On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

On Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

9780812984965Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy was published over a year ago, but the queue at my local library was incredibly long.  I didn’t get to borrow the book until last week.  Three days later, I was done — if I didn’t have parenting duties to attend to, I assume I would’ve finished within a day.  It’s a phenomenal book, one for which I would’ve been happy to skip class during my student days.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should.  To help you out, why don’t I slather this post with helpful links?

Even if you’ve read Just Mercy, maybe you’d appreciate a link directing you to the “Get Involved” page of the Equal Justice Initiative.

While reading Just Mercy, I felt teary-eyed many times … as early as page 11, when Stevenson describes his experience visiting a death row prisoner as a law student.  At the end the visit, the gruffly manhandled prisoner took great efforts to cheer Stevenson.  Many emotionally-charged scenes appear throughout the book.

One of the most powerful occurs during a judicial hearing for a wrongfully-condemned man.  Stevenson received three days in court to present the evidence that the condemned man was innocent and only a blatant miscarriage of justice had led to his conviction, being sentenced to death, and spending six years on death row.  The State’s judicial team must’ve been shocked by the preponderance of evidence of the condemned man’s innocence, and was clearly shocked by the number of supporters who came to observe the trial — there was little security on the first day, but on the second day black visitors were denied entrance to the courtroom and forced to file through a metal detector and past an intimidating police dog.

For visitors who’d suffered police abuses in the past, this was too much.  Stevenson describes consoling an elderly woman who broke:

          “Mrs. Williams, it’s all right,” I said.  “They shouldn’t have done what they did.  Please don’t worry about it.”  I put my arm around her and gave her a hug.

          “No, no, no, Attorney Stevenson.  I was meant to be in that courtroom, I was supposed to be in that courtroom.”

          “It’s okay, Mrs. Williams, it’s okay.”

          “No, sir, I was supposed to be there and I wanted to be there.  I tried, I tried, Lord knows I tried, Mr. Stevenson.  But when I saw that dog–”  She shook her head and stared away with a distant look.  “When I saw that dog, I thought about 1965, when we gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and tried to march for our voting rights.  They beat us and put those dogs on us.”  She looked back to me sadly.  “I tried to move, Attorney Stevenson, I wanted to move, but I just couldn’t do it.”

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          As she spoke it seemed like a world of sadness surrounded her.  She let go of my hand and walked away.  I watched her get into a car with some other people I had seen in the courtroom earlier.”

. . .

I arrived at the court early the next morning to make sure there were no problems.  As it turned out, very few people showed up to support the State.  And though the metal detector and the dog were still there, no deputy stood at the door to block black people from entering the courtroom.  Inside the courtroom, I noticed one of the women I’d seen leave with Mrs. Williams the night before.  She came up to me and introduced herself as Mrs. Williams’s daughter.  She thanked me for trying to console her mother.

          “When she got home last night, she was so upset.  She didn’t eat anything, she didn’t speak to anybody, she just went to her bedroom.  We could hear her praying all night long.  This morning she called the Reverend and begged him for another chance to be a community representative at the hearing.  She was up when I got out of bed, dressed and ready to come to court.  I told her she didn’t have to come, but she wouldn’t hear none of it.  She’s been through a lot and, well, on the trip down here she just kept saying over and over, ‘Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog, I can’t be scared of no dog.’

          I was apologizing again to the daughter for what the court officials had done the day before when suddenly there was a commotion at the courtroom door.  We both looked up and there stood Mrs. Williams.  She was once again dressed impeccably in her scarf and hat.  She held her handbag tight at her side and seemed to be swaying at the entrance.  I could hear her speaking to herself, repeating over and over again: “I ain’t scared of no dog, I ain’t scared of no dog.”  I watched as the officers allowed her to move forward.  She held her head up as she walked slowly through the metal detector, repeating over and over, “I ain’t scared of no dog.”  It was impossible to look away.  She made it through the detector and stared at the dog.  Then, loud enough for everyone to hear, she belted out: “I ain’t scared of no dog!”

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          She moved past the dog and walked into the courtroom.  Black folks who were already inside beamed with joy as she passed them.  She sat down near the front of the courtroom and turned to me with a broad smile and announced, “Attorney Stevenson, I’m here!”

I hope this passage helps convince you what a powerful book Just Mercy is, because it cost me a lot to include it.  I do a lot of my work in the snack lounge at the YMCA while N plays in the childcare room, and tears were dripping from my eyes while I typed this passage.  I must’ve looked ridiculous.  And yet, my suffering is small change — think what it must’ve cost Stevenson to write this.  Think what it must’ve cost Mrs. Williams to live it.

Stevenson also describes his work to enact sentencing reform for children.  Before Stevenson’s efforts, many children were condemned to die in prison, even children whose rash actions had not resulted in anyone’s death.

K & I would be fools to organize our lives the way we do if youths weren’t incredibly malleable.  The entire motivation for education is that it’s possible for people to learn and improve.  I think all people, at all ages, are capable of surpassing their past, but this should be blatantly obvious with children.

And yet, if not for the efforts of Stevenson and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative, many children would still be condemned to death in prison for mistakes made at thirteen or fourteen years of age.  Even his team’s eventual victories are bittersweet because so much suffering has occurred … and still goes on today.  From Just Mercy:

          Ian spent eighteen years in uninterrupted solitary confinement.

          Once a month, Ian was allowed to make a phone call.  Soon after he arrived in prison, on Christmas Eve in 1992, he used his call to reach out to Debbie Baigre, the woman he shot.  When she answered the phone, Ian spilled out an emotional apology, expressing his deep regret and remorse.  Ms. Baigre was stunned to hear from the boy who had shot her, but she was moved by his call.  She had physically recovered from the shooting and was working to become a successful bodybuilder and had started a magazine focused on women’s health.  She was a determined woman who didn’t let the shooting derail her from her goals.  That first surprising phone call led to a regular correspondence.  Ian had been neglected by his family before the crime took place.  He’d been left to wander the streets with little parental or family support.  In solitary, he met few prisoners or correctional staff.  As he sank deeper into despair, Debbie Baigre became on of the few people in Ian’s life who encouraged him to remain strong.

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Solitary cell at Alcatraz.  Photo by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

          After communicating with Ian for several years, Baigre wrote the court and told the judge who sentenced Ian of her conviction that his sentence was too harsh and that his conditions of confinement were inhumane.  She tried to talk to prison officials and gave interviews to the press to draw attention to Ian’s plight.  “No one knows more than I do how destructive and reckless Ian’s crime was.  But what we’re currently doing to him is mean and irresponsible,” she told one reporter.  “When this crime was committed, he was a child, a thirteen-year-old boy with a lot of problems, no supervision, and no help available.  We are not children.”

          The courts ignored Debbie Baigre’s call for a reduced sentence.

It’s hard to read something like that without wanting to reach out to somebody unfairly stuck in solitary.  If you’re near Bloomington, you could volunteer with either New Life New Leaf or the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project.  If you live elsewhere, you could look for volunteer opportunities in your area or donate to Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative.

Bryan StevensonBecause, as Stevenson describes beautifully in his book, we all have an incentive to reach out and help others.  By setting aside time to put the needs of others first, we have an opportunity to be our full selves.  In Stevenson’s words:

It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill [an intellectually disabled man with a deep stutter and a rotten childhood who shot someone during a drug deal.  The victim survived.  But then, nine or ten months later, after being abandoned by his wife, the shooting victim fell sick and died.  Which let the state charge Dill with murder and seek the death penalty, since Dill had not yet been tried for the shooting] was being killed at Holman prison.  After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important.  I don’t do it because I have no choice.

          I do what I do because I’m broken, too.

. . .

          We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.

I hope some of what I’ve written convinces you to read Just Mercy.  (Did you miss the last few links?  Here’s one more!).

I’d like to end this post by mentioning that Bryan Stevenson is an excellent candidate for inclusion in the Heroic Human Rights Workers trading card game.

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Lydia Cacho, a personal hero. Photo by Steve Rhodes on Flickr.

I’ve previously mentioned that Lydia Cacho, who has been tortured by murderous cartels for her efforts to fight sex slavery, ought to be featured on a trading card.  When I finally set aside Just Mercy for a few minutes to go jogging, I spent a while thinking about what their card game should be like.

I think the game will turn out nice.  It’ll take a year or more to put together, because I’m unfortunately working on too many other projects at the moment, but here’s a sketchy description:

Theodoor_Rombouts_-_Joueurs_de_cartesIt’ll be a cooperative game for a few human players.  There’ll be a central deck with dystopian events & circumstances drawn from our world, things like human trafficking, innocents sentenced to death, police brutality, politicians engaging in politics as usual, etc.  And the players will use decks they’ve put together (subject to certain cost restraints — if you’ve added too many pricey, powerful cards, you’ll be required to fill out your deck with zero-cost public defender cards) to save the citizens of the world.

Maybe that sounds too sledgehammer-y moralizing, but I’m fairly certain that the Ferretcraft team can take the idea and make it fun.  It’ll need trigger warnings and all, what with the bleak, scary things that would have to be included — there are, of course, bleak and scary things described in Just Mercy and Cacho’s Slavery, Inc. — but I think it’s acceptable to depict horror for good ends.

In any case, it’s very clear that the Bryan Stevenson card is one you’ll always be happy to see.

On charming sentences and sifting the OED.

For the most part, I didn’t have fun at school.  But I always enjoyed the days when we were given lists of new spelling words and told to look up their definitions and write a sentence using each.  Sure, eventually we’d have a spelling test that I would fail — I scored between zero and thirty percent on spelling tests so often that my mother was called in for a conference, which terrified me, expecting to be yelled at, but instead she burst out cackling because she’s perhaps the only person whose spelling mistakes are as idiosyncratic as my own — but that first day, with the sentence writing, was always a blast.

anne_carson_4_0I loved writing sentences that you could imagine being part of a story without going through the effort of writing all the rest.  And still do, honestly.  If I were attempting to pretend my affection was motivated by something other than an aversion to sustained effort, I would allude to Anne Carson here: her art is often fabulously fragmentary, possibly due to her background in ancient Greek literature, from which we often have only scraps and pieces of the original works.  It’s easy to imagine this quotation from her fantastic Autobiography of Red as being the sole surviving remnants of a larger work, but she included everything a reader needs:

XV. TOTAL THINGS KNOWN ABOUT GERYON

He loved lightning He lived on an island His mother was a
Nymph of a river that ran to the sea His father was a gold
Cutting tool Old scholia say that Steichoros says that
Geryon had six hands and six feet and wings He was red and
His strange red cattle excited envy Herakles came and
Killed him for his cattle

The dog too

XVI. GERYON’S END

The red world And corresponding red breezes
Went on Geryon did not

If you haven’t read that book yet, I highly recommend it — Autobiography of Red, alongside Queer and Love in the Time of Cholera, is one of my top three for the literature of unrequited love.  Carson’s work is strange, beautiful, powerful, and funny.  Most of the humorous passages in Autobiography of Red build slowly, so I don’t have a good short one to slap up here and convince you, but consider this essay from her collection Plainswater:

On Reading

Some fathers hate to read but love to take the family on trips.  Some children hate trips but love to read.  Funny how often these find themselves passengers in the same automobile.  I glimpsed the stupendous clear-cut shoulders of the Rockies from between paragraphs of Madame Bovary.  Cloud shadows roved languidly across her huge rock throat, traced her fir flanks.  Since those days, I do not look at hair on female flesh without thinking, Deciduous?

Anyway, I’d obviously stress my fondness for Carson’s work if I were attempting to claim that my love of single sentences had any other root than laziness.  But it doesn’t.  I read slowly.  I write slowly.  A single sentence … wham!  It’s over and done with so fast!

OEDSometimes I can find beautiful sentences in the OED, but this is more rare than you might expect — the editors have a clear preference for early usages, whereas I don’t much care when something was written.  But they’ve definitely included some brilliant ones.  For instance, here’s one they found Henry Swinburne’s Travels in the Two Sicilies:

Mephitic vapours and stagnated waters have converted this favourite seat of health into the den of pestilence, at least during the estival heats.

I like picturing the facial expression of a fourth-grade teacher stumbling across that sentence while grading a student’s vocabulary homework.  Although, if I’d been that teacher, I would’ve assigned the word “aestive” instead of “estival;” that’s my preferred archaic adjective for “summer.”

Which, right, I wish I’d spent more time looking at the OED back when I was in fourth grade and failing all those spelling tests.  I could’ve made so many more bratty pronouncements!  I could have explained that “correct” spelling in English is rather meaningless because the conventions have shifted so often, and the conventions are often incorrect as well — English spelling typically tracks etymology, not phonetic pronunciation, but the standardized spellings sometimes have the etymology wrong.  For instance the S in “island” was included because some monks thought the word was etymologically related to “isle,” but they were wrong.

Not that my fourth-grade teacher should have been impressed by such pronouncements.  I would’ve been trying to explain away my having included the wrong number of Rs and Ls in “squirrel.”  But I can dream.

Here are two more doozies that I learned about from the OED.  The first is from Samuel Hageman’s Once (while attempting to learn his first name, I learned that Hageman was a Brooklyn theologian who published, amongst other works, a volume titled Bird-songs translated into words):

They stopped at the door of the pawnshop… There sat the hateful abactor, skilled at agony, and dextrous in the arts of distress.

Minneteppich_KGMAnd this, from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of Bartholomaeus’s On the Property of Things (which is written like a science text, although it lists the griffin as a type of bird — modern scientists now know griffins to be mammals — and oysters as the natural enemy of the crab, whereas we all know that the sworn enemy of a crab is generally another crab):

The capon is a cocke made as it were female by keruynge away of his gendringe stones.

I suppose this sentence, with its, um, eccentric spelling, looks more like something that I would have submitted to a teacher.

And I still do peruse the dictionary regularly, writing my own definitions and using some of the more intriguing words I find in original sentences.  A recent favorite was for capnomancy, divination by smoke.  I jotted down a line of dialogue that I hope to include if I ever write an orcs-dragons-and-axe-weilding-princesses style fantasy novel: “Capnomancy my ass!  Any fool can predict doom when the whole goddamn town looks to be on fire!”

I showed this sentence to K’s & my then-housemate after returning from the library (though not immediately after — I considered it necessary to remind her of the definition for the word “obganiate” seventeen times first), at which point she asked me about the other good divination words in English.  Indeed, there are enough good ones that she promptly began a series of paintings depicting them: her favorite is alectryomancy, divination by the mealtime meandering of a rooster.

Sadly, I don’t have a scan of that piece of artwork — I only have computer files for the types of divination we included in our board game.  Luckily I do have her painting for capnomancy, as well as a beautiful joke painting she made for chresmomancy.  Perhaps “joke” isn’t the correct word, actually: jokes are usually funny.  Whereas my preferred type of humor is something that I think is funny, but clearly isn’t.  The only “joke” is that chresmomancy doesn’t actually refer to divination through the use of psychedelics, it’s divination by the ravings of a lunatic.  But I did a lot of sitting for people during college and, believe me, one could reasonably get the two confused.

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On inspirational women … and board games.

Picture 5I’ve been thinking about role models for my daughter; specifically, one day last June I found myself wondering whether anybody is selling good inspirational posters of strong, intelligent women that’d look cool hung up in a bedroom.  One of the first poster-types I started searching the internet for was “Hedy Lamarr, Inventor.”  A poster of her with diagrams from her patent applications would look cool, I thought.  Well, I suppose I still think so.  But the idea that it’d look great is part of the problem.

The impression I got from reading Richard Rhodes’s Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World was that her inventions probably would not be as celebrated if not for the way she looks.  Indeed, as she aged, it seems she became increasingly reclusive, so making a poster of her as an inventor, i.e. further celebrating her appearance, even though it was my first reflex, seems like a bad idea.  But the invention itself was cute — maybe not “the” precursor to contemporary wireless technologies, as you might’ve heard on NPR, but still clever — the idea that a pair of communicating objects (in her case, submarine and torpedo) could plan out a pattern of frequencies to communicate over and then conduct a conversation while seamlessly rotating through them, akin to using matching player piano roll on each end to cycle through the frequencies in a seemingly random way.

Photograph_phillips-elizabeth-magie-1936Luckily, Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game taught me about another woman who’d be a good fit for a series of inspirational feminist posters.  Pilon also wrote a nice article for the New York Times (the Sunday business section, oddly enough) wherein she presented Elizabeth Magie’s story, which to me was the most interesting part of Pilon’s book.  Which I suppose reveals foolish aspects of my own personality, the idea that I’d be excited while reading about Magie inventing a board game, but disinterested in the story of how a handful of (other) people became rich marketing it.

And, yes, the story of Ralph Anspach’s legal travails is interesting (he invented the game Anti-Monopoly, where players earn points for trust busting, then was sued by Parker Brothers, then uncovered the early history of Monopoly as part of his legal defense), but the main thing I learned from his story was that a marriage can easily dissolve if you focus too steadfastly on some outside thing.  Anspach won his case but lost a lot of his life.  Note to self: remember to be good husband / father / friend even while focused on writing.

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Art by the magnificent J.Dragon of Waffles in Flight.

But, right!  Happier topics!  In this case, Magie as an inspirational figure.  First off, obviously I like that she’s an artist who also happened to make a board game.  Not sure if I’ve mentioned this in a previous essay, but during a rare spell of free time last summer my brother, a close friend and I made a board game; unfortunately I then got busy again and haven’t had a chance to contact publishers about it yet, but you can see our WordPress site here.

So, sure, I’m prejudiced toward liking Magie, but, still: she sounds like a very cool lady.  And the game she made was both fun and educational (unlike ours, wherein players just battle using woodland creature avatars).  And she printed a classified ad touting herself as a high quality female slave, protesting the position of women in our society (this was in the early 1900s; luckily, women are treated better now than they were back then, even if we still have a long way to go).  Despite patenting her game, she never saw any of the profit from it.

But, thank you Pilon, for giving Magie some of the credit and exposure that she deserves.