Montana Innocence Project Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, shares some of her favorite books and songs about innocence and racial justice to read year round but especially during Black History Month below:
In the past year, I have found myself saying this a lot when an impassioned person asks me if I’ve seen an incredible new show/movie or read an amazing book that champions innocence work or casts a spotlight on racial injustice: “No, but it’s on my list.” My list is getting very long because when I go home, I get to spend all my time with a really great (almost) one year old whose sense of injustice centers around whether or not she agrees to take a nap. With this said, I’d like to provide you with some suggested materials that do not take long to engage with, and my reflections on them.
This book was sent as a birthday present to my daughter (and, yes, I opened it, and read it prior to her birthday). The usual tenants of a good board books apply: rhyming verse, to assist new orators in stringing together words, accompanied by beautiful colorful art. But what struck me are the lessons that, as an adult, I need to be reminded of. Without giving away too much, my favorite “step” in the book is, “8. Grow to be an antiracist. Antiracist Baby is always learning, changing, and growing. Antiracist Baby stays curious about all people and isn’t all-knowing.”
This 8 minute and 16-40 second song is just AMAZING for so many reasons. In fact, I used to play it for my daughter in the womb because I couldn’t wait for her to hear it. Mr. Dylan identifies so many of the drivers of wrongful convictions including jury bias, eyewitness misidentification, use of incentivized witnesses, police misconduct, and channeling during investigation. It makes Rubin come to life; his career, his loss of reputation, and time are punctuated by that excruciatingly captivating violin, acting as a Greek chorus mourning this tragedy. Ending with the harmonica finishes with a familiarity, as if to say, “this is just one of many stories like this.” So much is crammed into this song so that, as a listener, you find yourself going back again and again to “get it all.” In this, Mr. Dylan does a yeoman’s job of expressing just how many layers of analysis apply to each and every wrongful conviction and how difficult it is to fight your way out.
Watch this YouTube video of her performance! Emotions climb out of the screen and envelop me. I think about the senseless brutality that this song reacted to and I am enraged. I recognize that I will never know the depth of what led to Ms. Simone’s beautiful song, but this is what it reminds me of: It’s the feeling I get when I review a case that is just plain wrong, and after trying everything I know to do, I am left helpless against the wave of injustice that thrives on “tough on crime” rhetoric and acceptance of the status quo, which will keep innocent people locked up. Her song elicits a physical manifestation in me: that vibrating hot buzzing mass of rage, crawling out of my heart, through my chest, burning my esophagus as I choke back the white hot venomous…pain from experiencing change happening far too slowly and knowing people will continue to be hurt along the way. This burn sharpens in the last few seconds of this song, as she enunciates, “Gooooodddammmmnnnn,” slams the last note on the piano, stands up, and percusses, “That’s it.”
In the PBS article referenced below, Ms. Simone stated, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. That to me is my duty… And at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved.”
Clearly, Ms. Simone has done her part, and after sitting with this rage, I consider what is my part, and how I can be of service!
A few years ago, I was bopping along, celebrating Christmas with my family, when I asked my Dad if he knew any of the artists performing at a local music festival, to which my Dad played this song, which hit me like a metro train in House of Cards. It wasn’t exactly the heartwarming carol I was primed to hear, but otherwise it was very much appreciated. The first few lines of the chorus ring out, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war. Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for.” In this, Mr. Isbell holds up a mirror to his audience and just lets it sit there, however uncomfortable. This song grapples with white privilege and the concept that it’s not enough to just not be part of the problem. Will I add this to my Christmas playlist? Perhaps not, but a good message, all the same.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
***Despite my preface regarding lengthy materials, I have included this book that I read about 3 years ago when I was on a comedian autobiography kick.***
This book is completely fascinating. Mr. Noah provides insight and reflection on injustice he was aware of from the start of his memory, recalling the restrictions imposed upon him solely because he is a light skinned black man, whose father was white and mother was black. His explanation of the laws of South Africa is stunning in that they were actually created from a belief in racism. There are so many amazing books written about the history of and fight against racism in the United States, which I will let others recommend (as noted above, they’re on my list), but I remember this book, three years after I read it because it stunned me. The stark racism Mr. Noah describes is completely bizarre when exposed in the daylight, as if someone from another planet is telling us about systems of their world. But as I re-read the first few sentences, (“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”) it sounds pretty applicable to what I see on the news today. Alas, this is back on my list!