Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts returns to the city that nearly broke him


Video produced by Frank Carlson and Emily Carpeaux.

In his new book, Reginald Dwayne Betts dedicates a series of poems to the “City that Nearly Broke Me” — Suitland, Maryland, a small community on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where he grew up.

“I’m thinking about this area here … it gave me so much, but it also just took so much away,” Betts said on a recent visit to his old neighborhood.

In 1996, when Betts was just 16 years old, he was arrested for carjacking and sentenced to nine years in prison. He served more than eight, and it was in prison that he discovered the possibilities of poetry.

“Poetry gave me the ability … to access the world, to communicate my ideas and my feelings about the world,” Betts said. “It was my idea of how to be somebody.”

“Bastards of the Reagan Era” is Betts’ second book of poetry and it touches on the way he believes institutions — schools, the police, the judicial system — helped create a lost generation of young black men who grew up during this period.

“What I try to hone in on, and at least what I think about when I think of the title, is lost in various ways. So lost in terms of maybe not coming up with a father in the house, but more significantly lost in a way in which, almost as if the large community has abandoned you,” Betts said.

Since leaving prison in 2005, Betts has graduated from college, earned his Master’s degree and is now finishing his degree at Yale Law School.

Watch NewsHour tonight for chief arts and culture correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s two-part look at Betts and the work he’s doing. You can see Betts read his work above, or read one of his pieces below.

For the city that nearly broke me

A woman tattoos Malik’s name above
her breast & talks about the conspiracy
to destroy blacks. This is all a fancy way
to say that someone kirked out, emptied
five or six or seven shots into a still warm body.
No indictment follows Malik’s death,
follows smoke running from a fired pistol.
An old quarrel: crimson against concrete
& the officer’s gun still smoking.
Someone says the people need to stand up,
that the system’s a glass house falling on only
a few heads. This & the stop snitching ads
are the conundrum and damn all that blood.
All those closed eyes imagining Malik’s
killer forever coffled to a series of cells,
& you almost believe them, you do, except
the cognac in your hand is an old habit,
a toast to friends buried before the daybreak
of their old age. You know the truth
of the talking, of the quarrels & how
history lets the blamed go blameless for
the blood that flows black in the street;
you imagine there is a riot going on,
& someone is tossing a trash can through
Sal’s window calling that revolution,
while behind us cell doors keep clanking closed,
& Malik’s casket door clanks closed,
& the bodies that roll off the block
& into the prisons and into the ground,
keep rolling, & no one will admit
that this is the way America strangles itself.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. A poet and memoirist, he is the author of three books. The recently published Bastards of the Reagan Era, the 2010 NAACP Image Award winning memoir, A Question of Freedom, and, the poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. He is currently in his last year at Yale Law School. He received a B.A. from the University of Maryland, an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College’s M.F.A. Program for Writers.

“For the city that nearly broke me” from Bastards of the Reagan Era (c) 2015 by Reginald Dwayne Betts, appears with permission of Four Way Books.