Last week, The Michigan Quarterly Review’s Khaled Mattawa hosted poet and activist Reginald Dwayne Betts for an evening of visual art and poetry. The event was a celebration of Betts’s editorship of the MQR’s Fall 2020 issue, “Persecution.” While it was held over Zoom, I could imagine its invisible audience holding bated breath as Betts unleashed the power he’s harnessed from and since his confinement.
The performance and ensuing conversation drilled at Betts’s own truth alongside an ineffable broader message, captured through his masterful use of a third space formed by a dialogue between words and images. I could feel with visceral recognition the way language became the texture of Betts’s previously unimaginable future while he was in prison. Betts spoke about his time in solitary confinement, saying he frequently heard voices requesting a book or magazine — the sounds punctuated a constant low hum of voices traveling from other cells. These voices from outside the doors — expressing loves gained and lost, hopes deferred and recovered — seemed submerged behind thick walls but were followed by the clear brushing sound of literature skirting across the floor.
As an opening salvo against the carceral state, Betts shared a redacted document from papers that were used to incarcerate hundreds of people in Alabama for overdue parking tickets; the end result was a lyrical exploration of the harsh realities of the American legal system.
“It is the policy of the city-to-jail people,” Betts read to the digital room. As he recited his incantation, its effect was very nearly that of watching a courtroom fill slowly with people, defendants and would-be citizens: “It is the policy, it is the policy, it is the policy, it is the policy…”
The rhythmic tones of Betts’s voice lapped in waves along a distinct frequency in the air — one accessed by anyone who’s been forced to endure the unthinkable and accept the unacceptable. When Betts used the word “stigmata” in the Q&A later, he quickly added that he wasn’t sure why he used the word but it felt appropriate. I agreed with him. I imagined how the imagery of stigmata, ankles and wrists bloodied after a near-death experience on the cross, viscerally reflects the experience of invisibly enduring the denial of one’s own humanity and then walking free into a world that views marks of a troubled past with unrestrained, cruel dismissal.
The evening made me think about how a prison sentence and its aftermath engenders these same feelings of invisibility. During the Q&A portion of the event, Betts spoke extensively on the restorative project of “moving norms” in American society, beginning with how education and creative control have empowered him by restoring otherwise stolen potential.
In his virtual performance, which was accompanied by animations of trees blooming skyward and brought to mind fecundity in otherwise barren, barred and empty spaces, the following line reverberated like a gavel: “His name was an echo, like the elegy of a court door closing.” From the bedroom in my studio apartment across from the psychedelic rug in my sitting room, from which I can see a bookshelf filled with years of my life in books, I could hear the door’s hinges creak — could hear it echo through the leaden weight of silence beyond my screen.
His time spent reading a volume of Black poets there changed the landscape of what he’d thought possible for himself. Betts seemed to be asking: Can we extract people from the documents holding them hostage to society’s judgement and thereby subjecting them to a life of stigma and punishment? Can they be released from the captivity of such judgement?
His indelible answer is a resounding yes: By reconstructing the self through words and in glimpsing written experience, a person can ultimately shed the stigma of their past. With that said, this freedom might not be fully realized; American society won’t allow anyone to shed their past outright. One especially powerful visualization from Betts’s performance was his depiction of redacted documents overlayed onto an image of a Black man, backed by stark white paper. The obstruction of black redaction stripes became synonymous with carceral bodies.
This redaction leaves gaps or openings of faint, thin lettering where articulation behind the documents is still visible — where a life beyond sentencing becomes just legible enough, or maybe even possible. Through the process of rebuilding a self beyond bars, Betts’s work examines what it means to pry open and become captivated by words and their imagined futures.
Daily Arts Contributor Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.