Michelle Kuo

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Author of Reading with Patrick

Professor, The History, Law and Society Program

The American University in Paris

 

We think of slavery as being so distant an institution in that we recognize the systemic effects of it, but we still think that it's an institution that no longer exists. But this picture of African American men thinking that they didn't deserve freedom, it felt very real to Patrick. It reminded him of fellow inmates at his jail. 

 

By Heidi Legg

Michelle Kuo’s debut memoir, Reading With Patrick, is a deep look into the disadvantage of black youth in the rural South from the perspective of an urban, Harvard-educated teacher and the humanity she discovers with her student from the Mississippi Delta named Patrick Browning who lands in prison.

Kuo first met Browning when she went to the Delta with Teach For America at a school for black kids who were struggling called Stars. She spent two years in the Delta classroom before returning to Harvard, this time to Harvard Law School, a decision that did not come easily as she weighed her work with the students at Stars against the pressure from her Taiwanese immigrant parents.

Upon her completion of Harvard Law, Kuo is unpacking in an apartment for her new job in California when she discovers Patrick Browning is in jail for murder. Kuo takes an abrupt turn, and heads back to the Delta to see him, and once there, she decides to stay. She gathers up the classics and a reading list that would make most book lovers sigh, and tutors him each and every day for close to a year. What's amazing to me in this story is how Kuo, the child of immigrants, had found role models for her own experience in America in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, MLK, and Frederick Douglass before she went to the Delta, and before Patrick was convicted of manslaughter under a plea bargain.

Where do we begin? You touch on so many points that seem urgent in our national conversation: education, race, incarceration, immigrant integration, plea bargains, failure of systems, and the promise that comes from reading great literature. Where did you want to shed light with this book?

That's a hard question. I think sometimes when you're in the middle of the writing you're not sure why sentences form in your head, early in the morning or late at night. You don't know the point of having these disjointed thoughts. Over time, I've come to understand why I felt compelled to write and seen that so much of the way we talk about criminal justice is about how we avoid talking about 'the violent offender.' Progressives avoid it because it's uncomfortable. Conservatives gleefully talk about it to create fear and grab votes. Where does that leave the violent offender and his family? They make up 50% of state prisoners in our country. Liberals tend to focus on mass incarceration as being caused by nonviolent offenders, but the reality is that there are kids like Patrick who are not malevolent, not the so-called super predator or, as Trump would have it, the ‘bad hombre,’ but people who have gone through difficult things and made mistakes. They have to live with that, totally isolated from the world, with only their own conscience to take them through.

I wanted to chronicle his humanity on paper. I wanted to get down his potential. By the end of our time together, reading and writing every day in an Arkansas county jail, Patrick is writing these extraordinary letters to his daughter that are intricate and detailed.

The details in his work are amazing over the months you spend together at the county jail, like something you'd read by Whitman.

It really struck me how little I did for Patrick over the seven months. All I did was show up and have, if I dare say myself, pretty good taste in poetry. I showed those poems and those classics to him. He took them. There were some afternoons where I did nothing at all. I was on my phone or choosing the next poem, and he was reading them, he was writing, and he was absorbing them in silence and concentration. And in those moments of concentration, I felt his humanity as a person.

Stepping outside of the jail, I thought to myself, ‘these aren’t the stories we hear. We don’t tell the stories of change that do happen.’ That's not to say that I saved him. This isn't a savior narrative. He's really struggling at the end of the book. A looming question in the book is, ‘Do words really change lives?’ When he gets out and doesn't have the structure of me as a personal tutor, he doesn't have an adult figure guiding him as his mother dies, and he has to come up against prohibitions against him getting a job because of his record. He has to live in one of the poorest places in the country where there are few jobs and opportunities for advancement. His mother, who was his most beloved person in his life, has passed away. He has a child. So, there's this looming question of what really happened when we read together, and I think maybe that's why I wrote this. I didn't know what happened. We know that he wrote and read every day and quickly progressed, but we don't really know what impact that had on him that's concrete, that's tangible, that feels like a happy ending.

In the last third of the book, you keep referring to his broken sandal and finally it was tied with string. I kept wanting to ask, ‘why isn’t anyone buying him new shoes?’ And then realized the focus of your time together was on the intangible. How would you describe that time in the Arkansas jail?

That's such a lovely word to describe that time. It was intangible. So much of what happened when we were reading and writing together was silence: him reading and me reading his work. The silence meant a lot to me. Actually, when I was writing later on, I found myself Googling, ‘how do writers describe silence?’

I think the most mystical aspect about poetry is how two people can read it together and bring so much memory, so much baggage to it and have a shared understanding and reverence for the text, while not knowing at all what the other person is thinking. There is something very honest about that because we always want to have these perfect conversations where everybody knows exactly where everybody's coming from and demonstrates their respect and that's not going to happen in the world, even between great friends. And that's definitely not going to happen between two people who have a profoundly unequal relationship, which is something I'm very open about in the book, and something with which I wrestle.

When you were first in the Delta with Teach For America, it seems like you hit your stride teaching when you began to ask the students to write letters to loved ones, dead siblings, God. You apply it again in the prison with Patrick. What did you learn about letter writing, as a teacher?

There's something about writing a letter that feels different than writing an assignment, a book report, an analysis of an essay. It's personal. The thing that surprised me about having them write letters was how the students relaxed. They didn't think they'd be corrected too much on content, for having the wrong ideas or ignorant ideas.

One thing is that most, if not all, the students were very religious. This is Arkansas and Mississippi. Everybody has family who goes to church. They themselves go to church. The black church is very strong, and so I also offered the option of writing a letter to God. The letter was a prayer in their own handwriting and that is really different than filling out a grammar worksheet, which often is what happens in a lot of English classrooms. And what is a grammar worksheet? Besides being soul crushing, sometimes it's really culturally inappropriate if you're constantly circling 'ain't’ or 'finna,' which is a Delta word.

During your time in the county jail with Patrick, he writes to his daughter and the mother of the boy he killed. What did you see through his letter writing?

Sometimes school curriculum is really disconnected from the way people experience their lives. The letter connected Patrick directly with people who he felt like he had let down and with whom he couldn't have contact. It was too painful for his family to visit him, even though they were five miles away. His mother cried a lot when she came to the jail, so he told her to stop coming. His sisters also didn't like to visit him because it was so painful for them to see him there. He was really isolated and with his daughter, who was a year old at the time that we were reading and writing together, he felt like he had let her down and that he wasn't there for her. He wasn't there to watch her first steps, wasn't there to see her speak for the first time and writing to her was a way to imagine them being together.

The thing that really struck me was that I tried to get him to write a letter without thinking too hard about it and at the very beginning of our time together, the letter itself was not a letter you would show her. It was a letter that kept on apologizing, saying, ‘I'm sorry for not being there. I'm sorry for letting you down’ and I thought to myself, I don't want him to feel like he has to apologize all the time to his daughter. I want him to feel like he has things to say to her, things that should make her proud of her dad.

By the end of these seven months together, he was writing these imaginative letters, picturing them going canoeing down the Mississippi, describing the kinds of birds that they would see, the fish swimming underwater. He totally imagined that and he had pictures of peonies and roses in these little field guides that I had brought him to read. So, he fully imagined most of it. In these letters, he told her about poems he knew by heart and I was so mesmerized by his writing, I felt, ‘yes, this is what reading can do,’ because it's reading that got him to write better. We know that with writers. Writers are always telling other writers, ‘just read,’ but we forget with kids that that's what gets them to write as well.

The progress in his writing is quite amazing as you read his earlier letters compared to the ones at the end of your time together.

That's one thing that really surprised me. I knew that a person could advance in his literary skills very quickly when I was a teacher, but I didn't know that they could regress so quickly as well.

When I was teaching the first time, my goal was very ambitious. It was to make them life long readers and it seemed to me that I had made some lifelong readers, but when they were out of school and out of structure, they regressed. To stay a reader you need to have structure. You need to continue going to school. What happened to Patrick was that he dropped out the year after I left the Delta, and once you drop out, you're totally cut off from the world of books. I was surprised when I met him in jail how far he’d regressed.

You chose some ambitious and thoughtful books for Patrick to read in jail: Gilead, Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, work by James Baldwin and MLK. What did you see when you introduced these books to him?

I love the book Gilead. If you haven't read it, it's by Marilynne Robinson, and the whole book is a long letter that a father writes to his son. What is captivating about the book is the language, the tone, the warmth, and the sense of mystery. There's one line about how oak trees can astonish you, about the way a human face is miraculous, and there's something about asking a student to use that letter as a model that really inspires. I found this with Patrick. He took one paragraph directly from Gilead and made it his own and, later on, I used it as a model teaching prison at San Quentin Prison at this amazing program called Prison University Project, which is the only college degree-granting program in California. Students love using that as a way to inspire them to write their own letters to people in their lives.

In the book, you note that inmates you tutored later on in California seemed more advanced. Why is that?

There's such a disparity in resources. Being a place that has many universities is a total game changer. I was one of hundreds of volunteers who came from all the colleges near San Quentin: Berkeley, Stanford, UC Hayward. Students in prison had classes in moral philosophy and math and science and literature, whereas in the Arkansas County Jail there was nothing. There was no prison library. There was nobody: no programs, no rehabilitation, no other tutors. I was kind of a one woman shop, and that is always a recipe for failure if you don't have an institution that uses all the resources of its community. What was amazing to me about the San Quentin Prison and the Prison University Project was the amount of resources that they were taking from the Bay Area.

Is this the model?

It's a model, but it's harder to replicate in areas that are more rural and isolated and that don't have that concentration of educated people.

But we have so much money in America?

I know. That's true. We're the wealthiest country in the world and yet, over 50% of the kids in the delta are ‘food insecure’ – which just means ‘hungry.’

When Patrick read Frederick Douglass, that book seemed like a turning point. How did it affect Patrick?

Yes. When I initially introduced Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to Patrick, I had a certain idea of how it was going to go over without even realizing it. I thought he would have a good powerful role model. I thought this was an important port of American history. I thought he would learn about a remarkable, brilliant black man and maybe even be inspired, but what happened was totally different. Patrick felt incredulous that a black man had written it. He was totally captivated by the story itself. Whereas I thought of the book in kind of symbolic terms, he read it as full blooded.

The part in the book that most destroyed him was the scene in which Douglass talks about how during the holidays, slaves were given gin by their masters and it was a way for the masters to prove to the slaves that they didn't deserve to be free, because the slaves would get really drunk and stumble into the fields.

We think of slavery as being so distant an institution in that we recognize the systemic effects of it, but we still think that it's an institution that no longer exists. But this picture of African American men thinking that they didn't deserve freedom, it felt very real to Patrick. It reminded him of fellow inmates at his jail. It reminded him of himself, of having guilt over what he had done. He's a religious person. So, it reminded him of sin and of mistakes, and that really devastated me. It made me totally rethink my own relationship to this book.

At the very end, the thing that also struck me is how he couldn't see himself in Douglass. I mean, he read the book in a concrete stairway with no light. There's no quiet place to read in the jail, and this is a recurring thing in the book about how there aren't many quiet places in the Delta. Homes are often crowded with a lot of family who generously take in other family members, and the library at the time was really decrepit. Now it's been redone and it's beautiful, thank goodness. Props to the people who did that, including some of my friends who stayed in the Delta and who helped make it happen.

But that Patrick couldn't see himself in Douglass also broke my heart. We have this idea that if we feed African American heroes to African American kids they’ll feel proud; they'll want to live up to that dream, and that's an expectation of which we should be conscious. When people grow up in totally different circumstances in the Delta, which is rural and poor and pretty isolated from the rest of the country, they don't feel that solidarity. They don't feel enough warmth towards themselves to see themselves in these heroes that we non-African Americans and some African Americans hand to them.

Was it difficult for you just now to talk about Patrick's experience? It seemed that way to me.

It was incredibly difficult. It was really difficult. It's difficult to realize about yourself how disconnected you are from experiences that you think you know about. I thought I had empathy for what slaves had gone through, but when I had Patrick read Douglass I realized that I had no idea. I have no idea.

It's hard to walk in the shoes of others.

That is true.

When you return to the Delta once Patrick is in jail, you try to move along his court date. He waited 15 months for a trial. He and his parents were happy to take a plea bargain, and you are surprised by this willing acceptance. What cultural differences did you notice between his family and your middle to upper class family in accepting this fate?

To back up, in my third year of law school at Harvard, after returning from Teach for America, a friend of mine called and told me that Patrick had been arrested for killing someone and I was totally devastated. I didn't believe it. I thought there had to be a mistake. It must have been a different Patrick or a different situation, because Patrick had not been somebody who picked fights. He always kept to himself.

You note in the book that he stopped other classmates from misbehaving when he was in your class.

He did. He broke up a fight between two young women once because he didn't like to see people fighting.

When I went back down to the Delta and talked to him about what had happened, I understood more deeply that when in situations where people can't rely on law enforcement, they try to resolve things on their own. This is something that happens especially in poorer neighborhoods where there's great reason to distrust police, where the police are the reason why a beloved family member is in jail or was screwed over. I want to say that in the Delta, the majority of the police force is black. It's about two thirds African American and one third Caucasian. So, there's less issue with outright racism of a white police force against the minority that is black – but there are other issues that are endemic to the system.

What most distressed me were how few resources rural areas have in criminal justice, looking at the plea bargain. There was a report released by the Vera Institute for Justice that thrilled me in the sense that it was the first time I saw a comprehensive report on rural criminal justice systems, and in particular, rural county jails. It captures the reality of how little money public defenders make; how isolated the defenders often are because they have to drive hundreds of miles to get to an arraignment. In Patrick's case, he waited fifteen months – in jail – for the actual plea bargain to happen, and he only met his public defender twice – both times I arranged. That's ludicrous. That's crazy! Because it costs so much money to go to trial, the plea bargain arises, and the arraignment sessions only take place four times a year for the trial.

You wrote that there was a long list of people on arraignment day and if you weren't called, you'd have to wait three more months to be arraigned. What can be done? What policy changes can we help create?

The biggest policy changes around which I feel really passionately have to do with giving felons opportunities to have jobs and education.

One of the most heartbreaking things happening now is that people who come out of prison have nowhere to go. They're more isolated. With Patrick, I thought to myself – naively, when we were reading in prison – that once he got out, he would improve because he would be with his family and he would have freedom.

He called you in California and said, "great news. I'm out early."

I was really excited too, but in prison there were institutions that – very minimally – had taken responsibility for him, and now nobody would take responsibility for him. That really struck me and devastated me. He kept hitting up against prohibitions to get jobs because he had a violent felony. When he put on his resume that he received his diploma from the state of Arkansas – because he later got his GED in prison – an employer said to him, ‘I know what that means. You went to prison.’

There's already so much trauma from having been incarcerated and what happened on the night where he killed someone. Add to that, programs to integrate him are non-existant, employers are unwilling to take felons in, and there is no oversight of people unwilling to hire them. That's crazy to me. What we can do is look at the local and state policies that keep felons from attending college, that keep felons from getting jobs, and showcase model programs where employers are giving felons jobs. As a society we should encourage other employers to do the same, and this is something that people with money and resources can do. People with money and resources tend to be employers, they tend to be connected to employers, and they are CEOs.

Your book reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy in that a group of people are left behind, held back, and ignored. What other policies and challenges are holding Patrick and people in the rural South back?

There are a couple of issues that don't get a lot of play that would really change Patrick's life. One has to do with child support debt that piles up in prison. It's something that's not reported, but one prisoner can accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for having two children, and that debt follows him when he gets out. You can imagine that this was originally an incentive for deadbeats to pay up, but for poor men who are incarcerated, who are often African American, it's ridiculous because they're never going to be able to pay it. Some upper class people wouldn't be able to pay it. Patrick cannot open a bank account now because it would be garnished immediately. For him not to open a bank account, that's just crazy. The debt keeps him down because he can't save money or be motivated to create savings for himself. That's one thing.

The second is health care is on all of our minds. Patrick has emergency health care bills from when he was hit by a car. Hit and runs happen a lot more in rural areas than urban areas. He woke up in a coma in the hospital and the bill was sent to debt collectors, as they often are, and that debt is also chasing him. These are two areas in which poverty is being criminalized and keeping him from not only opening a bank account, but having self confidence and purpose and getting a job. What's the point of getting a job if these creditors and the government are going to come take away these wages?

Where is Patrick’s headspace right now?

Three years ago when I was working on this, he was in a better place because he had a job. I think when you're in a good place, you're happy for people to know. You're proud that you've come a long way. He is a religious person and he said, ’This is my testimony. I want you to share it,’ and that felt very genuine to me. Now three years later, he doesn't have a job and I think it's more difficult. Then the past becomes a thing that you want to hide. It’s probably a mix of emotions.

I do want to say that some of the royalties are going to his daughter's college fund and also to him. I would feel uncomfortable if it was any other way. That doesn't answer your question about his headspace, though.

Your book is now out there, being read, and you’re on a book tour. Where is your headspace?

Oh, gosh. I rarely know where it is. You spend so long working on something inside of yourself it's a bit strange to not have that belong to you anymore. I will say I love it when Asian American readers come up to me and say, ‘finally, this is the first time that I feel like I've been represented.’ Or that they want to do social justice but there's such a black/white dichotomy. I don't know where to place myself. I've always felt like I had less of a place and there's so many cultural pressures to do something that makes a lot of money or that has higher status than teaching and doing Legal Aid. That is really gratifying, and that's when I realized that as much as I thought I was writing to humanize somebody like Patrick, I was also writing for people who look like me and who didn't know where to situate themselves, and who had really painful conversations with their families about their life choices.

I can see how you might become a poster child for other young people who want to make a difference. How do we bring more Patricks along? That time you had together was a luxury compared to what most incarcerated people receive. How can we recreate that?

I think it does seem like a luxury to have a one on one tutor in jail for seven months, but when I think about most middle and upper class kids, it is what they get. They get parents who have leisure time to read to them and have money to spend on books. Patrick and his daughter's mom keep telling me, ‘books are expensive.’ They are delighted to have one book.

And that goes to the heart of the book: ‘Is it really this easy once you put conscientious humans in the same room as people who need support?’ Part of what rural areas like Arkansas and Mississippi suffer from is that loss of conscientious human resources, because the plight of rural areas is that people with education leave and other people with education don't want to go there.

With Teach For America, it does bother me when people say, ‘you go there for two years and you leave.’ It reflects to me a lack of knowledge about how rural areas work because anybody who has grown up in a rural area knows that everybody leaves if they can.

The second thing that we have to remember is that outsiders poured in to places like Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in the 1960s. There were student radicals who poured in and we didn't think of them, ‘how dare these outsiders.’ We thought, 'They wanted to go to a place where many people won’t go and were idealistic with an ideal of integration. Meanwhile, the segregationists from those areas called them 'outside agitators' as an epithet - as a way to delegitimize them.

We have such a different relationship to the idea of outsider now. There’s such suspicion that I understand comes from a good intellectual place, but oftentimes that paralyzes young people because they think, ‘why should I go there? I'll just be an outsider.’ I think with rural areas, we have to stop being so self-conscious that we don't go. People are really friendly. Old people love any young person coming in – wherever they're from – because their own grandchildren have gone to the city: to Memphis, to Little Rock, to Fayetteville, to Texas. There is a potential for real relationships even if there's always the looming problem of jobs. I do think that that's really important to emphasize – that these relationships can build in spite of these differences.

Are you encouraging young people to move to these rural areas?

Absolutely. Of course, you have to go in with a lot of humility. You can't just tell people what to do. You have to really listen, but I think we learn a lot more when we decide to go to different places. There's such a tendency now, especially in progressive circles, to become more fragmented and more self-celebratory about one's own group. I love being Taiwanese American and I love Asian American groups. My husband is very Taiwanese and I take so much sustenance from all of that, but we have to still value some kind of interracial dream while also recognizing that it's still a dream and not yet a reality.

You're sounding like your parents in the book!

Oh, no. Now I sound really American.