The poet and author joins us to discuss his latest text Bastards of the Reagan Era.
Poet & Author Reginald Dwayne Betts
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Reginald Dwayne Betts back to this program. The poet and author is out now with a new collection of poems called “Bastards of the Reagan Era”.
In it, he uses the power of poetry to address the trials of coming of age during an era where unarmed Black men are dying at the hands of the police and millions are incarcerated by a system that turns people into statistics. Reginald, good to have you back on this program.
Reginald Dwayne Betts: My pleasure.
Tavis: Let me start by telling you how much I celebrate all the success that you’ve had since you were here last. For those who didn’t see you when you were on this program, I guess, the first or second time, just a quick recap of how one goes from being a 16-year-old honor student to prison to weeks away now from graduating from the Yale Law School. Just kind of recap that story for me.
Betts: I think the simplest explanation is that I made a horrible mistake, one that couldn’t have been predicted by anybody I knew, one that completely caught my mom by surprise.
Carjacking somebody, pleading guilty, being sentenced to nine years in prison, forced me to like really reevaluate what it is that I wanted from the world for myself. And I decided to be a writer just as a way to be somebody and I did that and I did my time in prison and came home.
Then opportunities just happened, and I found that–I tell people all the time, a lot of it is about what’s in the realm of possibility. I wrote the first book and doors opened. I was able to do a whole lot of speaking. I was able to talk about the issues that related to me in the criminal justice system and my peers.
And then suddenly, I’m on panels with lawyers, I’m on panels with attorneys and judges and, one day, it just sort of hit me. Like if you really want to do this work, if you really want to change a role in this work and not just be defined by your story, but also be defined by the skills that you bring to the problems, maybe you want to go to law school.
And, randomly, I decided to go to law school one day. I remember my wife saying, “You want to go to law school? I thought you wanted to teach?” I said, “I know, but I think I should go to law school and I think I’m going to get into Harvard.”
“Well, we were supposed to move back to D.C.” I said, “I know, but I think I’m going to get into Harvard.” And just like everything else in my life, you know, my wife backed me. I got into Harvard, then I got into Yale. So, “I think I want to go to Yale instead”, and that’s all.
Tavis: And here you are now a few weeks away from graduating.
Tavis: Yeah. Wow. When you say that you decided that you wanted to be a writer, what happens in prison that puts you on that path? We all know the story of Malcolm X. Malcolm had a revelation, of course, in prison. What happens to you that puts you on that path?
Betts: I tell people all the time because, you know, having gotten some success, a lot of people tell me how gifted I am, that it was my hard work and my grit, and I agree with that to a certain extent. But I realize there was a lot of luck involved. I was in solitary confinement, 16, 17 years old, and I just asked somebody for a book.
You just yell out into the cell block, “Somebody give me a book” and somebody slid Dudley Randell’s “The Black Poets” under my cell door, and I’ve read Etheridge Knight. He was a poet and I found out that he’d gone to prison and he wrote this poem, just this like horrifying poem called “For Freckle-Faced Gerald” about a 16-year-old in prison who had gotten raped in prison.
And I read this poem and I realized that, one, everything couldn’t be about me and that the situation that I was in, young men had been in for a long time. And then I realized, two, that poetry was a vehicle to acknowledge that and to address that and to do it in a short space.
So it was at that moment that I sort of committed myself to being a poet for the power where poetry was, but also for the fact that I then had somebody, Etheridge Knight, who could be my model, who was a poet that came from prison.
Tavis: Is poetry in 2016 still pregnant with that kind of power to change peoples’ lives?
Betts: Yes. I mean, I think so. I meet people all the time who have been changed by the power of poetry. I meet all the time who use it in their everyday life. I think one disconnect and one thing that I personally want to work on in my own life is to find a way to make poets more useful to the movements that we have because we already write poems that address all of these issues that we’re dealing with.
I think my book addresses a lot of these issues, but it’s this question of do we work closely with, you know, organizations that are actually moving to create change?
When my memoir came out, I had a great opportunity to work with the Campaign for Youth Justice and a lot of other juvenile justice organizations and the book became a vehicle and an advocacy to them, and I’d like that to happen more not just for my poetry, but for other poets.
Tavis: How shocked are you, how heartened are you–you fill in the blank–by the conversation–not even just a conversation, but the traction that the issue of criminal justice reform is starting to get? I think about Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow”.
I think now about what’s happening in Congress. There now is some bipartisan agreement that there needs to be some real sensible reform. I’ve said many times, sometimes as Americans, we do the right thing for the wrong reason.
I think for Democrats, they really see a social justice issue here. For Republicans, they see a way to save some money. We can’t spend our way out of this, but I’ll get there any way I can get there these days. But how heartened are you just over your short lifetime, you’ve seen an advance in the conversation about meaningful criminal justice reform?
Betts: You know, I’ll tell the truth. Like right now in the back, I’m carrying around the transcripts of a friend of mine that I was locked up who got 63 years with no parole for a non-homicide, non-rape, non-robbery. You know, it was like attempted capital murder in which the gun never went off. When we were in prison together back in 1997, we wrote a letter to the ACLU. I helped him write the letter to the ACLU.
The ACLU responded back with a form letter saying that that wasn’t like one of the issues that they were currently working on, although they supported his struggle. This is 1997. Even the ACLU wasn’t working on like these types of criminal justice reform issues.
Now, because he got sentenced as a juvenile, you know, this is an issue that’s prevalent in Bryan Stevenson’s work, it’s prevalent in the ACLU’s work, it’s prevalent in Public Defenders’ offices across the country. So, you know, I’m shocked because, first, you see the movement and advocacy organizations and then you see the movement on a national level in Congress.
I think it’s just because you get to a tipping point and, somewhere over the past 20 years, we’ve reached a tipping point where, you know, Michelle Alexander’s success is one of the reasons why my book got reviewed in The New York Times.
It’s because like she made the culture, she made the community, she made people in the United States aware of issues that there was always some people working on it and aware of it, but it wasn’t, you know, in the national scene in the same way.
Tavis: Why call this one “Bastards of the Reagan Era”?
Betts: In some way, it’s like I struggled with it, right? In some ways, when I was sentenced, I remember people standing up and saying that I committed a crime because I didn’t have a father. And I remember–and this is probably my proudest moment, you know, as a son.
I stood up and I told the courtroom that, you know, while I apologize and where I made a horrible mistake, I didn’t commit the crime because I didn’t have a father. I felt like that was, you know, denigrating my mom acting as if she didn’t do the things that she needed to do.
But at the same time, when I was writing this book, you know, the title poem ends with this line that says, “Sometimes we just needed our fathers” and I was trying to wrestle with the fact that two things could be true at the same time.
If I’m not just speaking for me in a collection of poems, that I’m speaking for a community, it’s this idea that bastards means not just being fatherless and not just growing up without a father, but being in a community that doesn’t father you, that doesn’t nurture you.
You know, I think about my friends, I think about my peers and how, you know, even in high school, there were so many of us were written off, and this is not by the larger white society. This is by teachers who, you know, ostensibly cared for us, teachers who cared for me who didn’t expect–never would have guessed that I would end up at Yale Law School.
So the stories that I’m telling in the collection of poems is about that generation of young men and then about the generations that followed them, you know, like men my age who have children and I’ve worked with their children.
You know, a lot of my friends and a lot of my peers in prison, which means their children are now fathers. And it also means that what is the burden that I have and that we have to protect those young men and those young women?
Tavis: Those are two separate issues and both of them, I think, need to be addressed. One is the pain that we have to endure and the other is really the pain that we cause to each other.
Betts: I agree. I think it’s easy to do the first, you know, the pain that we have to endure. I think it’s easy to discuss that. It’s much more difficult to discuss the pain that we cause each other. The latter, it forces us to think about what action looks like. You know, I feel like being a father is the thing that makes me realize that more than anything else, you know.
Tavis: There’s a great line in here. I want to get to that. I got a minute and a half to go, and I wish I had more time tonight. But there’s a line here that I want to quote it accurately. I think the line is that “we at times feel naked while we’re clothed.” You know the line I’m talking about?
Tavis: Unpack that line for me.
Betts: It’s in the poem for the “City That Nearly Broke Me”.
Betts: And it’s just like how do you–you know, is a way to be naked without clothes on, how do you become vulnerable? How do you be vulnerable? How do you do it in a way that then leads to your destruction? I think maybe a lot of the book is about me trying to figure out ways to actually be vulnerable in a way that’s productive so that I’m not, you know, wearing a mask that ruins us.
Tavis: So you’re about to have a law degree from Yale Law School, happily married, two precious babies–not babies now. Four and eight, so they’re getting big. So what’s next?
Betts: I have a federal circuit court clerkship in Philadelphia with Chief Judge McKee and I have in line a fellowship to go to Philadelphia and do some public interest lawyering around applications and people leaving prison and still having some of those collateral consequences.
Tavis: I don’t want to sound paternal here, but I am extremely proud of all that you’ve done since I first met you years ago. I’m going to stop before I start crying because [laugh]…
Betts: Now stop before I start crying [laugh].
Tavis: No, you’ve done it and you are doing it and I couldn’t be happier for you. The new book from a brilliant poet, Reginald Dwayne Betts, is called “Bastards of the Reagan Era”, highly recommended. All the best to you and to your family. I hope to talk to you again soon, my friend.
Betts: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. As always, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.
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