I met Marlon Peterson in 2009, a few months after he'd completed ten years of a 12-year sentence for first degree assault and third degree weapons possession. While Marlon was inside, I read his blog and some of the correspondences he'd exchanged with Nadia Lopez's eighth graders. I was amazed not simply by Marlon's generous precision in the letters, but by how descriptive and honest Ms. Lopez's students responded to his prose. Without a drop of condescension, Marlon's letters encouraged the students to reckon with their thoughts, feelings, senses, and imaginations.
When Marlon got out of prison, even though I hoped he'd join me at Vassar, he enrolled in NYU. For the past five years, we've been friends, taking turns leaning on each other when the world tilts a little too unexpectedly in unfamiliar ways. I don't know another person who has literally given every drop of their life to making sure his community and this nation confront its reliance on structural and interpersonal violence. He has made that his work. Those of us who know Marlon have seen him change our world—while changing us and himself—one sentence, one child, and one block at a time. Even before Humans of New York ran a spectacular piece on Marlon, I knew I had to ask him to be a part of our Times Six series.
Two of the questions focus on memory, love, misogyny, and blackness. Two of the questions place us at 12 years old, the same age Tamir Rice was when he was gunned down by police in Cleveland, Ohio; and the same age Davia Garth was, who was killed by her stepfather in the same city. One of the questions asks us imagine two incredibly needed national policy proposals. The final question ponders how black lives can actually matter in 2015.
Laymon: Tell me about the first time you remember your love for black folks being threatened?
Peterson: I don' think my love for black folks was ever threatened. I do know, however, that it took some time for my love for black folks to develop. Though I respect and always pay homage to my upbringing as a Jehovah's Witness, I don't recall any particular love for my blackness and black folks until I was a pre-teen when I read books like The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Also, seeing Rodney King get beat, and then the subsequent acquittals of the officers that almost batoned him to death, enraged me even as a young kid. Though I lived 3,000 miles away, I felt a collective responsibility to be in solidarity with black folks. I remember reading an article for a school assignment titled, "A Nation Divided" by Anna Quindlen, and declaring which side of the divide I was on. So, I guess, anti-black love by the state inspired my love for black folks.
When you were twelve years old, can you describe for me what a perfect day would look like?
Perfect is relative to me. For me this day would have to be during summer in Brooklyn. I'd ride my 20" BMX bike to my friend's block in Bed-Stuy. It was about a half-mile from my apartment in Crown Heights. Eating 25-cent BonTon BBQ chips—the red bag—with an orange quarter water, and maybe an order of French fries from the Chinese takeout spot for lunch. On Mondays, I would ride to my friend Joseph's house, then go to the JHS 35 park across the street from where he lived. We'd play basketball and just crack jokes.
Every other day I would journey a little deeper into Bed-Stuy, by my friend Dwayne's house. We'd ride our bikes with no hands around Bainbridge and Rockaway Avenue. Playing tag and riding bikes until around 7 or 8 p.m., when I had to ride back home, was also the perfect day to me.
If twelve-year-old you could describe the most exciting thing you did last night, what would he say?
Twelve-year-old me: "Last night I watched the first episode of season 4 of The Wire with the kids that were my age. I had to hide because I didn't want daddy to catch me watching it. It had a bunch of cursing. But, it was so good, especially the parts with the kids. Plus, Marlo is the name my family calls me, and there is a Marlo in the show. My name is cool now. The shooting in the show was crazy, though. It was like when we used to live on Nostrand Avenue. We used to always hear gunshots. Anyway, The Wire was mad good. I stayed up mad late to watch it too. I was so sleepy for school today."
Can you describe your first memory of misogyny and anti-blackness colliding?
Jennifer Corbett. Seventh grade. My crush. She sat behind me in homeroom and English class. I had never heard of big words like "misogyny" or terms like "anti-blackness," and the Rodney King decision had not happened yet. But, I vividly remember hating that she was smarter than me. I hated her test scores and the way the teacher affirmed her answers to questions in class. I was my sixth grade valedictorian. How dare a girl be smarter than me, I thought. Above all that, Jennifer enunciated her words clearly, without all that slang I loved. Almost every day, I would chide her saying, "You talk like a white girl!" or, "You think you smart 'cause you talk like a white girl?!" There was the natural, immature boy-having-a-crush-on-a-girl thing happening here. But, in hindsight, that was not happening in a vacuum. The fact that she was a girl who was smarter than me, that spoke like an intelligent young black girl, was also operating. Also, I was equating whiteness back then with good diction, and my black slang had less value, even though I knew I was smart. Eventually, Jennifer cursed me out and told me to stop calling her a white girl. Actually that was the first time someone had actually cursed me out, too. Good for her—standing up for herself against my silly, insecure self.
If you could concretely propose any two new national policies, what would they be?
First, I'd create zones where no guns were allowed—no police, nobody. The policy would not come with a criminal penalty, though. It would be agreed upon by local communities, lessening the likelihood of folks violating it.
Second, I'd also create a national holiday acknowledging the atrocity of slavery in this country. Maybe it could be a national day of white apology. This isn't a policy, but it's an official acknowledgement of the stain of white supremacy in this country.
How can black lives really matter in these United States of America?
Black lives can never truly matter in this country, or any other country in this world filled with black people and other people of color, because we have to ask that question. Think about it, despite the Holocaust, did anyone ever have to question the value of Jewish lives? Black lives didn't matter to white folks in the 1600s when they first started kidnapping and jailing us into slavery. Since then, Lincoln freed us, LBJ enforced our right to participate in this democracy, and Obama is supposedly repping blackness in the White House, right? Yet we're still asking for relevance and value to our lives. Kiese, bruh, who do we have in mind when you ask that question, "How can black lives really matter?" Black lives mattering in these Unites States of America is a battle to uproot the foundation of this country. If we mattered, we'd never be here. Sorry for the pessimism. I'm still resisting and fighting, but I do have hope. It's just that I always find history conflicting. James Baldwin was so truth-telling when he said, "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." Rage ain't healthy, bruh. That's probably why so many of us have heart disease. It ain't the food; it's the racism.
Marlon Peterson is a social and criminal justice advocate, writer, organizational trainer, community organizer, and educator who spent 10 years in New York State prisons. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Previously for Times Six:
[Photo via AP]