convicted in the womb-carl upchurch

another memento book moment that i’m great-full for. this is a moving story that offers pro-institutional insight from an unlikely source. RIP, mister-thanks for all your work.

“Even though I hated the books they made me read, I was a good reader. Reading was the only part of school that was bearable. We were seated in rows, boy-girl-boy-girl. I was the anchor in my row, meaning I sat in the last seat. Every day each person had to read an assigned passage out loud. As the anchor, my performance would determine whether my row got a gold star or graham crackers and milk at the end of the week. A girl named Gloria sat in front of me. I would get so wrapped up in winning the gold star, I would try to help her when she got stuck, momentarily forgetting what the other kids thought of me. But she never accepted my help, even though she couldn’t read very well and even though it might mean losing out on the treat or the star. She just turned around and hissed, ‘Don’t help me, Carl,’ slapping the air with her hand.” (19)

“I didn’t know anything about dangling participles or run-on sentences, but because I’d read a lot, I could mostly tell which sentences were right and which were wrong. When the results were posted, everyone, including me, was surprised that I received a high score. At first I thought it was somebody else’s score, but no, I had really passed. At the age of sixteen, I was officially a high school graduate.” (56)

“Lewisburg had a weird rule: Guys in segregation always got first pick at the library books, even though it was assumed that anybody bad enough to be in solitary wasn’t going to be interested in reading.” (83)

“My reading changed everything for me. I discovered that people I had never met knew exactly how I felt-so well that I could use their writings as reference points in my own life. Literature gave me a vocabulary I could use to express my deepest feelings and the insight to understand that my situation was universal. I escaped in a way far more satisfying than any tunnel under a prison wall, into a completely new world.” (91)

“Literature taught me about tenderness, and as I learned, I experienced tender moments of enjoying my own humanity. Ironically, it was in prison that I really understood what it means to be tender. Finally, /finally/, I had a label for the piece of me I knew was missing but had never been able to identify, that blackest of all the black holes in my soul, the one that was tender. I had survived for nearly twenty-seven years in a desert without it. Literature was my oasis.” (93)

read on. (i saw a sticker for kudo‘s campaign strategically placed on the vag of an american apparel model).


2 thoughts on “convicted in the womb-carl upchurch

  1. wordosoundpower:

    “She also liked to play with words. One of her favorite expressions was ‘Suck my puss-simmons,’ and every time she said it, she’d follow it with a sheepish ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ as if it had just slipped out. One of her other favorite lines was ‘Is this motherfucker crazy, or was he just in the service?’ Her spirit and her sense of humor may have appeared vulgar to others, but they were part of what endeared her to me. She kept me laughing throughout my childhood.” (8)

    “And even though I didn’t understand much of what the poets were saying, I was fascinate by how they said it. Everybody else seemed fascinated too, so I figured that the people onstage must be saying something significant. The stark images during those poetry recitations stayed with me long after I walked home.” (14)

    “I called him Bill instead of William; we were, after all, quite close. He introduced me to the beauty of language, and I developed a real respect for the precision of his words.” (82)

  2. there’s no place like home:

    “I would go up to a house and try the door. Hardly anyone locked their doors in those days, and sometimes I just walked in. I liked to poke around and sit in the big comfortable chairs. If I found something to eat, I grabbed it. And if I saw anything else that interested me, I’d take that too.” (21)

    “In some ways, YSC was better than home. We all received clean shirts, pants, and socks, but we kept our own shoes. Everyone got blue pants and a pullover V-neck cotton shirt like the ones hospitals used.” (24)

    “There were no fences to keep us in. It was more like a boarding school than a prison. I think part of the concept was that if isolated boarding schools could produce good kids, isolated boarding farms might turn around troubled city kids. In some ways it worked for me. All I was asked to do was get up on time each morning, care for myself, and get my assigned work done. I was given clean clothes, good food, and the freedom to play all day long. I blossomed intellectually, athletically, and socially.” (28)

    “I’ve often heard that it is common for men to idolize their mothers. I never felt that way about mine. Thought I’ve been tempted to condemn her for her faults as a mother, I’ve more often tried to understand her. She was young and poor when I was born, undereducated, and living on welfare in a hostile environment. Maybe if she had lived in a different time and place, she might have raised a more loving and cooperative son. but it didn’t happen that way for her. Like me, she had been convicted in the womb. Even though she never did any jail time, I’m luckier than she was. She never had a single person in her life who believed in her. I did-at almost every correctional facility I was in-and their cumulative caring is one of the major reasons I’m where I am today.” (30)

    “I arrived at YDC in November 1962. I felt no shame about being there. After all, most of the men in my neighborhood, young and old, had spent time in a succession of prisons. I figured it was a normal pattern of life-YDC was where I was supposed to be.” (39)

    “Coach Vaughters challenged me. He knew there was something behind my tough exterior, but he also knew better than to encourage me openly or to directly approach that hidden part.” (48)

    “At first they made me angry. Since the military was the best thing that had ever happened to me, I felt personally threatened by denunciations of the war. But no matter where we went, we couldn’t get away from criticism of the American presence in Vietnam.” (69)

    “I didn’t have the discipline to get up at seven o’clock to exercise, pray to Mecca, and march and drill. I wasn’t interested in being clean shaven and hanging out only with the Muslim brothers. However, when I was enraged about something, the Muslim doctrine that oppression comes from one source-the devil, the white man-became a very appealing concept. But the prospect of going to temple every Wednesday and Friday night and praying four times a day made me want to run out and smoke some weed.” (77)

    “Still, I did enjoy studying the history and theory of the corrections system. But I had /been/ in prison, while the professors who were ‘teaching’ me about it only knew what they had read. At first, I didn’t realize how little they knew about real prisoners in real prisons, but with each succeeding session, I was forced to conclude that much of what they said in their lectures weren’t true. I remained silent, partly because I was intimidated by the educational setting, but also because of my experience of Earlham, which had made me fear the notoriety that would surely result if I were to stand up and say, ‘Listen, man, you know don’t know what you’re talking about. /I’ve been to prison./’ So even though I cringed at the falsehoods the professors taught, I kept quiet.” (127)

    “Maybe I’m supersensitive, but I detected a hint of racism in the suggestion that ‘/our/ kids rare just fine; you should take your skills over /there/ to work with kids everyone knows aren’t okay.’ ‘Rich’ kids need as much love and guidance as any inner-city children, and I cannot begin to separate the value of human beings based on what they have or don’t have, or on who reared them, or who cursed and scorned them.” (131)

    “If a foreign enemy tried to impose the conditions in South Central onto the entire United States, if it took the lives of American citizens as lives are taken daily in our inner cities, we would retaliate instantly, and the war would be one of conscience, not aggression. A war /is/ going on in South Central, but its victims are economically and spiritually impoverished people who no one seems to think are worth fighting for.
    The 280 people who died in the South Central riots apparently were unimportant; we heard little about their lives or their deaths. The eight hundred lives that were lost in the Los Angeles area in 1992 received no media attention either. The economic impact of those deaths, especially when compared to the nine random carjacking deaths that occurred in the same year in south Florida and so upset the state’s tourist trade, was practically nil.” (149)

    “You sent forty thousand dollars’ worth of medicine and funds to Nicaragua,” I challenged them. “You drove a bus down there to try to help out. Yet people right here in central Ohio, in Newark, only five miles away from us, also desperately need medicine and funds. What are we saying to the world, to the people in South Central, when we turn our backs on them and go elsewhere?” Then I stormed out of the church. (152)

    “/Hope/ is the defining word for the Kansas City summit. Some of us went there hoping to realize even a small piece of the dream. All of us left there filled with hope, inspired about the possibilities that beckoned. We set out to seed that hope all over the country, planning regional summits across the United States.” (186-7)

    “Gangs are not responsible for all the crime in America. The tabloid mentality of the media plays up the drug dealing and the drive-bys, fully aware that those kinds of crime, especially when committed by blacks, make Americans uncomfortable. But gangs don’t run Congress. They don’t create corrupt politicians. They aren’t involved in the fiascos on Wall Street or the debacles of the savings and loan institutions. The fact is that much of America doesn’t perceive illegal white-collar activity as crime.” (190)

    “Most prisons today offer fewer chances to positively influence the
    course of someone’s life. Most ‘correctional’ facilities have little
    or nothing to do with correcting. Rather, federal and state officials
    with the political power to set prison agendas proclaim jails at every
    level to be nothing more than holding tanks. The resultant punitive
    environment makes a clear statement: Rehabilitation is not the
    system’s goal. ‘Frills’ like learning to read or completing an
    education courtesy of a Pell grant are steadily being eliminated.
    Though effective rehabilitation is obviously unlikely in such a
    setting, the public nevertheless still expresses surprise that our
    prison system produces repeat offenders, and they continue to blame
    repeat behavior solely on prisoners themselves.” (215)

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