Feb 2, 2010

Literature saved his life: How R. Dwayne Betts survived prison.

After being tried and convicted as an adult at 16 for a car jacking, R. Dwayne Betts , author of, "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison," describes how literature saved his life. Check out the full interview with Tavis Smiley here.

Here is a brief excerpt from the transcript:

Tavis: You, as we sit here today - we'll talk more about what you have been able to accomplish in just a second - but you sit here today a college graduate, father, husband, working and serving and loving, quite frankly, your community. You seem to be rather well-adjusted. And yet we are told every day that our prison system does a horrible job, to the extent that it does the job at all, of rehabilitating men and women.

Betts: Oh, the prison system doesn't do a job of rehabilitating anybody.

Tavis: Okay, that's why I want some clarity on this.

Betts: No, definitely, and I make a point to tell people that it wasn't the Virginia Department of Corrections that created the man that's before you. Honestly, I could point to John Edgar Wideman, I could point to James Baldwin, I could point to Walter Moseley, I could point to Dr. Cornel West, and I could point to an endless list.

I could point to Steinbeck, I could point to every book that Oprah ever recommended. I could point to Edward (unintelligible) I could point to the poets, Robert Hayden, Etheridge Night. I could just chant a list of names - Ethelbert Miller. I could chant a list of names and people whose work really molded me into the person I am today.

And not only the writer I am, but reading that literature helped me define myself while I was in a place that wanted to define me solely by those 30 minutes.
And so I don't think it was the system in any way whatsoever. It was really because I believed that literature could do something for my life that maybe other people don't always believe literature could do. But for me, that belief helped me believe that I could be more and it helped me to become more.