A Journey to My Roots: a Second Chance to Understand by Michael Ronson

A JSTOR Access in Prison Second Chance Essay by Michael Ronson about self-education and African culture

A Journey to My Roots: a Second Chance to Understand by Michael Ronson

Author's Bio: I am in a Missouri prison and not currently enrolled in college. In 20 years, I have taken every college class that has been taught here but there aren't any degrees. People in college now are able to get a degree, but sitting through the same classes to get one means giving up the recreation time I have to read about the things I want to know about. Most of my family moved to Oklahoma 5 years ago and I only see them on holidays so I spend visiting days in my cell reading. I saw the notice in College Inside when I decided to write my first paper about African Studies.  

Being imprisoned has not only stripped me of my physical freedom, but it has also taken away my sense of identity. As an African American, I have longed to connect with my roots and understand the rich history and culture of the African continent. In this concrete jungle, I found solace in the prison library, where I began my journey of self-education in African studies. This endeavor has brought me a renewed sense of purpose and hope, as I eagerly await my release and the chance to visit Africa, armed with the knowledge I have gained.

Within the confines of my cell, I found an escape in the pages of books, encyclopedias, and  articles on African history, culture, politics, and geography. As I absorbed the knowledge, I felt a deep connection with the stories of the diverse people and their struggles, achievements, and heritage. I reveled in learning about the great African civilizations of Mali, Egypt, and Ethiopia, the impact of colonialism, and the inspiring tales of independence movements led by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Nelson Mandela.

In the process, I discovered the vibrant African cultures, from the Yoruba and Igbo people of Nigeria to the Maasai of Kenya and the Zulu of South Africa. I became fascinated by the diversity of languages, the African art, music, and dance, and the resilience and creativity of the people. I can't see the dances in pages of the books, but the costumes and photos allow me to imagine the movements. This newfound knowledge illuminated the complex nature of Africa, dispelling the simplistic stereotypes.

As I delved deeper into my independent African studies, I couldn't help but draw parallels between my own experiences and the struggles of my African ancestors. Their resilience, strength, and determination in the face of adversity have inspired me to reevaluate my own life and strive for a better future. I also realized that as an African American, I am a product of the African diaspora, and understanding my African heritage is shaping my identity and figuring out how I belong. I have taken enough credits from multiple classes that I should have a 4-year degree, and not one of those classes focused more than a class or two on the African experience, even though most of of the men are African American. We were given a chapter of a Frantz Fanon book as part of a global history class and it was the only time any of these classes shared colonialism from the perspective of the invaded people. Reading this genre brings me closer to understanding the sophistication of the continent where my ancestors came from.    

Through my journey of self-teaching African studies in prison, I have gained knowledge and a strong desire to visit the African continent upon my release if I am allowed to go. I hope to immerse myself in the cultures, engage with people, and see the beauty, struggles, and triumphs for myself. Equipped with the wisdom of the past and a renewed sense of purpose, I look forward to embracing the world with a deeper understanding and a second chance at life.

Editor's Note:

Michael's essay arrived printed, but he's not enrolled in any classes. The author's note was handwritten on a separate sheet of paper, and there was no name on the essay itself. This is evidence that the person who typed it was skirting the rules by typing the essay for Michael. Combining these artifacts with the amount of time he has served suggests he is a "prison elder." Elders move quietly, purposefully, are respected and protected by peers, and shows the way to people newer to the prison system. I can imagine the hands of Michael's co-conspirator in the computer lab, furtively transcribing his neat, block letters into type.

Prison elders maintain a type of order inside prisons and uphold social structures. If they are seen engaging in extracurricular academic pursuits, then the younger people are more inclined to emulate their behavior. Providing educational opportunities that foster learning outside the classroom has the potential to reshape the value of educational attainment for all residing inside carceral settings. Although the photo selected was taken at the White House, it demonstrates African dance, and when I print this to send to Michael, I hope he sees something in the movement that inspires him.

Photo Credit: White House Photo by Eric Draper