Is Gang Literature Needed in the UK?

I wrote in yesterday’s blog post about a dark-green river behind my hotel. It’s actually part of a very old canal system—Manchester was the industrial center of the country, especially in textiles, and the canal system helped move product through the city. It’s good to be clear about these things since I learned a long time ago that every city has its charm, history, and character. In fact, I learned that there’s a statue to US President Abraham Lincoln in Manchester. Apparently Lincoln wrote a letter thanking the people of Manchester for refusing to accept cotton picked by slave hands in the US South during the Civil War. Yesterday, Barbara Becnel and I, hosted by Josephine Metcalf, did a presentation at the University of Manchester as part of the writing conference on gang literature in the United States. We showed five minutes of Barbara’s documentary on the execution and torture – yes, torture – of Stanley Tookie Williams by the state of California. She also presented the children’s books, memoirs, and other books that Tookie wrote, many with Barbara’s help, from Death Row. These are books that have saved lives, a responsibility Tookie took upon himself when he realized the destructive nature of gangs, something he knew about as co-founder of the Crips. I also spoke about my memoir “Always Running” as the first major book by a former Chicano gang member who changed his life. I also talked about my children’s books, one of which also addresses gang issues, as well my poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. And I addressed my role as editor/founder of Tia Chucha Press—we’ve published quality full-color permanent bound poetry collections for over twenty years. Later that evening, at the Manchester Metropolitan University, Barbara and I, along with community leaders from South Manchester, were on a panel to debate “Is Gang Literature Needed in the United Kingdom.” A well-attended audience of activists and youth, as well as students, professors, and professionals, took part in this discussion, which proved to be challenging, feisty, and so necessary. That same day alleged gang members stabbed a 15-year-old student to death in London. There have been close to 15 youths killed so far this year in England from similar circumstances. While this is nowhere near the level of violence in the US, it’s still too many youth succumbing to needless deaths. Books about this life, written by people who’ve lived it, and with a redeeming/transformative message, may be important tools. Moreover, young people in Manchester or London should also rise up to tell their own stories, to voice their own issues and interests, not just read what Tookie Williams or myself have written. This is literature that neither demonizes nor glorifies gangs. These are books that are authentic, complicated, comprehensive, and inspiring. I must say the challenges from the audience were right on the mark. A true debate ensued, full of passion, but without anger or rancor. People listened, argued back, took ideas in, agreed, and then continued to dialogue. A number of young people, some of them in gangs, showed up and a couple of them also took part. I loved the openness of the audience members and the panel to interact positively on which is the best way to go to empower our youth, to organize and spiritually engage them, and to prepare them to run their own communities. We also addressed the need for real community—children, youth, adults, elders—coming together for the well-being of everyone. Both Barbara and I were equal to the challenge. By the end, everyone felt we had a real learning/teaching experience. I made important connections that I hope I can to stay in touch with on what needs to be done for peace, justice, and true healing on a local and global scale. c/s


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