The other secret weapon is Nicole Shelton, our director. She was my audience, and she was not just an avid listener, she was an active listener. She would stop me if even an inflection was a little wrong, and we would go back over it. We went back over things many times to get them right.
When you were growing up, your father was a prison guard. How did your own upbringing impact your reading and perception of the police brutality in this book?
Yes, my father worked with juveniles in the correctional system in New York City. His brother, my uncle, was a beat cop for years, and then he became a detective. The stress of the job was unreal — my uncle died of a massive heart attack at the age of 49, and I think most largely due to the stresses of the job. My relationship to them, and to their father, my grandfather, who was also a civil servant — he was a postal worker — gave me a clear understanding of what was permissible and what was not. There was only a certain amount of trouble I could get into, let’s put it that way.
Can you remember the first time you read this autobiography?
I remember reading this book when I was in my early 20s and feeling inspired by his journey. Someone who was so steeped in criminality, to be incarcerated as a result of a life of crime, and to use your incarceration to educate yourself? To come out a wiser, more well-spoken, thoughtful man — a full-grown man — with not just a fire in his belly but a real sense of mission to galvanize people, to open their eyes? That’s really, really inspiring.
Here’s an unanswerable question for you: Do you think society has made progress since 1965?
That’s a very good question. If I were to ask you that question, what would you say?
I would say not enough.
Right, so we can say that the answer to that question is really yes and no. We still live under systemic racism in this country. That is a fact. That has not changed. Things have changed within that system, but the system itself has not changed. And hopefully we are in a moment — and this is partly why this book is so important now, and why it may have the ability to effect more change — where it seems that more people are aware of just how much change needs to happen, and are willing to do what is necessary to create it. And that’s where things have changed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.