A wise woman once told us that "there are years that ask questions and years that answer".
Zora Neale Hurston was right.
I got involved with MassNOW's Legislative Task Force at a friend's request and I'll admit it: it was intimidating to be part of a group dedicated to combating societal woes by changing laws. It'd be an understatement to say that I was nervous about contributing to a Task Force comprised of lawyers, professors and lobbyists.
I was a volunteer with a heart of gold and the gift of gab...and no legislative experience.
So, I began to get my bearings during our meetings, jotting down notes about politicians and useful nuggets about the process of reconciling different versions of bills. I also made the mistake of trying to morph my contribution into something that I thought would more closely resemble others' (you know, in an effort to be more "legislative"), but after a lil' while, I decided to shake things up:
I decided to be brave enough to honor my friend's invitation. I began to serve our (un)common goal by doing what I do best - speaking and writing from a place of cultural critique and conviction, earnestly crafting and sharing narratives that are close to my heart, and imploring people to reconsider the unchecked notions they've held dear for so long.
I began to do this across the country while I traveled for work and pleasure - from lines at the grocery store and to the front rows of lecture halls. I started random hashtags around which people from all over the country could engage one another in conversation about what was happening in Massachusetts. You see, I had to learn that there's a place in every movement for people like me. At that point, I wasn't familiar with how the sausage is made - I was just intensely aware that we needed to make and eat the high-quality kind.
I was drawing on the very best parts of myself to help engineer a better, more considerate society by helping Massachusetts pass an Anti-Shackling law. I was doing this as a descendant of Black women who'd been sharecroppers and slaves, women who'd historically been deprived of autonomy over their own bodies and the conditions during which they gave birth.
I'd spent the summer of 2013 back home in Chicago hammering out organizational testimony in support of the Healthy Youth Bill (that would require that sex ed be medically accurate, age-appropriate and not abstinence-only) when I Skyped into the Task Force meeting and heard about shackling in Massachusetts prisons.
You see, I've mentioned my family's complicated history in the States in previous posts. I experienced a disgusting, guttural reaction when I first heard about the practice. It struck me immediately as a remnant of our slaveholding past. Maybe it was being back home in Chicago, a city whose juvenile detention center holds three times as many people as the adult one, a city whose state had passed two versions of the law in the past ten years, a state that was rich in cultural memory as a former Mecca for people who'd aspired to make a shift from that oft-blamed Deep South during the Great Migration like my grandparents.
Whatever it was, my mind and heart could not let go of Anti-Shackling. See, I grew up in a family of faith. I often heard riveting sermons delivered over pulpits that implored congregants to engineer a sort of heaven on earth. Even though I've moved away from some of that theological foundation, a Gospel song modeled after Habakkuk 2:2 played in my mind constantly during that year: "Write (down) the vision, make it plain, that they may run and not faint. They shall walk and not get weary; they shall run and not faint."
Anti-Shackling, in my mind, was a message that needed to be spread. People needed to be repulsed and horrified by what was going on. People needed to be rendered uncomfortable by torture written into law. As a Task Force member, I'd gotten my vision...and now I intended to use my skills to make it plain. I shared about what Massachusetts was doing everywhere I went - from every airport, to every worker in every gas station, and every bowtie-clad, tome-toting and tort-laden law student in the Boston metro area.
What really sticks out in my mind is the everyday reaction of people I spoke to at those bus stops, in those grocery store lines and lecture halls. No matter where I was, while some people pushed back against the practice simply because it existed, most recoiled in horror because it existed in Massachusetts...
...because they would've believed it was Mississippi.
Most of the incredulity I encountered came from people who refused to believe that "this could happen here", "that a blue state could allow this to happen". I heard this from people who swore that "this wasn't the South we were talking about".
After two glorious months back home in the Land of Lincoln, I hightailed it back to Boston and told the Task Force that I wanted to focus on this, that this is a practice that has its feet in one facet of America's Deepest Shame, and that I had no intention of leaving the legislation without some intentional public support. MassNOW got me in touch with NARAL's Celia Segel (bless her heart and temerity) and that was the beginning of a beautiful Anti-Shackling friendship...that eventually blossomed into a coalition of more than a dozen organizations.
I might not have gone to law school and I don't see myself going any time soon, but I do know a couple things: the world has never improved because people stayed silent, the heft of social change has never come about because people checked their hearts and moral compasses at the door, and lastly, because I come from a tradition that honors the humanity inherent in all of us by bending toward Justice...
...I know that progress (not to be confused with 'movement', 'cause all movement ain't progress) can only come about by first remembering your History. Women have given birth while inhumanely restrained since the early years of our country's history. The year 2001 asked the question by way of Representative Kahn's initial bill.
By becoming the 20th state to ban the practice, Massachusetts has contributed to being part of the answer. Let's keep going -
...we're not weary - and we're not inclined to faint.