Object Lessons on Chronic Poverty in America
In The New York Times February 6th on pages 20 and 21, across from each other, there were two tragic stories centered around the themes of sex, race and power. You might call them love stories, though they were definitely not Hallmark card or Harlequin romances.
The vast amounts of popular romance-focused drama we absorb through TV and movies in this culture tends to keep to narrow parameters, generally avoiding love stories that are too complicated, challenge established cultural assumptions or that threaten some area of middle-brow decorum or corporate sponsorship. These love stories are all of that.
One of these stories was sketched out in the obituary for Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter of a 20-year-old Strom Thurmond and Carrie Butler, an 18-year-old African American maid in his family’s home in Aiken, South Carolina back in the 1920s.
Thurmond became a bulwark for southern racism as the governor of South Carolina, then a segregationist independent candidate for President in 1948 and, finally, he spent decades in the US senate. He lived to the ripe old age of 100. In all those 80 years since conceiving Ms Washington-Williams he never publicly recognized his daughter. Her mother died at age 38 the same year Thurmond ran for President. Washington-Williams was raised by an uncle and aunt in Pennsylvania. She never repudiated her biological father and met with him many times in private. He sent her money now and then and once responded to a Father’s Day card by writing: “Dear Essie-Mae, Thank you for your fond remembrance on Father’s Day. Affectionately, Strom Thurmond.”
I was born in New Jersey but was raised in the redneck agricultural area in south Dade County below Miami. Interracial sex was always a heady brew to ponder for a white kid learning to deal with segregated water fountains and schools. I recall a saying that went around among adolescent males that you weren’t really a man “until you’d split a black oak.” Back when the youthful Thurmond exploited his family’s maid and, we must presume unwittingly, produced a child, this sort of power-based sexual vestige from the days of slavery and Jim Crow must have been strong.
Drama and literature show that the human heart is a complicated thing; no one expressed that better than Carson McCullers in her famous novel’s title, the heart is a lonely hunter. Only the participants know what the real relationship was between a 20-year-old white son of a wealthy South Carolina lawyer and an 18-year-old African American girl cleaning their home. This kind of story is, of course, not unusual when you consider the realities of sex, race and power throughout history.
The story facing the Essie-Mae obit was about Nancy Gonzalez, a 29-year-old corrections officer at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and a military veteran. She is being charged with sexually abusing 30-year-old gangbanger Ronell Wilson, an African American inmate at the detention center charged with shooting two New York City police officers in the back of the head from the backseat of a car in 2006. It was a gun-buy sting gone bad.
As expected for a cop killer, many want Wilson’s blood. But the willful misshaping of Ms Gonzalez’s foolish actions into such a ridiculous charge as abusing a man like Wilson is nothing short of absurd. The evidence suggests that Nancy Gonzalez’s crime is being lonely and needy. A hitch in the military notoriously doesn’t provide much in the way of civilian job prospects, and she needed a job bad enough to become a prison corrections officer. She doesn’t appear to be the sort of corrections officer who enjoys the sense of power the role would give her. In my 12 years teaching writing in Philadelphia’s maximum security prison, I’ve met a few of those. On the contrary, Ms Gonzalez’s actions seem to suggest she was very lonely and succumbed to Wilson’s expressed male desire for her to have his baby and leave some kind of legacy, since he had good reason to think the State of New York was going to kill him.
The question of female COs making themselves available to male inmates is another matter, and she clearly should be fired and should find other work. But charging her with sexual abuse of an inmate that could put her away for 15 years is simply compounding abuse.
Wilson, who reportedly has a low IQ, was sentenced to die, but then in 2010 that sentence was changed to life due to a technicality. He is scheduled to be re-sentenced and may, again, face the death penalty. That’s the State versus Ronell Wilson. He and his lawyers will have to deal with all the pro-police, anti-criminal calls for revenge.
But if just a glimmer of compassion is allowed to seep into Ms Gonzalez’s case her story becomes something much more than a case of violating prison fraternization rules or even aiding and abetting a criminal inmate. It becomes a real human tragedy with larger implications relevant to the continuation of chronic, dysfunctional poverty in our cities.
Governments and their functionaries operate in the realm of power and expend great energy holding onto that power, while the individual human heart operates on the level of feelings and desires, in Ms Gonzalez’s case feelings arguably rooted in biology and emotional need. It will do no one any good to put Ms Gonzalez away in some cold-blooded prison and to send her baby to a life of foster care.
In this dialogue of news stories, the Essie Mae Washington-Williams story speaks volumes about the incredible abuses of power inherent in one of America’s worst backstories, the enslavement and exploitation of one race of people by another. Comfortable white people like to say that may be true but it’s time to get over it and move on. By now, we should know this dialogue by heart.
It’s a fact that a poor African American kid growing up in North Philly, for example, has a daunting uphill struggle dealing with limited educational opportunities, poor job prospects and a highly flawed criminal justice system that is only too happy to put him or her away, paving the road to career criminality. The lesson from the top down in America today is that risk pays off, violence works and, whatever you do, don’t get caught. Tragically, for a poor kid in the inner city the illegal drug industry is a real option to get ahead, an enterprise that follows all the rules of free private enterprise and entrepreneurship so enthusiastically preached by rich Wall Street winners like Mitt Romney.
Ms Gonzalez’s story dove-tails beautifully with this kind of misguided, tragic world view. Her crime is one of empathy and life-affirmation in a cold, ruthless world. You would think those Americans who get all worked up about being “pro-life” would take someone like Ms Gonzalez under their wing and tell her this:
“Look, the decision you made was dumb; it violated prison rules and was fraught with sensationalist social implications. But you acted from the heart and you should not be punished harshly for that. Your punishment is this: You are sentenced to be responsible for the life you have caused to grow within you, soon to be a full-fledged human being completely innocent of the mess you find yourself in. Get out there and live for that child.”
Instead of wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars of New York State tax resources by sending her to prison for up to 15 years, use a fraction of those resources to help her raise and educate that child to preclude future Ronell Wilsons. This is what pragmatism and progressivism are all about.
It’s too late for Ronell Wilson; he’s made his bed and must lie in it. It’s also too late for the white supremacist Strom Thurmond to make his youthful indiscretion right by publicly accepting his daughter and repudiating the legacy of white supremacy.
But it’s not too late to see in Ms Gonzalez’s child a symbol, a chance to look forward, to make right what is clearly very wrong about the tragic legacy and current conditions of chronic poverty in America.
JOHN GRANT is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper.