Letters to an Incarcerated Brother Offer Hope to Loved Ones
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Hill Harper
Columnist Anna Roins
| Letters to an Incarcerated Brother
by Hill Harper
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AUTHORLINK: Mr. Harper thank you for joining us for this interview about Letters to an Incarcerated Brother. Your empathy for the subject matter is palpable.
We understand the reaction to your idea for your books was not encouraging, and you were initially told ”You’re publishing a book for a population that doesn’t read.” What compelled you not to give up?
|“. . . because people are in less than desirable situations in their lives, that doesn’t mean we should ever underestimate their desire to learn.”
HARPER: I was actually told that for the first book I wrote for teen boys. And the success of that book proved them wrong, so I set out to prove them wrong again. Simply because people are in less than desirable situations in their lives, that doesn’t mean we should ever underestimate their desire to learn, grow and change.
AUTHORLINK: That’s so very true. It was rewarding to follow I.B.’s (Incarcerated Individual) development in improving his skills and reconnecting with his son. Are your letters in your book based on one person or a collection of people that wrote to you?
HARPER: They are based on a collection of people who wrote to me in the hope of making the book as universal as possible.
AUTHORLINK: Letters to an Incarcerated Brother is a wealth of practical advice citing resources and fascinating studies (like the one about obedience conflicting with a moral code) to help an individual change his life around. What part of yourself did you tap into to write in such an impassioned way?
HARPER: I am always seeking to read, learn and grow myself, so as I come across information, ideas, stories, parables or anything that helps me in significant ways I want to share it. I do believe that wisdom is everywhere.
AUTHORLINK: We understand your father was a psychiatrist that worked in a maximum security prison in Iowa. Some individuals with whom he developed a rapport were sent to your grandfather’s farm on their release. Did you inherit your philanthropic attitude from these remarkable men?
HARPER: I think so. We all model what we see and I had the privilege of being able to observe strong, intelligent men in service of their communities. I couldn’t be more proud of my family legacy and if I have one tenth the impact of these men, mine will be a life well lived.
AUTHORLINK: Every line in your book rings authentic and true. Since its release have you received more letters from incarcerated individuals that have implemented your suggestions? Can you tell us of any?
HARPER: Yes I have. The most encouraging thing I would like to report is since the book’s release, one of the book’s contributors Kevin H., who served 27 years in San Quentin, finally got a fulfilling full time job. (Through the help of the Anti Recidivism Coalition [ARC], an organization upon whose board of directors I proudly serve).
AUTHORLINK: That is wonderful. Congratulations to him. It was disconcerting to read about the syndrome of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrom, a condition passed down from the survival behaviors of American slaves. You have the idea of working from bottom-up in this regard. Tell us a bit about this and what other approaches you think might help.
HARPER: Many other writers and scholars go much more in depth around this issue, as well as issues around mental health than I could in my book. For instance, I point people to Terrie Williams’ “Black Pain.” Having a father who was a psychiatrist led me to be acutely aware of the need for work in mental health in poor and minority communities.
|“My goal is to have them break the cycle and stop the “pipeline to prison.””
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting. You are the founder of the Manifest Your Destiny Foundation, a non-profit outreach program where you give scholarships to low-income young men and women. You also give talks to eighth graders about the importance of education. Are these youngsters shocked when they hear about the statistics?
HARPER: They aren’t shocked because they witness it every day. My goal is to have them break the cycle and stop the “pipeline to prison.”
AUTHORLINK: What a remarkable thought. Well done for your positive work in this area. In Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, you highlighted the teachings of Superbrain, the book by Deepak Chokra and Dr. Rudolf Tanzi; in short, you are not your brain, you are the user of your brain. Do you feel that this empowerment, even from oneself, takes a lifetime of practice?
HARPER: We can always attempt to work on being better citizens of the world. That can certainly be a worthwhile lifetime pursuit. Any work on self-improvement is very individual and can take many forms. My challenges are not yours and yours are not mine. However, loving others and loving ourselves is where it must begin and end. And as Dr. Tanzi reminds us, your brain is an organ to be used by you to live your best life. You control your brain. Your brain does not control you. So let’s be more mindful in all ways and in so doing, mindfully expand the circles of people for whom we provide care.
AUTHORLINK: I’ve never thought of it that way. Thank you. You were a former classmate of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School. More recently you have been appointed to his “President’s Cancer Panel”‘. You give recommendations to the White House about cancer research and lately given policy on HPV vaccination. Tell us about this, and do you hope there might be a panel set up (if not already) about educating young African-American people within an improved public education system?
HARPER: I am very proud to serve on the President’s Cancer Panel. As a cancer survivor myself and being with my father as he passed from cancer I know first-hand that it is an insidious disease and the more we can get people aware of warning signs the better. Our HPV vaccine report is extremely important and I recommend that parents read it.
AUTHORLINK: In your book you note the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research asserts that only 48 percent of African-American males in the United States earned a high school diploma in 2003, and that of those, one in four will end up incarcerated. That of all the people incarcerated in the United States today 78 percent of them grew up in a fatherless household. That three thousand children age seventeen or younger have been sentenced to life without parole, some of them as young as thirteen. That one in three African-American males today can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives.
It was shocking to read these statistics. Do you believe that change in these outcomes will take a long
|“Simply put, the criminal justice system in our country is broken. “
HARPER: As I say in my book, we are not experiencing a “mass incarceration crisis” we are experiencing a hyper incarceration crisis. Simply put, the criminal justice system in our country is broken. As it relates to AA young men, the President’s recently announced “My Brothers Keeper” initiative is an important step in attempting to address many of the ills faced by young AA men from poor communities.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fantastic. It was gratifying to see you highlight the derogatory language used against women and the double standard of their meaning. From where do you feel these misogynist attitudes are sourced when it’s mostly fatherless children that end up in prison?
HARPER: The men who end up in prison are not “fatherless”…the father is absentee, yet is often still in the community or incarcerated himself. These young men have a great deal of contact with men all the time. The problem is, most of the men with whom they are in contact with ultimately have a negative influence and influence their often negative views of women. That is why having healthy two parent households is so important but virtually non-existent in many of the communities with the highest incarceration rates.
AUTHORLINK: Compelling. You were on CSI:NY for nine years as Dr Sheldon Hawkes, a total ‘nice’ guy. Now you’re playing Calder Michael who’s the opposite on Covert Affairs. You’ve also recently been in the critically acclaimed movie 1982. Tell us about your plans for the future now that you have some ‘free’ time on your hands?
HARPER: To win an Oscar 🙂
AUTHORLINK: We have no doubt! You have suggested this book is the final installment in a series of motivational non-fiction books inspiring people to come out of a physical, or even emotional ‘confinement’. Do you think you might try another genre one day, like memoir or fiction? Who are your favorite writers?
HARPER: Yes, screenwriting and fiction. Favorites: Paulo Coehlo, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mary Oliver.
AUTHORLINK: That’s great. Looking forward to reading any of your future works. Mr. Harper, anybody would be lucky to have you in their corner. We wish you every success in your future endeavors, your outreach program, the Cancer Panel and of course, the best of health.
HARPER: Thank you so much! God Bless.
|About the Author:
Hill Harper is the bestselling author of Letters to a Young Brother, Letters to a Young Sister, The Conversation, and The Wealth Cure. He is now a series regular on Covert Affairs. Harper holds degrees from Brown, Harvard Law School, and the Kennedy School of Government.
|About Anna Roins:
Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked in a career in writing six years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles on social and community issues. She has also edited a number of books, websites and dissertations, as well as continued studies in creative literature with the University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to Authorlink assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. .