From Gary Graham to Shaka Sankofa
by Steve Champion (Adisa Kamara)
A few days before the murder of Shaka Sankofa, I had this intense feeling of dread. I couldn't shake it. It was like witnessing a horrible accident or being told a catastrophic secret and then told to forget what I'd seen and heard. I felt nauseated, as if I needed to purge myself of something fouling up my insides. I always get this feeling when something sinister and insidious is on the horizon. I know what was bothering me. I know the source of my feelings. But I was thinking maybe, just maybe, this time I was wrong. I really hoped I was.
June 22nd 2000 was probably the longest time I had listened to the radio without interruption. I was glued to KPFA and transfixed to the announcements like a person waiting to see if his lotto numbers would be picked. What I was listening for was news about the pending execution of Gary Graham. Every time his name was mentioned, along with tidbits about his case, I could feel the moisture condensing in the palms of my hands. I was in a state of high alert and every piece of news only heightened my sense of anxiousness.
Like Shafa Sankofa I've been on death row for 18 years (now 35) hearing and reading about men and women being ushered to their execution. It has always left a bitter taste in my mouth. But no execution gripped me like the events unfolding around the Gary Graham drama. I couldn't understand why it captivated me so much. You would think after being in a place that executes people over and over again I would be desensitized to the ritual by now. I'm not. State sanctioned murder is something I'll never get used to.
I think what captivated me was not only were Shaka and I around the same age, but we had been arrested the same year, we both were sent to death row on the questionable testimony of one witness and we both resurrected ourselves from a pathological coma.
I knew Gary Graham. I knew him, because he symbolized black youth who grow up in the charred and rubbled neighbourhoods of America's disenfranchised inner cities. These youth long forgotten in census counts and used as social scapegoats for failed social programs, have their checkered and convoluted histories paraded about as titillating statistics by nightly news programs, and become political fodder for get-tough on crime laws.
Gary Graham was depicted as the poster boy for criminal behaviour, but Gary Graham died when Shaka Sankofa was born, much like the person who undergoes a spiritual transformation, casting off their old self to become reborn in a new identity. It was Shaka the warrior, the lion, who roared and struck a chord in me. His indomitable and unassailable spirit pulled at me like a recurring dream. I couldn't avoid Shaka's spirit any more than I could ditch my own shadow.
Shaka represented the essence of humanity because he found something many people never find: "knowledge of self". Under the most gruelling oppression he was able to transcend who America said he was and reconstructed an identity commensurate with his true nature. He was a revolutionary because he resisted and refused to cooperate with injustice, and in his own words: "I'm gonna fight like hell.". And fight he did, defying his executioners at every stage, right up to the moment he was lying on the gurney, he resisted, and challenged all of us to do the same.
Shaka Sankofa symbolizes the historic struggles that African people have endured since being ripped from the bosom of Mother Africa and forced into cargo ships to the American shores. He's a link in a long chain of freedom fighters who fought, bled, and died for what they believed in. The murder of Shaka (because that's what it is), is the murder of a generation of Black men. It is a disheartening sign that lynching is still legal in America, and the need for a liberation movement is even more urgent.
I can't forget Shaka Sankofa, any more than I can forget Harriet Tubman or George Jackson. He transformed himself and rose through the muck and mire to declare his quintessential African essence; a spirit refusing to be caged, engulfed by a hundred shackles, suppressed by numerous lies, and written out of classroom textbooks. He was able to grasp the truth and evoked the names of Malcolm and Martin, like Gandhi evoked the Lord Rama's name before the assassin's bullet silenced him.
I knew the chances of Shaka getting a reprieve was thin. Yet, still I prayed. I crossed my fingers hoping the combined presence and efforts of personages such as Jess Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Bianca Jagger, Minister Robert Muhammed and Danny Glover might, just might, buy him some time, perhaps even a week...perhaps, even his life. But who was I kidding? We're talking about Tex-execution here; a place where the Alamo took place; the last place where black people found out they weren't slaves anymore; a Texas State Board of Pardon and Parole that decides people's fate via fax machines, and we not forget, a governor who smirks and boasts of overseeing the execution of 134 people people, and still counting. With odds like that, Shaka stood a better chance of a firing squad missing.
I went to bed early that night thinking I'll catch a couple of hours sleep and get an update of what happened when I awoke. I slept soundly throughout the night, something was telling me that I'll need that sleep. I woke up early the next morning, turned on the news, and immediately they announced Shaka Sankofa was pronounced dead at 8:49 Texas time. It felt like a pipe bomb exploded in my chest, and my mind felt like it entered a black hole that was spiralling into another universe. I didn't even try to make sense out of what happened, because I knew I would only end up at the same place I started; looking for justice, where none can be found.
It was reported that Shaka Sankofa died with one eye closed and one eye half opened, even in death he told us to always keep an eye on the real enemy. We will prevail. We will keep marching. Keep marching, black people. Black Power.
c 2000 Adisa A Kamara
Steve Champion C-58001
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
Shaka Sankofa (born Gary Lee Graham) (September 5, 1963 – June 22, 2000) was a Texas death-row inmate who was sentenced to death at the age of 17 for the murder of fifty-three-year-old Bobby Grant Lambert in Houston, Texas, on May 13, 1981. He was executed by lethal injection on June 22, 2000 in Huntsville, Texas
9/26/2017 05:10:28 pm
I think your essay is very effective. It's a view that emerges from inside a reality nobody wants to enter, even in imagination, even in basic acknowledgment. People "outside" need to struggle toward all possible empathy. We need to understand the despair linked to adolescent love of power that guarantees crime, given particular circumstances. We need to identify with men still paying dues for mistakes made long ago.
Leave a Reply.
Poetry, writing & Lessons in Life from San Quentin death row