R. Dwayne Betts was a 16-year-old honor student when he carjacked a man. It was 30 seconds that would forever change lives. Thirty seconds that he, his mother, nor his victim could ever get back. It was 30 seconds that would eventually lead Betts to spend nine years in prison.
His first book, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” chronicles his coming of age behind bars. The writing is deliberate and contemplative; hints of his lyrical side creep through. It’s a memoir obsessed with words and how those words transformed over time, through different situations. Words like statistic, inmate, state number, maintaining, visceral. Words like Reginald and Dwayne acquired new interpretations as Betts tried to avoid and accept the name that he shares with his absent father, a convicted felon.
“A Question of Freedom” is also a bibliography of sorts. Props to reading material that Betts consumed in prison—like asha bandele’s “The Prisoner’s Wife,” John Edgar Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers,” Sonia Sanchez’s “Under a Soprano Sky” and Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets”. These were books that stuck to his ribs, helped him to move forward, and pushed him to pursue a career as a writer. Now, as a college graduate and published poet (his debut collection “Shahid Reads His Own Palm” drops next year), 28-eight-year-old Betts reminds us that liberation can be found in the written word.
BOTR: In your memoir, you wrote: “I’ve always wondered why the books I read before I’d gotten locked up didn’t save my life, especially since everyone I’d met in prison could see how writing and reading changed my vision of the world.” This passage struck me on many levels. I know there aren’t any easy answers, but what are some of the reasons you think this was the case?
R. Dwayne Betts: The main reason for me is that as a child I’d read in isolation. I’d never been in a position to be challenged about what I thought these writers were saying, and I’d never been in the position to question others about what they might have been saying. When I write this, it sounds simple, but I believe, I fundamentally believe, that we all understand how growth and development comes through the way we engage with the world—yet, for most young people, they never have the chance to engage critically with the world of literature—at least I never did.
BOTR: What would you say to those who believe that black boys aren’t interested in reading or writing?
RDB: I think I’d have to address the men around those black boys first. Reading is an acquired taste, but it starts very young. Unfortunately, many adults either read in isolation the way I did as a child, or they don’t consciously push reading as a means of socializing. I’d suggest that the adults around them create a space in which they could come together and talk about books and see how books echo life and vice versa. The other thing is that most of the young folks who don’t like reading, have had very few books of their own. This is a problem. You can’t expect a young person to like reading when it’s never been treated by people around them as if its as important as sports, or cleaning your room or doing your homework. My son is 20 months. He has about 20 little basketballs and footballs that my wife and I have bought him and that friends have bought him—he has just as many books. His world is both—toys and books.
BOTR: There have been a number of black men who have discovered their passion for the written word in prison, which also helped them to (re)discover themselves. What has reading and writing taught you about yourself then and now?
RDB: I’ve learned that I’m more flawed and complicated than I once thought, and that the world is far richer than I ever dreamed it was as a child. I also learned that while I can’t dance, can’t sing, and can’t play any instrument particularly well—I can hear the music and words, and on a good day make them sing.