Sunday, September 6, 2015

Words change us, save us: give books to our young people!

  "A book of black poetry slides under a cell door in solitary confinement. And it changes everything." Sasha Bronner, Huffington Post, September 2, 2015

Bronner's article is an inspiring account of the power of words to change lives, whether encountered in a traditional classroom or in a jail cell.  

Imprisoned at sixteen after perpetrating a carjacking in Virginia, sixteen year old Reginald Dwayne Betts sought to rise above his circumstances by drawing on the most powerful tool he could get his hands on--books.  Betts read novelists such as James Baldwin and Ernest Gaines, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens; he read philosophers Frantz Fanon and Max Weber, and poets including Etheridge Knight, Amiri Baraka and Lucille Clifton.

It was Betts' introduction to Dudley Randall's anthology, The Black Poets, that first convinced Betts that he wanted to be a poet. “...I had never thought about poetry as a way to communicate. I never thought about it as a way to talk about things other than love,” Betts said. He published two poems while he was in prison, followed by his first book, Rashid Reads His Own Palm, an eponymous reference to the Islamic name he adopted while in prison. .

A new book of his poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way) will be released later this month. In these poems, Betts reflects on Black men who were displaced in the community during the 1980's by the devastating invasion of crack cocaine, increased imprisonment and death:  “the sound that comes from all / the hurt & want that leads a man to turn his back to the world.” The title, Betts says, “captures all that was lost and all that disintegrated in the chaos of drug laws and violence in the 1980s.”

After leaving prison, Betts earned his undergraduate degree and an MFA degree  He is currently completing his law degree at Yale University. 

Through his writing and his legal training, Betts is concerned with making an intervention for Black boys and men whose futures are still at risk as a result of failed social policies of the past.

Read Sasah Bronner's full story, "Yes, One Book Can Change Your Life, Even In Prison," at