Paths not taken
Author Joshilyn Jackson ponders privilege, second chances and racial identity.
The first person I see at the maximum security women’s prison is the sergeant. I take off my shoes and hand over my clear plastic backpack full of books and student papers and the kinds of pens that don’t have a spring mechanism. The sergeant runs them through the X-ray machine while I step through the metal detector.
I arrive at the same time as volunteer Wende Ballew, executive director of Reforming Arts,and this is a relief. I don’t like this next part. We go out the door behind the sergeant into a narrow courtyard, bisected by an unapologetic metal cage. It is small and square, and the bars are thick. It looks like something from a 1950s zoo.
An unseen human hand presses a button, and the cage door buzzes. We open it and go inside. There is an identical door on the other side. It is locked, and it stays locked until the first door clangs shut behind us. It only takes two or three seconds for us to cross the cage, and then, to my relief, the second door buzzes and lets us both out of the cage and into prison. It’s like an airlock system, meant to let people cross securely from one environment to another. Those seconds in the cage are how I know, every week, that I am leaving the world.
Before we enter the classroom building, we come to a pair of padlocked gates on either side of a field of asphalt. We wait at the first one, hoping it won’t be too long before a staff member or an officer passes by to let us through.
We stand in the sunshine, idly chatting. On the hill far above us, I see a group of women whose khaki uniforms have blue stripes running down their legs. They are on the other side of a tall fence, separate from our facility. They trot in regimented rows, perfectly in step, and I can hear the faint sound of them singing. It’s a military cadence I recognize from growing up on army bases.
“Who are they?” I ask Wende.
“They are in the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program,” she says. “If you are up on drug charges, the judge has the option to sentence you to RSAT instead of prison. It is a second chance that focuses on treatment rather than punishment. Women who successfully complete it are released.”
“That’s awesome,” I say. It’s what I want. For prison to be more about salvage, less about warehousing. More rehabilitation, less purely punitive.
“Yeah, but look at those women. Tell me what you see.”
I watch for a bit. It takes me a while, so long that in retrospect I am ashamed. The rows are fairly uniform, made up of pink and cream and pale olive faces. Faces like mine. I see a couple of darker faces, but they are very few. The women in rehab are overwhelmingly white.
The prison doesn’t decide who gets RSAT. That group is assembled by hundreds of individual decisions made by judges of all colors and sexes and ages and political affiliations across the state, case by case. It’s systemic.
A counsellor arrives with a key, and we go through the last airlock to the classroom. Head count is over, and our students arrive. Unlike RSAT, this is a diverse group; the administration here allows any student who signs up and qualifies to participate in educational programs. This semester my class ranges in age from very early 20s to late 60s, about 60 percent black, 40 percent white, with two Latinas. Today a woman I will call Angie (names have been changed to protect the privacy of those incarcerated), a tall woman with ash blonde hair and wide set eyes, is wearing a spectacular silvery sun hat. It has a wide, floppy brim and is festooned with orange flowers. It looks out of place, cheery and arresting in this sea of khaki scrubs.
“We made you a present,” Angie tells me.
She passes me the hat. It looks so good that I have it in my hands before I realize it is made of plastic cling wrap, colored paper and the kind of twist ties that close up bread loaf packages. It is beautiful, cleverly and carefully constructed. I grin and blush, ridiculously pleased, and put it on.
Angie is here because she was involved in the death of her husband. I have gathered that it was a dangerous marriage, the kind where both parties rarely get out alive. I know this because Angie is a lifer; I have had her in four classes now. Because I teach creative writing, her history has leaked into essays and poems and papers.
The more classes a student takes with me, the more likely I am to know. A couple of my students are in for drugs, one for embezzling. Shayla drove her boyfriend to a store and then sat outside in the car while he robbed it. He killed people in the process. She was 15, and she didn’t go inside, but she was tried as an adult. My own daughter is 15, so I know what 15 looks like, and here is Shayla — bright, funny, mercurial, pretty — and she could be here until she is nearly my age. She is still so young; the warm, brown skin around her eyes has that unlined, baby plumpness to it. She breaks my heart.
I have learned that, on the whole, I prefer not to know what brought these women to my classroom. Maybe they like that, too. One of their greatest, shared fears, my longtime student Jasmine tells me, is that they will be released, and people will look at them and see a crime. She doesn’t want to be the living embodiment of an old, bad choice — a choice that prison is supposed to pay for. She wants to be the person she is now.
The person Jasmine is now, the one I know, is enrolled in Life University, has a 4.0, speaks up for her fellow prisoners and has a wicked, whip-smart sense of humor.
“Everybody have their rough drafts?” I ask. Standing inside my pale skin, shaded by my beautiful hat, I feel gratitude and pride in them, and also an odd, disconcerted shame, because while I may not know why all my students are here, I know why I am here.
I am here because of the night I didn’t get arrested, the day my grandmother danced in a wig, a drug deal in a Waffle House, and an epiphany in a downtown Atlanta Sears department store. I am here because of history, my own, and that of this troubled South I love so deeply. I am here because I am a product of all its pieces.
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images
5 pretty white girls
My path to prison begins the summer I am 19 years old, out with friends from high school. We all have long hair and short shorts, rolling around Pensacola, Florida, at 2 a.m. in the middle of the summer. None of us is old enough to drink, but we have all been drinking anyway. We are also very, very stoned.
It is my brilliant idea to play hide-and-seek in the upscale outdoor mall near my parents’ neighborhood. We leave Tate’s car by a couple of others in a back lot and disperse, while Melissa hides her eyes and counts. I know this place well, so I go to a tree by the ice cream parlor, shimmy up it, and jump to the roof. I lie flat and stare up at the stars, cackling to myself.
I lose track of time, feeling that I am falling upward into that star-sprinkled sky, my friends and the game forgotten, until I hear Melissa calling, “Olly Olly In Come Free,” in a quavering voice. I scoot to the edge of the roof and look down into the parking lot to see her standing between two police officers, one young, one dad-aged. As I watch, Katie and Michelle emerge from the shadows.
I waver. I am so well-hidden, I could simply stay here until whatever is happening is over. If I go down, I could get arrested for underage drinking, and I am pretty sure Tate has weed on her. I imagine handcuffs, black ink smudged on my fingers and, worst of all, the phone call that will wake my parents. Then I see Tate emerging from some azaleas. She is my dearest, since childhood; we met in Sunday school. I swing back down the tree.
The cops look us over, five pretty white girls, four of us in expensive shoes.
“What are you gals up to?” the young cop asks.
I am a people-pleaser, Southern, passive aggressive to my core. I tilt my head and smile up at him. I tell the truth. “Playing hide-and-seek?”
He has to work not to laugh.
“We got a call about people breaking into the stores. You girls robbing the stores?” The older cop says, less amused.
I straighten my spine, tuck my chin, morphing into good girl posture.
“No, sir,” we say. We don’t look like a gang come to rob the stores. We look like what we are: young, stupid, messed up.
“Did you girls walk or drive?”
“We walked,” I lie.
They exchange a cop-look. The younger one’s mouth twists in a quick, wry smile, one shoulder lifting. The older one sighs.
“I suggest you keep on walking then,” he says.
We turn and mosey away, emitting a chorus of “Yessirs” and “Thank yous.” As soon as we are out of sight, we run, cussing in relief. We wait for the cops to leave, then circle back and get the car and the dime bag Tate stashed in the azaleas. Once we are safely away, we are near hysterical with joy and relief. We tell the story we all just lived back and forth, laughing and preening for each other. Only Melissa, who grew up in a trailer with a mother who was in and out of jail for heroin and prostitution, is quiet. I met her in high school, after her grandmother took her in. She wears bobos — our word for cheap sneakers — and she has just finished failing her freshman year of college.
They let us go, the rest of us believe, because we are pretty. There is probably some truth to this. I don’t think about how affluent and educated we appeared, or how only Melissa was truly afraid. The rest of us were nervous about getting arrested, sure, but we were raised to think of the police as our friends. Someone to turn to if we ever got lost. We used good manners. We met their eyes. I don’t think about any of this. I also don’t think, “Yeah and we’re all white.” Not then.
On my mother’s side, my family comes straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short story — mostly potato famine refugees who didn’t find much more to eat here. I look like them, typical black Irish, with a long, bony face, dark hair and green eyes. The descendent of bog people, I am so pale that back in middle school, the mean kids called me Casper.
My maternal grandmother grew up sleeping in a shack about the size and shape of a garden shed. She picked cotton, along with the three old-maid aunties who raised her. At 14, she married a much older man, a Baptist preacher, soft-spoken, but as in love with hell and fear as any screamer.
On my father’s side, things are little more complicated. My grandfather was the descendent of the Mississippi Jacksons. I grew up inside an unexamined understanding that this branch of my family is a reason so many black Americans share my last name. At one point, according to the ledger in an old family Bible, my ancestors owned 73 separate, whole, thinking, breathing human beings. The names my ancestors gave them were written into this book; I will never know their real names.
By the time I was born, the Jackson fortune had been lost decades upon decades back, during Reconstruction. The plantation itself was swallowed whole by the Mississippi river when the levees broke during prohibition. The Bible had long ago been stuffed in the attic, and my grandfather was just my gruff, affectionate Deedaddy.
Deedaddy was a working-class guy, a yellow dog Democrat, devoted to his union. He married Ona, the youngest child of six, four of them boys. Growing up, she was the pet of the whole family. They all called her “Noug.” She was five feet tall, maybe 100 pounds, and at least five pounds of that was bosom. She’d had her pick, she told me many times, and I got the sense that my grandparents shared the conviction that Deedaddy was a lucky man.
In her old age, when I knew her best, she remained adorable, with olive skin, fluffy hair and snappy dark eyes as shiny as Kalamata olives courtesy of a half-Cherokee grandmother. I was always proud of that piece of my heritage. I tucked it into my identity: Original American. It felt romantic. I worked my lone part-Cherokee ancestor into conversation often; I never brought up the slave owners.
File photo of methamphetamine.
Two paths diverge
I last one more year than Melissa did before I fail out of the University of Georgia. I wander. Take acting jobs and catering jobs, move to Atlanta and rent a room by the week. Eventually I get an office job. I call myself a Tote Monkey, dragging dot matrix printer stacks back to a cubicle to peel the side strips and then file all the colors. It’s so miserable that I call my parents, cry, say I want to be in college.
They agree to let me try again. Dad even says he’ll pay for it. “Until you get a B,” he adds.
I quit drugs and go back to school. I want this now, so I don’t go to my old hang-outs. I don’t see my old friends anymore, except for Tate. I meet up with her every time I go home to Pensacola. She is still my dearest.
I tell her, “No drugs. You can’t bring that crap around me, OK?”
“No problem,” Tate says.
I meet her at the Waffle House. We order coffee and hash browns to split, scattered, covered, smothered. We talk the way we always do, one sentence bleeding into another, four conversations going on at once. Then a man comes in, a stranger to me. He walks right to our table.
“Oh, hey,” Tate says, like she knows him.
I move to her side, and he slides into the booth across from us. A creeper, I think, pushing 40. I cross my arms over my chest. He seems over interested in me, asking too many questions. I get silent, and the two of them have a conversation that moves in circles, but I recognize the code.
I am sitting in on a drug deal. A big one, from the sound of it.
I turn to her, angry. “Are you kidding me? I say. “I don’t want any part of this.”
In retrospect, the people listening in on the other end of the wire he was wearing were probably amused by my righteous indignation.
It takes a few more meetings, but eventually Tate brings this DEA agent a sheet of acid, 100 hits on blotter paper decorated with clown faces. Each one of those clowns is a felony in Florida. Pretty Tate, the star of the tennis team, who can play the guitar like she was born holding one, is looking at decades.
She is white, though, and from an affluent family. She gets an excellent lawyer, and he gets her a deal. I visit her in prison. She says she is good. Prison is a lot like a bad summer camp, she says. She’s in minimum security, with no bars or handcuffs. The “real” prison is right over the barbed wire fence, where she can see it.
“Squeaky Fromme’s in there,” she tells me.
When she gets out, she is still in her 20s, but while she was inside, my pot-smoking, hippie friend found meth. She disappears from my world.
Grandmother’s tricky heart and asthma have her on a host of medications, and eventually she and Deedaddy move into assisted living. Her brain forgets things, but her vivacity and charm are intact. Noug joins music club and takes over game night, bringing the party with her. She is still the cutest little trick in shoe leather, over 70 category.
Once, and only once, I drop by to visit without calling first. I find Noug at a dance in the rec room, dressed to the nines. Gold heeled sandals, a one piece zippered iridescent purple jump suit, and a wig. A blonde wig, practically Norse, with two long braids draped over her bosom. She is pink cheeked and sweaty from dancing. I’m charmed and a little amused, but she seems embarrassed.
She hustles me back to their apartment, saying, “Let me just change, honey.”
Once inside their place, she pulls off the wig. Down at the roots, where she’s been sweating, her fluffy hair has retracted into little zig-zags. I experience a strange moment of vertigo. I see my grandmother, and superimposed over her, a little stranger. If I saw her for the first time now, I would assume she was a black woman. This doubled creature disappears into the bathroom. In a little while, she emerges in a simple dress and flats, her hair re-fluffed, but I know what I saw.
“Indian blood?” I ask my dad, later.
He raises his eyebrows, surprised. “You didn’t realize we were saying that with air quotes?”
I had not. My brother knew, and all my cousins, understanding by a process as silent and mysterious as osmosis. The youngest by several years, I missed it.
“A lot of people in the South have ‘Indian blood’,” Dad said, and this time he makes the air quotes obvious, sketching them with his hands.
At the time, it was only interesting. I didn’t connect it to my own path. Instead, I felt that it reset a balance I didn’t like to think about. So my family had owned humans on my father’s side; we had also been owned. I was a product of both oppressor and the oppressed, and it seemed, if anything, a little bit beautiful that Noug and Deedaddy could, in the wake of history, love each other so for more than 60 years.
Ghosts of friends past
In my 30s, I am a new mom, trying to learn to write novels in between diaper changes and teaching Sunday School, when I hear about my old friend Melissa. I know that she’s been in and out of jail in California. That she moved from modeling to “dancing” after her agency let her go for being unreliable, and that unreliable is code for “uses way too much cocaine.” Now I hear that she’s come back home with a boyfriend who was mostly her pimp, and she is dead. He got into a gun battle with police, and she caught a bullet.
A few years later, my first novel is published. On book tour in Mobile, Alabama, I see a slim shadow slipping between the rows of shelves, trying to see me without being seen. It’s Tate. I cut my talk short and go to find her in the stacks.
She weighs about 80 pounds. Her lips are cracked and she smells like a thousand stale cigarettes layered over that musty, organic tang you can find in fall under banks of rotting leaves.
“I’m so proud of you,” she says. I hold her in my arms. She feels like bones.
“Come eat dinner with me,” I say.
She won’t, but she promises to meet me for breakfast. I wait so long I almost miss my plane, but she never shows.
I am in Sears, buying presents for a little old lady. Noug has left me with a lifelong affection for them, and I try to adopt one every Christmas. This year, my lady wants Skechers — “no boring colors!” — and a coffee maker.
I take the presents to the register.
“You didn’t want the scarf?’ she says.
“What scarf?” I ask.
“The blue scarf you — you were just here with a scarf?”
“That wasn’t me. I just have one of those faces.” She looks puzzled, almost as if she disbelieves me. “I’m very Irish,” I add. “I look exactly like every other potato famine refugee in Georgia, and there are a lot of us. Don’t worry about it.”
Now she’s tickled, so much so she starts laughing out loud.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “But are you telling me that y’all all look alike?”
Now I am laughing, too. She has what’s considered a dark complexion in America, and I am a pale, white person. We are reversed images, each with a little of the other in our blood. Not enough to show, but I know it is there.
It makes me think about Noug’s grandmother. I imagine her, a long ago slave. I don’t know the name she was given, or if she had another name, in secret. She was a line in someone’s ledger, tallied up along with their cows and acreage. Someone owned her body, and they believed they had all rights to that body. Someone put a baby in it. A baby that was pale enough to pass.
I go home, and for the first time, I wonder what that baby had to give up, to wrap her own descendants — to wrap me — in this skin that comes with so much opportunity and privilege. Her identity? Her history? Perhaps contact with family and beloved former communities?
“When you were growing up, did your family know?” I ask my dad.
“Oh, sure.” He tells me about one of Noug’s brothers who always had to keep his hair cropped close because it tattled on him.
“So, did everyone know? Like in town, was it one of those not-secret secrets.”
My father, who grew up in a different time, looks at me with wise, sad eyes. “No, honey. No one outside the family knew. That would have been … We didn’t speak about it.”
Then I am remembering the night we all played hide and seek at the outdoor mall. I think about what it might have been like, if Noug’s grandmother had done things differently. If in a post-emancipation world, she had been free enough to be herself. I know the statistics. White people and black people both do drugs, but the black people are much more likely to be arrested for it, and much more likely to go prison once arrested, and much less likely to find a judge of any shade or age or gender or political affiliation who will look at them and say, “You deserve a second chance.”
I think about the money, too. My parents sent me right back to college. Tate’s well-off family could pay for lawyers, therapy. Now Tate and I are both deep into our 40s, and I have found her again. She lives out West, clean, but still a hippie girl. She grows organic tomatoes and plays guitar like she was born to do it. We both got so many second chances, and here we are, living our connected, loving, sustainable, small lives. We are friends on Facebook.
Tate and I had ropes around us. We ran as hard as we could for the edge of the world, but we were pulled back by the privilege and loving families that Melissa lacked. I think of Noug’s grandmother and her choices, and my family’s financial security and the way my daughter’s hair curls up into irrepressible ringlets.
“She’s going to have a devil of a time blowing that out when she gets older,” a woman in line at the post office once told me.
“Why would she ever do that?” I asked. Her curls are her glory.
“No one is going to take her serious with hair like that,” the woman said. She was a light-skinned black woman, and her hair looked like my daughter’s.
Power of story
In my classroom now, we are workshopping creative nonfiction. I move from group to group, listening, putting in a word here and there. My job is mostly to bring tools and make room for my students to find their own voices, and then get out of their way. I believe writing your own story is redemptive; it makes us practice empathy. I think empathy makes us live more kindly and gently in this hard world.
Dee reads a story from her childhood aloud. In it, she is robbing a Salvation Army donation station with her mother. Tiny Dee is down deep in the storage container, passing up items, when the cops appear. Dee knows to be quiet, and her mother pretends she is dropping things off instead of taking them. The police help her deposit the items in the receptacle, burying Dee in old clothes and shoes. Dee hears her mother leave and she feels herself sinking, drowning in a swamp of hand-me-downs. Later, her mother sneaks back, unearths her and pulls her out. She holds Dee, rocking and crooning apologies. You’ll never have to do this again, she promises. Dee looks at the receptacle. It is a grinning monster that knows this is a lie.
It’s an excellent story, beautifully written. It is a true thing I know about Dee, though I do not know how she came to be in prison. Maybe one day that will be in a story, but it is already overshadowed by the time I’ve spent here with her in this classroom. She is more to me than the thing she did to land here. And really, I don’t need to know why she is here.
I know why I am here. It is enough.
ABOUT THE STORY
New York Times best-selling author and Decatur resident Joshilyn Jackson has a reputation for writing funny, poignant novels about family dynamics that are rooted in the South. When she offered to write a Personal Journey for the AJC, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. The result is a revealing story about race and white privilege that is also, you guessed it, funny and poignant.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshilyn Jackson is a New York Times and USA Today best-selling novelist living in Decatur. She is the author of eight novels, including “Gods in Alabama” and “The Opposite of Everyone.” Her books have been translated into a dozen languages, and Jackson is also an award-winning audiobook narrator. Her latest book, “The Almost Sisters,” a story about the bonds of family, race and how history affects the present, publishes July 11. Learn more at www.joshilynjackson.com.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at the University of Georgia and Cal State Hayward.
“The Almost Sisters” book launch. With “The Bookshop at Waters Edge” by Patti Callahan Henry. 7 p.m., July 11. Toco Hills Avis G. Williams Library, 1282 McConnell Drive, Decatur. 404-678-4404, dekalblibrary.org.
Additional appearances: 11 a.m. July 12, FoxTale Book Shoppe, 105 E. Main St., Woodstock. 770-516-9989, www.foxtalebookshoppe.com; 3 p.m. July 19, The Book Exchange, 2932 Canton Road, Marietta. 770-427-4848, www.bookexchangemarietta.com; 6 p.m. Aug. 1, Milton Public Library, 855 Mayfield Road, Milton. 404-613-4402, www.afpls.org.