Acclaimed author and thinker visits the Boston Clemente Course
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Danielle Allen looked exhausted.
Danielle teaches at Harvard and wrote the books Our Declaration and a new memoir/biography/jeremiad against the War on Drugs called Cuz. “Cuz” short for cousin, and short for “because” and also, she learned in her research, the term of comradeship among the Crips gang.
On October 2, 2017, late on a Monday evening, she visited our Clemente Course class in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Looking exhausted.
Danielle sat down and gave an introduction of herself and the story of her cousin Michael. In 1995, at the age of 15, he was shot by his own gun during an attempted carjacking. In the ambulance he confessed to a few other robberies earlier in the week and thus implicated himself under California’s 3 strikes law. He took a plea deal and spent 11 years in prison. He kept in touch with his cousin Danielle and took correspondence courses from Indiana University while in jail. Released at 26, Danielle appointed herself her cousin’s keeper, trying to help him reintegrate into society. Two years later, he was dead.
While he was in prison, Danielle was teaching at the University of Chicago and heard about Clemente. She immediately was interested in starting up a course — this would be a chance to teach students who were like her cousin whom she was tutoring while he was incarcerated. She taught American History, Literature and Writing in the Chicago Clemente Course — basically filling in wherever there was a need.
Teaching Clemente led to Our Declaration. She had taught the Declaration of Independence many times already but she said her Clemente students helped her recognize aspects of the Declaration that she hadn’t appreciated. Traditional undergraduates scrutinized the historical context of the Declaration; Clemente students saw the Declaration as an evergreen statement about people changing their lives. Clemente students knew the difference between freedom and tyranny and they saw the “story of agency and empowerment” at the core of the document.
A strong relationship to Clemente led Danielle Allen to visit our class in Boston
But change requires honest assessment. Danielle told us that shame had prevented her family from recognizing problems in her cousin Michael’s life that needed to be fixed. And then she made a statement that struck me with its simple truth: illegal drug use was a society-level “family secret.” Shame and criminality drove conversations underground and created a culture of secrecy that corrupted any sense of honesty on the topic.
The War on Drugs has distorted our society in myriad ways, she said, including inflating sentencing guidelines, lowering the clearance rate of homicides, and increasing violence in cities. After researching her cousin’s case, as well as having studied the history of judicial systems and philosophies since ancient times, Danielle has become an advocate of diversion programs — treating drug use as a disease rather than a criminal matter and steering young offenders into new avenues rather than let them fester and travel down a path of further criminal acts.
The discussion opened up. (Questions and responses are paraphrased, based on notes.)
What prompted you to write such a personal book?
Danielle Allen: Henry Louis “Skip” Gates had invited me to give three WEB Dubois lectures that I kept putting off. I would give him abstract titles like “Justice in African American Communities in the 21st century.” Finally he told me to stop procrastinating. I talked to Michael’s mom and siblings about making him a subject of the lectures; after his death, our family had been basically silent about him and the entire situation. So as I learned details about his death, I gave the lectures, talking about Michael in public for the first time. I wept through three lectures, probably among the strangest talks given at Harvard. The audience was patient, though, and many people — black and white — came to me afterwards and told me stories of their relatives or friends who were or had been in prison.
Did the CIA introduce crack to black neighborhoods?
DA: No one knows the origins of crack cocaine. There was enough suspicion of the CIA that the Department of Justice led an investigation into these allegations but nothing was ever proven. The DOJ did implicate the CIA with trading of arms in exchange for drugs, linking illegal drugs with guns, and making the drug trade more deadly.
What’s the deal with police feeling emboldened to kill black people and get away with it?
DA: These are not rogue juries. These are juries that are applying the established laws properly. So the issue is not with the juries, but with unjust state laws that regulate the use of force. Changes to the use of force have to be made state by state, at the local level.
Your story reminds me of my own family. I divorced my son’s father and he (the ex-husband) was deported to the Dominican Republic. My son, who has mental health issues, started acting up and skipping school. Because my child was not in school, I got pulled into the legal system. Now my son has made appointments at the Re-engagement Center [for Boston public schools] but the Center keeps canceling appointments or makes him wait 45 minutes until he gets frustrated and leaves. Drug treatment is important but it should not come at the expense of mental health services.
DA: You have a story — I’m sure you all have stories — about how social policies affect you and your families in real ways. You should write them down and be heard. Your voices need to be heard as part of the greater societal conversation.
Your stories and your accomplishments seem to have their origins in this family trauma. How do you regain your equilibrium, re-establish your own mental health, after reliving that trauma daily in your writing and talks?
DA: Thank you for your question. I get resilience from intellectual sharing. What helps me is coming here. Teaching. Making human connections. When I taught Clemente I used to always leave feeling better than when I came in. You must have seen how tired I was when I started, and now, having shared my story with you, I feel much better and more energized. Thank you.
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