Twenty years in prison took Roderick “Rudy” Bankston to the dictionary, unlocking a long-standing passion for words
In 1995, at the age of 18, I was arrested and jailed in Milwaukee County Jail for first degree manslaughter, accomplice in crime and first degree reckless endangerment of security, accomplice in crime . The first case exposed me to a life sentence, the second to five years.
My mother had convinced me to surrender, fearing the police would kill me if I didn’t. One rainy Sunday morning, she drove me downtown, and together we walked into the police station and hugged each other as a detective came out to take me into custody. It was Mother’s Day.
Right away, I understood the risk of having a public defender to represent me, so I asked my family to contact one of Wisconsin’s senior criminal defense attorneys at the time. He quickly came to see me at the Milwaukee County Jail and essentially reaffirmed my fears: I was in a world of trouble. When we first met, the lawyer assured me that he could “beat the case”. He used words I had never heard before, which intimidated me into blindly believing in his effectiveness. Two words in particular have never escaped me: causality and plausibility. They seemed complex and created in me a deep awareness of my ignorance. It took me straight to the dictionary and started a love for words that quickly turned into a passion for lifelong learning.
After a year of countless court dates and two trials, one of which was unsuccessful, I was convicted and sentenced to life plus five years. About three months before my 20th birthday, I arrived at Columbia Correctional Facility. I was depressed and angry and adamant about winning the appeal. For this to happen, I had to learn the law, and I couldn’t do it without refining my vocabulary, reading comprehension, concentration, and discipline. I enrolled in school and got my high school equivalency diploma within months.
The law was complicated and left me overwhelmed. Hearing “prison lawyers” argue and debate in legal jargon informed me one minute, confused me the next. I needed more education so I started reading anything and everything non-fiction. I continued to heed the advice an old school brother gave me while I was still in the county jail: “Never skip a word you don’t know; always looking. I ate in the dictionary and later in the thesaurus. Around this time, my mother started sending me books by black authors.
The learning became more personal and relevant to me once I started to have the perspective of BIPOC – and even the white perspective that truly respected the existence of black people. I became obsessed with studying. I also experienced a great deal of guilt upon realizing how disrespectful I had been towards the bloody and tearful sacrifices of my ancestors. Learning has also been a productive distraction from the prospect of spending the rest of my life in prison. At the same time, the things I read made me believe in myself and in my future. Reading helped fuel my fight for freedom. Giving up seemed dangerous to me as I read about who we were as a people before the transatlantic slave trade. I got lost in the stories of what my ancestors endured and the level of tenacity, resilience and faith it took for them to persevere and progress in such a hellish struggle. The dots have started to connect. Growth has become a way of coping – healing, a matter of survival. A year after starting my life sentence which looked like a death sentence, I was abruptly sent to Green Bay Correctional Facility.
As one year disappeared into the next, then the next, I continued my studies. I landed my first job in prison as a tutor and am committed to inspiring others to read, study, grow and heal. I have listened to the stories of brothers, shared mine and forged bonds. I quickly discovered that young people with the most potential are often the most injured. I realized that once trust is established and a relationship takes root, the ability to influence is a natural outgrowth. I wanted to instill in every brother I met the value of education. I was absolutely excited to share my books and other reading material. A constant bridge between the younger ones and me was the hip-hop culture. The conversation would start by talking about the music industry, for example, and lead to discussions on a number of topics. Before they knew it, I slipped them a book or an article to read. I have always conveyed the same advice on finding every unfamiliar word.
Seeing these brothers develop a thirst for knowledge gave me great satisfaction. Playing a role in stirring it, sharpening it and nourishing it, has given me the deepest fulfillment. I felt that my mission was to attract as many people as possible into the fold of self-education. It was my own act of underground revolution behind enemy lines.
The perpetual heartbreak during all of this was that a lot of the guys I had formed relationships with were stuck with space-time, just like me – young men making offers that doubled, tripled, and quadrupled their age and part of the time. their life expectancy. Witnessing all this promise buried alive crossed my heart many times. I often imagine how different their circumstances could have been had a stubbornly determined adult, teacher or circle of support been there to help them through the dysfunction, trauma and breakup. What if education had found its rightful place in their appetites before other forms of famine spoiled it for them?
It took me two decades to win on appeal. I came home with countless stories living inside of me, countless lessons learned from many relationships built.
My lived experience influenced much of my work after I was hired by the Madison Metropolitan School District. Initially, I aimed to work with young people, especially young people who are often underserved by the system. I quickly found myself working primarily with educators, facilitating restorative justice spaces, leading and co-leading professional developments, and collaborating within and between central office departments and with schools to support social justice and anti-racist approaches throughout the district.
I resigned from my post in 2019 and started I am We Coaching & Mentoring LLC. Today, I contract with MMSD and other school districts and organizations across the state and beyond. Unboxing race, facing history against a backdrop of racial mischief, co-traveling in diverse contexts and building towards change and healing have inspired and challenged me, broken my heart and increased my hopes and faith in our diverse and shared humanity. It also continues to reinforce for me that we cannot ignore the reality of the continuing oppression of white supremacy in this country. Our complacency is an active complicity. We must condemn white supremacy as a state of mind, not just as a color. We are all impacted. We are all needed in the struggle to disrupt and dismantle it, within ourselves and within society and the system (s) that support it in both covert and open ways.
Roderick “Rudy” Bankston is a guest columnist for Madison Magazine. Learn more about Bankston and his work on their website, iamweclassics.com.
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