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Life Inside

How I Finally Learned That Trauma Does Not Define Me

“It can be exhausting to tell and retell your painful story just to get people to listen to you about other things.”

I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my release from a New York prison in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. I was there to participate in The Year of Return, a countrywide commemoration of the 400 years since the first Africans were trafficked to the British colony now known as Virginia.

Yes, I went to Afrochella. But on December 23—10 years to the day that I left prison—I was compelled to visit the Cape Coast Castle, a trading post and fort where Europeans brutally warehoused thousands of Africans and exported them to unknown lands. I walked through this door of no return because I needed to feel the spirit of resistance and be in community with the beauty of my ancestors who found ways to survive the ugliness of white people and their growing system of anti-black racism.

But my time in Ghana also forced me to consider how I was caring for my own freedom. Since serving a decade in prison for a crime I committed as a teenager, I’ve done countless presentations for youth. I’ve published numerous essays and delivered a bunch of keynotes, including a TED Talk with a million views. I also have a podcast, Decarcerated, where I interview people who have spent time in prison about their journeys to success.

But I have come to realize that there is a hidden cost to my work: my identity.

The truth is, I have been in a prison of some sort for nearly half of my 40 years of life. My first confinement came in the form of the broken man who sexually assaulted me when I was 14. That man took away my childhood freedom and sentenced me to absolute silence.

The assault, coupled with the Brooklyn street violence I had to deal with in my teens, marked the beginning of me convincing myself that I was irreparable. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was becoming the person abolitionist Frederick Douglass was describing when he famously said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.''

The next prison I entered was a physical one, and this time it was my own fault. At 19, I went to jail, facing a life sentence for my part in a fatal robbery. My parents could not understand why their previously nerdy son ended up in such a terrible place.

I remember what my father told me during his first visit to the Manhattan Detention Complex. Through tears, he said, “Marlon, I need you to learn to how to become a man now.” I was more terrified, and thought, How can I become a man in here?

But slowly I figured it out. After lots of self-talk in my cell, journaling, feeling scared as shit every day and crying myself to sleep, I decided to be a sponge and learn as much as I could. I listened to the men talking about their lives before prison—the girlfriends and wives they relied on for emotional support, and the children they left behind. I wanted to grow into a man who had stories of my own that I could draw on to teach others.

So I earned a college degree in prison. I designed a workshop that bridged our community of incarcerated men with a student community at Vassar College. After I got out in 2009, I implemented H.O.L.L.A, (How Our Lives Link Altogether), a youth development program that I co-created in prison with several other men I served time with. A few years later I started another youth development group, Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets (YO S.O.S), and earned another degree that allows me to put my people on to opportunities they might not get otherwise. I have become a gun-violence prevention advocate and a leader in the justice reform arena.

For all of that I am blessed.

Still, this work is a gift and a curse. The gift is helping people feel a little more hopeful about their possibilities. The curse is living in a perpetual narrative of pain. It can be exhausting to tell and retell the story of your trauma just to get people to listen to you about other things. Trauma and testimony are codependents. There is no testimony without trauma, and your trauma may not be addressed without your testimony. Then you find yourself in a prison defined by trauma.

This brings me back to the Cape Coast in Ghana. Sitting on the shore, I could almost hear my ancestors declaring, “We were enslaved, but we were not ‘slaves.’”

My people were West Africans who named their children based on the day of the week. Some were designers who wove colorful silk, cotton and rayon into Kente cloth. Some were traveling poets, musicians and storytellers known as griots.

The point is that being enslaved by the worst of white people was not their entire identity.

Ghana pushed me to experience my own personal journey of restorative justice.

Who I am is a black writer and a humanitarian, a steelpan player and a lover of soca music. I am a person in pursuit of justice for black people, because justice for us is justice for all.

I will wear the label of “formerly incarcerated person” when I choose to.

I am what I create today, and there is no burnout in creation.

And this feels good.

Marlon Peterson is the Brooklyn-based host of the Decarcerated Podcast and an essayist. He is working on his first book, “Bird Uncaged: Promise to Sing About Me,” with Bold Type Books. Follow him on twitter at @_marlonpeterson.