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Tookie Williams: A martyr for the struggle

Workers World book review

Published Oct 2, 2008 9:02 PM

“My rage was nourished by the hate I saw and felt from mainstream society and white people, a hate based on my black skin and my historical place at the nadir of America’s social caste. I was filled with hate for injustice. Yet my reaction to the hate was violence directed only toward blacks.”

Stanley Tookie Williams’ “Blue Rage, Black Redemption” is a story of the seething rage within him and the heroic task he undertakes to understand that rage and place it in a historical context.

He begins this process while on death row, where his life has been given an end date. And though he conveys that he knows the system has every intention to fulfill the barbaric sentence, while deepening his political understanding and self-actualization he gives the impression of always looking forward, beyond the conditions of prison, the hole and the death sentence hanging over him.

By writing his memoirs, he intends for his life to be an example, a warning sign for other oppressed youth to not diverge down the same path that he took.

In the introduction, Tookie says: “The title of this book represents two extreme phases of my life. ‘Blue Rage’ is a chronicle of my passage down a spiraling path of Crip rage in South Central Los Angeles. ‘Black Redemption’ depicts the stages of my redemptive awakening during my more than 23 years of imprisonment on California’s death row. These memoirs of my evolution will, I hope, connect the reader to a deeper awareness of a social epidemic that is the unending nightmare of racial minorities in America and abroad as well.

“Throughout my life I was hoodwinked by South Central’s terminal conditions. ... From the beginning I was spoon-fed negative stereotypes that covertly positioned black people as genetic criminals—inferior, illiterate, shiftless, promiscuous. ... Having bought into the myth, I was shackled to the lowest socioeconomic rung where underprivileged citizens compete ruthlessly for morsels of the America pie—a pie theoretically served proportionately to all, based on their ambition, intelligence, and perseverance.”

Tookie begins the book at his birth on December 29, 1953, at New Orleans Charity Hospital, recounted for him by his mother, with the words, “I entered the world kicking and screaming in a caesarean ritual of blood and scalpels.” He relates how his mother endured the ordeal without anesthetics, which were denied to her because she was Black, and that to try and dull the pain in her mind she sang the Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” over and over again.

His birth foreshadowed his life and death, because, though lethal injection is touted as being quick and painless, because of a botched procedure during his execution Tookie languished, struggling for life, for 30 minutes. In the epilogue, Barbara Becnel, Tookie’s friend, advocate and co-author, who witnessed the horrifying ordeal, describes: “The midsection of Stan’s body did not stay still. It began to contort, caving in to the point of distortion—his stomach appeared to have been sucked dry of all internal organs, as it sunk so low it nearly touched his spine. And his convulsing continued for a while. At the sight of Stan’s monumental struggle to die, I thought that I heard an audible and collective gasp fill the room.”

But the recollection of the difficult conditions of his birth also portend his life, because it points to the toll racism takes on the Black soul—the real effects it has on everyday life, the damage it does to the Black psyche and the ramifications of a colonized mind.

In “Black Skin, White Masks,” Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Black revolutionary theorist, wrote: “A drama is played out every day in the colonized countries. How can we explain, for example, that a black guy who has passed his baccalaureate and arrives at the Sorbonne to study for his degree in philosophy is already on his guard before there is the sign of any conflict?” Of course, the situation depicted is different, but the meaning is that it is with great reservation and tenseness that an oppressed nationality steps out into the world, because of the history of wealth built off the backs of those of darker skin and the history of genocide, theft of land and slavery.

The rage of the first half of the book comes from the conditions imposed upon oppressed Black youth in South Central and of the inferiority complex pressed upon them because of the whitewashed view of history taught to U.S. society.

The rage, however, manifested in a self-hatred: “Unlike those ashamed to admit their motivation or too blind to recognize it, I forged through much of my life locked into a hostile intimacy with America’s wrongness. Conditioned and brainwashed to hate myself, and my own race, other black people became my prey and the Crips my sword. Though I cannot condone it, much of the violence I inflicted on my gang rivals and other blacks was an unconscious display of my frustrations with poverty, racism, police brutality, and other systemic injustices routinely visited upon residents of urban black colonies such as South Central Los Angeles.”

Seeking self-worth and the protection of other street organizations of Black youth, Tookie, Raymond Washington and their friends built the Crips and consolidated many of the other gangs into the fold. He states that they were not aware of the Black Panther Party or other militant and revolutionary organizations, but that if they had been, that perhaps their energies would have been directed towards the struggle and that he and his friends would have been ready and willing foot soldiers.

Real material conditions bring about phenomena. Tookie is a martyr for the struggle for a better world. Not only was he victimized by the conditions of exploitation, but, facing certain death, he transformed himself and sought redemption from the oppressed around the world by using his life as a guide, exposing both the ugly and his many mistakes, the camaraderie of himself and his fellow inmates—the inescapable beauty of life.

His memoirs, which also uncover the frame-up that sent him to be executed—a state-sanctioned murder—belong in the pantheon of other autobiographies of Black heroes like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

Stanley Tookie Williams, ¡Presente!