by Terrell Woolfolk-Carter
The eyes of the courtroom wept streams of sunlight that filtered through the curtain cracks, highlighting a swarm of dust particles that floated lazily in the air. The movement of the dust had a slow-motion effect, and it could become hypnotizing if you stared too long. Slowly I dragged my eyes away, but I got a sensation that the sunshine was freedom and to look away would be to lose it somehow.
My eyes moved to the judge sitting high up on his throne-like bench. Wrinkles creased his forehead. He was studying some papers on his desk. All I could see were those wrinkles and the top of his balding, age-spotted head. My mind began to wander: what if I’m found guilty? I could feel the pounding of my heart as its rate increased. My mouth became bone-dry while sweat covered my palms and trickled slowly down my back. Anxiety had invited fear to take up residence within my soul, and anger was pounding on the front door. I took a quick glance behind me at the rows of seats filled with family and friends. Could my loved ones see my fear? Did my face betray my anxiety? I struggled to keep my face blank; after all, I had an image to uphold–powerful, soldier, thug, afraid of nothing, one who looks fear in the eye and spits in its face.
Always “the man,” I donned my mask of indifference. I smirked, something I always do when I want to hide my fear. Right at that moment, I locked eyes with my five-year-old baby sister. She called out my name and reached her tiny arms out for me. What could I do? I couldn’t go to her. I couldn’t pick her up. I couldn’t place kisses on her cheeks. I could feel the desperation of my tears as they struggled to be free from prison that my eyes had become. I took a deep breath and secured the locks of their incarceration, blew my baby sister a kiss, and faced forward again with my image still intact.
Not a second had passed before the judge peered over his horn-rimmed glasses. He stared at me as if he could see through me. He cleared his throat. A hush fell over the courtroom. There was no emotion in those cold, blue eyes or his voice. “Mr. Carter, would you please stand.” Now not only could I feel my heart pounding, I could hear it vibrating against my eardrums. The judge continued, “I find you guilty of murder in the second degree, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole.”
The courtroom erupted into shouts and cries of despair. My father, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, and friends all stood. Fingers of accusation were pointed like arrows at the judge. The sudden shift in mood made the sheriffs nervous. Like the shiftiness of a hummingbird in flight, their eyes darted back and forth, searching the crowd for signs of trouble as they quickly gathered around me.
When the judge uttered those words that robbed me of my freedom, time stopped; I became trapped in that moment—not by the judge’s words, but by the pandemonium in that courtroom. Now twenty years later, the commotion of that day has settled in my mind, and the judge’s words of condemnation are one of two things that I remember so vividly. But at the time, those words had little impact on me, Reason being: a scream. Like the terrifying wail of an air-raid siren warning the people that bombs were dropping from the sky, a cry erupted from my mother. This scream silenced all other voices in that courtroom. It was unadulterated pain begotten by tragedy that manifested in a sound I can only describe as a guttural scream soaked in wretchedness and dragged through an alley of anguish. Everything ceased to exist except my mother and me. This scream seemed to emanate from a place deep within her that only a woman who had given birth would know. Never in my life have I experienced the hurt that I felt at hearing this sound that came from the woman who kissed me on the cheek, tucked me in the bed, and chased the bogeyman away. It sliced through me, cutting me deep to my core.
The atmosphere in that courtroom was filled with sorrow, and self-pity thickened it. It became hard for me to breathe. My throat became tight and I swallowed. But at that point it was all about me. The grief in that courtroom became a coat that I cloaked myself in, shielding myself from the chill of responsibility. Why me? The DA is a racist. The judge is a racist. This wou1dn’t happen to me if I was white. I was so engrossed in my self-pity that I failed to take into account my actions and what part I played in the circumstances that I found myself in.
Suddenly it was as if God wanted to show me how self-pity blinded me to responsibility and that my mother’s pain was an old pain and her wail was a cry that had been echoing across this land for centuries. Slowly the commotion in that courtroom began to fade. There was a white blinding light and I could feel a sensation of disembodiment. I was floating, connected to nothing. A myriad of colors shooting past me, then, the reality that I knew was gone. I had been dropped off into a place that time seemed to forget: Gray clouds fill the skies and the rain falls in a misty haze. I stand as a child shivering in my mother’s arms upon a wooden auction block. The judge now is a slave auctioneer. His cold blue eyes latch on to me, sizing me up like a calf on its way to the butcher. He sneers. There is no humanity in that sneer or those arctic seas of blue, no compassion, no mercy. Pale hands reach out. They are huge, growing larger as my fear amplifies them. I flinch right before he grabs me. His hands are cold, hard, and the calluses that cover his palms scrape against the naked flesh of my bare shoulder. I shiver from the cold of his touch and my fear. He squeezes tight and his vise-like grip sends pain shooting down the length of my arm. I cry out, but my cries are the cries of the calf being sold to the butcher. They are just noises of an animal. What does the butcher care for the cries of his food? Then I’m snatched away from the safety of my mother’s arms. “We got one healthy nigger boy-child. Let the bidding began at two bits.” Dozens of white faces stand in front of the auction block leering at me, and when the thick southern drawl of the auctioneer’s voice commences the bidding, hands shoot in the air and competing shouts of purchase erupt from the crowd. In a matter of seconds life as I know it will be over. I will be sold to another human being who hates me, moved to a place unknown, never to see my mother again.
My mother, tears streaming down her face, reaches out for me, but her motherly instinct to protect me is answered by a savage kick to the face and an unmerciful beating. This brave African woman still cries out, not from the pain of the beating but from the agony of losing her firstborn son.
I guess God deemed my lesson learned, and it was; for I saw through the eyes of the truly condemned who bled their innocence on the wooden planks of an auction block. I could feel the pain of my ancestors who lost their freedom through no fault of their own, who, through the following centuries, paved a path with their lives so that I could be free. Free to do what though? Take for granted the lives sacrificed for my own, so that I could then relinquished the freedom that others died for? Who am I to feel sorry for myself? I’m the one who brought to life our tortured past to be relived through the misery of a mother losing her firstborn son. It was I who open the door of my mother’s soul allowing the echoed agony of our ancestors to vibrate through her heart.
The tragedy of that auction block began to fade. God picked me up again and carried me out of that time where my predecessors lived and died as chattel.
We traveled along the echoes of a mother’s cry passing through a deluge of shame that soaked me to my core. A barrage of colors passed before my eyes. There was a faint sound of voices. They became louder and, just as I realized what I was hearing, I was dumped back into the commotion of that courtroom.
At that point my mother’s scream began a symphony of grief. It was a sad melody that infiltrated my entire being, building up to a havoc of dissonant chords of emotions within my soul. Tired of knocking, anger burst through the door of my anxiety, and fear. I just wanted to shout, I ain’t dead y’all stop fucking crying!
At twenty-three, I just couldn’t understand the enormity of the circumstance. I couldn’t understand what was obvious to everyone else in that courtroom: that there now existed a very strong possibility that I would never see the outside of a prison wall again. Was I in denial? I don’t think so. It was just that life-without-parole was so far outside of my life experience that I had no way knowing what it meant. To me five years was a lifetime, so the idea of spending the remainder of my life behind a prison wall was just too alien for me to understand. I was lost, my youth blinding me to the concept of time.
Instead of shouting, though, I simply dropped my head and told the sheriff, “Yo, get me the fuck out of here.” The handcuffs clicking around my wrist, in a perverse way, felt comfortable because it signaled my exit out of that maelstrom of grief. A slight nudge by the sheriff and I began the long walk through that center aisle of sorrow.
I avoided looking at the faces of my loved ones. The anguish and the tears were just too much to bear. I could feel my incarcerated tears once again begin their struggle to break free from the prison of my eyes, and once again I secured their locks. I couldn’t let my family see that kind of weakness in me. After all grown men don’t cry, do they? I took a quick glance to my right. Oh, shit! Are those tears streaming down my father’s face? Naw, that has to be my eyes playing tricks on me. I quickly faced forward again, resisting the urge to look his way again. At the time I couldn’t deal with a challenge to my concept of manhood. This idea of what a man is and how he conducts himself during times of stress is what I clung to in order to maintain my composure and sanity. My machismo was my strength; the warrior in me enabled me to fight. Tears streaming down my father’s face would have destroyed this idea. The very foundation that would have given me the strength and the will to fight would be no more and I would have fallen into a black hole of despair. So instead, I kept my eyes glued to the top of the exit where portraits of old white men hung, those whose judgments populated penitentiary graveyards across the state. Who are these men? And why can‘t I see myself in those images. Instead, I’m reminded of the men handcuffed and shamed who’ve walked this path before and how they all look like me. Before I could fully explore this thought I entered the City Hall corridor.
As soon as I stepped into that hallway time slowed and a moment became an eternity. Another one of my sisters, just a few years younger than I, was doubled over in agony, sobs wracking her body and tears pouring from her eyes. Then she looked up. The hurt that was etched across her face became seared into my mind, a constant reminder of the terrible pain I caused. It was at that moment, as I locked eyes with my sister, unable to comfort her, that I realized that my life and how I lived it not only affected me but affected other people as well. My anxiety and fear were so distracted by anger bursting through the front door, that they were totally unaware when sorrow crept through the back to take sole possession of my soul. The sheriff nudged me forward again, and the tears that I had been holding prisoner finally broke free. I couldn’t incarcerate them any more. Liberated, they covered my face with signs of their escape.