We wrap up Mass Love month with a two part interview with our friends Khalil and Chamika Cumberbatch. We visited their home in Queens and got to hear their inspiring love story over dinner and lots of laughs. They completely embody the vision of #SpreadMassLove: that love is a radical act that can heal, transform, and unite us.
Marlon: Tell us about the beginnings of love for you two.
Khalil: You mean how we met?
Chamika: Stalkership (sic). Me stalking him. We met when I was about 14 yrs. old. He was driving around in his car and I was walking around. He stopped me and asked for my number. I gave it to him, but he never called back. So, I went around the neighborhood looking for him for about 2 weeks.
Khalil: You know, a 19-yr old male, who didn’t have any commitments, who was self-absorbed, and selfish. I only cared about myself, basically. Any decision I made back then was solely about Khalil PERIOD. I didn’t really have a good understanding of what my role was as a man, as a boyfriend, as a partner…as anything. The beliefs that I did have were totally flawed. I felt like at that point in my life more women…more everything, like it validated me in some shape, form, or fashion
Marlon: Give me a timeframe for this
Khalil: June 2001 or 2002. …It was 2003 when I caught by case
Marlon: Were you in love by then?
Chamika: I was. Head over heels. I had gotten his name tattooed on me. I was 15 or 16. We weren’t even married, not even engaged…he wasn’t even claiming me. But somehow I thought I would persuade him to fall in love with me.
Piper: What was it about him that made you think he was the one?
Chamika: My parents had gotten divorced and it was a really, really rough time for me. I was in and out of group homes at the time…my mother put a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) warrant out on me. She was from Jamaica, [WI] and she really didn’t understand the system. So she didn’t understand that taking out a PINS warrant meant, “you can’t control her, we [NYC Family Court] are going to take her.” So when I met Anthony (you call him Khalil) it was literally three days after I had come home from one of the residential homes that I was at, and I always searched for a father figure. I was kind of lost, I would say.
I was yearning for something different from what my mother was able to provide. She was going through her own thing. I wasn’t going to school and I wouldn’t go to counseling so people felt my mother wasn’t doing enough to make sure I got help. But, it wasn’t that she wasn’t providing the help but that I just refused to go. I wouldn’t listen. And in order not to get in trouble she was forced to put the PINS warrant on me. Also, my dad was living in the YMCA at the time…he was in a homeless center. I was just lost and I just wanted love. My father was not the best, so I looked to Khalil to take me away from all of my problems at home. So I was like this is my escape route.
M: Where do you think that came from? How were you able to separate from your other women and still be able to focus on helping Chamika out?
K: I was always perceptive of people. I’ve always had a really good gauge of people personalities and I always saw Chamika as someone I always wanted to help. At that point I saw that she needed that from someone, she needed someone to encourage her to go to school. I knew that she was very smart and I knew she had the ability to do it. The more I got to know her I knew she had come from this history of trauma like many of us do. This history of constantly being disappointed…I didn’t have my father in my life for a huge portion of my life also. I knew what that was like, and I knew to a certain extent I knew that was the role I played for her. Not as a father figure, but as someone who would give her comfort. I was aware of her history with the PINS warrant and being put in institutions. I knew she from that background and I guess I felt like any bit of comfort I could give her I would give her.
M: Would you say his love even at a young age is what saved you?
Chamika: Oh, of course. Oh, definitely. I tell him all the time. I felt, even after he was arrested it was very traumatic for me. When he went away to Rikers Island I felt like I was going to kill myself because he was all I had. I stayed at his house all the time and there were times that I would wake up and thought to myself, “oh my God, he’s really not here.” When he would call me and it was just so hard for me. My mom was really worried about me.
P: Khalil, you said when you got your case…when you were arrested; something changed or shifted for you. What was that?
K: Well, that’s an interesting aspect of our story because I think that there was a level of comfort that I knew that if I called her for from jail something, she would actually make it happen. If she said she would come to the courthouse, I knew that she would actually come. I was at a desperate point in my life where I was trying to reach anybody to tell them where I was at, and Chamika was there for me.
C: And at this point it had to have been about three days when I couldn’t find him after he had told me, “I am coming to pick you up.” He never showed up.
K: They arrested us [he and his co-defendants] at the scene of the crime and dragged us through the system, so by the time I reached out to her, it was like three or four days later. I had one of those “aha” moments. Everything that I thought was real, the friendships that I thought were real, the beliefs that I thought were real, the values that I held all crumbled down around me in less than 72 hours. I realized that everybody I was dealing with in a relationship at that point were not the ones that I could call on. They were not the ones that at that desperate moment, I could reach out to. That changed the way that I would view my relationship with Chamika. I was still a young man, and I still hadn’t come to terms with what my role was as a partner, but I knew that the values that I had were wrong and I knew that I didn’t want to live like that, so for me our relationship changed a little bit. It changed the way that I viewed her as a woman. It takes a lot for a fifteen/sixteen year old to say, “I’ll come to court” and be there. Right? And there is a certain level of admiration that just comes with that, especially for someone who could have just easily walked away. This experience put her at a different place in my life.
M: Chamika, you mentioned your father and police taking him out of the house, your own experience with the residential system, and Khalil going in at 19 or 20. How were you able to manage all those different dynamics of state intervention on your lives and still maintain love? How were you able to manage that?
C: I think it, it had to be our friendship, I was always his friend first. So, even though I knew he cheated on me, when he called me from Rikers, I said “I love you and I have to be your friend right now.” I had to put those hurt feelings aside and understand that he needed me as his friend and I tell him that even now. Before I’m your wife or anything, I’m always going to be your friend and I think that goes a long way because if you can’t communicate on that level, what happens when romance is not always like there? What are you going to do?
M: So Khalil is on Rikers Island now…
C: The worst place.
M: Did you visit him in there?
C: Oh, yeah. Religiously.
Khalil: You know it’s just the fact that you’re in an environment that is not open to love and being tender and caring and you only get an hour on a visit to express that love–if you get the whole hour. Rikers wrecked us and our relationship.
C: At the same time we are also trying to repair the fact that I felt totally betrayed. Like he left me in this world by myself by getting arrested, and at the same time I am trying to love him and be there for him. Still, I was secretly wondering to myself, “what am I going to do.”
M: So you mentioned strain, Chamika. Describe what the strain was.
C: Well, Rikers Island was a strain because it was hard to get to see him. Certain hours I couldn’t see him because of my age. I was supposed to be in school. Sometimes it takes six hours to get that one hour and we are having our own issues. Then there is never enough time to talk on the phone. I remember hearing the automated voice on the phone reminding us that we “have 15 seconds left” before the call would end.
No matter what you do, it is just not enough. It was just getting to a point where we weren’t mature enough to understand we both weren’t built for it this life. He was trying to adapt to his life in prison, and I was trying to adapt to my life without him. I grew more angry and we kind of lost what brought us together in the first place.
P: You got married when you were 18, right?
C: Yeah, but I visited him in prison before I turned 18. My mom used to have to write letters to the prison every time I went to go see him upstate after he was sentenced because I was a minor. My mom knew the influence he had on me and she knew that honestly, in order to keep me alive, this is what she was going to do.
P: What made you all decide to get married?
Khalil: I guess I wanted something that could comfort me. I was 21 going on 22 and facing a substantial amount of time. There is a selfish aspect to that, but that was probably that main reason why I did it. Of course, I loved her and I was with her before this whole thing happened. I was entering a new chapter in my life and I needed something to bring from that old, previous chapter. I needed something comforting to bring with me. And I loved her.
C: I think my main thing was that I didn’t want to lose him and I felt like marrying him was the only way that I could keep him, as like my treasure. Sounds weird, I know.
M: Set this thing up for me. How did that happen?
C: We spoke about it before we went in, but he couldn’t marry me then because I was too young. Then when he was in Rikers, I was like, “you got to make it official now because I am not going to put my life on hold for you and you won’t even make me your wife.”
K: But at this time, she was still 17, so we had to wait until she turned 18, so we actually didn’t get married until August of 2004 in Green Haven Correctional Facility.
M: What was that ceremony like?
K: Jailhouse wedding, basically.
K: You had a witness.
C: His mother was our witness. I didn’t have any witnesses basically because nobody knew.
K: We had the priest. It was an outside chapel. A lady came. She was a very nice lady. She did the best she could to make it comforting. I mean outside of the fact that you’re getting married in a prison.
M: Your mother didn’t know?
C: My mother knew. She knew. I wouldn’t say she wasn’t supportive. She just didn’t think it was something I should do at that time.
K: Yeah, I mean looking back as a parent of two daughters. You just turned 18. The ink isn’t even dry yet and you’re talking about you want to get married to someone who is incarcerated who probably will not be out for the next decade. Yeah, I could totally get why her mother would be like, “I don’t co-sign it”.
C: It was still challenging because I felt like I had the paper, but then there was so many obstacles that we still had to overcome and I felt that communicating with him did not exist then. We didn’t know how to communicate.
M: It was through letters, phone calls…
C: It was through letters and it got really stressful through letters. I wouldn’t write because I would become very emotional. Sending him packages and stuff and I’m an 18-year-old girl in the world trying to fend for myself. It got really rough.
At that time, I don’t think that I understood what I was going through and I don’t think I was understanding what he was going through. We were both like, “I need you for what I’m going through and I was just like, “no, I need you to be there for me.” We were both in need of something we couldn’t provide at the time.
M: Chamika, do you think you were in a state of incarceration also?
Chamika: Definitely. I would literally wake up and not put on my jewelry because when I was going to go see him, I knew could not wear my jewelry. I would come home at a certain time to make sure I would be in in time to receive his call. The only time I would go outside is when I knew he was in count because I knew he wasn’t going to call me. Other times, I was like; I’m just going to sit down in the house and wait for him to call. I think that was just stressing me out to a point where that is when the resentment started to build, like you are not the only one doing time, so am I.
M: Listening to your story so far, I’m thinking of like a boxing match round for round. I am wondering, at this point in your relationship, did you see the system as the person you are fighting against in that round?
K: That is a good analogy in terms of boxing. I would say that it would have been perceived as a victory for the system, but it helped to build the overall fight for a later point in time. It was our Mohammad Ali rope-a-dope strategy now that I reflect on it.
C: The championship is ours!
K: In hindsight, I think we used that as an experience to say, “you [the system] didn’t really win the fight. You won the battle, but you didn’t really win the war.” The system just tore us apart. It sent us on our own journeys, but parallel at the same time.
M: It is 2009 now. Almost time for you to come home. Were you all in communication then?
C: No, we were divorced…
Join us for part 2 of our interview with Khalil and Chamika on Friday, February 27th.
About Khalil and Chamika:
Chamika Cumberbatch is a college student, mother of two and life-partner. Her interests in social justice comes from her personal experiences with the systems that interact with one another resulting in mass criminalization, incarceration, and marginalization. She aims to continue to be involved in the movements that seek to bring about change for the betterment of society.
Khalil A. Cumberbatch is a formerly incarcerated advocate for social justice movements within the NYC area. He has worked within the re-entry community in NYC since 2010 when he was released after serving almost seven years in the NYS prison system. Since his release Khalil has worked with various non-profits as a service provider, policy analytic, advisor, board member, collaborator, and consultant.