ray jasperYou probably don’t know what your plans are for March 19th, possibly eight hours of routine work or ten hours of Netflix binge watching. However, for Ray Jasper, this date has been highlighted on his calendar for quite sometime. Not because its marks his thirty sixth birthday, but the exact opposite; it was day Texas’ Judicial system has determined will be his last. Having the knowledge of when and how your life is going to come to end, is an haunting experience; one that is reserved for those our society has deemed as unable to rehabilitate.

Jasper has lived with this everyday for over a decade, giving him plenty of time to reflect on his life, the judicial system, the country, and the systematic oppression of black youth. On Tuesday, Gawker released an intimate, highly personal letter that he wrote from the cell on death row. After reading the complete transcription, it is clear that this “prisoner” has been able to find truth that is typically shunned or hidden away from the public at large, which makes it an important, powerful piece. Unfortunately, as Lincoln Anthony Blades’ states, his problematic self-perception casts doubt on the credibility of the points he espouses.

There are an innumerable amount of valid points brought up over the course of the six pages. Jasper points out the fallacies that he sees in the world around, spending a considerable portion of time discussing the lack of historical identity in the black community, and its damaging effect on youth.

When you have a black man name John Williams and a white man name John Williams, the black man got his name from the white man. Within that lies a lost of identity. There are blacks in this country that don’t even consider themselves African. Well, what are we? When did we stop being African? If you ask a young black person if they’re African, they will say ‘No, I’m American’. They’ve lost their roots. They think slavery is their roots. Again, its a strong identity crisis.

You take the identity crisis, mix it with capitalism, where money comes before empathy, and you’ll have a lot of young blacks trying to get money by any means because they’re trying to get out of poverty or stay out of poverty. Now, money is what they try to find an identity in. They feel like if they get rich, legal or illegal, they’ve become somebody. Which in America is partly true because superficially we hail the rich and despise the poor. We give Jay-Z more credit than we do Al Sharpton. What has Jay-Z done besides get rich? Yet we see dollar signs and somehow give more respect to the man with the money.

Furthermore, he connects this lack of identity and historical context to the prison industrial complex or epidemic. It was a truly harrowing portion of the letter, difficult to read through.

I understand that it’s not popular to talk about race issues these days, but I speak on the subject of race because I hold a burden in my heart for all the young blacks who are locked up or who see the street life as the only means to make something of themselves. When I walked into prison at 19 years old, I said to myself ‘Damn, I have never seen so many black dudes in my life’. I mean, it looked like I went to Africa. I couldn’t believe it. The lyrics of 2Pac echoed in my head, ‘The penitentiary is packed/ and its filled with blacks’.

It’s really an epidemic, the number of blacks locked up in this country. That’s why I look, not only at my own situation, but why all of us young blacks are in prison. I’ve come to see, it’s largely due to an indentity crisis. We don t know our history. We don’t know how to really indentify with white people. We are really of a different culture, but by being slaves, we lost ourselves.

I’m not trying to play the race card, I’m looking at the roots of why so many young blacks are locked up. The odds are stacked against us, we suffer from an identity crisis, and we’re being targeted more, instead of taught better. Ask any young black person their views on the Police, I assure you their response will not be positive. Yet if you have something against the Police, who represent the government, you cannot sit on a trial jury. A young black woman was struck from the jury in my case because she said she sees the Police as ‘intimidators’. She never had a good experience with the Police like most young blacks, but even though she’s just being true to her experience, she’s not worthy to take part as a juror in a trial.

ray-jasper-croppedMajority of the beginning of the memo was spent endorsing empathy. While it is a simple concept, one that has been passed down for generations, it still carries a lot of power.

I think ’empathy’ is one of the most powerful words in this world that is expressed in all cultures. This is my underlining theme. I do not own a dictionary, so I can’t give you the Oxford or Webster definition of the word, but in my own words, empathy means ‘putting the shoe on the other foot.’

Empathy. A rich man would look at a poor man, not with sympathy, feeling sorrow for the unfortunate poverty, but also not with contempt, feeling disdain for the man’s poverish state, but with empathy, which means the rich man would put himself in the poor man’s shoes, feel what the poor man is feeling, and understand what it is to be the poor man.

Empathy breeds proper judgement. Sympathy breeds sorrow. Contempt breeds arrogance. Neither are proper judgements because they’re based on emotions. That’s why two people can look at the same situation and have totally different views. We all feel differently about a lot of things. Empathy gives you an inside view. It doesn’t say ‘If that was me…’, empathy says, ‘That is me.’

What that does is it takes the emotions out of situations and forces us to be honest with ourselves. Honesty has no hidden agenda. Thoreau proposed that ‘one honest man’ could morally regenerate an entire society.

It’s beautiful language and well written, but unfortunately it comes with a catch. Ray Jasper found himself on death row after being convicted of plotting the slaying of David Alejando, the owner of a radio studio. During the course of his trial, it was found that he tricked Alejando into coming to the radio studio late at night, and then slicing his throat, while his friends stabbed him to death. In order to avoid getting the death penalty, his counsel argued that he technically didn’t kill the victim, rather it was co-conspirators. This argument was eventually too thin to work, and he was sentenced to death.

His words were so powerful in the letter that it almost wiped away his past actions, and made readers all across the world hail him as a martyr of a corrupt system; which, in a number of ways, he is, but there is too many other factors to consider when looking at his legacy. This is possibly a simple case of right message, but wrong messenger. It isn’t that he doesn’t have the right to voice his disagreement with the way the world works, rather that his words will now forever be tied to his past misdeeds. The fact that he never asked for forgiveness during the entire six page diatribe, is an indication that he still doesn’t understand what he has done or how it has effected those involved.

The truth that can be found throughout his letter will unfortunately be marked.It shouldn’t though, truth is truth.  Hopefully people will see this as an opportunity to start a serious conversation about the topic that he did bring up.

Jimi (@Nativejimi)

*Quotes via Gawker