I first came across Reginald Dwayne Betts when I read his poem, “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving.” Along with the power of his insight into a very Cleveland situation, I was struck by his voice and went in search of more. I chose Bastards of the Reagan Era because I consider myself part of the Reagan era. I grew up in Washington, D.C., and each day’s paper revealed a kind of intramural competition between President Reagan and Mayor Marion Barry to see whose administration could be more corrupt.
Betts’ poetry hammered away at me. Eleven of the poems are called, “For the City that Nearly Broke Me,” which should give you some idea of the territory of this powerful collection. Replete with cultural allusions, Betts’ poems, individually and together, speak of both the personal and political with language that creates its own kind of music. This book is a kind of historic document and should be read and savored as such. He commands us to take note because “people die within your silence.”
Betts next came to my attention through social media. Petitions were being circulated to pressure the state of Connecticut to admit him to the bar. Whether those petitions had any impact is hard to tell. It’s more likely that an editorial in The New York Times had more sway. In any event, Betts is now a member of the Connecticut bar.
And when I found out that Betts will be at John Carroll University on Feb. 12 courtesy of the Peace, Justice and Human Rights Program, I knew I had to read the rest of his work. His memoir, A Question of Freedom, and his earlier poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, make for excellent companion pieces. In fact, the title poem serves as an epigraph for the memoir. Shahid, meaning “witness,” is the name Betts adopted for a time while he was in prison. While it seems that he was never a dedicated member of the Nation of Islam, he explored it as he did so many other things as he was transferred through an array of prisons because of a carjacking he committed when he was 16 years old. If you, like me, are wary of prison memoirs (as a form of exceptionalism), Betts quickly dispenses with our fears (4):
Sometimes there’s a story that’s been written again and again, sometimes a person finds himself with a story that he thinks will be in vogue forever. The story is about redemption, about overcoming. A person finds that story and writes it, thinking it will do him some good to tell the world how it really was. That’s not this story.
There are familiar elements in Betts’ memoir, but it is not, he is right to say, the familiar story. It is a story of the development of his love of and attention to language. Indeed, the elegance of it can sometimes make you forget what he’s writing about. He has to learn the language of incarceration, much of it centered on names, in order to survive his time, an amazing amount of it in isolation. In “Tell This to the People You Love,” from Shahid Reads His Own Palm, he explains that “prison cells drive men to practice / history, writing names – their own, / someone else’s – into / more than a moment.” Betts is our witness, our voice on the inside. There will be no movie made based on this memoir, and it’s clear that this was never Betts’ intention. He tells some of what he’s seen but keeps a great deal back. He says, “I have seen things I will not recover from” (232). He just wants us to see some of it.
In the end, though, he wants to be seen as more than those 2 hours of joyriding that started with a carjacking. Howard University refused to see him as more than his crime and in “Winter Hunger,” also from Shahid Reads His Own Palm, he asks, “What will you say / about a voice cuffed to mistakes?”