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Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Gift

This has been a year where the golden rants from my soul were not exclusive to my W2TM audience. Your support has been phenomenal, but here is the other side of my expressions appearing on your screens:

On 12/18/14, Lynden Harris and her Hidden Voices team shared an incredible holiday meal with us; string beans sautéed in a mouth-watering sauce, sweet potato and egg plant pies, turkey, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and dark chocolate that was so hard it had to be cut with a knife.  Word is bond.

Lynden gave each of us gift-wrapped writing paper and ink pens.  Needless to say, these gifts didn’t last long.  I went through the paper before spring was in the air, and I am writing this entry with a state-issued BiC.  Real talk.

It felt good to sit at a table eating with a fork and knife while taking my time and engaging in some wholesome conversations with good people.

We began the New Year with a project in which we created individual life maps.  My map resembles a Monopoly board.  I call it Concrete Exposure – a hard life.  This exhibit – along with copies of our Lethal Injection magazine – were featured at the Re-visioning Justice Conference, at Vanderbilt University this past April.  It was monumental!

Our exhibits were a hit, and caught the eye of a top tier criminal defense attorney named Bryan Stevenson.  In hindsight, I can clearly see it was inevitable for he and I to share the same space.  Feel me?

My Born Day (7/22/15) was simply incredible.  I hailed victorious at our inaugural Story Slam.  I performed a piece called, Between the Lines.  Telling a story about my teenage ambition to win my first trophy caught the ears and eyes of accomplished writer/novelist, Allan Gurganus, another golden moment where my soul was freed from bondage.  Ya heard?

On 8/17/15, I met Bryan Stevenson.  I stood before him and performed one of the most powerful pieces I have ever written.  The experience was surreal.  I stumbled over my words in the first stanza, but Reverend Ann Beck preached a sermon the day before titled, “Redo.” And that is exactly what I did.  

It felt like I fumbled the ball at my own first yard line; recovered it; then ran the distance of 99 yards to “pay dirt.” Everyone was screaming, touchdown!!  Afterwards, Bryan Stevenson autographed a copy of his book, Just Mercy, for me:

“To Leroy,

With respect, appreciation and hope for justice.  Keep your eyes on the prize.  Hold on!
Bryan Stevenson”

This holiday season is already something special for me.  The fall session began with six students from Duke University being added to my creative writing Fam.  We have been reading and discussing the literary works of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright and M. Nourbese Philip.  

We are a circle of friends defying the odds.  Chris, Caleb, Megan, David, Zack and Mike bring a presence to our class that is a gift wrapped in words.  Asante Sana my friends!

By the time this goes to press, six death row prisoners (Team FFLOW) will share their lives in a play called, Serving Life.  It is an incredible way to close out a life-changing year.  I’ll tell you all about it in 2016.  Happy Holidays!


Copyright © 2015 by Leroy Elwood Mann

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Misplaced Anatomy

“Racism is a visceral experience that dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.  You must never look away from this.  

You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, that graphs, the charts, the regressions all land with great violence, upon the body.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates 
New York Times bestselling author

This is my block.  That is my seat.  Here is my assigned area to do this or that.  This type of dialogue in a penitentiary setting is the repetitive torture of being dead and alive to know it.  A mind without a body, a fighting spirit with no host to influence.

Some days I wonder why exercising is even on my agenda: push-ups, leg lifts, and running the stairs.  For what?  To maintain a physique that belongs to someone other than myself?  The paradox of losing my body is a psychological monster.  

The arrest warrant reveals that my body was snatched on a cold December evening in 1995. But a deep introspection from a death row prison cell 20 years later, leads me to believe that my body was lost long before the date on the state’s document of ownership.

I spent my most formative years “reppin” Poplar Street.  The violence that was played out up and down Poplar Street felt like a natural existence as long as I kept waking up.  My home girl, Eleanora Fagan (Billy Holiday) once exhaled the truth in a song called, “Strange Fruit.” 

She spoke of black bodies staining the leaves of Poplar trees.  And here I am, claiming ownership of a street that bore the name of the same tree, which showcased the decimation, brutalization and humiliation of black lives that mattered.

At that time, North Philly was the only world that mattered.  For the longest it was all I thought I needed to know.  

I guess it’s because I was ripe fruit rolling through those streets, a body that was lost. Simply put; I was fruit for crows to pluck, except these scavengers made bodies fly with gats and batons.

These were crows that would impede the progression of an ice cream truck to do bodily harm to its driver.  Birds of prey that peck away at the psyche of a ten-year-old African American boy forcibly placed in a jail cell beneath a sold out stadium. 

This same body survived long enough to seek refuge in the U.S. Navy.  An anatomy suited for the concrete and asphalt foundations of urban America, grew “sea legs” as a means of navigating the mood swings of the Pacific Ocean.  While on dry land, it desecrated itself with alcohol, marijuana and countless twirls with heterosexual relations.

Yeah, my body was lost long before it was destined to succumb to a syringe filled with poison; “great violence” upon a body that hasn’t been mine for quite some time.  Every day gets more painful living without a body.  

The memories of what was, can only keep you pain-free for so long. Therefore, this throng of lost bodies – the body of death row – has become a surrogate anatomy, in which my mind can flourish and my soul can be nourished with the small increments of compassion.

This is the truth of a walking corpse becoming a life-changing experience – standing between the world and me.  I am no longer lost, only misplaced.  I have found who I was meant to be.


Copyright © 2015 by Leroy Elwood Mann

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Sweet Heart: The Flavor of Realness

What if the blink of an eye was worth 75 years?  What would you want to hold onto before your next blink?  Would it be something tangible or would it be the untouchable thrill of success?  Respect, maybe?

As I continue to awaken and my age grows, my memories have much greater value.  Memories of what I once deemed as “the best of times,” lose their significance when the other people involved no longer share the bridge of communication when times get real.  Na mean?  So, if I had one blink left, I would hold onto a friendship cultivated in a garage that was converted into a candy store.

You see, a lot like the rhythm of a haiku, a union between two people can be ambiguous to the casual observer, however, within what may appear to be an unorthodox union, every syllable or action has a profound significance that can only be felt by those privy to its intended meaning.

Rochelle was a teenage girl on a mission.  She calculated, packaged and distributed licorice whips, Now & Laters, and Charms lollipops in the truest entrepreneurial fashion.  As a frequent customer of her establishment, I embraced my addiction to the edible sweets displayed on a foldout table, acting as a service counter.  But it was her sweet heart that compelled an adolescent Mann to remain long after our $.75 transaction had been finalized.

Her place of business gave me a reason to share her space.  At times her older brothers would chase or literally carry me out of her store.  To no avail, I always came back more determined than before.  It just felt right being around her.  There were levels to our friendship and I made the early efforts to keep climbing.  Then somehow, I became the person that no longer shared the bridge of communication.  SMH.

Decades later, the sweetness of that diligent teenage Sista continues to feed my addiction.  Jolly Ranchers, Hershey’s Kisses and Hot Chocolate are merely metaphorical attributes of the rush Rochelle infuses into my existence. The taste of our reconnection makes me a better Mann, indeed.  And her sweetness will not permit me to stop blinking.  Feel me?

Chelle, I am humbled by the reconstruction of the bridge that brings me closer to you, the proprietess of my fix.  To many, our friendship is a haiku that frustrates more than it teaches.  Their fog surrounds us but the expression of our friendship is crystal clear to me and your extended hand is met with the most sincere gesture of gratitude.  With every blink that remains, your life will always be the unforgettable sweetness that made my existence taste-worthy.

Much love to you on your special day.

Happy Born Day, Ma!!


NP 4Life
Copyright © 2015 by Leroy Elwood Mann

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Rising Temperature of Progression: an End Game Objective

I can remember the sound of the teakettle coming from my grandmother’s kitchen.  You could hear that whistle blowing from anywhere in the house.  The kettle’s high frequency indicated the temperature of the water was sufficed.  If your preference was tea or coffee, the hot water was ready for the transition.  It was time to make the next move.

Living on North Carolina’s death row for 18 years has felt like a ‘stand still’ of an existence.  A lot like holding that tea/coffee cup and never hearing the high pitch of the anticipated transition.  It is only natural to wonder if your next breath has any relevance; if there is anything in your cup worth savoring?

Chess master, Eugene Brown is bringing the heat to an environment where living beyond a dismal circumstance is nothing more than a spark of some far-fetched fantasy.  Long before he entered the halls of North Carolina’s ‘death house,’ Mr. Brown was using the game of chess as a megaphone to communicate life to children in desperate need of a positive transition.

At a time where our juvenile justice system has tagged some children as future criminals rather than reach out to them as future citizens, Mr. Brown has given them a reason to think before they make their next move.  His vision on both sides of the concrete walls transcends into a blue flame igniting ambition through the understanding of 64 squares.

The men of North Carolina’s death row have words that counter their propelled deployment as societal throwaways.  And, we champion this Chess master of men for the position of,
National Prison Chess Ambassador.

John D. McNeil said:
“He is a pioneer as to transcending prison life to conscious chess moves.”

Nathaniel Fair said:
“He is well versed in chess, and his prison background makes him a great spokesperson on behalf of prisoners.”

Warren Gregory said:
“It’s long overdue considering his experiences and accomplishments.  I feel he is more than qualified.”

Being condemned to die could never be a smooth transition.  It was a painful experience for me, on the brink of turning 29.  There is a deeper hurt for my comrades who have endured reproof as mere teenagers.  Are we now living in a society that allows principals and parents to only deal with one set of kids, and call the police on another set of kids?

William C. Gregory said:
“He knows prison life.  Who else better to represent us?  Mr. Brown is sincere about chess.  I have learned that my choices have repercussions, now that I understand life through the 64 squares.”

Darrell W. Maness said:
“The first time I heard Mr. Brown speak, I knew he was a special individual with tons of knowledge – not only for prisoners, but free people as well.  He is one of those people that come along every so often that wants to make a difference for the benefit of the ‘underdogs.’ Mr. Brown would be an excellent choice for the underrated post that brings relevance to the lives of death row prisoners.  He is a genuine voice for the voiceless.”

Living on death row is a torturous journey that seems endless.  We are men pushing through life’s end game.

Jamie L. Smith said:
“You can’t begin to understand this struggle unless you’ve walked a mile in out shoes.  Mr. Brown has walked more than a mile, which makes him more than qualified for this position.  The game of chess is a challenging universal meeting of the minds.  Knowledge is always a work in progress.”

J. Dushame Murrell said:
“To be diplomatic anytime you consider the delicacies that incriminate prison, it is necessary to understand the environment before judging an institution that plays a corrective role accepted by society.  To ‘Think b4 U Move’ is a motto that empathizes and resonates with any culture or class of people.  Mr. Eugene Brown personifies a discipline we all need to experience.  It is never too late to reason.  Even the face of incarceration needs a role model.”

The temperature continues to rise, and our cups are filled with purpose.

Your Move,

Copyright © 2015 by Leroy Elwood Mann