Posts Tagged ‘Dwayne Betts’

Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom chronicles his development as a writer during his years behind bars for a carjacking he committed at sixteen. Betts’ memoir pulls readers into the cells of the prisons that housed him, places where, in Betts’ words, “I have lived things I will not recover from” (176), but also where he observes that he “found creativity” (63). The knowledge that Betts discovered his voice behind bars prompts a troublesome question: Would he have found it elsewhere? Whether he would have become a writer outside of prison remains unclear. There is however, certainty in this: As a man who became a writer in prison, his writing and incarceration are inextricably linked. Betts’ testament to that, his memoir, tells not only the story of his prison sentence but also the story of the words of others coming to shape his own story and leading him to find his voice as a poet. For all that he shows his readers of prison, Betts’ memoir is ultimately more about the transformative power of art.

In the chapter “Joseph’s Hand,” Betts meditates on the unconventional drawing style of another inmate, a young man whose pen scratches lead Betts to see art in a new way:

I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets. I had been there for a few months and ran into Joseph, drawing in a way that broke down all of my ideas of what a picture should look like and what it should do. (63)

Joseph’s drawing was a revelation to Betts, what he describes as a “symbol for the idea that art can translate, subconsciously and consciously, your world into your images” (64).

Later, Betts finds his own path as an artist after someone slips a copy of Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. As he reads Randall’s book in solitary confinement, he discovers that his desperation and isolation enable him to see the words on the page as he has never seen them before. In his own words, “[s]olitary confinement gave me a gift I could have gotten nowhere else: the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words” (165). For Betts, The Black Poets serves both as a groundbreaking influence and a motif in A Question of Freedom. The first sentence of the memoir alludes to Etheridge Knight’s For Freckled-Faced Gerald”—a poem Betts first encounters in Randall’s anthology—paraphrasing its lines, “sixteen years hadn’t even done / a good job on his voice” (6-7). And lines from Knight’s poem also serve as the epigraph for the second part of the memoir.

Near the end of A Question of Freedom, Betts reflects on The Black Poets as he recalls receiving a response to a letter that he had written to the poet Tony Hoagland:

When I’d gotten my first book of poems, The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, I was a seventeen-year-old kid in a solitary confinement cell wondering if he was going to survive prison. By the time Mr. Hoagland wrote me, I was a few years away from release and still standing. (217)

Readers unfamiliar with The Black Poets cannot see initially how importantly that volume of poetry figures in the pages of Betts’ memoir, but slowly its significance becomes clear, just as the scratches of Joseph’s pen slowly—and seemingly miraculously—become a hand. The lines of Betts’ memoir serve as testament not only to his survival but also to the troubling truth that prison, for all of its harrowing experiences, gave Betts a writing life, endowing him with gift for “[w]eaving prison’s hurt into poetry” (165).

Would Betts have become a writer without the creativity that he discovered in prison and the way of reading that he found in solitary confinement?  Betts’ memoir yields no clear answer to that question, nor does it offer a definitive answer to why he made the mistake—the moment of aberrant behavior—that led to more than eight years behind bars. Prison, as Betts observes, “blossoms contradictions” (181). The gift he found there, one of  “carving a voice” (123) remains one of those contradictions, one that will likely remain in the minds of readers long after they have followed Betts out of the pages of his memoir to a place where many inmates will never return.

Works Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom. Avery, 2009.

Knight, Etheridge. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. Bantam, 1971. p. 205.

 

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

R. Dwayne Betts / Rachel Eliza Griffiths

In the first paragraphs of Dwayne Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom (2009), he recounts his ride to the Fairfax County jail after his arrest for carjacking: a “certifiable” crime in Virginia, which meant that then-sixteen-year-old Betts would be treated as an adult under state law. Last Thursday night when Betts took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne, he began by reading those paragraphs, returning to the backseat of that police car, where “[e]verything near enough for me to touch gleamed with the color of violence” (3). After reading from his memoir, Betts turned to his collections of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015), alternating his readings with stories of his years in prison and his writing. He expressed his concern that some people cited his memoir as evidence that prison benefited him, because he had finished his high school education behind bars; and since leaving, he had completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, an MFA in Creative Writing at Warren-Wilson, and a law degree at Yale. To see his post-incarceration successes as evidence that his years behind bars benefited him, Betts said, was a misinterpretation. Following his Q&A with the audience, Betts concluded by saying that he’d been desperate and lucky–“but sometimes desperate and lucky works out.”

Among the anecdotes that Betts shared with the audience was one focusing on his answer to a question about one of his poems. A reader asked him why an otherwise innocuous poem ended with an image of crack cocaine. To illustrate why he ended the poem that way, Betts turned to August Wilson’s play Fences, telling the audience how the character Troy tries to explain his adultery to his wife, Rose, by likening his decision to a moment in a baseball game. He’s wrong, Betts said, but it’s the only way Troy knows how to try to communicate what he means. In Betts’ words, “sometimes you only have what you have to explain the world.”

Betts’ memoir isn’t an easy read, showing as it does what a life behind bars can do to the mind and the body. But it also tells the story of the power of the written word, how books sustained Dwayne Betts and led him to become a writer, “carv[ing] a voice out of the air” (123). Though many of my students aren’t drawn to writing or to reading books, I believe that the experience of studying  A Question of Freedom and hearing Betts speak has deepened their understanding of the vital role that reading and writing can play in their lives.

Work Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom.  Avery, 2009.