Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Table

By Kenneth M. Key

Recently I watched a program on the Public Broadcast Station about how families from the 50’s and up until the mid-70’s would sit at the table in their homes, or parks or restaurants.

Time spent around the table was the most important part of the day, when problems were hashed out, deals made, information passed and the politics of the day discussed.

A place where friends or family gathered to discuss issues of life.  I remember sitting at my mother´s table; she was big on all of us eating that one meal together in the evening where she would inquire about our day activities, give out assignments and sometimes punishment.

Some evenings, relatives or friends would come by.  They would eat, drink and discuss the plight of Black Folk, where the next protest would be and why it was important their voices be heard. Pooling resources to confront and convert the racism they faced day to day in the stores, on the job or simply navigating the streets of Chicago.  Yeah! Black lives truly mattered then.

Those days are long gone.  Now when people sit at the table, the conversations have been replaced with cell phones, text messaging, e-mails and snap chat and twitter.

Time at the table now is so impersonal and device-driven. Reminiscing bygone gatherings at the table it hit me! Entering the dining hall later in the day, I realized that the tradition of the table was still alive.  We bring the tradition of the table with us.

Here we were in this massive dining hall, where men sit six to a table, segregated by their own choice.  Elder prisoners hold an automatic gathering, and the youth unknowingly are taking part in a tradition of old.

There are tables reserved for gangs, where conflicts are hashed out, fines imposed and future assignments communicated, small messages relayed and issues of commerce settled.

At some tables reality TV fans meet to discuss “Big Brother” and “Love and Hip Hop.” Discussions based on who knows the most, by living vicariously through the segment as if they know these people personally. Info-foolery, Info-tainment at its best.

At the news table, current events are conversed about, both local and national.  There´s the soap opera, and cooking show table and the list goes on.

There are tables where men simply eat.  Coming out from their self-entombment but still lifeless, the living dead.  Oblivious to all that´s going on around them, they are simply there to eat and return to their tombs.

My son and I often sit at the same table, along with four other men. Conversations are usually about the law, the effects of mass incarceration and the Law of God, and news that will have an effect on the time we are serving.

There are no discussions about “Love and Hip-Hop” or what has happened on “Big Brother” or “Suits” at the table, not even occasionally.

We discuss what can be done to better equip ourselves while in prison, our redemptive struggle and strategies for dealing with courts or navigating around the gang element.

The tradition of the table is alive and well, where we pool resources, share sources of information, free books and so on.  Each day for those twenty minutes we are allowed to sit and discuss whatever the topic may be.

It´s my hope that each time we are at the table we may impart something useful, something worth sharing with others, whether dealing with issues surrounding children growing up without fathers, relationship issues, or staying balanced.

We discuss the reason for unity and brotherhood, why service is so important, and who the real enemy is.  The real problem being ourselves, our egos, and the Institutions of racism, oppression, subjugation and divisiveness that plague us.

How we convey this information to others at their individual tables can cause a ripple effect of change.

We only have 15-20 minutes to consume our food, and have a discussion – some of which we continue on the yard at the tables of the gym.  There we will have a few hours to refine arguments of positions, invite others to sit and commit to the various struggles we endeavor to get involved in.

With so many agent provocateurs, one has to be careful what is being discussed at the larger table. Why? Because with the prisoncrat’s internal division, you could be placed in segregation whether you were attempting to boycott something or provide gloves for the elderly.

The table is powerful, and yet it can be as harmful as it is useful.  The most enjoyable times are just spent sitting, sharing a bit of good news about family, building real relationships and sharing moments from our past, showing our humanity and empathy, and our compassion for one another.

The table can be heated and contentious when there are two opposing views.  Some conversations have gone to levels of disrespect, but are quickly calmed back down among fellow convicts, showing the mutual level of respect at the table.

The biggest crisis is the death of a loved one. No words can convey what you want to express to your brother in his time of loss, but you want to let him know you are there, if he needs to talk.

The death of a loved one creates a different type of conversation and mood at the table. Prisoncrat has no compassion, so some guys don´t learn about the death of their loved one until weeks later through a counselor or chaplain whose choice is often to remove you from your cell and place you in a strip cell for 24 hours.  But the table is the balm for everything that ails you, whatever is on your mind or you simply need some feedback on!  The Table is a powerful place that has helped me through many situations over my thirty-four years of incarceration.

So, here´s to the table, to all the families, the friends, he relatives, that have partaken in the table and continue to do so.

Blessings to all that take the time out and sit and have conversations about the topics of life that matter.  And if you’ve never sat at the table, why not invite some friends over, put the devices away, share a meal and have a conversation.

Kenneth M. Key A-70562
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Shalom, my name is Kenneth M. Key 58 years old and inmate of Stateville Correctional Center in Illinios, serving life without the possibility of parole.  I’ve been incarcerated over 34 years.  Who am I?  I’m someone’s son, little brother and father.  As I write this, my own son is six cells down below me.  He is also serving life.  I am an artist and I also write on I’m a jailhouse lawyer.  I have three years of college and a diploma in Personal Psychological Development. I pray that my work provokes thought, conversation, healing and forgiveness. Kenneth's artwork can be viewed here.


Ken said...

Great viewpoints, Kenneth. It's nice to see some that still believe in the traditional values. I try to gather my family at the table several times a week. It is a place of no phones, no electronics, no distractions. A place to talk, discuss the day, see how my son is doing in school and to have some family time. I think the thoughts you outline here are very provoking and empowering. You made some great points and I think it will cause everyone to stop, take pause, and reflect. Perhaps everyone should sit at the 'table' every day, it keeps life fresh and removes the tedious distractions of today's electronic world.

Until next time, Be well - Ken

PS: Great name btw.

Alex, Sara &Co said...

Hi Kenneth,
Best regards from France. Today is the first of our winter holidays, and as all my 4 children came back from wherever they are studying, to share lunch with us, I insisted on reading out loud your article over the apple pie dessert. As it turns out to be, the table tradition is still alive in my country, where culinary arts AND the ritual of meal-sharing remain to this day major social institutions. In addition, my husband and I made a purposeful choice 10 years ago, of getting rid of our TV set: we had come to realize that one can hardly have time, after a full day’s work, to both watch whatever crap TV displays AND actually have quality time as a family, share news of the day or have more in-depth discussions, read for ourselves or share the wonderful ritual of bed time reading with the youngest ones. So yeah, even though our situations, backgrounds and personal histories are very different, I can relate very well to what you describe in your article. Only the fact of the position your are in, brings additional perspective to it: it hints at common parents’ concerns, shared humanity and dignity, and at the redemptive quality that each of us possesses.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts,
Sara and fam.