The Struggle We Have With Personal Choices
It’s hard to live in a whore house and not become a trick. Even for the most “virtuous” among us, it would probably be hard to resist the temptation. If you stay inside that house long enough, day in and day out, what might originally have been offensive or immoral or unethical to you becomes normal. Eventually you will find yourself checking your watch and counting your money too.
The same idea goes for living as a prisoner. It’s hard for someone to live in a prison and not be influenced by prevailing attitudes and behaviors contained in such a rigidly regulated environment. It’s also difficult to have the moral courage to stand on principles, resist peer pressure, and maneuver around prison politics. However, it’s not impossible.
For example, Malcolm X (Al Hajj Malik Shabazz) and Nelson Mandela—two of the most iconic prisoners of our time—were able to turn their negative situation into something positive. Despite their conditions, Malcolm and Mandela cultivated self-motivation, rearranged their priorities, elevated their consciousness, and became committed warriors of social justice. This is an example we also can follow.
Malcolm X, self-proclaimed pimp and street-hustler, sentenced to prison, decided to challenge and change those self-destructive views and values defined by his past. He didn’t like what he saw in himself, society and world. Thus he decided to question the status quo and change the man he was. He challenged himself to study, discover and teach the truth and meaning of his experiences.
And Nelson Mandela, despite his capture, political prosecution, and years of isolation at notorious Robben Island, refused to give up, give in and give out. Finally, Mandela negotiated his release and became the first Black president of a democratic South Africa. He once triumphantly remarked, “In my country, we go to prison first and then become president!”
“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s
chains, but to live in a way that respects
and enhances the freedom of others” –
Keep in mind, that this is certainly not an “OG” argument for “conformity” or for more prisons; nor is it in any way suggesting that Malcolm and Mandela believed that prison is an ideal place for obtaining a good education. Rather, this is a question and a quest for prisoners to understand how these two determined men, sentenced to prison for completely different reasons, overcame and transcended their surroundings.
Malcolm X once wrote, “in the hectic pace of the world today, there is no time for meditation or for deep thought. A prisoner has the time he can put to good use. I’d put prison second to college as a best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking…If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life.”
Mandela also wrote, “prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.”
Malcolm and Mandela didn’t allow prison to defeat them but to motivate them. They channeled their time and energy into something educational and beneficial. We all know that prison is essentially a form of institutional violence and not a very humanizing place to be. But, even though prison is bad, the question is how can it be used as a place for good?
It can be argued that both Malcolm and Mandela assumed their generational responsibility by passing the “historical baton” to the younger generation. In addition, it is important to understand that the historical baton is not something you just pass on for the sake of passing it on. There’s a legacy actually behind it. The legacy is concrete. It’s not just about stories told. It’s about the legacy living within the next generation.
At the heart of this process called human history, there’s an obligation for each generation to learn from the previous, incorporate their own experiences, and be responsible for passing the baton on to the next. Our struggle is not simply against ignorance but also against illusion. And the struggle against illusion is the greater battle. For ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge, but illusion is the assumption of knowledge even in its absence. One of our responsibilities and obligations as OG’s is to identify and dispel those illusions.
In order for generations to flow towards the future in health and wisdom in this process, there needs to be a clear space for this essential transmission from one generation to the next. That space is necessary and needs to be created and utilized and protected. This is critical for both the younger and older generations to name and remember what is important and meaningful and not to be subject to circumstances or conditions that would make them believe lies about themselves or weaken the ties for family, identity, and community.
So, whether we’re talking about whore houses, prisons or “hoods,” we are not compelled to submit or surrender to the dictates of those conditions. Although we all have choices, those choices are based on our conditions. Choices arise and are presented to us in a given context. And that context can either impede or inspire human possibility. But ultimately, it is up to us whether we choose to surrender to our circumstances or struggle to overcome them. It is up to us to decide if we want to be tricks or free.
*I’ve started receiving answers from March’s “OG” column. Responses will be published in June’s issue.