Debut memoir by an African-American whose youthful dedication to antiracist activism degenerated into criminal behavior and led to jail.
Hopkins literally wrote his way out of the Virginia State Penitentiary with articles for the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and other publications. He makes it clear that his activism did not arise from direct personal experience of oppression; among the black families in the factory town of Danville, Va., his was middle-class and comfortable. Nonetheless, his penetrating recollections reveal, racism had a cumulative effect as the civil rights movement ratcheted up. For example, after being transferred to a new school under the federal minority busing mandate, he was relieved to discover that white kids were not innately superior: black students in the forefront of integration “lived with the subconscious fear that the lies of racial inferiority might indeed, in some small and unknown way, be damnably true.” His confrontations with prejudice were oblique but infuriating, as when he realized that whites often addressed him and his father as if they were the same age. In his early teens, Hopkins became involved with the Black Panther Party. Unfulfilled and infected with rage, he was later talked into committing an armed robbery—and he got caught. No one was killed or even injured, but the jury gave him a life sentence. In prison, consenting to read a poem he had written for an inmate group session, Hopkins was applauded for the first time in his life. He adopted writing as his “escape” methodology, even though another con warned that the example of fellow jailhouse author Jack Henry Abbott (who killed again after being sprung due to the efforts of Norman Mailer) would make this a difficult path out of prison. Freed 17 years later, Hopkins found that “love for a world of readers I continued to believe in” had finally conquered his rage.
Soul-baring revelations acknowledge racism’s impact, but make no excuses for the author’s mistakes.