by Emile DeWeaver
A friend recently told me, “We in the Humanities can expect to make no money.” She spoke with self-deprecating humor, as does everyone I know in the humanities when they talk about their work. They grew up in the same culture as I did, where schools balanced budgets by cutting art first (and I include art here because art is a part of the humanities, though it often stands alone). Perhaps my humanities friends had a dad like mine whose response to artistic aspirations was, “Heck no, Emile. It’s hard enough to be black; you’re not going to be a black painter.” Whatever their backgrounds, they’re accustomed to a popular culture that devalues their work, because, unlike the sciences, whose products are readily quantified in patients and dollars, the humanities resist commodification a lot better than they do budget cuts.
How might we quantify the value of philosophy, history, or literature: what are they worth? I’d like to argue that the humanities should defy quantification in a similar way that human life should defy quantification, but I’ll ballpark a dollar amount: $16 billion dollars. Just kidding. $16 billion dollars is just how much an emphasis on humanities might save us in reduced prison expenditures.
I’m going to tell you a story, which isn’t exactly scientific evidence, about the humanities’ role in my transformation and rehabilitation. If we had time, I’d tell you about the hundreds of incarcerated men I know who also found a means of transformation through arts and humanities. A monthly column isn’t long enough for that conversation, so I ask that you allow my story to represent them all—insomuch as the humanities can prove a powerful tool in both the rehabilitation of those who’ve broken society’s norms and the habilitation of those who have never learned the norms.
By the time I was 18 years old, I was on track to a life sentence in prison for murder. My life and the lives of my victim’s family were in ruin because the worldview I’d adopted was ruinous. Today, my worldview is life-affirming. That transformation didn’t happen because 20 years ago prison “cured” me. If you’ve read my essay “Identity,” you’d know my daughter played a big part in my change, but literature also played a pivotal role in reconnecting me with my humanity.
The book that changed my life was Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In one journal, Emerson advocates, “Write your own Bible.” His disillusionment with institutionalized religion spoke to me. Having long ago rejected church as an ethical authority, on trial for crimes committed for the ideals my friends in “the streets” held holy, I was disillusioned with everything. I had lost my ethic. This wasn’t the first or even the second time I’d suffered this kind of disillusionment, and this exacerbated the instability in my already chaotic life.
An insecure childhood disposed me to seek security, and fundamental to my sense of security was a worldview. The existential crisis I faced during my trial was that not only had I lost faith in the street ethic, but disillusionment left me too afraid to adopt any ethic at all. I’d followed other people’s views all my life. They’d led me down different tracks to the same cell. Although I wasn’t the kind of person who could thrive without an ethic, I was finished fitting myself into other people’s perspectives. Until I read Emerson, it hadn’t occurred to me to investigate what was important to me and create my own ethic from the thoughts of man. Philosophy, history, and world religion would consume me.
If I was going to forge my own ethic, I needed to understand what had come before me, what people had gotten right, and which answers had become antiquated. I sought the power of knowledge, but I found more than that. I’d wasted my life inhabiting different personas because I’d believed something was wrong with me, but in literature, I found something as transformative as it was surprising: validation of who I am, a secular humanist. In great minds from Emerson to Iyanla Vanzant, Lao Tzu to Khalil Gibran, I glimpsed reflections of myself. In literature, I rediscovered questions and ideas I’d had as a child, arguments that would have had me beaten for insolence or blasphemy. I felt at home among history’s mental giants, and reading them made me feel gigantic. More than that, I felt like less of a social outcast, like I authoritatively belonged to the human race. This conviction made the difference between sinking beneath new lows of criminality and climbing toward a sense of world citizenship.
Even at 19 years old, I recognized the power of what I was reading. I remember closing Anthony T. Browder’s Nile Valley Contributions to Civilization—which for me rewrote the narrative of what it meant to be black—and complaining to my cellmate, “Why the fuck weren’t they teaching this in school?” I was angry because I believed that had I read Emerson and Gibran and Plato in junior high school, I would’ve thought and behaved differently. But there are no do-overs. I knew that all too well, so I resolved to move forward and write my Bible.
Talk to the kids who triumph over their environments, the superheroes, and although multiple factors will have contributed to their success, you’ll likely discover in them the ingredients of a Herculean ethic: they have a strong vision of who they are, who they want to be, and what they believe. They’ve written their Bibles.
After I chased red herrings through Socrates’ discursive investigations in Dialogues of Plato, I opened my blank book—permit me some artistic license here—and penned the first verse. In the Beginning, Emile decided, “I shall be skeptical.”
I ingested thousands of pages of Chinese philosophy and learned about equanimity and compassion, meditation and karma. The latter especially appealed to me. Karma meant I lived in a world where I controlled my destiny, and this philosophy didn’t ask me to believe in it. It asked me to examine cause and effect in my life and challenged me to deny or confirm the operation of karma. Verse 2: And on the evening of the second day, Emile decided, “I shall not be a victim of circumstance.” Certainly bad things happen to good people, certainly social injustice is real, but you get from life what you put into it: hate reaps hate, love reaps love. We create the real world in which we live. Conversely, we can decline to create our worlds, in which case we will live in the world others have created for us.
I read Hindu literature. Verse 3: We’re all on the same journey; we’re just at different bends in the road. Contempt for someone’s character flaws makes no more sense than contempt for a stranger because she’s traveling three days behind me. Contempt for myself makes less sense.
Verse 4: I shall not sell what I can give away.
Verse 5: I do not choose who loves me. But if I’m honest about who I am, someone will.
Verse 6: If I write what I’m afraid to say, I can liberate those who also feel afraid to use their own voices to say the same things.
I wrote a whole Book of my Bible called “Folly of Kings,” inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s infamous sculpture, a toilet bowl that he placed on display and named The Fountain. I was 23 years old, and the sculpture made me angry because, in my mind, it didn’t even look like a fountain. I didn’t get it—I was thinking about decorative fountains with water-spitting features—so I castigated Duchamp in a paper I was writing for a college correspondence course. Halfway through my academic rant, I returned to my picture of The Fountain to stoke my self-righteousness, and an image flashed through my head. I was drinking water in a middle school in Los Angeles, and the drinking fountain looked just like Duchamp’s sculpture. I realized the failure hadn’t been in Duchamp’s art but in my own mind. Verse 7: And the spirit of Duchamp said, “Never hold someone accountable for your shortcomings. And never forget—you have shortcomings!”
I named my favorite Book after my favorite writer: “Gibran.” Verse 8: Have the courage to be afraid.
I read Mark Twain’s “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg,” a short story about the value of untested virtue, and realized that whatever ethic I forged would be as superficial as the morals of Hadleyburg’s citizens if I didn’t practice my ethic in the world. Up until this time, I’d become a hermit, spending most of my time away from prison politics, studying in solitude. It was like a strange twist on Plato’s cave allegory. I’d spend years creating a different world for myself in my cell. This world was valuable—it’s the foundation of my convictions today—but separated from life among people, it could only be a pseudo world of shadows. So I ascended from my cave into the light—for the light will always be found among people and not upon the esoteric heights of intellect.
In thousands of neighborhoods like Brownsville in Brooklyn, like [insert the hundred neighborhoods you know], social pressures condemn as many as 80 percent of the children to grow up and go to prison. These pressures include situated identity (a psychological phenomena by which a person becomes a criminal when treated like a criminal) and group conformity (peer pressure*). Philip Zimbardo, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment, characterizes the effort necessary to overcome pressure like these as heroic. The 20 percent success rate—we’ll call it the rate of escape—of people in aforementioned neighborhoods support Zimbardo’s assessment, and though I don’t think it’s fair kids need to be superheroes to break cycles of violence and incarceration, that’s the state of our nation. Granted this necessity, the meaningful question is, how do we make superheroes out of our kids?
If you listen to kids who are dropping out of school and joining the pipeline to prison, you’ll often find that they lack a cogent vision of who they are, who they want to be, and what they believe. Talk to those who triumph over their environments, the superheroes, and although multiple factors will have contributed to their success, you’ll likely discover in them the ingredients of a Herculean ethic: they have a strong vision of who they are, who they want to be, and what they believe. They’ve written their Bibles.
I had none of these ingredients through most of my teens, but when I closed my books to test my ethic in a maximum security prison—read: war zone 24 hours a day—I emerged from my cave with a clarity of identity that protected me from many of prison’s pressures. Despite my need for acceptance, I didn’t join a gang. Despite my fear in a dangerous place, I refused to own or carry a knife. Despite the prison politics that demanded—on pain of death—participation in racial riots, I never committed violence in a riot. I resisted prison’s pressures because I knew who I was. I was clear about my values, and the humanities played a foundational role in this clarity.
Despite my need for acceptance, I didn’t join a gang. Despite my fear in a dangerous place, I refused to own or carry a knife. Despite the prison politics that demanded—on pain of death—participation in racial riots, I never committed violence in a riot. I resisted prison’s pressures because I knew who I was. I was clear about my values, and the humanities played a foundational role in this clarity.
Verse 9: In his 35th year, Emile cried for help. He finally understood, “I cannot make it alone. And if I could, what would be the point of getting there?”
Verse 10: Emile spoke; people listened. Emile realized, “I can change the world by talking about the change in me.”
I might have had a different life if I’d read Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson when I was 15 and still in school rather than when I was 19 on my way to prison. I think about those impoverished communities where only two in ten will have the Superhuman ethic to resist what most human beings won’t, and I wonder if a stronger emphasis on arts and humanities in junior high school would give two more kids the clarity to transcend their social environments.
Two more kids in ten would raise the rate of escape from 20 to 40 percent. If this can translate into 20 percent fewer people in American prisons, that’s 460,000 lives—460,000 families—rescued. If this translates into spending 20 percent less than the $80 billion dollars we spend annually on prisons, then we come back around to my ballpark figure. What might the humanities be worth outside Plato’s cave, inside America’s at-risk neighborhoods? $16 billion dollars?
*In 1955, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a study that showed 70 percent of people confronted with seven peers—peers who incorrectly judge a short line marked on a card (say a three inch line) to be the same length as a longer line (say six inches)—will agree that the short line is the same length as a longer line.