I have always been aware of the responsibility I have as a writer toward my readers, that what I write can effect their lives. But not until John Lee came into my life did I realize that what I write can change the course of my own life.
One day John said to me, “I’ve been thinking about your book, The Road from Chapel Hill.”
“What did you think?” I asked him.
“Tom’s life was like mine in many ways.”
“Tom was a slave. How could his life be like yours?”
“Because I’m a slave too, a slave of the state. It says so in the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. And because Tom did not know his father, and he was taken away from his mother when he was very young. But mainly because . . . you know that part in the story where Tom learns to read and realizes he’s not stupid?”
“You mean when he ran singing and shouting through the streets?”
“Yeah. I know how he felt. See, my true education did not start until I came to Death Row in nineteen ninety-two at twenty-five years old. I was very upset and confused when I was sent here. I could not understand why this had happened. Then one day an older prisoner came to me and gave me a book called Holy Qu’ran. He told me that if I studied that book it would lead me into knowledge, wisdom and understanding. “
“That night while locked in the cell, I realized that I couldn’t read this book very well because I wasn’t a good reader. The next day I talked with the older cat about this problem. He told me to have no shame and to start asking everyone for help. So I started asking everyone to explain word meanings to me, and every day I would sit in front of the TV and look at different commercials and repeat what the person was saying and the name of the product, and when I didn’t understand I would ask someone to say the name of the product for me. “
“Now reading is my biggest educational strength today. My attachment to books has restrained me from getting involved in gambling, drinking, fighting, and doing unpleasant things in here. And it’s taught me how to express myself. At first when I wrote to penpals, I didn’t know how to put my thoughts into words, so I would copy out of books because the writer could say it better than me. Gradually I learned from writing it all out how to say it for myself. It taught me how to think as well, because while I was writing it out, I was thinking through what the writer was saying. Now I am thinking and analyzing everything all the time.”
I was fascinated. “Tell me what it felt like, how it felt inside your head when you first began to think.”
He thought a while.
“It was like when you notice a butterfly not as a butterfly, but as a living, pulsating energy as it flaps its wings. I began to see things a lot differently and more clearly. Free! I felt free! Just like Tom did in your story.”
“I’m still learning about thinking and I’m getting better at it all the time. That’s why I like to talk to educated people, people like you. It makes me think in different ways and I get to understand more about the world and why people do the things they do. You don’t know this, but you’ve already helped me change some of my opinions just by being willing to come see me and talk with me like I am a human being.”
He smiled. “Thank you!”
“Don’t thank me,” I said, “Your Muslim brother’s the one who started you off thinking for yourself. You should thank him.”
John Lee looked at me with something painful in his eyes. “Oh, nah, I can’t do that.”
“Why not? What’s the matter? Have I upset you?”
“They executed him. He was a good man too. He taught me a lot to help me be a better person.”