Let me introduce myself. I have several names:
The name on my birth certificate is Damian Kareem Abdul Jabbar Cunningham Herndon. But by the time I started grade school, my mother had shortened it to Darnel Vincent Herndon Jr. (after my father).
My nickname as a young teen in the streets was Bart, because people said I resembled the cartoon character from The Simpsons. I was a skinny kid with a slight overbite and a high-top/fade haircut.
But today, I prefer to be known as Askia A. Afrika-Ber. I took Askia from the illustrious West African Songhai Emperor Muhammad Toure. (The Songhai Empire was a state that dominated the western Sahel/Sudan in the 15th and 16th century. At its peak, it was one of the largest states in African history.) Toure took the title of Askia, which means “General.” (The brother was a leader and teacher of men. In the streets, my homies expected me to organize our moves, knowing I’d always bring them back alive and unharmed. Now, I am now trying to use those same skills and energy for righteous purposes.)
The surname Afrika is a nod to John Africa, founder of MOVE. (For the unfamiliar: MOVE is a Black organization whose members believe that “everything alive moves. If it didn’t, it would be stagnant.” When members greet each other, they say, “on the MOVE.”)
“If you got crime in this system, then it is because you have a system that is teaching crime. If you are teaching crime, then you should not be the one locking people up (when you are as criminal as the person you are locking up).” John Africa
I am not a monster. I am also not the fabled Black menace.
I was born in the District of Columbia on a Friday night, April 11, 1975—the first man-child of Cieta and Sonny Boy. It was the closing year of the Vietnam War, which was America’s longest war at that time. The country had been integrated for 10 years by the time I was born, although you couldn’t tell that from the makeup of my elementary school or the demographics of my neighborhood. I attended Ann Beers Elementary, which sits on Alabama Avenue SE, directly around the corner from the house of former Mayor Marion Barry Jr. (aka Mayor for Life).
I lived in an apartment with my parents on Fort Davis Street, an affluent, middle-class, African American, residential neighborhood where my maternal grandparents maintained a well-kept, single-family home. My mother’s parents had 14 children and a relatively close-knit, working-class family.
My father was raised by a single mother with the assistance of her sister. He didn’t have any siblings. In his youth, he was convicted of robbery and sentenced to federal prison. That experience and his heroin addiction prevented him from maintaining lawful employment. My mother decided it would be in our best interest to move out of D.C. to Prince Georges County, Maryland. I think she believed that by putting distance between him and his old stomping grounds, he’d be able to kick his drug habit, reset his priorities and focus on his family. But…a chemical-physical addiction isn’t something an individual can just step away from, at least that easily. My father had serious mental-health challenges that were untreated for many years.
By 1987, my parents had separated. I couldn’t articulate the emotional hurt, disappointment, and confusion I felt when my parents gave up on each other, breaking up our little tribe. In my eyes, instead of throwing in the towel, they should have regrouped, sought refuge and put our heads together to find our collective footing. (I want to note, though, that despite their break-up, my parents worked hard to make sure I sustained healthy relations with my father’s side of the family.)
“To be alienated is to hate what one has been led to perceive as one’s real self, to perceive it as an enemy, to actively seek to obliterate it.” Amos N. Wilson, Black-on-Black Violence
In 1988, I had begun to get into the drug game. Simply put, I yearned for money. For as long as I can remember, I felt the urge to hustle/generate capital. In elementary school, I stole Garbage Pail Kids collector cards and sold them to my classmates. My first choice wasn’t to sell dope to make money, though. I actually tried to get a legit job, but I was constantly told I was underage or simply denied. So, I started selling small quantities of crack cocaine out of a small arcade/corner store next to Johnny Boy’s Carry Out on Southern Avenue.
Introduction to ‘the system’
In 1990, I had my first encounter with the juvenile criminal-legal system. I was convicted of robbery and sentenced to an indeterminate amount of time, dependent on my conduct while in custody. Initially, I was housed in a facility called Boys Village in Shelton, MD. The staff assigned kids to a housing unit depending on their age, size, mental health, crime and propensity for violence. I was assigned to Unit 8 for smaller youth—a cottage-style prison. There were about 20 single cells, but due to overcrowding, each housed two kids. There was a a ping-pong table, a pool table, a small classroom, an arts-and-craft room, a single TV and a caged-in basketball court outside.
In the morning, two staff members patrolled the unit, getting the youths who had court dates ready for their appearances and feeding, showering and escorting the rest to and from rec or education. Not a single day went by without at least two or three violent altercations between the residents. There’s no way to estimate how many brawls and acts of sexual violence were perpetrated behind locked cell doors. We fought over everything from food trays, who got to sleep on the single bunk in the cells, our place in line for the ping-pong or pool table, or control of the TV. Strong-arm robberies were committed for name-brand sneakers.
Most staff members were elderly men or young women who were not the kind of people who would step between two young men throwing punches at each other. Usually, they’d let us fight until one prisoner was no longer able to defend himself. Often, fights were long over before staff members intervened, especially if one youth had armed himself with a weapon (pool ball, pool stick, broom, plastic chair, etc.) or if two or three youths decided to jump on another.
I established myself as a fighter in this abnormal, soul-crushing environment. I discovered a few things about myself: I learned the art of suppressing and masking my fear. And I learned I wasn’t easily intimidated, wouldn’t allow myself to be anyone’s flunky. This environment taught me to become highly capable and comfortable with acts of violence if I felt threatened or If I wanted to make a statement. Some staff members outright told us, “We ain’t doing nothing but getting you ‘lil niggas ready for the penitentiary.”
During my stay in Boys Village, I cultivated a strong alliance with a crew of intelligent, fearless and fiercely loyal guys from the Kentland section of Landover, MD. I tapped into this network as I traveled deeper into the juvenile legal system and back out into society.
While in the cafeteria one day, I argued with a fellow prisoner. As I advanced toward him, a female staff member tried to physically subdue me and, in the heat of the moment, I shoved her away. I instantly regretted it, since putting my hands on a woman is the ultimate sin in my mother’s home. But it was too late. Several male staff members knocked me to the ground and dragged me to a padded isolation cell, where I stayed for 72 hours. (That was my first time in a sensory-deprivation cell, but it sure wouldn’t be my last.) I was then transferred to Unit 6, where larger, more aggressive youths were housed. I was determined to hold my own; by then, I had learned to actually enjoy a challenging fist fight.
My mother was a constant visitor, bringing fruit baskets, sodas and sneakers from my collection at home. Thoughtful and clever, she brought me Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I was vaguely familiar with brother Malcolm’s story. My mother’s older brother, my Uncle Tony, acted like he was the leader of the D.C. chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. He was fond of wearing black berets on his curly hair, just like Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seals. He even had a large oil painting of Malcolm X hanging in his basement. If you didn’t know Malcolm’s full Arabic name (El Hajj Malik Shabazz) when he asked you, he’d make you do push-ups or stand in the corner like you were a race traitor or Uncle Tom. I intensely read Malcolm’s autobiography all the way up to his incarceration and visit with his sibling, who informed him on the Nation of Islam theology, including the belief that white people are “blue-eyed devils.” It was at that point that I closed the book and tossed it under my bed. Out in the streets of D.C. and P.G. county, I had done business with white men and women; I knew many of them to be decent people. I have loved two women, one of them white. I have a child with a white woman. I don’t buy into such race-defined divisions.
Self-alienation is the product of fear, anxiety, insecurity, anger, hostility and ignorance. These are the feelings, emotions and states of consciousness that result from being terrified of one’s real self and of certain aspects of reality: circumstances brought on by frightening forces and people over which you don’t have control. Amos N. Wilson, Black-on-Black Violence
After about three months, I was transferred to Charles H. Hickey School for Boys and Girls in Baltimore. Since I wasn’t classified as an escape risk, I was housed in Unit 11 on the “open side,” part of the complex that wasn’t sealed with barbed-wire fencing.
There weren’t any programs available to us youth prisoners; there was no vocational training so we could learn a marketable skill. There was only regular school (pathetic in its quality of instruction), church on Sundays (I went for the free donuts) and a lame, 20- to 30-minute group session where we were supposed to discuss our personal challenges. There was no library, no anger-management classes or any mental-health or self-help programs. We were simply warehoused and left to our own delinquent devices. Utter, fucking mayhem ensued. There were constant riots between the youth prisoners from D.C. vs. those from Baltimore City. Milk crates flew at our heads, athletic trophies were used as weapons, etc.
During my stay at this “school,” I was involved in two riots and over 20 mano-a-mano, bare-knuckled brawls. That prevented me from being eligible for weekend visits home. All we did while I was warehoused there was plan, plot and strategize how to commit more lucrative crimes once we were released.
Out, but hardened—so not for long
I was sent home to my mother after 10 months of learning absolutely nothing that could possibly improve the quality of my life and community. I returned to society a more hardened wanna-be outlaw than I was before I entered.
When their reactionary violence (retaliatory or defense) cannot be effectively directed at their oppressors or effectively applied to their self-liberation, it is then directed at and applied destructively at themselves. This is the essence of Black-on-Black violence. Amos N. Wilson
In 1991, I was arrested and charged as an adult at the age of 15 for attempted murder in Prince Georges County. I was cleared of all charges when the witness failed to appear in court, but it wasn’t long before I got in trouble again. In 1992, I was again charged as an adult for attempted murder. The guy I was accused of shooting had broken into a mutual friend’s house and stole a bookbag belonging to me, containing $3,500, a digital scale, several ounces of crack and a firearm. When he was shot, he was outside and I was in a hallway inside playing dice. But a friend who witnessed the shooting said [the victim] was high on PCP, with his back turned to the shooter. He was ambushed. Look, I’m from the ‘hood. If bullets start flying at your head or in your general direction, nobody who values his life stands there trying to ID the shooter.
I knew he was lying when he identified me as the shooter and so did he. I had just gotten out of trouble and had no intention of going back to prison over a street punk stealing a little chump change. So, I took my chances at a trial. And I lost. I was convicted on his word alone. No weapon was recovered. There was no DNA or other material evidence linking me to the crime. There were no other witnesses. (My friend who witnessed the crime testified I was not the shooter, but I was still convicted.)
I was sentenced to 25 years, although 13 were suspended. It was 1993 and I was sent to the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC), aka the New Jail in Hagerstown. But the first “C” in MCTC should have been for corruption. The Maryland Bureau of Prisons is about two things only: corruption and capital. The prison was a cold-blooded gladiator school, with perpetual knife fights, fist fights and violent sexual assaults (inmate against officers and vice versa).
I was barely 18 years of age and yes, I was afraid for my safety. However, the juvenile system had done an excellent job preparing me to perform violently without second-guessing the outcome or the legal consequences of my actions.
They think that by limiting my mobility, they can limit my mentality. Paul Robenson
Salvation through literature
By 1994, I had begun doing a lot of transformative reading. I finally completed the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read classic works of literature by the late iconic Toni Morrison: Songs of Solomon and The Bluest Eyes. I read the progressive political works of George Jackson: Soledad Brothers and Blood in my Eye. I also read the writings of Black psychologists such as Na’im Akbar: Breaking the Chains, Images of Psychological Slavery and Vison for Black Men. And then there was Frances Cress Welsing, who wrote groundbreaking work that decoded the signs and symbols of white supremacy. The information amassed from these and other revolutionary-scholar-authors made me question everything about my upbringing, my thought processes, the conditions of my neighborhood and the system I seemed to be trapped in.
I was confused, inspired and angry all at once. I began to misdirect my frustration onto the wrong people. I assaulted two white male correctional officers and, as a result, I was brutally beaten, thrown into solitary confinement and charged with two new assaults. In a plea deal, a year was added to my time, I no longer was eligible for parole and I was prohibited from ever being housed in an institution below “medium-high” security. I prepared to be transferred to hell.
In 1994, at the age of 19, I was shipped to the Baltimore Supermax Penitentiary, aka the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center. This place didn’t offer a prisoner anything besides the most intense sensory deprivation I had ever experienced. We were kept in solitary confinement for 47 hours, then given one hour for rec/shower out of our cells. That’s 47 and 1. There was nothing to do but read, workout, read, read, read. That, or go completely insane listening to my fellow prisoners begging for the Lord’s forgiveness in different languages or screaming death and murder threats to each other or at the correctional officers. I was fortunate to have a supportive family to order me books and magazines.
I literally turned my cell into a radical Black studies department. I wanted to understand how the very people who gave the world art, science, agriculture, music, architecture and the concept of civilization could be reduced to servants, prisoners serving sentences and serial consumers. Why were the people who constructed the pyramids living in impoverished projects in America and throughout the diaspora?
In 1997, when I was 22, I was released to the general population after living in a single-man cell for 47-and-1 for two and a half years. Then I was shipped to Eastern Shore Correctional Institute. I immediately hooked up with my Baltimore pan-Afrikan comrade Antwan Terrain aka Imhotep (Lil Pharoah). We began hosting Afrocentric study groups and organizing and speaking at Black History Month and Kwanzaa programs/celebrations. We even got Dr. Molefi Asante to come inside the prison and speak at one of our cultural events. Dr. Asante coined the phrase “afrocentricity.”
Me and Lil Pharoah operated together like Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seal. We began to guild a cultural-revolutionary organization called the Fativ Family aka the PLO (Philosophical Liberator Organization). Brothers on the compound called us the Vanguards.
Once the prison intelligence officers/administration got hip to what me and Lil Pharoah were up to, they began surveilling our activities and pulling me out of my cell quarterly to take pictures of any new tattoos* I had and ask questions.
In 2003, at age 26, I was warehoused in the Western Correctional Institute in Cumberland. I worked as a law clerk in the prison library for an older white woman, a pastor’s wife, named Ms. Lightening. She recommended I read the works of Ernest Hemingway, Alexander Dumas and John Steinbeck. She believed I had the potential to reinvent myself, get a college education, marketable skills, start a family and live a full, productive life. She encouraged me to write a letter to the warden requesting return of the good-time credits I had lost in 1994 for the assault of the two officers. I composed the letter and the warden granted my request! I was released to my family exactly two months before my 27th year.
So many of my comrades are gone now. Some tight partners, crime partners and brothers off the block are begging on the street. Others are in the asylum penitentiary or in the grave. They are all suicides of one kind or another. The difference lies in hope and desire. Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide
Home, but a target once again
I was home after a decade-plus. It felt wonderfully strange! I lived in my mom’s basement and enrolled in Test College, a tech school in Alexandria, VA. I also worked in a bar in Adams Morgan. I met a brother who was a Howard University student, who wrote and performed spoken-word poetry. He invited me to read at a spoken-word café on U Street. I was in a good head space for somebody who had been in and out of prison since he was young.
The worst mistake I made after my release was hanging around the neighborhood where my mother moved before my first incarceration in 1990. It was known as Homer Avenue and it was what she could afford. But a 2005 Washington Post article described it as so notorious that PG County planned to tear down all the neighborhoods there. It’s the most-deadly three-square-block in the county. Homer, Hudson, Huron—they have all been extremely violent for years.
I had a reputation around Homer Avenue for being a solid, stand-up brother, both in the streets and in prison. I was known for being intelligent, loyal person with a big heart who adhered to old-school traditions (like, when one of your homies gets released from prison, you hit his hand with a little cash, pay his bonds if he gets arrested, put up cash to hire a lawyer to help fight his criminal cases, etc.) I did that and plenty more. That’s why it was such a bitter experience when in 2005, I was falsely accused and convicted of kidnapping and murdering one of my young homies.
I have never betrayed any of my childhood friends, street partners or cultural comrades. I have always lived according to my principles and with a degree of class. Never have I tried to double-cross any of my associates. I never snitched on anyone, never tried to sleep with any of my homies’ girlfriends or wives, let alone kill any of them. It simply goes against everything I believe in and stand for.
The U.S. government (D.C. Superior Court) relied on two witnesses, knowing their testimony was fabricated. The first witness later testified under oath that he lied throughout the investigation and that the only reason he cited my name was rumors circulating around the neighborhood.
The second witness was a minor who as just 15 at the time and whose testimony was riddled with provable errors. (My family has hired two private investigators to track down him and his mother; I am certain if I could find them, they would come forward with the truth. But the effort has been fruitless.)
“I ain’t going to spend a lot of energy talking about this frame-job. My innocence is proven with every ounce of energy you breathe, every drop of innocence you drink, every morsel of innocence you eat. The very message you are receiving is me. My innocence and righteousness are represented all through this information.” John Africa
Making the best of my current journey
I was sent to USP Lewisburg in Pennsylvania in 2006. There I met three of the best DC law-library scholars/jail-house legal minds on the prison compound. Initially, I lived in the law library studying case law.
That came to an end in 2006, when one of my D.C. brothers got into an altercation with a member of a prison gang called the Dirty White Boys. (Dating back to the early 1980s, DC prisoners have a long, bloody history of violent confrontations with white-supremacist gang member all over the federal prison system.) One of the white gang members was stabbed and after the riot that followed, the gang’s entire leadership hierarchy was forced to leave the prison compound. Several of the D.C. prisoners, including me, were shipped out of USP Lewisburg for security reasons.
I was transferred to the federal penitentiary in Hazelton, West Virginia. I wasn’t there more than 48 hours before I was thrown into solitary confinement for defending myself from an attack by another prisoner while watching basketball in the prison gym. Fortunately, I was able to move on, and soon I was assigned a job as the prison visiting room photographer. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I was trusted to go inside the prison visiting room and photograph my brothers who were fortunate enough to receive visits from their families and loved ones.
It was in USP Hazelton that I filed the appeal of my case. I also begin taking self-help and hobby classes to avoid falling into a deep depression. I took history classes and leather shop, for example. I wasn’t able to avoid trouble though. When a one of my D.C. homies got in a fight with Gangster Disciple gang member and found himself up against a shank (homemade prison knife), I felt I had to come to his aid.
The fight sent me to solitary confinement, and then all parties involved were sent to the special management unit (SMU) in USP Lewisburg. That meant 18 months of 23 in your cell every day, with just one hour out. You could call it 18 months of sensory deprivation. (President Obama’s administration later recognized the harshness of it and shortened it to nine months.) In the meantime, the DC court returned a ruling on my appeal, dropping two of my charges. But on resentencing, I received the same sentence handed down for them all: 53 years and a few odd months.
Since then, I’ve been shipped around the federal prison system. I’m committed to being the best father and uncle I can be. My youngest sister, a firefighter, has allowed me to named all three of her children. Her son, my nephew, I named Sundiata (after Sundiata Acoli, incarcerated for his membership in the Black Panther Liberation Party, along with Assata Shakur). Her daughter, my niece, I named Lorddess. (I just thought it was a powerful and regal name for a young woman.) And my eldest niece I named My.L.A (Myla)—as in My Loving Angel. Myla just graduated high school and is about to start her first year of college at Morgan State University in Baltimore; she wants to be a pediatrician or veterinarian. I have been locked up all of their lives, although I had the chance to babysit Myla when I was home just after my son, Tristen Zayd, was born.
I’m also committed to my own continuing self-development and the betterment of those around me, wherever I’m at. I’ve taken over 40 self-help classes, received a 30-hour OSHA certification, written three books of unpublished poetry and prose that I plan to publish as an e-book (I’m also working on a collection of essays on the effects of mass incarceration).
And I have just written a proposal to start an African American history program in my current warehouse, USP Big Sandy in Inez, KY. The majority of young Black men I meet in prison think Black people have always been playing basketball and making hip-hop videos. They believe drug dealing is an innate part of our culture and that our neighborhoods have always been renowned for Black-on-Black violence and gang banging. But we didn’t always refer to our women as bitches, hoes and sluts. We didn’t always believe that all white women who support our struggle are purely infatuated with the black men’s sexuality. I teach them how to respect themselves, research why our living conditions are the way that they are, and explore people other than drug dealers who were and are genuinely trying to make our communities a better place to live.
*Prisoners are creative and resourceful. Tattoo artists in prison usually mount a small, palm-sized motor—for example, from a beard trimmer—and attach it to a toothbrush. Guitar strings make excellent, homemade needles. Ink can be made from the soot produced by burning chess or checker pieces, mixed with a little shampoo.