped in a den with hungry wolves get eaten alive. As a twelve-year-old I tried the job thing. I worked hard packing bags at the local supermarket to get enough money to buy that jacket only to have someone take it from me. I was that sheep who had just been bitten by a wolf. So as I lay on my back making that promise to myself. I didn't realize that I was locking myself in that den (the streets) and the only way for me to survive was to cover myself in a wolf's clothes and grow some sharp teeth.
I learned real quick that the wolves' den was no place for feelings of inferiority and inadequacies, because this wolf pack fed on one another's weaknesses. So I watched the other wolves and it wasn't long before I discovered that they were just like me-- sheep in wolves' clothing. Young boys who could've been anything, but because of feelings of inferiority, inadequacies, and fear, believed that the only way to live life was to be wolves and feast off the flesh of sheep. But I still had to protect myself from the other wolves who seemed as if, although I was covered in the clothing of a wolf, they could still detect the scent of sheep as if it was seeping through my pores. But how did they do it? How did they avoid being cannibalized? After all, we were all masquerading as wolves trying to mask the scent of sheep. So I watched them closely and it wasn't long before I discovered their secret. In order to hide their insecurities, their fears, their weaknesses, they would drink this magic potion that came in the guise of alcohol and codeine laced cough syrup. All of a sudden the scent of sheep would magically dissipate, replaced by a false sense of confidence that I could only dream of. I had to have it, and it wasn't long before this magic potion was warming my throat. All of a sudden, I had no fears, I felt inferior to no one, and it felt as if I had the power to do anything I wanted. The problem with this was that the magic lasted only for brief periods, hours at the most, and while under its influence, the filter that all human beings have that regulates their behaviour was gone. The magic potion rendered me completely uninhibited, and nothing became off limits. The feeling was good and it helped me survive the Wolves' Den. The feel good and how to maintain it became a part of me. So every chance I got the magic potion was filling me up and before you knew it I was hooked. I was trapped, as long as I masqueraded in wolves' clothes, intoxicated with a magic potion, baring sharp teeth I would forever be stuck in that den.
So from my early teens to my early twenties I stayed fly, I stayed high, and as long as jewels rested against my dark flesh and continued to shine, the blackness that had been hounding me my entire life would be kept at bay.
But all these things came at a terrible price--my life. By the time I was twenty-two I had a world view shaped as a child by a gun sticking in my face, and a destroyed sense of self. Considering these circumstances and as a child how I responded to them, there should be no surprise that on the highway of life I would switch lanes and end up on the express lane to the penitentiary.
Since I've been in prison I've grown to hate the month of May. Usually that's the time of year when the weather starts to break, when Mother Nature really lets her hair down. It's the time when I feel homesickness most acutely. The sun always seems to shine the brightest in this month and as it warms my skin I'm reminded of some of the things that I miss about home. The greens of the trees, the bright yellows and reds of flowers, young men leaning hard in late model cars, windows and sun roofs open, convertible tops down, with booming drum beats blasting from state of the art stereo systems as they cruise slowly up and down city blocks. All of them competing for the attention of young women, who just on the strength of a feminine finesse turn these same city streets into super model catwalks without even trying as they simply go about their daily business. Every year in the month of May all of these things invade my dreams and haunt my waking hours. All the while I'm stuck behind this monstrous wall separated from everything and everyone I love. For me it's the most depressing time to be in the penitentiary. Recently though, I've realized that the reason why I hate this month has little to do with what I just described. The reason why May has become my least favorite time of year is because that was the month in 1991 that my life would tragically change forever,
I was twenty-two years old at the time still dealing with issues of not liking who I was, and drug addiction. I was still running with the wolves, by now a veteran of Wolf Den politics. On top of all these inner demons, I was struggling with issues of infidelity and betrayal. The only coping mechanism that I had was a familiar one- -that good ole magic potion.
On this one particular night after taking at least ten, ten milligrams of Valium, and washing the pills down with a 400 z of Malt liquor, I became lost in the delirium of a drug induced haze. I was so high after about fifteen minutes of taking these pills I can't recall anything that happened after that. It wasn't until the next day that I began to hear what happened. My initial feelings were of disbelief. I actually believed that someone was trying to set me up. Even to this day, twenty-four years later, these feelings of disbelief still plague me. When I stepped out the house on that first weekend of May I'll never forget that night, it was on a Saturday, the night before Mother's Day. My intentions when I left the house were to get away from the problems I was having at home, and to just hang out with my homies. But a typical night out with the fellas was not in the cards for me. After that night I struggled for days in total disbelief, I kept telling myself that what I was hearing were just rumors. My life had devolved into a wakeful nightmare. Imagine waking up one morning after a night out with friends only to find out that you were involved in someone's death that you have no memory of.
I was twenty-four when I was arrested, tried and convicted of second degree murder and shipped off to the penitentiary. At the time I couldn't really understand my circumstances. I had been condemned to die in prison, but my mind just didn't have the capacity to fully understand what that meant. I was delusional; I actually believed that I would be home after a few years. As a result of this I found myself trapped in a culture of incarceration. My days consisted of sports, working out, and recalling days spent running the streets. I spent at least eight years in this state. Throughout these years, in the deep recesses of my consciousness, a nagging question of "why?” plagued me. Little by little this question whittled away at the distraction of my incarcerated existence clearing the way for me to search for the answers.
Why did my life turn out as it did? This question was like a ghost that haunted the edges of my consciousness. After a while though, I was able to exorcise this ghost, freeing myself to discover why. But it wouldn't be easy, for the answer to this question was as elusive as the cure to the common cold. Had it not been for a few older men, who took the time to provide me with the means to find out about the hows and whys in my life, the man that I am today would not exist. I was told that in order for me to discover the answers I would have to first discover who Terrell was. Because in figuring that out my weaknesses would be laid bare. This would then allow me to figure out how my life turned out as it did. So, after years of self-reflection I began to know the hardest person in the world to know--myself. I discovered that I love to learn, that I have no limits on the things that I want to know. I discovered that I love the truth and will tell it as I see it even if it's hurtful. I discovered that I'm a man who loves life and people no matter what the cultural difference, but at the same time I hate how people can be so cruel to one another. I'm a spiritual man, in the sense that I recognize that all living things are connected and this connection guides me in how I relate to the world. I found out that I'm a man who despises injustices and that I'm passionate about fairness and equality. I discovered that I'm loyal, I value family and friendships, I'm funny in a serious sort of way, I'm honest, trustworthy, and I'm open to new things and critiques. I've discovered that I'm a kind and generous man who's always looking to do the right thing. Lastly, I've learned that I'm a man who's always seeking to contribute to the well-being of everyone I establish relationships with.
All of these characteristics that I've just described have armed me with the only weapon that I could use in the battle for myself, the only weapon in the world that could eradicate the self-hate that had corrupted my being for my entire life: the love of self. Armed with this self-love, I could then finally begin the transformation process, which has allowed me to discard those wolf's clothes so that I can be who I was meant to be.
After a long and difficult journey of self-analysis that has allowed me to know and love myself, I no longer have to look outside of myself to feel good about who I am. I no longer need artificial stimulants to pump me full of false confidence. Now I realize that all I ever needed resides within me, and it has always been there. I've grown to love everything about myself and at the same time I've grown to know that I'm not perfect. So my journey continues as I recognize that one of the things life is about is being aware of your faults and overcoming them. So everyday this is my task, making the good about myself better and eliminating what's not.
One of the things that I've learned about my transformation process is that it's ongoing. You see, I made the mistake of believing that I had arrived, that my transformation was complete. But hidden deep within feelings of being mistreated by the criminal justice system was an attitude of entitlement. This feeling was like a shackle that kept me chained to that wolves den - You see, I was so caught up in my own feelings of how I was treated that I neglected to consider all the pain that I had caused. It was all about me, and whenever I spoke I came off as if I was entitled to something, almost as if I was a freedom rider in the South, fighting for equal rights. I couldn't see that the difference between those sheroes and heroes and myself was the fact that they did nothing wrong. I was blinded by my own selfishness. It wasn't until a good friend of mine, Ghani, said to me. "Terrell, imagine yourself standing before a panel of judges and the only thing standing between you and your freedom is what you say to them. Right before you begin to speak an elderly woman stands up and says, “But you killed my son." What would you say?"
When Ghani posed this question to me I was stuck, lost in a wordless bubble. All of a sudden, as heavy as the penitentiary walls that surround me, the weight of what I was in prison for came crashing down upon me. I stuttered for a moment before replying, "I'm sorry." Which was the only thing I could think of to say. Ghani slowly nodded his head and said, "That’s the only thing you can say." He smiled at me then because he knew that at that point I finally understood. I finally understood that it wasn't all about me. At that moment I finally acknowledged the pain that I caused, and this realization was the key to unlocking that shackle that allowed me to be fully free of the den. Moving forward I will always be mindful of the hurt I caused and this awareness is what drives me now. It is the thing that fuels my desire to be free of the walls that confine me so that I can make amends, to give back as much as I can to the community that I took so much from.
|Terrell Carter BZ5904|
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426