California’s Arts-In-Corrections: Hope in the Midst of Madness

by Storyteller Michael D. McCarty

 

Story Summary:

Michael joins a program to teach storytelling in a California prison. He learns much about the men there as well as the power of storytelling.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Californias-Arts-In-Corrections-Hope-in-the-Midst-of-Madness

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How can the arts improve the situation for inmates in prison?
  2. Why is it important for men who are imprisoned to know that their stories are important?
  3. What role might storytelling play in parole hearings?

Resource:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Michael McCarty. Since September, I’ve been working in prisons in California’s Central Valley teaching storytelling to inmates. And it’s been an amazing education for me because all I knew about prisons was the Shawshank Redemption. Well, one of the things I found out in prisons is that the prisons in Level 4 are divided by race. And then, within race, by gang. So, one of the guys in my class, I called him, Big D, was a young guy, in a juvenile facility got transferred to a major prison, had a black cellmate. One day, he’s out in a yard, a group of skinheads, come up to him and say, “You got to get a white cellmate.”

He said, “Well, I don’t mind.”

They said “Well, we do. If you don’t have a white cellmate by tomorrow, we’re going to kill you.” And that’s the way that was. And he got himself a white cellmate.

Now, things are divided up. At the same time with this program, with this arson corrections program, things happen. So, I’ve got these guys in my class; four black guys, one Latino. And Latino guy sits a couple of chairs away from the black guys. They all acknowledge each other, but it’s clear that some separation. One day, when he’s telling his story, he tells the story, how his best friend growing up was black. Then things happen. He ended up in prison, this Latino gentleman. One day, he finds out there’s about to be a throwdown between the blacks and Latinos. And on that same day, his friend, his black friend, is in the prison. And he said, “I stopped believing in God, a long time ago. But I asked, ‘God, please don’t let my friend be here when this throwdown goes down.’” And the next day his friend was transferred. So, he told that story and the black guys in that class had a very positive reaction to him.

So, got another guy in my class doing 20 something to life. Been in prison for over 20 years, since he was a juvenile. Very frustrated. Feels he’s being judged still by what he had done over 20 years ago. And he says, “I’ve changed.” And he has issues with the corrections officers in general, but with the white corrections officers in particular. When it’s his turn to tell the story in my class, he rants. He’s angry. One day, we’re sitting around doing our talk story thing, and he remembers this corrections officer, white correction officer, that, he’d met when he first came into the prison system as a juvenile. And this guy would talk to him and say you need to stop this gang bang and then get away from all this. And in time he did it. Well, over his time in prison, he kept encountering this corrections officer and every time he encountered him, he’d pull him in on projects, positive things. And this guy, who I call WP, found out that when he would see his name, he would say, “I know this guy. He’s a good guy.” Well, that became a theme. One time he comes into a prison, finds out that this corrections officers, that he calls the men, and he pulls them into a program, that’s like Scared Straight without the scared. And. Again, he’s doing positive things. Once, he found this story, when it came his turn to tell a story he wasn’t rant’n.

And this was done. This video was done and put on the website of one of the organizations that I’m working with. This lieutenant in the prison had to view, to approve the video before it went on. Well, he was watching it and I watched him. I was there when he was going over it. And I watched him watching this video. He was looking out for gang signs or anything like that. And so initially, he was very stern as he watched, very serious. When this guy starts telling his story, all of a sudden it was, “Oh,” a leaning forward, story trance happening. And him saying, “Wow!” He connected with that story. That’s one of the things that happens with storytelling in general. But with the storytelling and the prisons, this has been an amazing thing.

But check this out. The young man, who was in the prison from the juvenile facility and told by the skinheads that he have, he had to have a white cellmate, well, he was in my class, a couple of times in the last few months. Now, he’s in a level two facility where all of that stuff is nonexistent. He’s in a gospel choir with a bunch of black guys. He’s in my class and he is telling stories and helping others to find their stories. This has been an amazing project. It’s been amazing education for me.

We’ll leave you with one last little story. Got a guy who’s also doing life for committing a murder. He did a breakdown, an analysis of his crime, and he developed a workshop. He broke down all the things in his life. Things that he had no control over, things that he brought into his own life. And he put together a workshop and he calls, These Sticks. And he has people either bring up a stick or he gets a stick depending on if it was something that came into his life beyond his control, or something that he had control over. And he puts the sticks in a spot, a pile. And he says how these sticks were the things that accumulated, that would become the fire, that was the murder he committed. And then he did a further analysis. What could have stopped this? What could have prevented this? And to his mind it was forgiveness. Forgiveness would have been a water that would have put out the fire or kept the fire from happening in the first place. And he does this workshop with perpetrators of crimes, and victims or the families of victims, to help them get further insight into understanding what happened to their loved ones. Story is so powerful! It’s so amazing that these things happen in a prison.

And I lied. I’m going to end with one more story. This guy sings and he sings beautifully. Sings gospel. These officers and inmates, he did a concert for. There were four officers who didn’t make it. The next day they came and they said, “Will you sing for us?” And he sang a couple of songs. And like I said, I heard this guy sing. He is amazing. The officers left. One came back later and said, “I got to thank you for what you did for me.”

He said, “I just sang some songs.”

“No, no. You don’t understand. I was going to commit suicide until I heard your songs.”

And I told him, “Think about this. You’re in prison and you saved a life. The life of an officer.” And that is the power of story. And that’s the end of that.

STORYTELLER RAP

By Storyteller Michael McCarty

 

 

Story Summary:

Michael’s poem about the importance of reading, storytelling and what he learned from his mother.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Storyteller-Rap

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who inspires you?
  2. What can be said in rhyme that isn’t expressed in a narrative?

Resource:

  •  Story Smart: Using the Science of Story to Persuade, Influence, Inspire and Teach by Kendall Haven

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood

Full Transcript:

When I was a boy my mama told me,

I could be anything I wanted to be.

Reading to her the mind was the key

To make my dreams a reality.

She said as long as I kept my head in a book,

It didn’t matter what direction life took.

More than beauty, wealth, and fame,

Knowledge is the key to the power game.

My mama, gave me the knowledge I would need

And in my mind, she planted the seed.

She nurtured that seed with a mother’s love

And prayers for guidance from powers above.

As I grew to be a man, there were times of my life

Full of hardship, I’m talking buku strife.

But in those times of difficulty,

I never forgot the things that my mama told me.

There was a time a few years ago,

I was confused about where my life would go.

Around this time I just found out,

What storytelling was all about.

I’d heard stories from Peninnah Schram, Joel ben Izzy,

Sybil Desta, Elle Erato, and Leslie Perry.

Listening to these folks inspired me,

I said, “A storyteller! That’s what I’m gonna be.”

Was I committed telling tales, took off like a rocket,

Now I’m living by my mama, have mouth, will run it.

Hope this little tale inspires you,

To make a go at something you really want to do.

Thanks for listening. It’s been slammin’

We’ve been getting down, oh, we’ve been jammin’.

MAMA SAID …

By Storyteller Michael McCarty

 

Story Summary:

Michael’s mother models the importance and love of reading, but, mostly importantly, the value of kindness. When Michael tours in Brazil, he discovers that his mother was teaching the students there as well.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Mama-Said

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the power of positive reinforcement?
  2. What was learned from the “Tea & Pound Cake” encounter?
  3. How is reading the key to making your dreams become reality?

Resource:

  •  Live Your Dreams by Les Brown

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My mother thought she had gas but she didn’t. Her stomach was bloated because I was in there. Now this was quite a surprise because my mother was in her 40s. My father was about 50 years old. They weren’t expecting any more chillun. There was 14, 20, 25 years between me and my siblings. Surprise, surprise, surprise. Now, as long as I can remember, and I can remember ’til I was about two years old, my mother always read me and told me stories. She read me folk tales and fairy tales, and told me stories about growing up in Barbados. One of the favorite stories that she would tell me again and again was how much she loved reading.

Every night she would sit in her room and read and read and read until her mother would come in and say, “Close that book and go to sleep and turn out the light!” And then, my mother would go to the window and read by the gas streetlight. And she imparted that love of reading to me.

My mother would buy me books, any kind of book I wanted. Wouldn’t buy me Playboy but any other kind of book I wanted. She’d get me books. Marvel comic books. She turned me on to Marvel comic book, inadvertently. She got, I wanted a Green Lantern. She came back with, with Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. But anything that got me reading, she was for it.

My mother explained that during slavery times, blacks were not allowed to read because the slave masters feared that if blacks could read, that knowledge was power, and they would be able to use that knowledge to escape. So, she imparted to me the belief that, if you could read, you could do anything now.

Now, my mother read the newspaper, every day. In fact, at one point we got four newspapers. So, we would have discussions about what was going on; the civil rights movement, the black power movement, and she would share these things with me. My mother used to go to Evanston and she would clean homes in Evanston, white folks homes, and she loved this because it was her chance to get her own money. And that was something that was exciting to her. And she imparted that too to me; the idea of being independent. The idea of being able to take care of yourselves. Now, my mother, I grew up Catholic, and my mother was the best Catholic Christian I ever knew. You talk about do unto others.

Let me tell you the story about my mom. Now, one day me and my mom were home alone. I was about somewhere eight, nine, ten years old.  Doorber… doorbell rang. I answered the door. There was a woman at the door. She says, “Young man, is your mother home?”

I said, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll go get her.” I got my mom.

The woman said to my mother, “Miss, you don’t know me. I’m passing through the neighborhood on my way to catch a bus but I really have to use the bathroom. May I use your bathroom?”

My mother said, “Of course.” She showed the woman the bathroom and while the woman was in the bathroom, my mother went to the kitchen. She prepared pound cake and cookies, milk and tea. And when the woman came out, she served that woman like she was a long, lost friend.

Now, my mother instilled in me this belief, that I could do or be anything I wanted to be. She said that to me constantly to the point where I believed her. My mother never got to know about my career as a professional storyteller. But I know that if she had been aware of it, she would have said, “You go, boy!” Oh, yeah. My mom said, “You go, boy.” Long before Martin Lawrence was saying it, OK.

Earlier this year I was in South America telling stories in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. This French high school in Buenos Aires wanted to do something different. The director of the edg… of the English department, finding out that I had been in the Black Panther Party and been involved in the civil rights movement, in the black power movement, created a curriculum around my life, for her students to study these things. To study the Civil Rights Movement and race relations in the United States. They designed the curriculum around my life. They had to take tests about me. They had to write papers. One of the test questions was, “What role did Michael’s mother play in influencing his life?” My mama was a test question now. Oh, I feel so good about that. My mother told me that anything was possible. I believed her because that was the sho’ nuff truth.

(Rapping)

When I was a boy my mama told me,

I could be anything I wanted to be.

Reading to her, the mind was the key

To make my dreams a reality.

She said as long as I kept my head in a book,

It didn’t matter what direction life took.

More than beauty, wealth, and fame,

Knowledge is the key to the power game.

My mama, gave me the knowledge I would need

And in my mind, she planted the seed.

She nurtured that seed with a mother’s love

And prayers for guidance from powers above.

As I grew to be a man, there were times of my life

Full of hardship, I’m talking buku strife.

But in those times of difficulty,

I never forgot the things that my mama told me.

There was a time a few years ago,

I was confused about where my life would go.

Around this time I just found out,

What storytelling was all about.

I’d heard stories from Peninnah Schram, Joel ben Izzy,

Sybil Desta, Elle Erato, and Leslie Perry.

Listening to these folks inspired me,

I said, “A storyteller! That’s what I’m gonna be.”

Was I committed telling tales, took off like a rocket,

Now I’m living by my mama, have mouth will run it.

Hope this little tale inspires you,

To make a go at something you really want to do.

Thanks for listening. It’s been slammin’

 We’ve been getting down, oh, we’ve been jammin’.

And that’s the end of that.

VINDICATION

by Michael McCarty

 

Story Summary:

While in high school, Michael and some classmates make demands of his school to include more Black History in the curricula. The students hold a walkout and Michael is expelled. Decades later as an adult, Michael is brought back to the school to receive his high school diploma and the school’s gratitude.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What were the motivations for the school walkout?
  2. What inspired Greg Meyers, who hadn’t had any contact with McCarty or Tyler for decades, to create a movement to get St. Ignatius High School to apologize and give them their diplomas?
  3. Was the walkout the best way to get the school to listen? Was making their point and getting expelled worth the victory McCarty and Tyler experienced years later?

 

Resource:

  •  Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin

 

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

THE POWER OF LOVE

by Michael McCarty

 

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Power-of-Love

Full transcript:

Some of life’s funkiest experiences make some of the best stories. It was 1999, and I was traveling around the south of India. Going to temples and ashrams and doing my, oome, spiritual thing and getting my spiritual groove on. Two friends of my, mine and I had arrived at Pondicherry to visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. We got to the bus station. My two friends went directly to the main ashram hotel, The Park Guesthouse. I told them I would get there a little later. Wasn’t worried about getting a room. It was the hot season in the south of India, 120 degrees in the shade, and according to the guide book, nobody in their right mind would be there, ‘cept me and my friends. I showed up to the hotel about an hour or so after my friends had gotten there. As I’m walking up the steps to the lobby, I notice that this elderly Indian woman gives me a real dirty look, and says something to the man sitting behind the desk. As I walk up to this man, he says, “Can I help you?”

I said, “Yes, I’ll like a room.”

“We don’t have any rooms.” Keys, up and down, all over the board.

I said, “Well, did so and so, and so and so, check in?” Asking about my two friends, who just happened to be white.

He said, “Yes.” Now I’m picking up on something. Duh! But I don’t want to believe what I’m picking up on because I’m at an ashram, a oome, spiritual place, but I maintain my spiritual equanimity.

“When will you have some rooms,” I asked.

“Maybe in a day or two.”

“Alright, I’ll go check in another hotel.”

The next morning I’m having breakfast with my friends in that hotel’s restaurant. There’s another guy I know who has checked into the hotel after I’d been by there, the previous evening. Now I maintain a positive attitude. Some rooms must have suddenly become available. I go to the lobby to check it out.

There is this woman sitting behind the desk, the woman who would given me a dirty look today before, checking some people in. I stand off to the side to wait for her to take care of her business. She looks at me and says, “What do you?” with attitude.

And I say, “Well, I came to see if you have some rooms.”

“No, we don’t have any rooms and this isn’t just some ashram. This is for people who are coming for Sri Aurobindo Ashram and, and only rooms for people who are coming to the Ashram!” Like I’m halfway around the world and I don’t know this? Now I am…perturbed. I’m mad. I’ve had enough of this town. I had this ashram. I make arrangements to leave the following evening.

The next morning, I go back to have breakfast with my friends in the hotel restaurant. I am physically barred from entering and told that I have to go get this…person’s permission to go into the restaurant. Time out. You’re talking about your former 60’s militant. I know how to yell, scream, and fuss, ain’t done it in a while but I still remember how. But…I maintain my spiritual equanimity.

I go to the lobby, I say, “Madam, is there some problem? I’m just going to have breakfast with my friends in a restaurant. May I go in?”

“No, you go and wait in the lobby!” Oh, its on now! She done messed with the wrong person.

I’m getting raise some Cain, up in here. And just as I’m working myself up, this voice in my head says, “This is a test. It’s easy to love those that love you. The test is to love those that hate you.” And I figured this woman qualifies.

Now, you must understand love was not uppermost in my mind, in terms of things I wanted to send her. I can think of a hot fiery place I would joyfully have sent her, and joyfully use my size 12’s to help her get there. So, I’m thinking love. I would love…I’m thinking ’bout the Fred Sanford kind of a love. But then I remember, auras, the energy that surrounds every living thing. And I remember reading that pink was the color that represented Divine Love. And I figure we definitely need some Divine Love up in here. So mentally, I envelop her in this bubble of pink light and I started pumping pink at her butt. I was pumping pink. I was pumping pink. I was pump…ing…pink! I worked up a sweat pumping pink.

I did this for, I don’t know, five or ten minutes. All of a sudden, the woman comes over to me, totally different demeanor, totally different tone of voice. “Are your friends in the restaurant?”

I’m from Chicago, we be suspicious. I’m thinking, “What’s up? You setting me up? Yeah, what’s going on? I don’t know? You wouldn’t let me go see.”

She says, “Oh, well, go. Please go.” And she personally escorted me into the restaurant. And as I walked into the restaurant, and looked back at her smiling sweetly, I realized I had experienced the power of love.

Now, a couple of years later I would become a professional storyteller. I told the story at one of the storytelling meetings that I go to at Los Angeles. And after the meeting everybody was, “Oh, that’s a wonderful story, Michael. It’s a wonderful story.”

And I am someone who is not uncomfortable receiving praise. I’m like, “Mmm, hmm, yes, yes, yes. I know I’m bad. Uh huh.” But this one friend seemed to be particularly moved by the story.

A couple of months later she says, “Michael, Michael, let me tell you what happened!” It seems that at her job her boss had made it her personal obligation to give my friend unholy hell, each and every day. And so, this particular day, my friend decided she would do the pink thing. She would send her love. If not love, she would send light. If not light, she wouldn’t send those, “I want to choke you around your neck,” thoughts. You do the best you can. Well, all the employees were sitting together in a little lunchroom. My friend’s sitting here talking to someone there. The boss sitting next to her, talking to someone there. When the boss turned to her and started to engage her in pleasant, complimentary conversation. And from that day on, there was no more mess between them.

The power of love. Now I’m gonna fess up. I passed that one test but I have flunked quite a few. But it is worth the effort and that’s the end of that.