“His self-determination inspired so many of us to watch CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. He inspired us to read more than the sports section of the newspaper. His self-determination inspired us, the most marginalized and politically blasphemed of society, to walk this prison debating about things we never thought about: left wing and right wing politics, pork barrels, the electoral college, Senate seats, bipartisan politics and so on.” --Marlon Peterson, Keynote speech excerpt, 2nd night of Kwanzaa Celebration at Otisville Correctional Facility
Those words were delivered during the second night of the annual Kwanzaa celebration at Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium security prison located in upstate New York. Decorated with black, red, and green streamers, wrinkled posters of notable figures in Black History, the over packed room of 40 or so gathered for seven consecutive nights to celebrate the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The audience were a mixture of the politically unconventional—Bloods, Crips, former drug addicts, swindlers, opportunists, functional illiterates, and so on. The accumulated years of imprisonment of the men that attended the event for the seven days totaled to a staggering 1,200 plus years. The event was filled with the invisible men that Ralph Ellison wrote about.
Despite the doleful numbers, despite the isolation of the prison gates, despite the political disenfranchisement of the men, hope penetrated. President Barack’s presence, his eloquence, his message proved to be too much to keep out of even the most darkest place that America has to offer.
President Barack offered us a model to follow—to emulate. When the authors of this article volunteered to speak at Kwanzaa they immediately decided that they wanted to give a speech just like Obama. The organizers of the Kwanzaa celebration (also incarcerated men) enlisted as many of the young men of the prison as possible to participate in the celebration—just like Barack. Although unable to vote, many of the men used their stamps, phone calls, and visits to encourage their friends and families to vote—just like Obama. They vicariously knocked on doors and registered people to vote—just like the Barack campaign.
One man donated $20 to the campaign, although the money was returned (probably because the campaign did not want to risk any backlash for accepting donations from a convicted felon). A shrewd decision, considering the eleventh hour attempts by the McCain/Palin ticket to scandalize Obama.
Nevertheless, the donor was inspired; the thought was counted.
Whenever you get people in prison to speak and think about things that are not relative to their current predicament you have succeeded in taking their minds out of prison. The cliché, “you can imprison the body, but you can’t imprison the mind,” becomes a reality and not just a quotation in a “Thinking of You” card.
The success if a tribute to the effect that Barack has had on men within Otisville.
The Barack movement is a social phenomenon not simply a presidency, especially for the men of color languishing in these prisons. This movement has given the demographically self-defeated and those with the vacant self-esteem a reason to think a little more of themselves. A reason to have pride in their government. A reason to have pride in their race. A reason to love sports, but to depend on academics. A reason to be inspired and a reason to inspire.
A reason to hope.
President Obama’s greatest achievement thus far has been his ability to inspire others. The dream if inspiration is the dream that keeps on living. His being the unconventional candidate has given him the ability action—a different—in the unconventional.
His inauguration is not just the panacea, but it is a movement, and even the worst hurricane begins with just one raindrop and a cool breeze.
President Obama, thank you. Your cool breeze is picking up speed and the invisible men are eager to grow into your hurricane.