I met Loretta when she was a student in my NYU class where students design and facilitate an arts program for incarcerated youth. While in my class, she welcomed her father home from prison after 18 years. I interviewed her for SpreadMassLOVE.com -Piper
How have you been impacted by mass incarceration?
When I was 2 years old my father was incarcerated for selling drugs in the D.C area. Growing up I had to deal with the impact of not have a father figure in my life, I tried to rationalize why this was happening to me because it felt like a really selfish thing for someone to not be there for their family. I internalized a lot of that and what it meant to be a black girl growing up in an all white neighborhood where all of my friends had fathers. Whenever the topic came up, I would just be silent or pretend that he was away at a business conference. It was a lot of struggling with the idea that I was lesser because of something I had no part in and I believed that for a long time up until college.
So do you remember when your dad went away to prison?
No, I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. I do remember that I didn’t visit him very much. I think I might have been 5 or 6 when I first visited him and I didn’t really getting why we had to drive 2-hours north to see him.
Was that the first time you realized that he was away in prison?
I think so, because I remember distinctly that process of getting checked and cleared before going to the visiting area and never having to do that before. And everyone being like “Oh, you’re so cute.” And I remember being like, “well, why am I going through this metal detector?” It was a weird thing, but I knew there was something different about it but couldn’t put my finger on it because I was a child.
What was the thing that made you realize that your family was different from other kids that you grew up with?
There was a lot of shame about my situation. I was the only child and I would never want to be home. I would always want to be at a friend’s house. So I would always go to a friend’s house and their father would always be present or I would spend the night and their dad would come home and I would see that family dynamic that I never had. It was a very eye opening experience because I didn’t know if I would ever have that. What did I do to not deserve what seemed to be a very happy home? Of course, no family is perfect but for me that was as close as one could get. They had all this love that I didn’t have from a dad, but surely from my mom, but not from a dad.
What’s your relationship like with your mom? Did the two of you ever talk about your father being incarcerated?
My mom is my best friend.
I distinctly remember one time when I was twelve or eleven and I would go to a friend’s house and then come back home with an attitude and she would ask, ‘why I had an attitude?’ and I could never say, ‘because I don’t have a family like that and I don’t want to be here’, so one of those times I think I remember coming home with an attitude and later crying about the fact that I would never have that. I expressed this to her and I remember her holding me and crying with me. I think she’s always felt a little guilty about me having to grow up without a dad. My mom did a very good job of being a very dynamic parent and would just handle everything. so it wasn’t like there was ever something that my mom couldn’t do. So it didn’t come up that often, but when it did, it was this evident source of pain we couldn’t get through.
You said that something shifted for you when you got to college…
It was just a part of the growing pains I went through in college because I tried and I am still trying to look at myself in a positive light. A lot of that was trying to deal with my past, like the things I pushed down inside just to get through the day. Also when I got to college, I realized that a lot of the people in my friend group didn’t have this normal idea of what I thought a family was either and I saw how they dealt with it.
In high school only my close friends knew and now it’s kind of like apart of me. Of course, I didn’t tell everyone but it is something that I’ve come to take ownership over. I guess now I’m being more brave about who I was and my story because it’s no longer this thing like, “I didn’t ask to have a dad who was incarcerated, so I don’t get why I’m suffering for it.” I understand now that there is so much more behind it. I realize there are a lot of reasons at play and basically in that process it helped me get rid of a lot of the negative ideas I attached to myself. It was a very burdensome thing to have for 18-19 years so I’m letting go of it or at least trying to because it’s not this one shot deal.
Your dad just recently came home, what was that like? Have you been able to reconnect with him?
Initially it was scary, I was trying to come to terms with him not being in my life because it was hard and I needed to come to terms with all the things I had to do to stay at NYU. So it was hard but its better because I’ve come to find a way to forgive and not be angry. I think that partially that’s me not wanting to carry that with me because it reflected in a lot of things I did and I didn’t realize until now. Also, he lives us so it’s forced me to have some conversations that we needed to have and there was this genuine apology that I don’t think I ever got.
I also realize that its hard for my dad to talk his past because he just wants to be a dad and be present and be all these things and he doesn’t want to talk about that part of his life. Which is completely understandable.
What do you think that would offer you…hearing his story?
I don’t know…I think it would make me understand him a lot more as a person. I know a little bit about his childhood and upbringing but like how he feels about what he went through and how he sees himself progressing. I just feel like its something I’ve wanted to know my dad and I don’t feel like I do. The thing is, I see a story in him and I feel like it would help him to acknowledge because he’s plagued with it too. And not just because of the after effects — job searching and actually living that lifestyle and mindset — like it doesn’t just go away because you remove yourself. I think he could help other people who are going through what he’s going through too.
Why do you think love is important in this particular era?
I think love is essential because when you are impacted by this era and the nasty things that it brings to peoples lives you’re told, not explicitly of course, but your told that you’re not deserving of real human emotion. You can’t be someone that walks around and is happy and proud and is hopeful and insightful. You can’t be more than a label that is attached to a family member or to you by default.
So when you find this ability to love, not only other people but because that’s a lot easier than it is to love yourself, its something that frees you. It’s something that gives you this sense of knowing that there is something out there that is so much more than what people have allowed you to see or experience. And so loving yourself and loving your life and loving your personhood and even loving the people you’ve been angry at for putting you in this situation, its makes you whole and I think that’s one of the most gratifying things, is knowing that we can be whole. Because you spend a lot of your life being broken.