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United States: The Books That Keep Me Alive on Death Row

By Kevin Cooper
Truthdig
Nov 08, 2018

Someone once told me that reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. That someone was another death row inmate, an older black man, who had seen enough in me as a person when I first came to this prison in 1985 to steer me away from gangs, drugs, gambling and all the other negativity in which a new inmate can get trapped and not escape.

So I have spent a great deal of time reading books, magazines, newspapers and damn near any other thing that I can get my hands on while living in this often unlivable place, trying to stay sane in what often appears to be an insane asylum, learning the truth about this world and its history and the many different types and kinds of people who make up both.

I have been doing so in a 4½-by-11-foot cage in which I am forced to live against my will, understanding that the sentences of death that I was given by a jury not of my peers have been administered to many people deemed to be different in this land, even before this land became a country.

These things and many, many more were discovered and learned by me after reading my very first book from cover to cover, then continuing to do the same with each book I subsequently read.

Somewhere in my reading early on, a light went on in my mind and I then began to understand why historically certain people in power did not want certain people with no power to read any type of book at all.

I then truly understood why slave owners and the laws that were passed during slavery were made to forbid a slave from even learning to read. They understood then, those slave owners and lawmakers who were sometimes the same people, what I was learning—that to read is to learn, and to learn is to gain knowledge, and knowledge is power. There can be no greater power that comes from knowledge than the power of self. I also began to understand why certain slaves took the life-ending chance of learning to read to gain knowledge and the power that comes with it.

I also came to the conclusion that the history of this country is full of poor people having no schools, or inferior schools, especially if those poor people were black, or other so-called minority peoples. I learned why Brown v. Board of Education had to happen, and why the law in Plessy v. Ferguson was wrong and had to be challenged. Separate but equal was a lie then and is a lie now.

In my reading books on my heritage and culture, I did find knowledge, and in that knowledge I found out who I am as a man, and as a person of African descent. I learned that I am not who you say I am, or tell the world that I am, nor am I your historical stereotype. I learned to tell my own story because no one else can, and when they try, they don’t tell my story, they tell what they want to tell and how they want it.

I have traveled the world in the pages of my books, from being in the bottom of a slave ship during the transatlantic slave trade, to being sold on the auction block and forced to work as an animal on a plantation.

I have been with abolitionists as they worked to end chattel slavery, and I have been on the front line in the Civil War. In fact, I have been in every war that was on this land, in this country, and all because of my books.

These are books that were and still are being sent to me by people who are helping to not only educate me, but to keep me alive while on death row. I have walked down a road called freedom, seeking a thing called freedom in a land and country that, after emancipating me, re-enslaved me by another name and misused me in its prison leasing system.

I listened to Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Joe Trotter and many others who were all fighting for and against the same things. I watched Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Thurgood Marshall, and many, many others fight for the right to be, to be as they are, what they are, what we are—human beings with the universal right to life.

I listened to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say he read that we had the right to protest nonviolently for our rights, and I found that where he read this was in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

I have been everywhere in my books that they could take me, from “Little Big Horn” to the moon, from the slave master’s house to the White House with President Obama. I have been at historical lynchings in my books, to being 10 feet away from the death chamber here at San Quentin prison, and in both cases the mental, emotional, psychological and physical torture was present.

I have read about private slavery and all of its torturous ills of yesteryear, to public slavery and all of its tortuous ills of these modern years.

Reading books has gotten me out of this cage, and in turning this cage into a classroom, I have educated myself in ways that I never thought I could, or in ways that anybody else thought I could. Many, or most, of the people who I have met in books, I do not know or recall their names and probably never will. But I do know their stories and their fights and their plights, because in many ways their fight and plights are just like mine.

I now walk on the path that they made with their blood, sweat, tears and bodies. Why I was drawn to reading mostly about history, American history, which African-American history is, I don’t know. But in doing so, I found an inner strength that I did not know that I had within me. I found a spiritual inner strength that I did not know that I had within me. I found a voice that I did not know I had within me. I found a reason not to quit, not to give up, not to surrender that I did not know that I had within me. I found a will and willpower that I did not know that I had within me.

All of these things and more that I found within myself I found in reading books about the lives of people through the history of this world and country. I found out by reading books that I am not alone in my quest for justice, for so-called freedom, for my humanity. I have learned from books that no one can take away your self-respect or dignity if you don’t let them. I have found through books that not just the white man, but people of all cultures and of different races have contributed to the making and building and growth of this country.

I have been transported from this living hellhole in which I exist to living hellholes of the past. In doing so, I have learned much about our country and its people, both good and bad.

I know that no matter how often I hear people say, “Times have changed,” in fact, some things and some people have not changed. I have learned that the evil and wickedness in people who enforced chattel slavery and its wrongs and crimes against humanity are alive today in people who are enforcing the death penalty and all of its proven wrongs and crimes against humanity.

At the same time, I have learned that the goodness in those people of yesteryear that led them to abolish chattel slavery is alive and within the hearts of people today who are working to abolish the death penalty. I owe this real life-and-death understanding to the many different books I have read over the years.

In walking the “Trail of Tears” with my Native American sisters and brothers and their children and elders, I learned that no person is safe in this country, not even the people who never claimed this land as their own but who took care of it as a parent takes care of a child. Capitalism and greed are what reigns supreme in this country to the detriment of all. Without books, I would not have learned these truths about this country.

I will continue to read, study and learn as long as I am alive, but especially as long as I am in prison and on death row, where books have provided a genuine form of escapism from my hellish existence.

In no particular order, here are some of the books that I have read in the more than 33 years that I have spent on your death row:
•“King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild
•“A People’s History of the United States 1492 to Present” by Howard Zinn
•“Voices of a People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn
•“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley
•“From Slavery to Freedom” by John Hope Franklin
•“The Last Year of Malcolm X” by George Breitman
•“Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X” by George Breitman
•“Malcolm X on Afro-American History” by George Breitman
•“Malcolm X: The Man on His Ideas” by George Breitman
•“The Assassination of Malcolm X” by George Breitman, Herman Porter & Baxter Smith
•“A Life of Reinvention—Malcolm X” by Manning Marable
•“How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America” by Manning Marable
•“The Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History 1775-1865,” edited by John Grafton
•“Great Speeches by African Americans, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, and Others,” edited by James Dale
•“Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup
•“There Is a River, The Black Struggle for Freedom in America” by Vincent Harding
•“Not Fade Away, A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found” by Rebecca Alexander with Sascha Albert
•“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist
•“Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson
•“Ella Baker, Freedom Bound” by Joanne Grant
•The Bible
•“Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Lowen
•“Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King
•“The Fiery Trial, Abraham Lincoln & American Slavery” by Eric Foner
•“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
•“The Beautiful Struggle” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
•“Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” by James Forman Jr.
•“Mandingo” by Kyle Onstott
•“The Condemnation of Blackness, Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban-American” by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
•“One Day in December – Celia Sanchez and the Cuban Revolution” by Nancy Stout
•“The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom” by James Green
•“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
•“Jailhouse Lawyer” by Mumia Abu Jamal
•“Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon
•“The New Jim Crow: In the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander