Anthony Ray Hinton | The Sun Does Shine | St. Martin’s Press | March 2018 | 14 minutes (3,745 words)

The books were a big deal. Nobody had books on death row. They had never been allowed, and it was like someone had brought in contraband. Only six guys were allowed to join me in book club, but every guy on the row was now allowed to have two books besides the Bible in his cell. Some didn’t care, but others made calls out to family and friends to let them know they could send in a book or two. It had to be a brand-new book and be sent directly from a bookstore to the prison. It was like a whole new world opened up, and guys started talking about what books they liked. Some guys didn’t know how to read, others were real slow, almost childlike, and had never been to school beyond a few grades. Those guys didn’t know why they were on death row, and I wondered about a world that would just as soon execute a guy as treat him in a hospital or admit he wasn’t mentally capable of knowing right from wrong.

The very first book club meeting consisted of Jesse Morrison, Victor Kennedy, Larry Heath, Brian Baldwin, Ed Horsley, Henry, and myself. We were allowed to meet in the law library, but we each had to sit at a different table. We couldn’t get up. In order to talk to everyone at once, you had to kind of swivel around in your seat so no one felt left out. If someone wanted to read something out of the book, we had to toss the book to each other and hope that the guy caught it or it landed in reach of someone because we weren’t allowed to lift our butts up off the seats. The guards seemed nervous when they walked us to the library. We weren’t planning a riot or an escape; we were five black guys and two white guys talking about a James Baldwin book. Perfectly normal. Nothing to see here.

When the books arrived, one of the guards had brought them to my cell and handed them to me. Two brand-new copies of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. I had read it in high school, but I read it again so I could pass it on to the next guy. All seven of us took about a week to read the book, so with two copies being passed, we were ready for book club in a month. That became the routine for each book. Some other guys had asked their families to send them the same book, so in our section of the row — with fourteen guys upstairs and fourteen guys downstairs — almost everybody seemed to be talking about the book.

Some people hated it because it talked so much about God, and others loved it for the same reason. A couple liked it because there were some sex scenes. For that month, it seemed like the row was transformed to another place. We were in New York City, in Harlem. Our parents had a complicated and sordid past, and no relationship was as it seemed to be on the surface. We were in church, waiting to be saved or feeling the glory of Jesus as it racked our body in convulsions. We were victims of violence. We were caught up in a strange family dynamic where we didn’t know who our daddy was or why he hated us. We were John, the main character, turning fourteen and trying to figure out the world and make sense of what he was feeling. We were ourselves, but we were different, and the book occupied our days and our nights in a new way. We weren’t discussing legal questions, playing pretend lawyers and trying to understand a system that didn’t make sense half the time. We weren’t the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, the forgotten and abandoned men who were sitting in a dark corner of hell waiting for their turn to walk to the electric chair. We were transported, and just as I could travel the world and have tea with the Queen of England, I watched these men be transported in their minds for a small chunk of time. It was a vacation from the row — and everyone was a part of book club, even before the seven of us had our first official meeting.

When we finally did have our meeting, we sat at our respective tables and felt an awkwardness that wasn’t there when we were yelling to each other through the bars of our cell. Larry and Henry, being the only white guys, looked especially uncomfortable. The guards had locked us into the library, so we were in there by ourselves. There could be no violating the rules, no getting in any fights, no foolishness whatsoever. It was strange after so many years to have a change in our routine. Every day, except for when they took you to shower, things happened at the same exact time. So when there was suddenly something new, especially for the guys like Baldwin and Heath and Horsley, who had been there over a decade, it was strange and they seemed on edge.

“So, what do you think?” I asked everyone.

“How do we do this exactly? What’s the format?” Jesse Morrison was used to Project Hope, so he knew how to organize a group.

Everyone looked at me. “Let’s just talk about whatever we read that we want to talk about. Whether we liked the book or not. What we liked about it, what we didn’t. What left an impression. How does that sound?” I looked around at everyone, and they nodded. Henry looked serious. “You know what I liked?” I asked. “I liked this sentence: ‘For the rebirth of the soul was perpetual; only rebirth every hour could stay the hand of Satan.’ ”

“What you like about it?” asked Larry.

“I like that it’s about hope,” I said. “It’s like your soul can be reborn. No matter what you’ve done, you can be new again. It’s a hopeful sentence.”

“Yeah, but Satan is right there, pushing you every hour on the hour,” said Victor. Victor was a quiet guy. He was sentenced to die for raping and killing an old woman. “When I drink, Satan takes over; that much I know.”

We were quiet. Everyone knew he had been drunk the night he and Grayson had done what they did. Grayson was on the row too, but I never saw the two guys even acknowledge they knew each other. Baldwin and Horsley were both on the row for a crime they were accused of committing together. Horsley had told them he did it alone, Baldwin hadn’t done it, but it didn’t matter. Baldwin had been shocked with a cattle prod until he confessed. The jury had been all white. He and Horsley had both been tortured. Horsley tried to tell anyone who would listen that Baldwin wasn’t there, but it didn’t seem to matter. They were both sentenced to die. Just two more black men off the streets of Alabama.

We weren’t the scum of the earth, the forgotten and abandoned men who were sitting in a dark corner of hell waiting for their turn to walk to the electric chair. We were transported.

Heath spoke like a preacher, so I expected him to have something to say about the church folk in Baldwin’s book. He was strangely quiet, though.

“Everybody talking about being saved in this book,” said Henry. “I’ve never been to a church where people falling on the ground getting saved.”

I laughed. “Well, you never been to a black church, Henry. When we get out of here, I’m going to take you to a church where you will see the Holy Spirit come down and take over a person’s body so much that it looks like that person is going to fly right up and out the window of that church!” I started laughing. “You are not going to believe how people carry on in a black church. The only problem is it’s going to last all day and into the night, so you’d best be prepared to eat before you go and be ready to sit there until the Spirit moves you. You are going to be singing and praising the Lord like you’ve never praised the Lord before!”

Henry looked around the group. “I’m not sure they’re going to want me in there—you know, not everyone is like you guys.”

“Well, we will have to show them, won’t we? We will have to show them how a man can change.”

Henry smiled at me and kind of shook his head and shrugged a little. We all knew the row was different. Outside of here, the world was still different. Henry was a white man who’d lynched a black teenage boy. I was a guy who would blow a man’s brains out for a few hundred dollars. Brian and Ed were the kind of guys who would kidnap and kill a sixteen-year-old girl. Larry had his pregnant wife murdered. Victor could rob and rape an eighty-six-year-old woman. Jesse would shoot a woman for five dollars, according to his case. I looked around at our unlikely group, locked in a library in Holman Prison. A few of us were innocent, a few were not. It didn’t really matter.

“This is what I liked,” said Baldwin. “The part where John’s having to clean the house. Do you remember? Right in the beginning?” Baldwin unfolded a piece of paper he had brought with him. “I wrote it down while I was reading.” He straightened out the paper and cleared his throat.

John hated sweeping this carpet, for dust rose, clogging his nose and sticking to his sweaty skin, and he felt that should he sweep it forever, the clouds of dust would not diminish, the rug would not be clean. It became in his imagination his impossible, lifelong task, his hard trial, like that of a man he had read about somewhere, whose curse it was to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have the giant who guarded the hill roll the boulder down again—and so on, forever, throughout eternity; he was still out there, that hapless man, somewhere at the other end of the earth, pushing his boulder up the hill.

Everyone was quiet when Baldwin finished reading. He had read softly and carefully, like he had been practicing and didn’t want to get it wrong.

“Are you like the guy pushing the boulder up the hill?” asked Victor.

“Yeah, pretty much.” Baldwin cleared his throat. “Aren’t we all pushing the boulder? Every day, all day, week after week, year after year, we push that boulder up, and then the giant just pushes it back down. And we’re going to keep doing this until the giant crushes us to death with that boulder, or someone comes along at the top of the hill and gives us a hand. Someone tells the giant to make way, and we get to push our boulder up and over and then sit down and take a rest or something? Isn’t that just how it is?”

A few guys laughed, but I nodded at Baldwin. Horsley just looked down. I had been pushing my boulder up the hill hoping that Perhacs, or Santha, or now Alan Black was going to move the giant out of the way. Or at least hold him back so I could get to the top. I knew what Baldwin meant. I knew how helpless he felt. I felt the same way.

“That’s a good quote, Brian,” I said. “That’s something we can all relate to.”

The others nodded.

Horsley raised his hand to speak, and we all laughed.

“What you want to say, Ed?” I asked.

“I like how you think the people are all a certain way, but then you find out their stories, their histories, and you see how they got to be that way. Yes, maybe the father is an ass, but he’s had some loss, and it seems like the more you know of their story, the more you kind of forgive them for what they do. You know? It’s kind of like that here, right? We all got a story that led to another story and led to some choices and big mistakes. All these characters make mistakes, you know? Nobody is living this life perfect.”

Larry hung his head, but the other guys grunted in agreement. Then it was quiet, and I wondered who was thinking about their own mistakes. I had made mistakes, no doubt about it. Wouldn’t we all do things over if we could if we knew now what we didn’t know then? There wasn’t a guy in this library who wouldn’t have chosen differently if he could have.

The guards seemed nervous when they walked us to the library. We weren’t planning a riot or an escape; we were five black guys and two white guys talking about a James Baldwin book.

“Who else read a passage that meant something to them?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if this is how book club was held in other places, but I didn’t have a study guide or a printed list of questions from anywhere.

I had talked to Sia and Lester about it on my last visit, and Sia had said to just let people talk about what moved them. “Everybody feels something different when they read the same thing. You just have to see what made people feel something and then talk about that,” she’d said. “Don’t try to be the teacher; just talk about whatever the guys want to talk about.” I had nodded. The point was to get them thinking about anything but the dark, grimy, hot hell of the row. It was a gift to spend time in your mind away from your own reality. I could take my private jet anywhere around the world. I spent my week between visits having dinner with the most beautiful women in the world. I had already won Wimbledon five times. I was just this week being recruited by the New York Yankees. I was busy in my cell, too busy to think about the giant at the top of the hill pushing my boulder down. That’s all I wanted for these guys, an hour of freedom and escape. An hour away from the rats and the roaches and the smell of death and decay. We were all slowly dying from our own fear — our minds killing us quicker than the State of Alabama ever could. Men would do all kinds of crazy things rather than spend another night with their own thoughts. Bring in the books, I thought. Let every man on the row have a week away, inside the world of a book. I knew if the mind could open, the heart would follow. It had happened to Henry. Look at him sitting here in a locked room with five black men who had nothing to lose. He had been taught to hate us and fear us so much that he had thought it was in his rights to go find a teenage boy and beat and stab and lynch him just because of the color of his skin. I had no anger toward Henry. He had been taught to fear blacks. He had been trained to hate. Death row had been good for Henry. Death row had saved his soul. Death row had taught him that his hate was wrong.

“What about you, Ray?”

I looked around at the guys. “You know how he’s walking in the city, I think on Fifth Avenue, and he knows it’s not the place for him?”

“Where’s that part at?” asked Victor.

“I don’t remember exactly, but he’s being taught that the whites don’t like him, but he remembers a white teacher being nice to him when he’s sick. He thinks someday that the white people will honor him. Respect him. Do you guys remember that?” I said.

Henry cleared his throat. “I remember that part because it was like the opposite of what I was taught, but just the same, you know?” He looked around a bit nervously. “I wrote it down too.” Henry took out his own paper — a piece of inmate stationery with the lines printed on it as if we were too dumb to write straight. “Can I read it?” he asked.

Everybody nodded. “It reminded me of my dad. I thought of him, so I wrote it down.”

“You go ahead and read it,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

Henry began:

This was not his father’s opinion. His father said that all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a nigger. He, John, was a nigger, and he would find out, as soon as he got a little older, how evil white people could be. John had read about the things white people did to colored people: how, in the South, where his parents came from, white people cheated them of their wages, and burned them, and shot them—and did worse things, said his father, which the tongue could not endure to utter. He had read about colored men being burned in the electric chair for things they had not done; how in riots they were beaten with clubs, how they were tortured in prisons; how they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Niggers did not live on these streets where John now walked; it was forbidden; and yet he walked here, and no one raised a hand against him. But did he dare to enter this shop out of which a woman now casually walked, carrying a great round box? Or this apartment before which a white man stood, dressed in a brilliant uniform? John knew he did not dare, not today, and he heard his father’s laugh: “No, nor tomorrow neither!” For him there was the back door, and the dark stairs, and the kitchen or the basement. This world was not for him. If he refused to believe, and wanted to break his neck trying, then he could try until the sun refused to shine; they would never let him enter. In John’s mind then, the people and the avenue underwent a change, and he feared them and he knew that one day he could hate them if God did not change his heart.

We were all quiet when Henry finished. We all knew why Henry had picked that passage. His family was KKK. And here was this kid’s dad teaching him the same exact thing, only opposite.

“It’s a shame,” said Henry. “What fathers teach sons. It’s a sin to hate, ain’t that right, preacher man?” Henry looked over at Heath.

“That’s right. It’s a sin to hate, but God can forgive our sins. And the sins of our fathers.”

“That was a good passage, Henry,” said Victor, and both Horsley and Baldwin nodded. Everybody knew Henry had shame, and here we were, five black men in the South trying to comfort the white man who would forever be known for doing the last lynching of a black boy.

Everybody knew Henry had shame, and here we were, five black men in the South trying to comfort the white man who would forever be known for doing the last lynching of a black boy.

“I don’t believe the world is not for him,” I said. “Or for anyone. We are all God’s children, and this world belongs to all of us. I know the sun will never refuse to shine. We may not see it, but I know it’s there. I’m not going to have hate in my heart. I spent some dark years here with nothing but hate in my heart. I can’t live like that.”

“You are not a hater, Ray,” said Jesse.

“My mama didn’t raise me to hate. And I’m sorry for anyone who was taught to hate instead of love, to fight instead of help. I’m sorry for that and for anyone in this room who feels shame for what they were taught.” I looked at Henry. “God knows what’s in each man’s heart. What someone did or didn’t do is between a man and God and is none of anyone else’s business.”

Everyone nodded, and I could see the guard walking up to unlock the door. Book club had been a success. We had spent an hour talking about something that mattered.

“Someday, when I get out of here, you know what I’m going to do?” I asked.

“What you going to do, Ray?”

“I’m going to tell the world about how there was men in here that mattered. That cared about each other and the world. That were learning how to look at things differently.”

“You’re going to tell it from the mountain, Ray?” Jesse asked.

The other guys laughed.

“I’m going to tell it from every single mountain there is. I’m going to push that boulder right on up and over that giant, and I’m going to stand at the top of that hill, and on the top of every mountain I can find, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to tell my story, and I’m going to tell your story. Hell, maybe I will even write a book and tell it like that.”

“Everybody up. Back in the cell. This here is over right now.” Two guards, one at the door, one in the library, rounded us up and walked us back over to our cells. I watched as Henry grabbed his paper where he’d had carefully copied down a whole page of James Baldwin’s writing and folded it back up. Who would have thought those words would have mattered so much to him?

Larry Heath was the first member of book club to die. He didn’t have a last meal for dinner, and when Charlie Jones asked him for any final words, he said, “If this is what it takes for there to be healing in their lives, so be it. Father, I ask for forgiveness for my sins.”

On March 20, 1992, at a little after midnight, the guards put a black bag over his head, and the warden who had allowed him the privilege of reading a book and meeting with six other guys to talk about what that book meant to him turned the switch on and sent two thousand volts of electricity coursing through his body for a minute until he was dead.

At the next book club, we left his chair empty.

* * *

From The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin. © 2018 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.