Dwayne Betts’ story is one of tribulation and triumph. At 16, he was tried as an adult and spent eight years in prison. He discovered a love for literature while incarcerated and decided to become a writer.
Dwayne Betts’ story is one of tribulation and triumph. At 16, he was tried as an adult and spent eight years in prison. He discovered a love for literature while incarcerated and decided to become a writer.
Since his release in 2005, Betts has published three books of poetry and one memoir and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in law. Most recently, Betts and acclaimed poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander announced The Million Book Project—an initiative that will establish 1000 "Freedom Libraries" in prisons across the U.S. Listen in to hear a moving testament on the power of literature and reading to change lives forever.
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September 21, 2020
Copyright 2020 Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative
You are listening to Shades of Freedom. Our second episode’s special guest is Dwayne Betts.
Dwayne Betts (00:07):
Nobody says this when we talk about mass incarceration. You could do 10, 15, 20 years in a prison cell and don't see flowers, don't see any trees, and literally never see more than 10 books at one time. You know, I can't fix the flowers, I can't fix the trees, but you think about it, you could have books that have all of those things in it.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (00:34):
Welcome to Shades of Freedom, a new podcast from the Aspen Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We are pleased to have a as our guest today, Dwayne Betts Dwayne's story is one of tribulation and triumph. At 16, he was tried as an adult and spent eight years in prison. He discovered a love for literature while incarcerated, and decided to become a writer. Since his release in 2005, Dwayne has published three books of poetry and one memoir, received accolades and fellowships, including an NAACP image award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and was appointed to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by President Obama, as well as receiving a law degree from Yale. Currently, he's pursuing a PhD in law. Most recently, Betts and Elizabeth Alexander, the Mellon Foundation president, announced their Million Book project, an initiative that will establish libraries in 1,000 prisons across the United States. Betts is the architect of the initiative and our guests today. Welcome to Shades of Freedom, Dwayne. We're very pleased you could join us.
Dwayne Betts (01:41):
Oh, no, man. It's a pleasure. Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (01:44):
My first question to you is as a bright 16 year old with dreams of being an engineer, how did you end up involved in the criminal justice system?
Dwayne Betts (01:53):
Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I guess the simple answer is I carjacked somebody, and the more complicated answer and the more involved answer, and maybe my life project is thinking about what it is that exactly leads a 16 year old doing relatively well in school to end up carjacking somebody. As far as an answer, part of it I think is I was just sort of proximate to a lot of violence, and what was in the realm of possibility for me even included more so than anything else going to prison, committing a crime. That is not to say that coming up in a neighborhood with a fair amount of violence and crime, that that meant I was destined to go to prison. I ended up, even after doing eight years in prison, I was still a first generation college student, still a first generation professional student. I just mean that it was within the realm of possibility. Sometimes when things are in the realm of possibility, it becomes easier to fall within that, and I kind of fell within it.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (03:08):
You've stated in previous interviews, and you've mentioned the book title, Black Poets, and how it had a significant impact on you while in prison. How did reading that book during the space of time and experiencing it influence you?
Dwayne Betts (03:23):
Well, I was at a prison that didn't have a library, first of all, and then when you're in the hole, books become contraband. So, I'm in a prison without a library, in a space within that prison where a book is literally contraband. We had developed a kind of underground network of communication where you'd just call for a book, or you'd tell the house man, you'd tell the cat that's locked up with you as a custodial worker, "Hey, find me a book." While he's walking down the hallway, he'll be like, "Yo, who got a book? Who got a book?" So, sometimes he would sweep the book into your cell, then somebody else would slide out, or depending where that person was, they would get on the ground and they would slide the book from their cell to yours. You literally just may have no clue of who sent you the book.
Dwayne Betts (04:10):
One day I asked for a book, and somebody sent me Dudley Randall's The Black Poets. The thing is, again, man, it's what are you approximate to? I had already told myself I would be a writer, and suddenly I get this book, and I'm introduced to Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, and the main poet that hit me from that book was Etheridge Knight, because Etheridge Knight, he served time in prison and he wrote about prison. He was a person that was really trying to figure out what the experience of prison meant for the human condition, and seeing him able to do that and seeing him able to get published, and seeing him able to be in a book with Gwendolyn Brooks, it just made me say, "All right, I'm going to be a poet. That's it. Decision made." It's wild, because I was young, didn't really know what being a poet meant, didn't know what the salary was. You know what I mean?
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (05:07):
Dwayne Betts (05:08):
Post incarceration in college, everything that somebody's telling you what to be is driven by how much money you'll make doing it, by the kind of influence you have doing it, and I wanted to be a poet really because I liked how he made me you feel and think about the world. I was like, "That's the thing I'm going to do." I've just been lucky to be able to turn that into a life. You know?
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (05:30):
So, you obviously had a love of literature before you went to prison. What are you thinking about with regard to all of those young people of color out there who might be would be poets, would be writers, whose access to quality educational material and literature is limited?
Dwayne Betts (05:55):
The disaster of it for me is twofold. First, it's something that's really depressing, even when I think about it, of knowing that I became so much of who I am partly because I found a book in prison. There's just something profoundly tragic about that, and knowing that a lot of people who are in prison, because we lock up so many, so many people, and we have so many people inside, most of those folks won't have access to Felon, which is the last book of poetry I published. They won't know who John Mario is. I think it's something sad about that, because, again, we talking about, how do you set up a framework that suggests what's possible? That's what being introduced to Etheridge Knight through The Black Poets did for me. It gave me a different framework of what was possible.
Dwayne Betts (06:51):
That was the most important thing I could have got at that moment, given that I was a teenager in solitary confinement, headed to a super maximum security prison where we were going to be on lockdown 23 hours a day. You know? It was literally those words that pushed me through. So, it's just something tragic about knowing that, one, I had to be in a place like that to discover it, and two, most people, even if they are in a place like that, have no hope of discovering it in today's America.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (07:21):
We speak of great poets, and one that comes to mind is of course our mutual friend, Elizabeth Alexander, who I had the great good fortune of working with while we were both at Ford. Can you tell us a story about how you two met?
Dwayne Betts (07:37):
It depends on what you mean by met. Right? That's the beautiful thing about poetry. The first book I got was that Black Poets book, right? Then I go to this other penitentiary, Red Onion State Prison, and one of these cats that I got close to, and I don't even know why we got close, he had long locks, he gave me Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep. He was like, "I think you dig this." I don't know why. He was like, "You look like somebody who would dig this book." That's the first time I read Elizabeth's work. She had the Venus Hottentot poem in it, and I think the Ali poem is in there as well, and this was me learning that poetry is also history. Poetry is also philosophy. This is me now, I'm stretching out, because The Black Poets, this was a previous generation. This is the black arts movement and the post Harlem Renaissance movement of poets.
Dwayne Betts (08:29):
But this wasn't really the contemporary poets, so then I get Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep, and it's like, "Yusef Kominyakaa? What? You can do this with words?" So, that was me meeting her the first time. But when I met her personally, and this was the thing, I wasn't in prison imagining meeting these people, but it's an organization called Cave Canem and that was started by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. I came home and I was like, "I'm going to get into this joint." I came home and I ended up getting in. It's an organization that one of their flagship initiatives is a summer retreat just for black poets. There's 54 black poets, Elizabeth Alexander was there, Rita Dove was there, Lucille Clifton was there, Patricia Smith was there, Kwame Dawes was there, and then Toi was there and Cornelius was there.
Dwayne Betts (09:20):
You got to understand, man, I'm like, "I ain't even been out to penitentiary for 15 months," and I'm walking around every day for a week with my heroes. You know? One morning, Lucille Clifton gives a talk, and the next day and the next night, Rita Dove gives a talk. I'm staying up till four o'clock talking to Rita Dove. I remember, it was a party one night or something, folks was dancing, and I was talking to Elizabeth, and what happened is I asked her for something that she had written about a Black men. You know? But I was young, I was 25, I was just talking, kind of awed. You know? She gave me her book, like her book, her book.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (10:07):
Dwayne Betts (10:08):
The one with the sticky notes and the lines in it that she was carrying around reading from. Actually, I'm looking at shelf. Her book is right there. It's so funny, you would think I was lying. You would think I was lying. I would grab it and show it. I'm going to take a picture of it. But you would think I was lying to you, but her book is right on my shelf beside Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (10:27):
Dwayne Betts (10:28):
It's The Black Interior. This is the kind of thing that doesn't exist in prison at all. But it's also the kind thing that it's a product of a kind of privilege that even most people in the world don't really have. Come out the penitentiary with some poems, and all of a sudden I'm around the two living Pulitzer prize winners that's black, period. You know? I'm around Lucille Clifton, I'm around people who I first met in solitary confinement. It was a humbling experience. But that's when we met, and we stayed in contact. We stayed in touch ever since then.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (11:08):
That's such a powerful, powerful story. I know you're a lover of literature, so I'm going paraphrase a little bit of Shakespeare. When he writes, "There is a tide in the far of humankind, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune omitted. All the voyage of their lives is bound in the shallows and in miseries, and we must take the current when it serves or lose our ventures." Can you explain what the Million Book project is? How and why did you take the current when it served?
Dwayne Betts (11:43):
I'm thinking about my own book, and I'm thinking about Felon, and I'm thinking about how my book costs 26.95, 27, $28 plus tax, more than 120 hours of work when I was in prison working for 23 cent an hour. What I'm thinking about is how do I raise some money to be able to send this book into prison? Because we get obsessed, I get obsessed with whatever it means to be talented, whatever it means to be accepted, to be good, to be dope, to be whatever. Then I realize that I'm trying to be all of these things, and the people who I imagine writing for can't even read my words. My book is in hardback, which means it can't get into prison some states even if somebody had the money to buy it. So, I'm pushing to get some funding to fund a freedom edition of Felon.
Dwayne Betts (12:38):
I get that, but I've been having a series of conversations with Mellon, and again, it's somebody saying, "I see you, but what is this bigger thing that you're thinking about? What is this bigger thing that you might be able to do to have a different kind of impact on the world in which you paying attention to?" I always thought, what would it mean to curate that suite of books, that collection of books, to curate a freedom library, which Elizabeth coined it, freedom libraries after it got announced, but to build a freedom library, understanding that words are always the pathway to freedom.
Dwayne Betts (13:12):
If you here for eight months, if you here for a year, if you here for two years, let me put something in your sight every day that gives you a sense of the possible, but also gives you a pathway to build a foundation to do the thing that you might want to do in the future, because part of the thing that sustained me though through all of this, from my first job at Karibu Books, to the conversations I had at Cave Canem, to my work as a student, was that I had read so much, I was able to join into a series of conversations, even though my life experiences suggested that I should be in no way prepared to have those conversations, and that's what books did for me.
Dwayne Betts (13:50):
So, the Million Book Project, putting a million books in the prisons, putting them in a prisons 500 at a time in freedom libraries, it's because the bookshelf I'm looking at right now has 500 books on it. I walk past this every day and my son see it every day, and I recognize that it's the communion with books that built me. So, I want to give others the opportunity to have a communion with books. I don't know if it's anything more tragic, and nobody says this when we talk about mass incarceration, you could do 10, 15, 20 years in a prison cell and don't see flowers, don't see any trees, and literally never see more than 10 books at one time. You know, I can't fix the flowers, I can't fix the trees, I can't really bring children. But you think about it, you could have books that have all of those things and it, you could have the children's books, and it's somebody in prison that has a seven year old who has no clue what to read to they seven year old because the prison libraries don't have children's books.
Dwayne Betts (14:57):
In fact, they in prison and they don't even think about reading to they kid because nobody's having a conversation about it. Just putting a book on a bookshelf and having somebody be able to go and browse it makes them say, "What if I did this? What if I read this to my kid, or wrote them about this, or saved up some money and bought this for them?" So, the idea, really, is to think about books as a passage way or entry way, a conduit to becoming more than so much of what the system of incarceration tells you that you are.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (15:31):
You've sort of alluded to this, but my question to you is what are the major obstacles you have faced since starting the project, and has censorship been an issue?
Dwayne Betts (15:41):
Nah, censorship hasn't been an issue. I mean, a major obstacle is you got to pick 500. I'm going to make an argument about how literature matters, but also which literature matters. You know? It's not that just these things matter, but in this sense, this is the world I'm trying to build. Then in terms of just prison censorship, honestly, it exists, but I'm also putting one of these freedom libraries for the guards, because the reality is that this is just great work, and everybody will be uplifted and changed by it. We want to create a prison wide conversation, not one that's just confined to just the housing units. Then finally, some books will be censored. I mean, some books, my book has gotten a censored before.
Dwayne Betts (16:25):
They got a chapter called, "How to make a knife," in prison. The guard was like, "Well, I thought you was talking about how to make a knife," and we had to go back and forth with him. I was like, "Nah, that's not what it was about," anyway, and I sent 12 copies into a friend of mine, because he wanted to start a class. First chapter, it's about how 30 minutes could change your life. So, he wanted to encourage the guys around them to talk about how their lives had changed really with these things that they'd done in 30 minutes. He wanted to use the book that had a conversation with young folks.
Dwayne Betts (16:52):
So, what I was able to do when it came time to combat the censorship is to let them know the context of the book, to let them know the context of that particular story, because they had only read four sentences of a 250, 300 page book, and then they pulled back. So, I think there will be instances where it feels like censorship and I get them to pull it back, and it'll be other instances where they might not. You know?
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (17:19):
I mean, you talked about that experience of actually meeting the author with Elizabeth. I love the fact that you said you met Elizabeth Alexander first through her writing, and then you had the opportunity to meet her face to face, and how powerful both of those experiences were. Do you anticipate providing those same opportunities for authors of some of these books and the individuals who will read them?
Dwayne Betts (17:44):
Yeah, in two ways. The first way is we are doing a show called Book Talk, and again, via Zoom. So, if you wrote the book, I will give you 10 minutes to read from the story, and then we talk, and we reduce the conversation to essentially a 20, 30 minute interview, something that's real tight, and it doesn't replace you coming in live, but it teases it, right? One is the Book Talk, but the other thing we will do is we're creating ambassadors. Randall Horton is one of the ambassadors, but Nicole Hannah Jones is one of the ambassadors. When things ease up with COVID, we'll create opportunities for them to return to prisons in states where they live. It could be a juvenile detention center, it could be a prison, a men's prison, it could be a women's prison.
Dwayne Betts (18:26):
Somebody like me, I'm like, "I'm going to the max. Put me wherever. Put me in a place where people don't usually have resources." Other folks might be like, "Yeah, I don't like barbed wire, so do you have a medium, low security prison I could go to?" But the point is, in a world in which COVID doesn't prevent a university from making sure that their students have access to authors and writers, there's no reason for us to pretend like COVID should prevent it from happening. The Book Talk is one way to keep it going, and then creating an ambassador program and knowing that we're going to have at least one ambassador for every state in the country and Puerto Rico, we'll ensure that it'll be thousands of people who interact with authors who they imagine they will never meet. We'll have a couple hundred authors too who probably have never been in a prison, and they get a chance to go into prison and remember that prisons are part of the community as well. It's not as if we going to see people on Mars or something.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (19:25):
That's such a great segue to my next question. That question is how do you imagine the Million Book project engaging in partnership with communities in a way that members of communities would demand that these libraries are established in institutions of confinement?
Dwayne Betts (19:46):
There's a few ways to do that. One way is it's a local project and a national project. The aspect of it is that you have a writer, whoever the writer is, but you have a writer, and they might live in New York, but I want them to come visit a prison where they're from. I'm making myself a model for this. I would've went to Michigan this week, and I would've visited a juvenile detention center when I was there. Then I would've went into a prison while I was there. Then I would've went to the university and I would've did some public radio spots. That's the way that you encourage, one, the university to say... and some already do this, I don't want to act like I'm the originator of this idea, but some universities, when they have speaking engagement, they had people come through, they always ask them to go into the local jail, because they got an inside out education program there, and so they treat the guys inside like their students because they are their students.
Dwayne Betts (20:41):
So, through doing this, though, that's how you get to push on the ground and say, "Yeah, these freedom libraries should exist." One thing I'd be remiss if I didn't mention is we also going to do a run of classics. So, we talking about Odyssey, we talking about The Iliad, we talking about Life and Times of Frederick Douglas, we talking about Don Quixote. What we're going to do is these books are all in the public domain, is reprint them, but reprint them with contemporary introductions.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (21:12):
Dwayne Betts (21:13):
Because what does great expectations say about today? The beauty of it, though, is that none of us are going to be asked to write about Moby Dick. This is to be real. The people who are writing about Moby Dick or Great Expectations or Dracula, the folks who get asked to write about that, they're tenured English professors and they are writing scholarly texts on a work that nobody in the world is ever going to read. Right? But it's like, "Wait a minute. I would love to hear..." I can't tell any names because I don't want to reveal our plans, but I would love to hear some contemporary writers talk about these works of the past. You know? What would they say about it?
Dwayne Betts (21:52):
Then what happens, though, is that suite becomes a thing that's unique to the freedom library. That becomes a reason that you want to have it, because you want to hear what this contemporary writer has said about this classic book that otherwise they wouldn't have really been writing about, and then think of about these five or six or seven books in concert and these contemporary writers writing about all of them. So, it'll be kind of interesting.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (22:15):
You know, when I was a student at the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, one of my favorite courses was titled The Impact of African Americans on Dead White Male Authors.
Dwayne Betts (22:28):
That's so funny. That is funny.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (22:32):
Yeah. Yeah. It was a wonderful course, because you actually got to see how African Americans shaped their thinking and their writing.
Dwayne Betts (22:43):
Well, what's interesting about that, though, one of the other things we're doing is creating a syllabus. It's a creative writing syllabus, but it's just a text that accompany the project. This isn't central, but we already developed it. The reason why we did it is because even putting in Million Books is not really enough for everybody. I got a 500 book library, so ideally everybody in prison would have their own 200, 300 book library. That's not the scope of this project, but what would it mean to provide them with a syllabus and the works in the syllabus so that they could begin to think about what it means to read work in concert.
Dwayne Betts (23:15):
So, we broke it out, and each week you got non-fiction, fiction, and poetry, and all of the work is being drawn from the work in the freedom library. So, that way, you got this 10 week course, but the 10 week course gives you a sense of how to gauge with text across a period of time in a really intense, concentrated period of time that forces you to read a lot of stuff at once that you typically wouldn't. Again, this is just a skill that you learn in college that you wouldn't necessarily get had you not been in college, but it's kind of nice to be able to add this as a component to thinking about the freedom library, to thinking about the books there, because frankly, it took a while for me to begin reading two or three books at a time and for me to start to think naturally on my own how this book influenced that book influenced that book influenced that book.
Dwayne Betts (24:03):
It was only through anthology, actually, that I began to think that way, because when you lay them out in chronological order, you could kind of see some of the influences, depending on how good the editor is, you could see some of the influences coming through and some of the themes coming through and some of the echoes, but that's just really hard to get in prison. I never had a fiction anthology in prison. I never had a short story anthology in prison. It's actually really great, though, to be able to connect with these folks and think about how to make their work available in ways that happenstance almost made it come to me, but how to do this in a way that's not happenstance, that's really intentional.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (24:39):
This has been such a great conversation, and I'm going to ask you a question that I will ask all the guests of this podcast. That is, when you hear the phrase shades of freedom, what does that mean to you today and into the future?
Dwayne Betts (24:55):
Etheridge Knight basically turned prison into the metaphor for which he kind of used to understand so much of the world. In a lot of ways, I think prison has become what I use to understand so much of the world. I sort of feel like what I have is a shade of freedom. We talk about incarceration, and when I think about abolition, and when I think about criminal justice reform, and when I think about decarceration, what I'm constantly thinking about is the way in which we only have a shade of freedom, because there are so many people that's still there. You know? It's almost as if the prison population is the body, and the few of us that's free, we create the shade. It sort of just depends on how you look. Sometimes the shade is bigger than the body, sometimes the body is bigger than the shade, but you always know that it's this other thing there. Maybe I'll carry that phrase around with me in my head, because it allows me to remember that it's a thing that's still lacking. It's a thing that we still try to chase.
Dr. Douglas E. Wood (26:03):
Thank you so much, Dwayne Betts, and good luck with the Million Book project. It's so important, and good luck with the establishment of Freedom Libraries in prisons all across America. Thanks so much.
Thanks for joining us for Shades of Freedom, produced by the Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We'll be back soon with more thought-provoking guests working to transform the criminal justice system. You can find out more about the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, read our recent reports, view event videos, and join our email list at aspeninstitute.org/cjri, or follow us on Twitter @AspenCJRI. CJRI's programs are made possible with support from the Ascendium Education Group, Arnold Ventures, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Google.