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"When he talked, WE ALL listened:" A Tribute to Russell Maroon Shoatz

by Sergio Hyland

"You say that you're ready to learn. Well, if that's the case, you must be ready to accept the fact that everything you learned from the 'heroes' you mentioned in your letter, was wrong! I'll have my daughter send you some books, and then your education can really begin." Those were some of the words that Maroon wrote to me in response to the first letter I ever wrote to him. I was 30 years old, and had already developed a deep admiration for the man. I never imagined that he - and the things he taught me - would go on to change my life.

I didn't know what to expect from him, and once I'd read his letter, I wondered if I'd made a mistake by reaching out to him. I mean, the "heroes" whom he criticized and claimed were wrong, were men who my generation grew up idolizing - Malcolm X, George Jackson, Huey Newton, and more. So when he said that everything I'd learned from them was wrong, I was distressed. And I didn't hide my feelings when I responded to his letter.

See, at that time, Maroon and I were both being held in solitary confinement at SCI Greene, which, back then, was the most restrictive and oppressive "hole" in the state of Pennsylvania. And though we were on the same block (G-Block), we were on different pods (I was on G-A and Maroon was on G-C). Sometimes we'd be in the yard together, whenever the weather was rough, and the guards decided to combine the pods. That's when we'd get to talk to each other. And all I did was listen. The brother was so intelligent, and I couldn't believe that a man like him was in prison. The way he spoke, the manner in which he carried himself, and the way that others - including prison guards - respected him, made me want to learn as much as I could from him. When he talked, WE ALL listened. Fortunately, Saleem Holbrook and I were already friends by then, so I was pretty much primed to learn as much as possible from "the Old Man". But what I learned from Maroon, was something nobody else had ever tried to teach me.

This tribute isn't the place to explain those lessons, because it gets too deep. But what I will say is that I loved Maroon. And in a letter to his son, I explained something that I'd never explained to anybody before: I grew up with my father in my life. I loved my father dearly, and even up until this day, my father is the greatest man I have ever known. But Maroon is the only other man who I have ever looked at in a similar way. The world suffered a tremendous loss when Maroon transitioned. My generation, and countless young men in prison, will all be touched by this loss. I have always vowed to carry on his teachings. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, some of which I had the pleasure of speaking with after Maroon was granted a compassionate release. I got to speak with him a couple of times, before he passed. It was difficult. I wasn't used to hearing him sound the way he did. But I made sure to remind him of the impact he continues to have on me and numerous others. Honestly, I'm finding it difficult to express the way I'm feeling in this moment. Maybe it has to set in. But I'm grateful for having the privilege of knowing Russell Maroon Shoatz. And I'm grateful that he wasn't like many other elders who have a disdain for the younger generations. He knew how to correct us without making us feel stupid. And he showed us what the real meanings of community, love, freedom, responsibility, and revolution were. I will miss him every day of my life - the same way that I miss my own father. And I will continue their legacies as best as I know how.

Sergio Hyland @uptownserg

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James Brown
James Brown
Sep 19, 2022

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