by Terrell Woolfolk-Carter
Nothing is as simple as it seems. As children, our psyches have been stamped with the patriarchal idea of Eve being the progenitor of sin. Because of this, every time something goes wrong, we look for someone to blame—it was Eve’s fault that humankind was kicked out of paradise. This has created in us a laziness as we seek simplistic answers to life’s complexities. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Hopefully, as you travel with me out of the loving arms of a West Philly home and into the cold, hard embrace of penitentiary walls, you’ll begin to understand the choices we make—not unlike Eve’s choice—are a bit more complicated than human beings simply exercising their free will to do the wrong thing.
My early life is best described in two stages: the first stage, from birth up until the age of twelve, was not filled with stories of an absent father and a drug-addicted mother who would lose herself in a weeklong crack binge, leaving me alone to take care of my younger siblings, or an evil step-father who at every turn physically, mentally, and emotionally abused me because I was not his biological son. My early life was the exact opposite of these things. Although my mother and father were separated, my father who was a drug counselor, was a steady and positive influence in my life. It’s kind of ironic that the very things he counseled people about were the very things that destroyed my life. My step-father, a black history teacher, was a man who loved me and raised me as his own. He was a man who tried to instill in me a sense of pride and a love of self, but the very tools he used to teach me—a knowledge of a rich African heritage—was one of the sources of my shame. Both of these men understood the forces that exist in our society and they tried valiantly to save me from what they knew waited outside the door of our home. But those forces and the influences they brought to bear were so powerful that I went against the people who loved me the most. This story is the why and how something like this could happen.
I grew up in a home that was full of love and positive influences. My only worries at the time were the pursuit of childhood ambitions: who could run the fastest, stuffing my belly with as much junk food as possible, and how to avoid homework. So coming out of an environment where most of my friends did not have the advantages that I had, how could my life end up with me being condemned to die in prison and theirs didn’t? Maybe it was because of who I was—a young man not afraid to take risk, who was ripe for the right circumstances to arise that would push me headfirst into a bottomless pit of pain and misery. So even with all the love and support that I had, it still wasn’t enough to help me resist those mean Philadelphia streets. It’s not that I was just a weakling who jumped at the first opportunity to take the easy way out. That wasn’t it at all. It was just by the time I was old enough to succumb to those negative influences I had already undergone years of conditioning.
As far as my memories go I can remember being taught, through ridicule by those around me and through the images I saw, that my very dark skin, my blackness, was a curse, a bad thing, evil, ugly. The very first thing that gave me a sense of self shamed me at the same time. This assault on my being had a devastating impact on my sense of self. So although I had a loving family and I did all the things that normal children do, by the time I was five my self-esteem was virtually destroyed. This hatred for the self would be like fuel leaking from my soul, leaving a trail behind me as I traveled the road of my life.
The next stage of my life, from twelve to twenty-two, started with a gun in my face. I was robbed for the jacket I wore. Knocked in my back, I lay paralyzed with fear, blinking back the tears as the fuel from my soul ignited, engulfing me in the flames of self-destruction. Not only did I lose my jacket, I lost my freedom. No longer could I just be a boy who did boyish things. As sharp stones and bits of glass bit into my back, I took myself to trial, found myself guilty of weakness and fear, and sentenced myself to a life of thuggery. Never would I be a victim again, I would be the victimizer. I became not what I wanted to be, but what forces outside myself determined: a slave of negative circumstances.
So there I was, a boy still, who at sixteen would become a father but knew nothing of what fatherhood entailed; but I loved my daughter and would do anything for her. You would think that the birth of my only child and the love of my parents could pull me out of the hole that I had fallen into. But as my present situation bears witness, neither of those circumstances could. Instead, I had become a student of my environment, and the streets taught me well. I paid rapt attention as society taught me how to hide my vulnerabilities behind things that sparkled and that I could cloak my lifelong shame underneath expensive clothing with European names stitched in the labels. Problems was, I was a child—impulsive, impatient—who like most children lacked the brain capacity to understand long-range consequences. Yeah, I could have gotten a job like most young people who existed in the same environment and who suffered from the same conditions. But that gun sticking in my face as a twelve-year-old taught me a valuable lesson: sheep trapped in a den with wolves get eaten alive. As a twelve-year-old I tried the job thing. I worked hard, packing bags at the local supermarket, to get enough money to buy that jacket, only to have someone take it from me. I was that sheep who had just been bitten by a wolf. So as I lay on my back making that promise to myself, I didn’t realize that I was locking myself in that den (the streets), and the only way for me to survive was to cover myself in a wolf’s fur and grow some sharp teeth. But there were consequences to this choice that my young mind could not foresee.
I learned real quick that the wolves’ den was no place for feelings of inferiority and inadequacies, because this wolf pack fed on one another’s weaknesses. So I watched the other wolves, and it wasn’t long before I discovered that they were just like me—sheep in wolves’ clothing, young boys who could’ve been anything. But because of feelings of inferiority, inadequacies, and fear, it was believed that the only way to live life was to be wolves who feasted off the flesh of sleep. But I still had to protect myself from the other wolves who seemed as if, although my body was covered in the clothing of a wolf, they could still detect the scent of sheep as if it was seeping through my pores. But how did they do it? How did they avoid being cannibalized? After all, we were all masquerading as wolves trying to mask the scent of sheep. So I watched them closely and it wasn’t long before I discovered their secret. In order to hide their insecurities, their fears, their weaknesses, they would drink this magic potion that came in the guise of alcohol and codeine-laced cough syrup. All of a sudden, the scent of sheep would magically dissipate, replaced by a false sense of confidence that I could only dream of. I had to have it, and it wasn’t long before this magic potion was warming my throat. All of a sudden, I had no fears, I felt inferior to no one, and it felt as if I had the power to do anything. The problem with this was the magic lasted only for brief periods, hours at the most, and while under its influence the filter that all human beings have that regulates their behavior is gone. The magic potion rendered me completely uninhibited, nothing became off limits. The feeling was good and it helped me survive the Wolves’ Den. But at what cost? The feel good and how to maintain it became a part of me. So every chance I got, the magic potion was filling me up, and before I knew it I was hooked. I was trapped. As long as I masqueraded in wolves’ clothes, intoxicated with a magic potion, baring sharp teeth, I would forever be stuck in that den.
So from my early teens to my early twenties I stayed fly, I stayed high, and as long as jewels rested against my dark flesh and I continued to shine, the blackness that had been hounding me my entire life would be kept at bay.
But all these things came at a terribly high price—my life. By the time I was twenty-two I had a world view shaped as a child by a gun sticking in my face, and a destroyed sense of self. Considering these circumstances, and as a child how I responded to them, there should be no surprise that on the highway of life I would switch lanes and end up on the express lane to the penitentiary.
Since I’ve been in prison, I’ve grown to hate the month of May. Usually, that’s the time of year when the days are a bit longer. It’s the time of year when the warmth of the sun is just right—not too hot, not too humid, with a nice cool breeze whistling through the thick tree canopies. It’s the time right after April showers have cleaned the city streets and everything has a look of brand newness. It’s the time of year that I feel homesickness most acutely. As the sun filters through the rusty screen of a cell window and steals a kiss on my dark skin, I’m reminded of some of the things I miss about home. The greens of the trees, the bright colors of the flowers. I’m reminded of my old neighborhood because like bears coming out of a long winter sleep, everyone in the ‘hood came out. Like the West Philly block that I grew up on, every time the weather broke, that small residential street would be full of children. The sound of joyful shouts and laughter as children ran up and down the block would last until the sun retreated west and ducked behind rows and rows of row homes. Like Peacocks strutting proudly with their beautiful plumes of feathers on display, young men lean hard in late-model cars, windows and sunroofs open, convertible tops down, with booming drumbeats blasting from brand-new, state-of-the-art stereo systems as they cruise slowly up and down the city blocks. All of them competing for the attention of young women, who just on the strength of a feminine finesse turn those same city streets into supermodel catwalks as they simply go about their business.
For the past two and a half decades, every year in the month of May, all of these things invade my dreams and haunt my waking hours. All the while I’m stuck behind this monstrous wall separated from everything and everyone I love. For me it’s the most depressing time to be in a penitentiary. Recently, though, I’ve come to realize that what I thought was homesickness was nothing more than self-pity in disguise. The real reason why May has become my least favorite time of year is because that was the month in 1991 that my life would tragically change forever.
I was twenty-two years old at the time, dealing with issues of not liking who I was and drug addiction. I was still running with the wolves, by now a veteran of wolf-den politics. On top of all these inner-demons, I was struggling with issues of infidelity and betrayal. The only coping mechanism that I had was a familiar one—that good ole magic potion.
On this particular night after taking at least ten valiums that were ten milligrams and washing the pills down with a 40 oz. of malt liquor, I became lost in the delirium of a drug-induced haze. I was so high after about fifteen minutes of taking those pills I can’t recall anything that happened after that. It wasn’t until the next day that I began to hear what happened that night. My initial reaction was one of disbelief. I actually believed that someone was trying to set me up. Even to this day, twenty-five years later, those feelings of disbelief still plague me.
I’ll never forget that first weekend in May. It was Saturday, the night before Mother’s Day. When I stepped outside into that cool spring air, my intentions were to just get away from home. At the time I was having issues with my girlfriend so I just wanted to blow off some steam by hanging out with my friends and getting high. But a typical night out with the fellas was not in the cards for me. After that night I struggled for days in total disbelief. I kept telling myself that what I was hearing were just rumors. But as the days dragged on and the more people talked about it, the more I felt resigned to the truth of it. Imagine waking up one morning after a night out with friends, only to find out that you were involved in someone’s death, but you have no memory of it. I was devastated. I can remember constantly asking myself, Why me? But being a veteran of the wolves’ den, I knew I had to mask my fear. So I just bared my teeth and acted as if it was business as usual. But then the dog catchers picked up my scent and I was forced to do what all the wolves do when the dog catcher comes—I ran. I ran for twelve months before they finally caught me, and six months later I was tried and convicted of Second Degree Murder, sentenced to Life Without Parole and shipped to a penitentiary.
I was twenty-two and I had just been condemned to die in prison. I heard the words when they were uttered from the judge’s mouth, but my mind just didn’t have the capacity to understand what they meant. I was delusional. I actually believed that I would be home after a couple years. As a result of this I found myself trapped in a culture of incarceration. My days consisted of sports, working out, and recalling days spent running the streets. I spent at least eight years in this state. Throughout those years, in the deep recesses of my consciousness, a nagging question—why?—plagued me. Little by little this question whittled away at the distraction of my incarcerated existence, clearing the way for me to search for the answers.
I wasn’t a bad or evil person, but that’s what being condemned to die in prison implies. So if I wasn’t these things, why did my life turn out as it did? This question was like a ghost that haunted the edges of my consciousness. After a while, though, I was able to exorcise this ghost, freeing myself to discover the why. But it wasn’t easy, for the answer to this question was as elusive as the common cold. Had it not been for a few older men who took the time to provide me with the means to find out about the how’s and why’s in my life, the man that I am today would not exist. I was told that in order for me to discover the answers, I would have to first discover who Terrell was. Because in figuring that out, my weaknesses would be laid bare. This would then allow me to figure out how and why my life turned out as it did. So after years of self-reflection, I began to know the hardest person in the world to know—myself. I discovered that I love to learn, that I have no limits on the things that I want to know. I discovered that I love the truth, but it’s hard to accept when it’s a critique of yourself. I discovered that I’m a man who loves life and people no matter what the cultural difference, but at the same time I hate how people can be so cruel to one another. I’m a spiritual man, in the sense that I recognize that all living things are connected and this connection guides me in how I related to the world. I found out that I’m a man who despises injustices and I’m passionate about fairness and equality. I discovered that I’m loyal, I value family, friendships, I’m funny in a serious sort of way, I’m honest, trustworthy, and open to new things and ideas. I’ve discovered that I’m a generous man who’s always looking to do the right thing. Lastly, I’ve learned that I’m a man who’s always seeking to contribute to the well-being of everyone I establish a relationship with.
All of these characteristics that I’ve just described have armed me with the only weapon that I could use in the battle for myself the only weapon in the world that could eradicate the self-hate that had corrupted my being for my entire life—the love of self. The older men I met in prison led me to a well of knowledge, and because I drank from it I was able to provide myself with the sustenance that the seeds of consciousness, my step-father had planted in me all those years ago, needed to finally take root. Armed with this self-love, I could then begin to shed that wolf fur so that I could finally be who I was meant to be.
After a long and difficult journey of self-analysis that has allowed me to know and love myself, I no longer need artificial stimulants to pump me full of false confidence. Now I realize that all I ever needed resides within me and it always has. I’ve grown to love everything about myself and at the same time I’ve grown to know that I’m not perfect. So my journey continues as I recognize that one of the things that life is about is being aware of your faults and overcoming them. So everyday this is my task, making the good about myself better and eliminating what’s not.
One of the things that I’ve learned about my transformation process is that it’s ongoing. You see, I made the mistake of believing that I had arrived, that my transformation was complete. But hidden behind feelings of being mistreated by the criminal legal system was an attitude of entitlement. This feeling was like a shackle that kept me chained to the wolves’ den. You see, I was so caught up in self-pity, I was deaf and blind to the cries and tears of pain that I was responsible for causing. It was all about me, and whenever I spoke I came off as if I was entitled to something, almost as if I was a freedom rider in the South fighting for the right to vote. I couldn’t see that the difference between those sheroes and heroes and myself was the fact that they did nothing wrong. I was blinded by my own selfishness. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine, Ghani, said to me, “Terrell, imagine yourself standing before a panel of judges and the only thing standing between you and your freedom is what you say to them. Right before you begin to speak an elderly woman stands up and says, ‘But you killed my son.’ What would you say?”
When Ghani posed this question to me I was stuck, lost in a wordless bubble. All of a sudden, as heavy as the penitentiary walls that surround me, the weight of what I was in prison for came crashing down upon me. I stuttered for a moment before replying, “I’m sorry.” Which was the only thing I could think of to say. Ghani slowly nodded his head and said, “That’s the only thing you can say.” He smiled then because he knew that at that point I understood. Finally I could see the tears, I could hear the cries, I was no longer deaf and blind. This sensitivity was the key to unlocking the shackle that allowed me to be fully free of the den. Moving forward I will always be mindful of the hurt I caused and this awareness is what drives me now. It is the thing that fuels my desire to be free of the walls that confine me so that I can make amends, so that I can give back to the community that I took so much from.
I’m a man who’s been tried and convicted of murder. The penalty for my transgression is condemnation, to die behind forty-foot penitentiary walls, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, you reap what you sow. Simple ain’t it? But is it really? Or does my life demonstrate that things are never as simple as they seem?