This week we’ve been remembering the late writer Don Belton, in particular his essay “Voodoo for Charles,” a touching account of one uncle’s fears and muted hopes for his nephew in the face of overwhelming odds.
Taken from a 1995 anthology edited by Belton, Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream, “Voodoo for Charles” tells the story of Belton’s attempt to reconnect with his nephew (and incidentally, come out to him as gay) and presents a larger portrait of Belton’s family, from his great-great-grandfather “who moved his wife and children all over South Carolina before he came to Philadelphia around the turn of the century, always a step ahead of the Klan,” down to Belton’s own generation, in which some family members, like Belton himself, have escaped the cycle of poverty through education, while others, such as Belton’s nephew Charles, have struggled to move beyond the bleak prospects of the troubled Newark housing project they call home.
Belton’s Christmas Day phone call to his nephew brings the surprising news that Charles is waiting for his girlfriend to give birth before turning himself in to serve a three-year prison sentence:
“Guess what,” he said, after I told him I loved him, that I believed he could still turn his life around, though I had no idea what I was talking about. I think I was in a mildly shocked state. I’d been hearing my own voice speaking to Charles as if from a distance.
“Guess what,” Charles said again with a cheerfulness that finally undid me. “Now in Newark they even have surveillance cameras in the street lights.”
We both realized it at the same moment: He was already in prison. He’s been in prison most of his life. And because he, my heart, is in prison, so am I.