Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Darryl Hunt's death challenges us to listen

(Photo: Darryl Hunt with April Garrett during panel discussion on the movie The Trials of Darryl Hunt at Harvard University)
The text message I received from April Garret forced the type of reflection that made me mad and sad within the same breath.

“Darryl Hunt died today at 51,” I paused before reading more. “He was in a truck with a suicide note and a gun.”

April and I were introduced to the life of Hunt at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. It was during the showing of The Trials of Darryl Hunt, the documentary that exposed the world to the malfeasance that led to Hunt’s wrongful conviction of the rape and murder of a Deborah Sykes, a white newspaper copy editor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Hunt was imprisoned in 1984 and spent 20 years incarcerated. In 2005, he was exonerated by DNA and other evidence that proved the district attorney was complicit in the handling of the case. In December 2003, Hunt’s DNA was run against those in a database which determined the DNA in his case belonged to Willard E. Brown. Brown, who was a primary suspect prior to Hunt’s arrest, confessed to Sykes rape and murder long before Hunt’s release from prison.

On February 6, 2004, Superior Court Judge Anderson Cromer vacated Hunt’s conviction. Getting there wasn’t an easy task. Hunt, and his legal team, were forced to maneuver through dynamics that continues to impact black men and women caught in the criminal justice system. Concerns like cross-racial eyewitness identification, prosecutorial misconduct, implicit bias in death penalty cases, inexperienced defense attorneys assigned to capital cases and errors in police procedure are documented in The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

Barry Scheck, of The Innocence Project, worked on Hunt's case for ten years. After his release, Hunt worked with the Innocence Project and The Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, the group he founded to educate the public regarding the flaws within the criminal justice system while advocating for the rights of the wrongfully incarcerated and providing resources and support for people after serving time in prison.  

The news of Hunts suicide is difficult to take.

I met Hunt after writing a column that profiled Hunt published in the Durham News. The column spoke of Hunt’s humility and faith during his journey for freedom. Hunt was in Durham to speak during the annual meeting of Durham Congregations in Action (DCIA). He approached me after someone informed him I wrote the column he read earlier that day.

His response reflected a level of appreciation I have never experienced as a columnist.  His voice was broken and his eyes exposed a few tears.

“Thank you for what you wrote,” he said. “It means more than you will ever know.”

“I’m amazed by you,” I responded. “You are a model of strength.”

It’s a point that Garrett and I shared prior to Hunt’s death. Garrett conducted a screening of The Trials of Darryl Hunt at Harvard Divinity School in collaboration with Harvard Law School. Garrett, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, held the event as the founder and president of Civic Frame, Inc. In addition to Hunt, the panel included my friend John Mendez, pastor of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, members of Hunt’s legal team, public defense advocates and Katie Brown who produced the documentary.

Both of us have been changed after meeting Hunt.

"From day one, I told them I was innocent,” Hunt said.  “And the question has always been, was anybody listening?”

Is anybody listening?

There was so much that deserved our attention. I’m sure his closest friends noticed the depression that came after Hunt was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. It had to be hard not to notice the pain after the separation from his wife.  She was the rock that anchored him after they were married during his incarceration. It had to hurt when their love wasn’t enough to endure the challenges that come with making a marriage work beyond the limits of prison bars.

Few of us fully understand the torment of serving 20 years in prison. It has to be worse when you’re innocent and youth is swallowed up with the passage of the days.  I don’t understand the burden of incarceration. Few of us do. Prayerfully, we never will.

Hunt committed suicide.

 I’m in no position to judge why he gave up on life after clinging to the dream of freedom.  Hunt asked if anyone is listening. Maybe he is challenging us to continue to listen.

Hunt leaves behind the witness of his struggle for justice.  Maybe his release from prison wasn’t enough to set him free. If so, this is the strain among those who endure this form of mistreatment.

This is the weight carried when people fail to listen to the cries of the innocent.

Live well in paradise my friend.

I hope we are listening.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Does anyone understand the struggles of black men?

On yesterday, I was pulled over by a Highway Patrolman for driving while black.

I felt it coming as soon as I passed him.  I was driving at 70 miles per hour headed West on Interstate 70.  I wasn’t speeding, but I sensed the worst when he pulled behind me as I followed a truck in the right lane. The tension increased as he followed me for what seemed to be too long. I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t sure why.

The revolving motion of the blue light confirmed my suspension.

“Driver’s license and insurance card please,” the tall, lean patrolman requested. Of course he’s white. “You know you only have one license plate. In Missouri, you need two.”

In Missouri you need two – one in the front, one in the back.  No big deal.  The mistake wasn’t mine. The attendant at the DMV only gave me one after I paid the property taxes when I purchased my car last year.

“Where you from. Where you headed. Where you purchase your car, why do you have a North Carolina license?” he probed like I’d been sworn in to testify in court. I was given a warning. End of story, right?

No, it’s the next page of a never ending saga.

It took me 45 minutes to reach my destination. A lot happens within a mind left alone to contemplate a series of questions with no more than assumptions to form a conclusion. Why did he really stop me? Was it because I’m black? Is it just my imagination, and I’m not talking about a groove from the Temptations?

I hate the fact that I’m left to ponder these questions

It’s not the first time I’ve been pulled over for driving at or under the speed limit.  It’s not the first time I’ve debated with myself regarding the meaning of a simple traffic stop.

It’s part of what I carry as a black man. Or, is that an overstatement? I’m certain white readers will discount my being stopped as no more than an officer doing his job. Insert loud sounds in my head coupled with words I was told not to use when I attended Sunday School.

I searched for someone to process the moment. Who? Hello! Will someone help me keep from losing my mind up in here, up in here?

Who understand the mass of pain that kept my mind glued on queries that many can’t understand? Each question framed the thesis of a topic that requires a dissertation to answer. It’s enough to keep me locked on stupid. Welcome to my world. Sadly, I know I’m not alone.

Once I parked my car in front of city hall and rushed to the meeting I had with the city manager, that bone I wanted to pick was too big for me to bite alone.

Do people understand how it feels to be a black man? That one is easy to answer. Hell no! the second question simply made me mad. Does anyone care?

The questions forced deeper scrutiny of the rage in my belly covered by layers of pretension and avoidance.  I envy the privilege carried by people not stuck on that lingering stupid prompted by years of not understanding the friction that makes it hard to embrace authentic freedom.

Maybe that awful feeling, like smoke venting from my head like a message telling people to stay out of my way, was the result of being single for too long. It could be the angst of being a big, black man is more onerous because there’s no one to scream at and hold at the end of the day. Maybe, just maybe, it’s more about me than the fact it takes people time to figure out I’m not the brother who robbed their mother last week.

Get out of my way. I don’t want your wallet. Hello, I said move!

Excuse me for venting, but it takes a lot to walk around in this body. Can I please get a witness?

Yes, let me testify. It’s not just what white people think. Part of the torment is the result of being forced, and I mean forced in real terms, to carry the unrealistic expectations of black people.

There, I said it!

Frantz Fanon is one of my literary mentors. His book Black Skin, White Mask helps me understand the divided self-perception black folks carry as a result of losing their native culture. Their embrace of white culture results in an inferiority complex that begins a scuffle to overcome the hideous place I call the middle. 

The middle is the place in between acting white and being too black. The quest for authentic identity is a battle between conflicting world views – black skin versus the white mask.

You get attacked for taking white and assimilating to firmly into white culture by obtaining education and other symbols of white culture. Getting paid, accepting certain jobs and taking care of yourself and family becomes risky business.

Being a black man is a constant battle of legitimizing authentic blackness within the context of seeking normalcy. By normal I mean paying your bills and making a difference beyond what others define as appropriate.

Being a black man requires that we always, and I mean always, “keep it real”. By real I mean not doing too much to question black solidarity.  It means being careful not to become a sell-out. What does that mean?

It means not taking a job that forces you to sing and dance to a white person’s music. It means not forfeiting blackness for the sake of some of that white prosperity.

This is the point that forces the smoke erupting from my head to send those messages.

It’s all a lie.

I don’t care how hard a person works at forfeiting their blackness for the sake of embracing a white identity – it doesn’t work. Black remains black, and no suit, tie and college education can change any of that. People see my blackness as soon as I walk in a room, and there is nothing I can do to alter the assumptions in their heads before I say hello.

What’s the point?

Give me my freaking freedom. Isn’t that what all of us want? Don’t we seek the freedom to function devoid of the labels that limit what we desire to do? Isn’t slavery about being defined by the supposition people make after boxes are made to keep others in their assigned places?

I was wearing a blue tailored suit, silk tie, white shirt with cuff links when stopped by the highway patrol. I drove my luxury car under the speed limit when others passed me like I was standing still. I was listening to classic Coltrane – Giant Steps. Darryl Pinckney’s book Black Deutschland rested on top of my IPad on the front passenger seat.

I handed the officer what he requested. Again.

Exhales followed by old memories. When will I be free to be me?

Too white for some. Too black for others. Off to my sell-out job to fight to create opportunities for black people.

Does anyone understand how it feels to be a black man?