The Don’t Die Code
The Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA), a community-based writing nonprofit in Chicago committed to creating and continuing conversation around neighborhood issues including violence, oppression, and social injustice, is excited to be featured today on the Prison Culture blog. NWA exists to provoke dialogue, build community, and promote change by creating opportunities for adults in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods to write, publish, and perform works about their lives. NWA envisions a society where adults connect through creative communities in which writing, discussing, and publishing personal narrative leads to civic engagement, neighborhood vitality, and social transformation. In neighborhoods throughout the city in public libraries and community centers, adults meet in weekly workshops to write and share stories about their lives and discuss relevant community issues such as education, politics, transportation, and violence.
We recently learned that “while 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, more than 5,000 individuals have been killed by gunfire in Chicago during the same period.” In response to this ongoing violence, writers, artists, and activists throughout the city meet, organize, and dialogue in groups like NWA writing workshops, envisioning and working towards positive social change in every neighborhood. One new movement in Chicago is Now Is The Time, a citywide initiative inspiring young people to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance. To support adults allies and community members around this initiative, NWA and the Project on Civic Reflection, an organization committed to dialogue and community engagement, have collaborated to present “Now Is The Time To Respond: A Toolkit for Community Conversation and Creative Writing.” This toolkit features six pieces of writing from the Journal of Ordinary Thought along with questions for community conversation and creative writing prompts. We invite you to download the full toolkit, which will be released on the NWA Every Person is a Philosopher blog on September 27.
Today Prison Culture features one of the pieces from the toolkit with its corresponding conversation starters and writing prompts. The piece, by NWA writer Claire Bartlett, will be published in “The Open Gate: JOT Writers’ Visions of Freedom and Liberation,” the Spring 2012 issue of the Journal of Ordinary Thought. You can hear Claire and other NWA writers read their work from JOT and pick up a print copy of the toolkit at a release reading on Thursday, September 27, 6:00–8:00 p.m. at the Pritzker Auditorium in the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State St., Chicago, IL). The event is free and open to the public.
The Neighborhood Writing Alliance invites you to join us in creating a collective vision for community liberation that includes honoring the voices and stories of all people.
The Don’t Die Code
by Claire Bartlett
Originally published in the Spring 2012 Journal of Ordinary Thought, published by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance
Don’t wear a hoodie. It makes you look like trouble, like a gangster or at least someone who wants to be one, and that’s trouble.
Don’t walk alone. Don’t go out alone, leave bars alone, talk to strangers alone. Especially don’t walk
down dark alleys alone. Travel in a pack. Try to look strong, but not too strong, or that will be perceived as threatening or maybe asking for it. Daytime is best, on crowded streets where you blend in.
Speaking of asking for it, don’t dress provocatively. This includes hoodies. This includes your favorite dress that makes you feel beautiful but shows just a little too much chest or leg or arm. Also, no grill on your teeth. Or tattoos. This should be common sense, right?
Try not to attract attention. Don’t be the smartest or the funniest, the hottest, the ugliest, the disabled kid who rides the short bus. Be forgettable. Nice to everyone, but not too nice. That gets you remembered and we strive for anonymity.
Don’t speak up. Or act up. Know who’s in charge. They are always right and there is no way around that. It’s nice to be respected. But it’s safer to just sit back and take it. ’Cause they usually carry a gun. Then again, maybe you do too with tattoos like that…
Once a criminal, always a criminal. You know that time you walked through the park late at night and the cops stopped you? They said they let you off with a warning, but your name is in their system and it stays there forever. Every time you apply for a job, they might see you trespassing, the charges for drinking or smoking too young, that embarrassing picture you posted on Facebook of your ass that you forgot to take down. It all comes back to haunt you. What’s worse, when you die, people might look at those things and say that you deserved to die: you were a criminal, a slut, a gangbanger.
Don’t be in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. Whoever you are. If you look like you don’t
belong, you probably don’t. And everyone knows it. Sure, this is the “land of the free” and there is no segregation, but all we’re free to do is die. Think about it.
That reminds me: don’t be black. Don’t be a teenager. Don’t be Hispanic or an indigenous person
either. Or a woman, or homosexual, or a transgender person. Nobody’s safe. You think I’m prejudiced? Look what they did to Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepard and the girl who left a concert in Logan Square by herself. I’m just trying to tell you the way it is. I’m trying to keep you from getting killed.
Questions for Community Conversation:
- What are your first impressions of the “don’t die code?” Is the code realistic?
- How would you describe Claire’s tone? What is Claire’s attitude toward the code?
- Claire writes, “Don’t be in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time… If you look like you don’t belong, you probably don’t.”? Who “belongs” in the place Claire describes? Who doesn’t?
- If the “don’t die code” is all of the things we can’t do, what can we do to stay safe? What can we do to keep each other safe?
Creative Writing Prompts:
- Pick out one instruction from this piece which angers, interests, or sticks with you. Why did you choose that line? Write your own instructions for “how not to die” or how to stay safe.
- Write a piece from the perspective of a person in power who would enforce the “don’t die code.” How does that person talk, dress, act, move, and think?