Recently, I’ve begun corresponding with a prisoner on North Carolina’s death row, named George Wilkerson. About a year ago, I sent him a copy of “I Am Troy Davis” (which I co-authored with innocent death row prisoner Troy Davis, who was murdered in 2011 by the state of Georgia.) He wrote back to me, an extremely powerful response to the book… it took me a year to respond to his letter (yes, I feel terrible about that)–but I finally did on Christmas day…and his response to my response came almost immediately, in which he gave me permission to post here anything he wrote in his letters. One of his goals is to reveal the humanity of those society has encaged and invisible-ized. I hope that by posting bits of his correspondence here, it helps achieve that.
Hello. My name is George Wilkerson and I’m a prisoner on Death Row in North Carolina. Recently-as in the last 18 months-I’ve been learning to write, and I realized that writing is nothing without having something to say, something that’ll make a difference, you know?…You, me, and many others on both sides of the wall are engaged in a war–a war of ideas. If we can help people to SEE us as human beings, it’ll change the way we’re treated. Change the way a person THINKS, you change the way they behave. One moment, one crime, doesn’t define a person. We have feelings, and moms, and kids. We love. We suffer.”
Then, in response to my belated response….some other words from George:
(in response to my remarking on his talent as a writer:)
“I appreciate what you said about my writing, but really, if I have any talent at all, I have to say it’s a God-given gift, although I think maybe it’s my context that fools people into thinking I have any: I’m a prisoner on death row; the expectations are pretty low. :-)”
(in response to having read “I Am Troy Davis,” and the fact that Troy has never been officially exonorated)
“People like us are fighting battles in a larger war, eh? Sometimes, there are decisive battles upon which turn the war, but often there is no clear demarkation. We have to have faith that what we do, in terms of fighting where we are, with the tools/weapons we possess, all plays a role in the larger scheme of things. Let’s say you reached a few preachers and teachers–I’m simplifying to create a formula from which we can extrapolate. Preachers and teachers directly influence the thinking, and therefore behavior, of thousands of people. Right?…To me, activism surrounding the death penalty and the justice system need books like yours. They are our weapons. You gathered the facts, you humanized a problem, you showed how an abstract idea like “injustice” looks and feels and cries. You provided an entry point for those who can’t comprehend abstractions, for those who don’t operate on principle, but need instead concrete connections to their world before they’ll act.
And, you do a great job of contextualizing Troy Davis’s situation, showing how it is symptomatic of a greater problem. That’s the interconnectedness you spoke of. These situations aren’t isolated evenets! But we need people like you to show how they are connected.”
George: I have much to learn from you. We all have much to learn from you.
I’m sure I’ll be posting more of your words, and often. But for now, may those who read these words see you–and all those locked up with you–as a full human being.