Thursday, February 19, 2009

How I Went From Prep School to Prison by John Forté

Being accepted into Exeter allowed me to escape my violent, crack-ridden neighborhood in Brooklyn. And yet, I somehow ended up in prison like so many other young black men.

I never dreamt about being in prison during my incarceration. Every once in a while, I dreamt that one or more of my friends (from inside) and I were hanging out at one of the places I missed and remembered—New York City, the Exeter campus, the recording studio. But to my recollection, I never had a dream that took place in prison. The most frequent destination in the dream state was the house in which I spent my adolescence, on Legion Street in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Brownsville, with the help of the times (i.e. the proliferation of crack cocaine in every major city in the US during the mid-1980s), acquired an Enter-at-Your-Own-Risk reputation. The so-called luxuries that were afforded to drug dealers (cars, jewelry, and clothes) came with a price—the seemingly inexorable final destinations of prison and/or violent death.

I would lay awake in bed, numb to the gunfire just outside my window, counting the shots like sheep.

Notwithstanding the statistics (one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are currently incarcerated within the criminal-justice system), the promise and proximity of drug dealing is oftentimes too influential to be overcome by logic and intuition.

For as long as I could remember, being from the city was associated with an innate swagger, a defense mechanism built on skepticism and bravado. Keep your guard up! Don’t be nobody’s fool! That kind of thinking. The durability of youth in the 1980s in Brownsville and other similar places was replaced with a mentality that was as empowering as it was impossible to bear.

Brownsville! Never ran… never will.

Do-or-die Bed-Stuy.

Gangs were born and buried throughout Brooklyn and the other boroughs in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Back then, however, disputes were predominantly settled with fists. The wealth (or at least the illusion of wealth) that was created in the 1980s also brought with it a bloody, news-making urban warfare, where a worst-case scenario was not a night in a county jail cell and being admonished by an infirmary nurse for your involvement in a brawl. The violence that began to define the era was a game changer, one that required incredulous family members to “please identify the body.”

I remember sitting on my bedroom floor in our second-story apartment watching the evening news. The scenes of violence in Beirut (even in snowy black and white) were enough to leave a deep impression on my young psyche. How can people live there? I wondered. Why don’t they move? Later that night, I would lay awake in bed, numb to the gunfire just outside my window, counting the shots like sheep.

Continued Here....

John Forté is a Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer from Brooklyn, New York. A classically trained violinist , he is known for his work with the multi-platinum group, The Fugees. Forté was granted a commutation by President George W. Bush on November 24, 2008 after having served more than seven years of a 14-year federal prison sentence for a drug offense.

More John Forte Here.