Aiken book club offers life lessons from death row inmate
Just eight minutes into a virtual book club meeting, Jai’Nya Chinn asked a heavy question about “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
She read a sentence that started at the bottom of page 11 in her book: “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
“How can you live within it all?” Jai’Nya asked in a quiet, serious voice. “How do we live within all of it?”
The answer came from a man who taught himself about living while in solitary confinement on death row at the Ohio State Penitentiary.
“I’m not supposed to do or say anything, just sit in here suffering. You know, F that. I’m going to do something righteous with my life,” Keith LaMar told her. “And that’s how you live in the all of it. You be all you can be. You reach for it. And, you know, not let fear stop you from doing that. You wanna realize your full potential. The only way you’re gonna do that is you have to, you gonna have to be brave.”
Having book clubs inside prisons isn’t a new idea. But having a prisoner-led book club with a group of high school students on the outside? That’s something special, said Rachel McMillian, a former Aiken High School teacher who – in collaboration with LaMar -- started the book club last school year.
The participants all are part of MU Teach, a program designed to encourage more high school students of color to become educators.
“I thought this would be a good way to kind of shift their thinking about who we are involving in decisions about education and teaching and who we look to as teachers and educators,” said McMillian, who recently completed her PhD at Miami and now is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois.
Along the way, she said, the discussions with LaMar also gave her and her students new ways to view being Black in America.
“It sounds kind of weird, but we get used to oppression,” McMillian said. “So in working through this book club, being able to see things through Keith’s eyes, really hit home for us and made us think about more than just ourselves and about our Black community more broadly, including those who are incarcerated right now.”
‘All of our time is precious’
The inspiration for the book club stemmed from McMillian’s dissertation, which focused on the schooling and educational experiences of Black men who were wrongfully convicted as youth. The men in her research were incarcerated at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, and McMillian stumbled upon LaMar’s web page while doing her research.
LaMar was sentenced to prison in 1989 after fatally shooting a man who was trying to rob him. He pleaded guilty to murder and was sent to Lucasville for 18 years to life. He was 19 at the time.
Four years later, an 11-day riot broke out at the prison, ending in the deaths of nine inmates and a prison guard. LaMar was convicted of aggravated murder in 1995 in the deaths of five of those inmates. He maintains his innocence, saying prosecutors relied on jailhouse informants and withheld evidence that could have proven he was not involved. He has sought to have his convictions and death sentence overturned, arguing that he was denied a fair trial. The courts have rejected those arguments, and the Ohio Supreme Court set LaMar’s execution date for Nov. 16, 2023.
Held in solitary confinement for more than 28 years, LaMar, now 52, told WCPO the books he has read and reread have helped him learn more about himself and how he wants to live each day.
“My time is precious, that’s true, but all of our time is precious,” LaMar said during a phone interview from prison. “I also think that we have an obligation to make a contribution, and so that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
LaMar started Native Sons, a literacy program for youth in juvenile detention facilities, and said he speaks as much as he can to college students in the limited hours he can spend outside his cell.
But after talking with McMillian, he said he liked the idea of discussing powerful books with Black students at an urban, public high school.
“I just thought it was a good way to engage them with some of this material,” he said. “So they could begin asking themselves some of the difficult questions about what it means to be a human being.”
‘I want to be like that’
The book club launched last school year when the students were learning remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. While it was complicated to mail copies of “Between the World and Me” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” to all 25 students in the group, McMillian said, the book club became a highlight during a difficult school year.
“The kids were facing a lot,” she said. “A lot of frustration with online learning and with grades not meeting expectations and teachers not caring. But Keith was always there to motivate them.”
Leonard Dangerfield, a 16-year-old junior at Aiken, said the book club and conversations with LaMar made him rethink his mindset.
“Him being self-taught really made me think that no matter what situation you’re in that you can really educate yourself, and that’s one way to move forward in a situation,” he said. “I used to think if I’m not good at something, I’m not good at it. But now I work to be better at something that I’m not really good at.”
LaMar’s outlook inspired Teri’Ana Joyner, too.
“He always kept positive energy going. And, I mean, we knew his circumstances. We knew that this wasn’t a good situation,” said Teri’Ana, 17, a senior at Aiken. “I want to be like that. I want to be able to – even through the bad things that’s going on – I want to be able to speak positively to others, you know?”
Teri’Ana said the book club – which is continuing this year – will influence the kind of teacher she plans to be someday, too.
“I want my students to know that whatever I’m not teaching you, you have to be able to do it yourself,” she said. “I want my students to know they have to do a little more than whatever is given to them, you know? And I don’t want them to think that things are just given to them. I want them to know that there’s gonna be a struggle.”
The daily struggle is what made Jai’Nya think so much about that sentence in “Between the World and Me.”
‘What Keith has taught me’
“All of the bad things that happen and kind of drown us a bit, happens over and over and over again. You don’t really have much time to recover from it. I don’t think you can recover from some of the things that happen,” she told WCPO. “So how do we live with that? Because obviously we shouldn’t have to, but we do. So how do we? In what ways can we live with it?”
LaMar’s answer to her question was helpful, said Jai’Nya, a 16-year-old junior.
“Black joy and all of those things, like that is something that is really powerful in the midst of suffering and all the things that our community goes through,” she said. “His insight on that was really powerful to us and impacted us a lot.”
The book club has changed the students in important ways, McMillian said, both as people and the teachers they aspire to become.
“Number one, it empowers them. I can guarantee you that they probably are not afraid of anything that will come their way after working through this book club with Keith,” she said. “Number two, it causes us to look at people differently, knowing that we can’t just throw people away. We can’t throw students away.”
That’s a lesson that McMillian said she hopes other teachers will learn from the story of the book club, which she will continue to help facilitate even though she no longer teaches at Aiken.
“There’s a lot going on in Cincinnati right now in terms of violence among our youth,” McMillian said. “Really, all I would have to tell teachers is, like, don’t throw our kids away. There’s still something great within them. They are not murderers. They might have killed someone. But I know what those kids are feeling just because of what Keith has taught me.”
LaMar said the Aiken book club offers a broader lesson for everyone.
“The thing that I hope people will take away from this exchange,” he said, ‘is that if someone on death row is making these kinds of investments, then I with all my resources should be doing something.”
Information about the Native Sons literacy program is available online, too.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.