Black Male Agenda Offers Poetry Reading
Poet Dwayne Betts Visits Campus
By Bekah Oester
Writer and poet Dwayne Betts, 28, of Odenton visited Bowie State University on Feb. 13 for readings from his memoir and collection of poetry.
Betts was introduced by BSU student Maurice Robinson, founder of the organization "Black Male Agenda." He read three of his poems including "Elegy of an Open Vein" and "Prison" before reading from his memoir A Question of Freedom, which is scheduled to be published this May.
Betts' memoir is based on his experience of being arrested at age 16 along with a friend for carjacking a man using a firearm. Among the issues Betts deals with are prison violence, diversity, and the lack of father figures in his family. Regarding prison violence, Betts notes in his memoir that "violence is a cloud of smoke you learn to breathe in or choke on."
Betts also said prison at the time was the most diverse place he'd ever seen. He had grown up in a black area, and had not been exposed to other races. After meeting and befriending a Hispanic man, Betts decided to teach himself Spanish to be able to communicate, a tool that helped him in the future when he was out of prison and in the workplace.
Another issue Betts addressed was the lack of a father in his life. He noted that the men in his family had a tendency to be absent. He met his father while in prison, and although his father was a learned man who had also spent time in prison, Betts said of his thoughts and memoir, "I divorced his life from mine," because he considered himself to be the first educated man and the first man arrested in his family.
Betts indeed was and is an educated individual. When he was arrested, he was a junior in high school. He was considered a good student, having taken advanced classes. When he arrived at prison, he expected to have to earn a General Education Diploma, but after some research, a woman informed him that with his classes, he would only need to finish his 11th grade courses and 12th grade English to graduate, so he ended up graduating high school from his jail cell a year ahead of his class. He also spent a large amount of his time reading anything he could get access to, which kept his mind "sharp."
After reading selections from his memoir, Betts opened the floor for a large quantity of questions from the audience. When asked how the whole ordeal affected his family, he noted that "In a way, I glamorized the things I was doing," referring to his feelings that he set a bad example for his cousins.
A common question was if Betts had regrets about his decisions and whether he now would change them. Now that Betts has been out of prison for three years, he is able to accept what has happened and learn from it instead of regret it, although he said that he was happy he made it, but sad for those he'd left behind in prison. His decisions, though not the best ones, opened doors for him he wasn't necessarily comfortable with including a front-page piece on The Washington Post which led to an offer by Penguin for a book deal. Of this, he said, "The best life that is lived is the one that is open to possibilities."
Advice Betts had for students was to be involved in the community and to volunteer. He said it is important that young black children have role models to look up to in order to stay out of trouble.