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Smiling Behind the Sun: An Interview with Eric Blackmon

Sixteen
By Eric Blackmon

15 years, 7 months, 4 weeks, 1 day, 16 hours, and 33 minutes to be exact.
5,724 dreadful days, 137,416 and a half hours, 8,244,993 miserable minutes.
And I won’t forget a second of it.
I missed 66 of my kid’s birthdays, 337 holidays, 16 vacations, 14 graduations, 11 funerals,
First steps, first words, all of my 20s, half of my 30s, most of my life.
I lost everything.
Every dime I had, four appeals, friends, family, my fiancé, my relationship with my kids.
At times I lost faith,
Other times I lost hope,
A few times I ever lost myself,
But I survived.
I survived the conditions. I survived the ornery, tyrannical officers; some wolfish, vulturous inmates.
A stabbing, being jumped, two black eyes, two busted lips, one chipped tooth, a busted head, 6 stitches, 1 broken nose, 1 fractured arm, 1 concussion.
The suffering, the pain, the loss.
But I overcame.
I endured.
By never hearing, never seeing, never speaking, never caring, never feeling, never loving, never resting, never giving up.
For 15 years 7 months 4 weeks 1 day 16 hours and 33 minutes to be exact
5724 dreadful days
137416 and 1/2 hours
8,244,993 miserable minutes.
All for a crime I didn’t commit.
And I can’t forget a second of it.
But who’s counting?

 *  *  *

Libyans sometimes refer to being arrested and taken away without warning as being “taken behind the sun.” This interview series celebrates—through conversations with formerly-incarcerated artists and their allies—the ways in which an artistic, creative life can transmute the impact and redefine the legacy of an experience within the Prison Industrial Complex.

Eric Blackmon spent 16 years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. In order to help free himself and others, he became a paralegal while locked up at Stateville Correctional Center. He kept his case alive and was eventually able to win a hearing in front of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the odds of which are infinitesimal. In January 2019, his long legal battle ended when prosecutors dropped all charges against him. Out on bond since May 2018, Blackmon works as a paralegal with the Christian Lawndale Legal Center and is a former student of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project. He also serves as the current educator-in-residence at the University of Chicago’s Human Rights Lab at the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights. We sat down at the Pozen Center to talk about Eric’s memories of renowned Chicago artist, writer, educator, and activist Margaret Burroughs, his professional and creative practice, and the realities of life after exoneration.

Michael Fischer: Talk about your relationship with Margaret Burroughs. Where were you in your artistic trajectory when you met her?

Eric Blackmon: I met Ms. Burroughs during my time incarcerated at Stateville. She was a person that you would see coming through the halls—walking, at one point in time. I was in prison so long that I saw her go into a wheelchair and have to be pushed down those halls. But what happened with Ms. Burroughs, it wasn’t so much that she told you to be artistic or anything like that. She taught different people in different ways. There was a way that she could speak with you and say certain things to you that would make you go teach yourself.

I’ll never forget one of the conversations I had with Ms. Burroughs. I was kind of new, but I’d seen her around. She came up to me and asked, “Who are you?” So I gave her my name and she said, “No, who are you?” I’m like, “Well, I’m a black—,” and she cuts me off: “I didn’t ask what color you are. Who are you?” And the way she asked it would put you in a mind where you’d start to think about these things yourself.

A lot of those interactions with her would ultimately put different thoughts or different questions into your head. She wouldn’t give you the answer because truthfully, when you think about it, there is no right or wrong answer. But as a young guy coming up, you would ultimately start to think about those type of things: what did this old lady mean? And we all knew her reputation preceded her.

When I met her, I was a tyke. I think the most I did back then was draw sometimes. It wasn’t so much that she taught me to draw or asked me to paint or pushed me to paint or anything. It was the other guys who were around, people who were a part of her classes and those types of things. Guys who she had interacted with more and things that she had taught in her classes would just flow through the prison.

October 2018

Image: Eric speaking to a group at an event for The Long Term anthology, edited by members of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project and published by Haymarket Press. Image courtesy of the artist.

MF: Do you feel like your creative work and your professional life are asking you to “revisit” your time inside, or is that time already so present with you in your day-to-day life that you don’t think of it that way?

EB: The inside—it’s been nearly half of my life. Sadly, it’s been the only way I’ve known how to live for so long. As far as work, the law is my passion. I actually wrote my paper to get into Northeastern Illinois University on this idea that necessity breeds invention. I talked about how my need to be free bred my passion and brought me to the law. So to me, I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t know how not to do it at this point. Sometimes I find myself reading Westlaw for no reason. I believe if you find your passion, it doesn’t even feel like work. That’s been true for me.

As far as my experience inside, I try to separate that which happened to me from me speaking about it. That was a very hard, traumatic process I went through there. Those years are some of the hardest years of my life. Those things are nightmares. Those years are nightmares. I try to forget about them, but I can’t. The more I try to forget about it, the more it gets brought up in me. I know this work that I do is part of the reason for that, but I can’t not do it, if that makes any sense. There are a lot of other guys that need and rely on me, and I need and rely on it myself. Without this work, I’d probably have gone insane in there, or I might still be there. Maybe this is my purpose.

MF: People talk about the positives surrounding creative work as a way to deal with trauma, but I think what you’re saying is an equally important point—that this work is hard and sometimes it actually makes things worse, emotionally.

EB: As far as it not helping me—yeah, that’s true. I want to forget about it so bad, but I can’t. It’s still there every day I wake up, every day I go to sleep. Something stares you in the face. You’re always going to remember it. Whether it’s going to the bank, trying to get a bank account or a credit card and they’re asking you, “Where you been all these years?” Or filling out a job application or looking for an apartment or whatever. It’s always going to be there, even though I was innocent. It still took a large part of life. When I interact with my friends, my kids, everybody. I hear people talk about experiences in their lives, and my only experience was a prison for much of mine. So it always comes back: “You weren’t there, you couldn’t do, you don’t know.”

Now, talking about it: I just try not to make the conversation about me too much because it rehashes those old things, but it happens at times. I wish I could not be known for it, but that’s not the reality. But what I do is necessary on a larger level, bigger than me, in order to keep the next me from happening—to keep someone else from serving 23 or 18 or 15 for nothing. I think we need to put parameters in place that allow things like this to get resolved quicker and not destroy families and lives. That’s what my overall goal is, to just see some of that. Or just keep somebody else from going through that.

MF: A lot of what you’ve said points to this truth that, even though you’ve been fully exonerated, the stain of the carceral system still follows you. That person at the bank wondering where you’ve been all these years doesn’t care that you’re innocent.

EB: Yeah. Those people, I don’t think you can change their mind, and I won’t even try. But it’s true: you exonerated me today, but it doesn’t change the fact that I did all those years in prison. So being innocent, it doesn’t roll back time or change the fact that I was missing for all of those years. It does little to nothing as a consolation prize. It’s like yeah, great.

MF: When you give talks, you like to keep things unscripted and raw. How does that apply to your creative work?

EB: I try to write things as close to the time of the actual event as possible, but still get it done in such a way that it’s finished, quality work. The reason I do that is because, if I wrote something last month, I would think about it every day and pick it apart and change a word, etc. It wouldn’t be who I am or what was being asked of me in that moment. It would be what I thought they probably wanted to hear. I think that a raw and true perspective resonates more with people—it’s a chance for me to be me. I think that’s more resonant than me coming with a speech or plan or script. What happened is what happened; I am who I am, and what you see is what you get. At the end of the day, whether someone likes me or dislikes me for that, I think that has a more profound effect than me trying to be anything in particular or say anything in particular.

MF: Do you ever feel that you’re being called into certain settings, by certain organizations, as a kind of figurehead or poster boy for these issues?

EB: They could call me in for whatever reason they want, thinking I’m going to give them whatever. But I already know who I am and what story I’m going to convey. I won’t let anyone push me to give any particular narrative or play to anything that they’re looking for. At the end of the day, I’m going to push my story and my agenda. I can’t let anyone shape or tell me what my story or my truth is.

And I am a figurehead, to some degree. But I don’t just speak on myself. I talk about issues that are bigger than myself, because I’m not the only one who’s been through this and is being affected by this. It’s more than me. That’s the point that I’m always trying to convey. I may be the one sitting here right now, but there are quite a few of me that are still sitting in prison and need help.

MF: Your poem, Sixteen: when did you first write it?

EB: I wrote that shortly after I got out of prison. Sarah Ross and Alice Kim asked me to read a piece during the Margaret Burroughs Washington Park mural inauguration, and Sixteen is what I was thinking about. I thought about every day, second, and minute. Every hardship. I wanted to tell that part of my story in a way that conveys a message that anyone can understand—what we go through, not just what I went through. I did a piece at Northwestern where I talked about the 41 different people who Northwestern ultimately helped exonerate, and tried to tell that story in a similar way. I always want my pieces to come from a “we” and not just an “I.”

People liked it, they thought it was really powerful. It was funny because they sent me up first to do that piece and afterwards it was like, “Oh man, I done ruined the picnic.” [laughs] People are sitting there on the grass with their mouths open.

Self-Portrait

Image: Self-Portrait by Eric Blackmon, from the recent Prison + Neighborhood Art Project exhibition entitled Weight of Rage. The piece is predominantly yellow with green and red lines going across the face. The lips, eyebrows, and hair are purple. Image courtesy of the artist.

MF: What are the biggest changes to your creative process, now that you’re out?

EB: To me, creating is creating. Every time and point in my life from which I create has its own little differences. I welcome those differences, because they bring a slightly new perspective and angle to every piece I do. I don’t think anyone wants to hear the same thing over and over again. The subtlest things can change everything about your work and your talk and your flow. Whether it’s painting, drawing, speaking. I think the more experience you have, the broader your work ultimately is. Being out is just one more perspective and one more layer to be able to reach, speak, and touch.

MF: Talk about your painting from the recent Prison +Neighborhood Arts Project exhibition, Weight of Rage.

EB: Basically what we were doing was creating self-portraits. Everybody painted different shapes and figures, and then painted a portrait over it. I chose to do this maze because I wanted people to see more deeply into the work and let the maze take centerstage. I wanted people to see me, but really to see the maze and to understand the difficulties navigating this life. It takes on a lot of different meanings. It’s puzzling—I’m puzzled sometimes. I wanted people to stand there a little while longer and try to figure it out, the same way I want people to stand there a little while longer and try to figure me out sometimes. That’s the message I wanted to send.

MF: Where do you imagine your creative work going next?

EB: The one thing I can tell you is that I want it to be inspiring. I want it to be informative. I want it to be more about others than myself. And I want it to be helpful, in any way it can be. Whether that’s me speaking more or doing more art or whatever. If it’s singing or tap-dancing on a street corner, that’s fine. I just want it to be inspiring and helpful to people.

I just want people to know how hard it is—getting over it, getting through it. I know some of us may make it look easy, but trust that it’s not at all, and be mindful of that.

Featured Image: Eric is standing on the center of the frame in a grey suit, with members of his legal team on his right and two on his left. Image courtesy of the artist.

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Screenshot 2019-03-27 20.47.28Michael Fischer was released from prison in 2015. He’s a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner, a Luminarts Cultural Foundation Fellow, and a mentor for incarcerated authors through the Pen City Writers program. His work appears in Salon, The Sun, Orion, Guernica, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and his audio essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio’s Love Me and The New York Times’s Modern Love: The Podcast.