Leroy ties together his discovery of compassionate and transformed incarcerated men at Auburn with his own understanding of his mother-in-law, a white woman raised in a different era with extreme views of race.
No one ever told me that prison would be the place that I’d discover new things about myself that were always there, just buried deep within under layers of neighborhood “norms” (you know, the every day hustle). I don’t remember hearing stories about men personally redeeming parts of themselves by giving back to the community. For instance, a classroom full of men in the prison crocheting hats, scarves, blankets, teddy bears, and all sorts of creative items that are donated to charitable organizations: hospitals, shelters, churches, and schools. Items that warm less-fortunate children’s heads, ears, necks, hands, and hearts from the cold world, when otherwise they would have to endure the weather without those colorful, insulating barriers.
As apart of that group of men, here in Auburn Correctional facility, I found an amazing way to give back. You see, I learned how to crochet those hats and scarves, which led to sweaters, belts, bracelets, miniature keychain puppies Nate Holds up Puppy (so cute!)–and blankets. There was this one very special blanket that landed on the lap of my then wife’s 88 year-old grandmother: squares of bright pastel greens, yellows and pinks all sewn together in a balanced symphony, creating an inviting sight for sore eyes. It brightened any room it entered.
She did not know her only granddaughter was married to a black man, let alone a black man in prison. The family thought it best for her health to insulate her from any blood-pressure-raising information. Grandma did know, however, how much that blanket warmed her lap on those cold days on the front porch where she loved to rock back and forth watching the world pass by: the children racing by bundled up in their hats and scarves yelling down the block to friends. Grandma would refer to us as “them blacks.” “You know them blacks are crazy Elizabeth”, she would warn my wife out of genuine concern. Grandma was raised and still lived in a time that preceded the “integrated” world, as we now know it.
That blanket warmed her weakened legs for five years: legs that carried her through almost a full century of U.S. history–The Great Depression, The New Deal, Pearl Harbor, WWII, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Segregation, Civil Rights Era, Vietnam, “the War On Drugs,” Mass Incarceration, Desert Storm, 9/11, and The War on Terror.
One of Grandma’s most pressing concerns before she passed away was that she be buried with her blanket so that it could continue to keep her warm in her final resting place. I was deeply touched and amazed to know the significance of what I had made in my cell. Even though she never knew who made that blanket, it did not change the fact that I was able to provide solace, thus conquering the walls and barriers that tried, but failed, to isolate Grandma from such acts of kindness.
If she knew that I made the blanket I wonder, would it still have comforted her? I like to think that it would have and that she’s smiling right now.