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Hari Ziyad’s Memoir Explores Prison Culture’s Impact on Black Children

As the legendary abolitionist Angela Davis once said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” In Black Boy Out of Time, Hari Ziyad provides a guide for how Black people can heal from childhood trauma while exploring the need for prison abolition which they believe robs Black people of their childhoods in the first place.

Like most memoirs, Ziyad shares heartbreaking and heartwarming moments from their life. For them, it’s from the perspective of growing up Black, queer, and non-binary in a world that would rather they not exist. Being raised in Cleveland in a Hare Krishna and Muslim home, Ziyad reflects on their mother’s faith and how that disapproval started at home.  

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Hari Ziyad (@hariziyad)

But what Ziyad does in the book that I found particularly fascinating was how they connected their life experiences to America’s prison culture— and they named a feeling I’ve felt since I was a kid: “misafropedia.”

Ziyad defines the term as “the anti-Black disdain for children and childhood that Black youth experience.”

Like queer people can detect anti-gay coded language in conversation, Black people can sense when there’s some racist shit going on. It’s a skill we unlock the moment a teacher scolded us for horse-playing in the hall at school, but peeped how they always seemed to overlook the white boys doing the same thing. There are studies proving I wasn’t making things up when I told my parents my teacher didn’t like me and that I felt she was lowkey racist. Now we have a name for it.

Ziyad defines “misafropedia” as “the anti-Black disdain for children and childhood that Black youth experience.”

“’Misafropedia’ came from how Moya Bailey and Trudy of Gradient Lair coined the term ‘misogynoir’ to name the specific ways Black women experience sexism and misogyny,” Ziyad told me. “There isn’t a term that addresses how Black children experience violence directed to them because they’re children. There is a very particular way we are denied a childhood and I think it influences so much of the work we have to do in order to heal and prevent it from happening to the next generation.”

Every other chapter in Black Boy Out of Time features stirring letters, or “unanticipated prayers,” in which Ziyad writes to their younger self inspired by their own healing journey and inner child work. Even if you don’t see yourself connected to jails or prisons in any way, these letters examine how all of our bodies, thoughts, and actions have been shaped by prison-culture.

 
 
 
 
 
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The Role of Queerness and Community in the Struggle

While doing the inner child work to heal oneself is part of the solution, the other parts are recognition the community members these issues impact, and repairing how we address the culture we were born into.

From education and employment to housing discrimination and health care disparities, many of these issues impact Black trans people at disproportionately high levels. And Ziyad believes queerness is a big part of the solution.

“For so long, we’ve outsourced community issues and problem-solving to police and prisons who are only trained in punishment,” Ziyad said. “The solution is the community itself. Houselessness, healthcare, unemployment can be addressed by the community, not policing.”

From education and employment to housing discrimination and health care disparities, many of these issues impact Black trans people at disproportionately high levels. And Ziyad believes queerness is a big part of the solution.

“Queerness gives us thinking outside of a binary,” Ziyad said. “Good or bad. Right or wrong. There’s a rejection of the normative script with queerness that can help us reshape our thinking that I think is central to abolition. There’s often joy, support, and celebration in community that goes back to when queer communities were cultivated out of necessity and survival. There’s power in that that can be part of the change needed.”

Doing the Work So You Don’t Need to Escape

For many people awakened by last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and as defunding the police conversations become brunch talk in gentrified brownstones in Brooklyn, Ziyad’s memoir should be required reading. And as violence against our trans brothers and sisters and our anti-Asian hate skyrockets, the author and activist reminds us to keep fighting, but keep finding the good.

“Given how often we are inundated with traumatic stories and experiences, I understand the desire to look for an escape,” Ziyad said. “But I’ve not found much proof escape is possible for more than just a fleeting moment without a complete paradigm shift. So, I am always looking for the good beneath the rubble of the bad surrounding us, and the wonderful thing is that one can always find good—despite everything—if they know where to look. It’s in the strength and courage of the protesters resisting our murders on the streets despite curfews. It’s in the fact that there is often still dancing at our funerals. I write to bring the power back out of the good that has been covered up. When we can love even in struggle, when we can fight for and fuck and support one another even when we are not supposed to, and that is what keeps me inspired.”♦

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