Finding Light at Rikers Island

The following is an excerpt from Liza Jessie Peterson’s forthcoming book, ALL DAY: A Memoir of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids. Liza began teaching creative writing at Rikers Island, New York City’s male jail complex, as a teaching artist in 1997. In 2008, she returned as a full-time GED teacher for the NYC Department of Education. The book details the challenges and rewards of teaching incarcerated boys. 

by Liza Jessie Peterson 

The first week is about getting to know the dramatic range of characters who I am working with all day, every day, all year. For some odd reason, the alpha males have decided to sit in the front row, right up in my face. The back row is normally where the cool kids with strong personalities sit. This back row is reserved for shit-talking and social lounge parlaying. Like the kitchen, it’s the space most comfortable, in the cut, where real conversation and saloon talk takes place. Later I would figure out that the leader of this alpha male crew has a crush on me; hence the front-row spotlight positioning. They call themselves the Bosses. I call them the Bosses of stink, not because they smell, but because they have stank attitudes, always getting on my nerves. They’re fly boys, as fly as one can be in jail, rocking fresh haircuts and spanking new sneakers since they damn sure wouldn’t be caught dead in the city-issued neon-orange sneakers nicknamed pumpkin seeds. They think those jailhouse bobos are for herbs. The Bosses get barbershop time on a regular basis and clearly have rank and power back in their housing area. They walk like kings with an air of confidence and subtle intimidation, getting a constant flow of salutation fist bumps and handshakes from guys passing by the class. They’re like lil’ hoodlum dons. Me and my Gucci girl crew back in high school thought we were the shit too.

On the board I write “SWBAT [students will be able to] discuss the five evolutions of Malcolm X and compare and contrast his evolution to their own.” Then I write, “DO NOW. Write a five-paragraph essay reflecting upon and answering the following questions: What is the legal name your mother gave you? Who were you in the street? (What is your nickname and why?) Who are you in jail? (What is your jailhouse nickname?)” And finally, “Look into the future. What type of man do you see yourself evolving into?”

I ask the group, “Who knows the five names of Malcolm X?”

“What you talking ‘bout, Ms. P? Five names? He was just Malcolm X,” Jamel, one of my more attentive (but hyperactive) students, blurts out.

I respond, “He had a government name—the name he was born with. Then he had a name that he was called when he was running the streets hustling and…”

“Malcolm X was a hustler?” Jamel interrupts.

“Yeah nigga, he did time in prison! Right, Ms. P?” Tyrone, the leader of the Bosses, interjects, looking for approval.

“Watch that word. No niggas,” I say. “But yes, he sure did do time in prison, and when he was in prison he was called something else, and later he changed his name to Malcolm X. Then, after his trip to Mecca, he would change it again to something else. Malcolm X had five names. So what was his first name? What was his government, legal name? What did his momma name him?” I ask, challenging them.

“Oh shit, I should know this,” Tyrone says, snapping his fingers, trying desperately to remember. “Spike Lee did a movie on him. Denzel played Malcolm and the nigga—”

I cock my head to the side, prompting Tyrone to correct himself.

“I mean that brotha looked just like him too.”

After a moment though, he says, “I don’t know, Ms. P. I can’t call it.” Tyrone gives up.

I’ve held their suspense long enough, and they’ll never guess it, so I tell them. “He was born Malcolm Little,” and I write the first name on the board.

“So ok, when he was in the street hustling, getting paper, what was the street name he went by?” I continued.

Stunned to learn that Malcolm X had a dark past in the streets, Jamel asks, “He sold drugs, for real?”

“He did a little bit of everything… Burglary, pimping, number running, gambling, hustling… He was in the street hard-body, just like you. So what was his hustler name?” I ask again. Looking at their bewildered faces and shrugging shoulders, I try to give them a little help: “Part of his name described the color of his hair, and the other part of his name was the city where he was from.”

“Harlem!” yells Tyrone, confident that he’s right.

“Harlem. Heeey!” yell Raheim and Marquis, the two Harlemites in the back of the class.

“Harlem got the most snitches!” Jaquan quips from across the room.

Raheim flags him with his hand and sucks his teeth as he shoots back, “Not as many as Brooklyn, I mean Snitchlyn.”

“All right, all right. Every borough has snitches, so let’s drop it and focus.” Being called a snitch is a dis. A dangerous dishonor, like the mob calling you a rat.

I immediately reengage Tyrone. “Ty, you’re on the right track. Malcolm did eventually wind up hustling in Harlem, but he was not originally from Harlem. Good guess, though.”

“Damn, Ms. P. I’m stumped. I can’t call it.” Tyrone shakes his head in defeat.

“He was called Detroit Red, for his reddish-brown hair.”

“I’da never guessed that,” admits Tyrone.

“Well now you know. That’s how you learn,” I reassure him.

“True, true.” Tyrone’s interest in the lesson seems to corral most of the class. He loves black history and makes sure to let me know. “I like learning shit like this,” he says, jotting the answers down on a sheet of paper. He nods his head and shoots me a friendly, slightly flirty, smile. Ty’s skin is the color of blackstrap molasses with flawless, porcelain-white teeth that shine like brand new piano keys.

Jaquan is determined to be a disruption and pain in my ass today. He’s back out of his seat.

“Jaquan, please take your seat,” I politely ask.

“Ms. P, I don’t care about no Malcolm X. What he ever do for me? Fuck that nigga!”

This boy makes my blood rise. I wanna slap the taste out of his mouth for disrespecting my hero, one of the greatest, most courageous black leaders, whom I consider a divine miracle for black people…our black shining prince. And this raggedy pipsqueak, this ignorant little chicken-bone twerp, is throwing dirt on my sacred gladiator of black love and truth whose life was spent (and sacrificed) trying to wake the sleeping giants to remember our greatness. Aww, hell to the naw!

“Watch your mouth! Don’t you dare disrespect Malcolm X like that! You know what, as a matter of fact, go take a walk, Jaquan. I’m not dealing with you today.” With my long arm outstretched, I point to the door, gesturing for him to get out now.

“So if someone asks me why am I in the hallway, I’mma say Ms. P. told me I could take a walk and it’s gonna be more on you than me, ya heard?” he says through his slightly crooked, candy corn-colored teeth. He’s not a bad-looking kid. He just needs to see the dentist—and the wizard, for a new attitude.

“Say what you gotta say, Jaquan. Just go take a walk, thank you.”

“Your wish is my command, lady,” he replies, all snarky as he excitedly struts out of class doing his infamous George Jefferson peacock walk, which draws more snickering from Malachi the Muppet. Jaquan has his very own hype man in Malachi, who laughs at everything Jaquan says or does, which further prompts Jaquan to cut up.

Jaquan has been locked up for over a year, so he knows all the Correctional Officers (COs) and is able to move around a little more freely than some of the other kids. He has ingratiated himself with a few of the officers by being helpful back in the housing area. This, combined with his jail tenure and smart-alecky personality, has earned him a longer leash with some of the COs. Being caught in the hallway is not going to be a problem for Jaquan, who could slip into a buddy’s class or chat up one of his favorite officers. He’ll figure it out. It will take a long minute for Jaquan to grow on me. Right now he is a supreme pest, the adversary who plucks my nerves—all day, every day.

Jamel brings the focus back. “So Ms. P, what was Malcolm’s third name when he got knocked?”

“He was so foulmouthed and mean that they called him Satan.”

“Word?” “Oh snap.” “Nigga musta been a beast.” Several students blurt out responses in a collision of shock.

“Watch that word… but yes, Malcolm was not to be messed with.”

“How long was he locked up?” Tyrone asks.

“He was sentenced to eight to ten years and served six.”

“Damn, I ain’t know Malcolm put it in like that,” Tyrone says, leaning back in his seat, looking older than his youth.

“And what’s so deep about this brotha is that he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, was involved in every kind of criminal activity you can think of, got arrested, sent to prison, and was so mean and evil that even the other inmates called him Satan. But it was during his incarceration that his most profound transformation began. He didn’t go to prison thinking he was going to evolve into a great man and world leader who would touch the lives of millions of black people. He was just like you. But the Creator had a different plan for him. Just like the Creator has a plan for each one of you sitting right here.”

The room is focused, hanging on my words and, with the timing of an annoying gnat that flies in your glass of red wine right before you take a sip, Jaquan pops his head back into the room and bounces over to Malachi.

“Nigga, lemme git that strawberry Pop-Tart. I know you got it. I’m hungry as shit.”

“Jaquan!” I yell.

Malachi laughs while digging into his pocket, handing over the sugary Pop-Tart to Jaquan as he runs out of the room, but not before turning and winking at me on his way out.

I take an audible deep breath, unable to hide my irritation. Malachi, a skilled instigator, takes the opportunity to bring attention to the obvious. “He be getting on your nerves, don’t he, Ms. P?” I refuse to dignify his baited question with a response. Instead, I just roll my eyes at Malachi, making him giggle even more. I know he wants to get me riled up and the eye roll was enough to satisfy him for the moment.

I continue: “Your moment of transition into greatness could be happening right now. Maybe it will happen tomorrow, next week, next year—you don’t know when you will be called for greatness, just like Malcolm didn’t know he was being called for greatness. He didn’t know part of his destiny was going to prison in order to become a great man; just like you’re sitting right here and in my class for a reason. Your life is still unfolding, brothas. Who you are now is not who you are going to always be.”

Jamel’s eyes are big, water-filled, glassy-brown full moons, mesmerized by my every word.

“That’s deep, Ms. P,” he says, nodding his head. “I like how you put that. I’m feeling that. Word. I’mma be a great man.”

Malachi sucks his teeth, making Jamel respond in defense, “Ms. P talking that real talk, my man, ‘cause part of me still be wilding out but another part of me know I’mma do great things one day; it’s like I’m caught between the devil and God,” Jamel exclaims.

“Africa, that’s you talking like that?” Tyrone says, turning to face Jamel. The Bosses gave Jamel the nickname “Africa,” referring to his blackberry-velvet skin and tribal-looking scar under his left eye. Jamel is a short and wiry, good-looking kid who probably doesn’t know it. Heavily melaninated kids kissed deeply by the sun catch hell from other kids who think dark and ugly are synonyms. Racism—white supremacy did a number on us and on our self-image. It’s been imbedded in our psyche for hundreds of years, passed down from generation to generation, and has been on autopilot for a very long time. Over time, we internalized the lie and now tell it to ourselves. Dark skin. Ugly. Nappy hair. Bad. Broad nose. Curse. Thick lips. Undesirable. We’ve been infected from centuries ago and are still sick with self-hate. There is so much to deprogram and teach the babies.

Jamel willingly accepted their jailhouse term of endearment: Africa. I love that they call him that. I know they meant it as a dig, so when I first heard it I flipped it back and did alchemy. “Africa is the most mineral-rich continent on the planet. So much beauty comes from the motherland. Black is beautiful and Africa is the cradle of civilization. That’s a strong name, Africa.”

Jamel goes on, “Yo, don’t sometime you be feeling like, you’ve been handling your business the way you’ve handled it for so long that you don’t know no other way, but yet and still you know God don’t want that from you. That’s what I mean between God and the devil, my G.”

Tyrone is clearly impressed with Jamel’s interpretation. “Africa, yo, my dude, I’m feeling that. That shit be true. God on one shoulder; the devil on the other.”

Jamel puffs up with pride. “Word up my G, ya feel me?”

I chime in, “I know each and every one of you has a long story to tell. I can look at you and tell that you have climbed the rough side of the mountain and survived a lot. Am I right or wrong?”

The class is all nodding in agreement with a cacophony of: “Word!” “Hell, yeah.” “My life is a movie, son.” “My shit is a trilogy.” “I’m surprised I’m still here.”

I continue with the lesson. “So, just like Malcolm had five different evolutions or major phases in his life that were represented by a different name, I want you to think about yourself and what names represent the major phases in your life so far. Who were you at birth and what did your mother name you; who were you when you started running the street and who are you right now in jail…do you have different names? Think about it. You all have a story to tell…so tell it.”

“Yo, Ms. P, I’mma need a lot of paper for this one, ya heard!” Jamel excitedly exclaims.

This lesson seems to engage the entire class. They all have long stories riddled with urban drama, and they all want to tell it. They want to be seen, heard and recognized.

“Can we curse?” Malachi asks, totally shocking me because he’s always so unenthused.

“Within reason, but don’t go overboard with it. Profanity should be used like an exclamation point, not randomly used every other word like you talk in the street. And remember where you are, gentlemen; don’t write anything that would incriminate you. Keep it real, but be wise.”

“Word, don’t snitch on yourself, nigga, ya heard Harlem!” Malachi says with a smirk on his face. He’s stirring the pot.

Raheim falls for it and quips, “Yo, what? I know that’s not missy snitchy over there talking?”

“Yeah right,” Malachi shoots back. “Fuck Harlem.”

“Fuck Brooklyn!”

“Hey-hey-hey, watch ya mouth,” Tyrone chimes in, aiming his comment towards Raheim.

I have to nip it quick. “Alright, alright. Stop throwing batteries, Malachi. Ignore him, Raheim. Stay focused…Malachi. Start writing. Please! And all of you please watch your mouth; this is not the pool hall or the barbershop.”

I walk over to Malachi to give him the attention he is clearly crying out for. I need to get him focused on the assignment before he finds another target to stir up. He has nothing on his paper.

“Malachi, you haven’t even started.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he says as he nonchalantly shrugs his shoulders.

“Well, let’s start with: What did your mother name you? Were you the only child? Were you spoiled? What kind of son were you and at what point did you get pulled into the street life? And I’m sure what your mother calls you and what your boys in the street call you is not the same, right?”

“Naw, they call me Killa Kai, the wavy one.” Even Malachi has to laugh at his own inflated ego.

I chuckle. “So, write how you went from being Malachi, the apple of your mother’s eye, to Killa Kai, the wavy one. What’s your story? What was the journey? Come on, get started.”

“I got you, I got you, Ms. P,” Malachi relents as he begins to write. “I was born July 17, 1991, a bouncing baby boy in Brooklyn…”

I walk up and down the aisle commenting on their stories, encouraging them as they begin to write their mini-autobiographies.


Liza Jessie Peterson is a renowned actress, poet, playwright, educator, and activist who has been steadfast in her commitment to incarcerated populations, both professionally and artistically, for seventeen years. She has written several plays, including, The Peculiar Patriot, which she performed in over 35 jails and penitentiaries across the country, and in opening for Angela Davis at Columbia University’s conference on mass incarceration.

Also known for her exceptional poetic skills, Liza began her poetry career at the Nuyorican Poets Café in the mid-90s and was a vital member of the enclave of notable poets who were part of the “underground slam poetry/spoken word” movement. It was this electric group of artists that inspired Russell Simmons to bring “spoken word/slam poetry” to HBO, where Liza appeared on two episodes of Def Poetry.  She has shared the stage with luminaries such as Angela Davis, Nona Hendryx, Toshi Reagon, Amiri Baraka, The Last Poets, Craig Harris, Vernon Reid, Rakim, Carl Hancock Rux, Ron Carter, and Sandra St. Victor, to name just a few.

As an actress Liza appeared in several feature films: Love the Hard Way (costarring with Pam Grier and Academy Award winner Adrien Brody), Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, K. Shalini’s A Drop of Life, and Jamie Catto’s What About Me. Liza will appear in a documentary about mass incarceration by Ava DuVernay (director of Selma) discussing her art and activism.

Liza’s first book, ALL DAY; A Memoir of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids is due to be released fall 2016

'Finding Light at Rikers Island' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

Teachers & Writers Magazine

Teachers & Writers Collaborative: