Madeleine L’Engle’s mail accustomed in biggy batches by the summer of 1976, 14 years afterwards the advertisement of A Wrinkle in Time. From her abstraction in Manhattan’s Cathedral Abbey of Saint John the Divine, area she served as librarian, the 57-year-old columnist abounding to exhausted correspondence, fan art, manila envelopes blimp with middle-school-reader responses, adeptness statements, and speaking requests from about the world. Amid the accepted haul, one contributor stood out: Ron Irwin, bedfellow #130539 at the State Bastille of Southern Michigan, a 25-year-old above affiliate of the Black Panther Party.
Irwin, who afterwards adapted to Islam and adopted the name Ahmad Rahman, had aloof accustomed an atonement acknowledgment in the album chic of the 1976 PEN America Autograph Award for Prisoners. PEN had afresh launched a accord affairs bond writers in bastille with accustomed writers on the outside. Rahman active on, affable the befalling for arcane advance while commutual his bachelor’s amount through Wayne State University. He articulate alone one wish: that the contributor not be afraid to his interests. “I do not subscribe to the alleged universalist academy of Black abstract that tries to downplay the character of the means and backroom of Black bodies in our American dilemma,” he explained. “I am not a biographer aboriginal and again a Black man.”
A boyish PEN ambassador alleged John Morrone played matchmaker. L’Engle, he knew, had asked to be a mentor. He forwarded Rahman’s apropos and autograph samples. L’Engle saw raw talent. “I acquire that abstract is, in fact, a able accepted affair ground,” she responded to Morrone, “but he may not agree. I absolutely acquire no argument to his autograph out of his own background. That’s all any of us has to assignment from.” She typed an anterior letter to Rahman and had a archetype of Wrinkle beatific to the bastille because, she told Morrone, “science fiction/fantasy transcends barriers of race.”
It was a bout fabricated of opportunity—as for alchemy, time would acquaint what no one again could acquire predicted: that a “mystical connection,” in Rahman’s words, would bind them for life; that their actual letters—more than 200 pages—would lay bald the applesauce of badly castigating “justice” and the abashing of accumulation incarceration; that the candor of two amazing bodies would brand a leveling intimacy, authoritative way for a alternate mentorship that purposefully, sometimes painfully, formed through the obstacles of politics, class, race, religion, gender, and generation.
“Dear Mrs. L’Engle,” Rahman began his aboriginal letter to her in August, afterwards a accurate account of Wrinkle. “Yes, we are on.”
Born to a flush Florida cyberbanking family, L’Engle was a hazel-eyed WASP, her mother a affiliate of the Society of Colonial Dames. Educated at aristocratic girls boarding schools, L’Engle followed an undergraduate amount at Smith Academy with a abrupt career in the theater, and affiliated Hugh Franklin, who afterwards became a soap opera star. She wrote her aboriginal novel, The Baby Rain, in the wings amid scenes. In the consecutive decades, she aloft three accouchement and by the end of her activity would aftermath some 60 books beyond genres. She accomplished widely—at universities, Cathedral programs for Harlem youths, clandestine workshops, a celebrated Episcopal day academy on the High West Side. “I’m about six anxiety alpine and am congenital somewhat like a giraffe,” she declared herself in an aboriginal letter to Rahman, “and am badly near-sighted—physically, but not, I hope, in added ways.”
Rahman was built-in to a poor annex artisan on the south ancillary of Chicago. Growing up, his “greatest delight” was the library—but to get there, he had to cantankerous a gauntlet of white boys who patrolled the tracks, casting slurs and rocks. The 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, abbey bombing so abashed him that he slept with a knife in his anchor during a appointment to a about in Mississippi. Aback Rahman was 14, badge bent him and his accompany with beer and accepted to apperceive who had bought it for them. No one spoke. The cops affected the kids to angle over, again exhausted their behinds with baton clubs. “I can still feel the affliction and abasement a bisected a aeon later,” he recalled. Rahman and his aeon begin achievement in evolving forms of Black nationalism.
Rahman, in his abandoned bastille cell, apprehend these optimistic words beatific to him by a advantaged white woman perched in an ivory tower.
In aerial school, a advice advisor apprenticed him to administer to college—he had the bookish curiosity, the brains, the assignment ethic. Instead, he abutting the Chicago annex of the Black Panther Party beneath Fred Hampton and eventually landed in Detroit, an epicenter of late-1960s Black radicalism. He apprehend Marx, Mao, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, and he dreamed of a left-wing Black utopia. Slight but able at bristles anxiety nine and 150 pounds, Rahman abutting a Panther aegis force that staged vigilante raids on biologic dens. Confiscated money was repurposed adjoin chargeless “community adjustment programs,” including acknowledged and medical clinics, sickle corpuscle anemia testing, ambulance services, accouterment giveaways, and the Panthers’ Chargeless Breakfast for Accouchement program.
But the FBI was watching. Beneath COINTELPRO, the Department of Justice aggregate a book on Rahman’s activities that would abound to added than 300 pages. In a now declassified memo, J. Edgar Hoover ranted accurately about the Chargeless Breakfast for Accouchement affairs as Panther advertising advised “to ample boyish accouchement with their insidious poison.” Publicly, Hoover declared that the Black Panther Party “represents the greatest blackmail to centralized aegis of the country.” Hearing this, Rahman and his mostly boyish assembly befuddled their heads, not alive that Hoover had ordered “imaginative and adamantine hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP” by “neutralizing” adherent operatives. Aback Rahman and three added Detroit Panthers accustomed an adjustment to arrest a heroin den in a battered mansion, they had no acumen to doubtable a setup.
In the aboriginal hours of Easter morning 1971, the aggregation burst through the advanced door, accoutrements blazing. But instead of dealers, they begin Wayne State University acceptance smoker pot. Confused, Rahman and two added Panthers searched the high floors for heroin and banknote while a fourth Panther affected the abashed acceptance to bandage naked, attempting to alarm them into absolute a stash. A dog barked; addition confused to calm it. In the commotion, the Panther fired, killing a man.
Prosecutors offered Rahman a bargain book for a accusable plea, but the 19-year-old capital to fight. He chose a balloon and was bedevilled of first-degree annihilation beneath a law that captivated answerable any actuality committing a abomination during which a afterlife occurred, admitting Rahman had not akin been in the allowance aback the gun went off. On September 23, 1971, Rahman was bedevilled to activity in bastille afterwards parole.
L’Engle knew little of his accomplishments and annihilation of his case history until two years into their correspondence, aback he mailed her “the Ron Irwin file.” In the deathwatch of Watergate, the Senate Abbey Lath had conducted a absolute analysis into the abuses and bamboozle of COINTELPRO, amid added Justice Department actions. By then, Rahman accepted he had been targeted.
The ages of Rahman’s sentencing, the insurgence at Attica drew civic absorption to the crisis central American prisons, ablution a new beachcomber of bastille ameliorate and bidding PEN to appraise the liberties of confined writers. Their conclusion: “The abandon to address does not abide in abounding American prisons today.” The PEN Bastille Autograph Affairs was the organization’s solution. Run by a baby bandage of authors, it would advance the breeze of advice in and out of prison, and “advance the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of writing.”
“Madeleine wasn’t big on the ‘project.’ She was big on the individual,” says columnist Sidney Offit, a affiliate of the PEN Bastille Autograph Lath in the 1970s and 1980s, who was a abutting acquaintance of L’Engle’s and co-taught a branch with her. The saturating joy in her own activity was accessory to an acquaintance of all-inclusive black which “cannot extinguish the light,” she wrote to Rahman during the aboriginal Easter of their correspondence. “I still acquire that the atomic acts of adulation do matter.”
L’Engle’s admission to mentorship as able-bodied as accord was holistic, probative. She did not acquire that autograph could be taught, and she never accomplished technique—plenty of books existed for that, she said. Instead, she listened. She asked questions. “It’s not me,” acceptance bethink her saying. “It’s what bodies accompany and what gets released.”
What Rahman admired to accompany and absolution was altered from her archetypal students. Account Wrinkle, he enjoyed artifice from his austere ambience into the “soft fantasy apple of Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace” but was not calmly assertive that its author, new to him, was the appropriate fit. “ ‘No!’ ” He quoted Meg Murry in the aboriginal branch of his aboriginal letter to L’Engle: “ ‘Like and according are not the aforementioned affair at all.’ Were you announcement some anatomy of asperous appearance with this theme?” he asked.
In the story, Meg is responding to the angry IT’s baloney of the aperture of the Declaration of Independence: “We authority these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Yes, affirms IT. “Everybody absolutely alike.” L’Engle was admiring that Meg’s affront of IT’s angled estimation absorbed Rahman. “This is awfully important to me: If we could absolutely alive up to the Declaration of Independence, we could celebrity in our differences, because they would be qualitative, not quantitative.”
Rahman, in his abandoned bastille cell, apprehend these optimistic words beatific to him by a advantaged white woman perched in an ivory tower. In his abutting letter, he told her about adolescent bedfellow Johnny Herrera, abrupt about arbitrary analysis of “Chicanos,” who was begin blind in his corpuscle afterwards a appointment from guards. “Glory in our differences?”
Although L’Engle’s aboriginal belletrist brimmed with acknowledgment Rahman had requested—critiques of his work, suggestions for improvement, a account account that included authors from Shakespeare to Virginia Hamilton, the aboriginal Black columnist to win a Newbery—he struggled to accommodate his assumptions about her with his ambitions for a abounding arcane exchange. Two months into their correspondence, he came apple-pie with his doubts:
“I feel that I’ve accomplished an impasse in my arcane relations with you,” Rahman admitted. “Crosswicks, Ltd.,” he mulled, as if cerebration aloud. It was the name of the aggregation that endemic the absorb in L’Engle’s works; he had apparent it printed on the pages of Wrinkle and in Dragons in the Waters, which she had aloof beatific to him. “It sounds so established, flush and conservative.” Aloof as disconcerting, she appeared to be actual religious. “I can’t advice but to accessory this adoration with aerial applique scarves and anytime added aerial ladies, in abysmal accord with their God. It’s all so idyllic, so abundant the American Dream. But I address about that added ancillary of the coin—the American Nightmare. And nightmares are some of the best benign animal adventures because they about consistently define above problems….”
He capital to accelerate her a story, “Razorblade,” that he wrote as allotment of his academy apriorism requirements. He hoped to aggrandize it into a novel, possibly marketed to Black youths, to advice them “become acquainted of the able armament free their actions,” thereby absolution them from those forces. But the allotment was “about as annoying as Richard Wright’s Native Son,” he cautioned. “So let me apperceive whether you anticipate it will be able for you to apprehend and criticize it, and let me apperceive whether and how it adeptness be publishable.”
L’Engle accustomed his letter three weeks later; bastille mail delays were and are common. Several belletrist amid them hadn’t been delivered at all, breeding abashing that added artificial their acting standing. She responded to Rahman: “Hitler was acutely religious. Abhorrence is usually masked by ‘religion.’ Also: I assignment for the church…and that’s abundant to abort anybody about the religious establishment. I don’t chafe applique scarves like your grandmother, and my accord with God is stormy. What ‘religion’ I acquire is annihilation but arcadian and is far from the American Dream. If it doesn’t embrace your nightmare, again it isn’t akin religion.”
There was annihilation amiss with actuality abrasive, she reassured him. “If a violin is to accomplish music, there charge be the chafe of the bow adjoin the abutting gut. So there’s the chafe which is creative, or the chafe which is fabricated aback the bow is banged meaninglessly adjoin the strings—and that’s never absolute or true. I appetite to apprehend your story.” He beatific her the draft. “Thank you for absorption the blurred account I had of you,” he said. He aggregate his own brainwork on God and love—dominant capacity throughout their continued accord to come. That aboriginal moment was a axis point and foundation.
Several months into their correspondence, L’Engle beatific Rahman her atypical The Added Ancillary of the Sun. A Gothic account set in the Abysmal South afterward the Civil War, the complicated adventure grapples with acceptable and evil, chase and class. She admission his opinion, and Rahman did not authority back. “Your personality, which is apparently accurate of hate, blurs the bound amid the abhorrent Klan and the angelic people. Although you say the Klan is evil, the way you say it says ‘they’re not so bad,’ ” he commented in a diffuse appraisal that additionally addressed “condescending” passages about bodies of color. “But you beggarly so well,” he said, wrapping up the letter. “You aloof didn’t apperceive how to accurate what you wanted, and what absolutely needed, to be expressed. If there is one affair I acutely appetite you to accretion from our friendship, it is the adeptness to accurate your account and animosity about this agitate of ancestral conflicts in a appearance that puts to use your ample adeptness for the acceptable you strive to do.”
L’Engle’s letter aback to him follows an actuation to avert her choices but ends humbly: “Well,” she sighed assimilate the page, “you’re teaching me a lot. I don’t anticipate I appetite to ‘mean well.’ The alley to hell is paved with acceptable intentions. I’m beholden for your alertness to advice me.” And, later: “Don’t anytime alternate to advance me into added and added thinking.”
L’Engle had a abiding concern, though, about adage the amiss thing, which she eventually did in a letter about motherhood catastrophe with the line: “And, to me, you, too, are a son.” This was triggering to Rahman. He remembered a white badge administrator calling his developed ancestor “boy.” He did not apperceive that L’Engle had added artlessly adopted “children” whose photos dotted her accommodation walls. He responded gently: “While I am acutely affected that you would acquire me too this abutting to your affection and accede me a son, I ambition that we could become appropriately abutting ancestors afterwards attractive aloft it as a mother-son relationship.” He asked her to bethink that it was “historically inappropriate to accomplish advertence to a Black man in a paternalistic (or maternalistic) manner. That was the way of the slavemaster.”
For years, the two formed acutely on Razorblade—he autograph and alteration chapters, she critiquing them: allowance him hone characters; anecdotic the anecdotal admission of assuming against cogent (“I do not see the bastille able-bodied enough”); speaking truths (“I agnosticism if any children’s editor is activity to let you use ‘mothafucka’ added than once—if that.”) The two aggregate hopes that a added admirers would buck attestant to his American nightmare.
She appropriate he accede autograph a account in the appearance of Maya Angelou’s I Apperceive Why the Caged Bird Sings, a book Rahman had apprehend and enjoyed. But still in his 20s, he wisely deferred to his earlier self: “So abounding of my best important band are still in the fire, so abounding contradictions unresolved….” The time wouldn’t be appropriate for “at atomic a brace years,” he thought. Addition abbreviate adventure L’Engle helped him with, “The Action Comes,” won aboriginal abode in the fiction chic of the 1978 PEN Bastille Autograph Awards. He acclimated the $100 award-winning money to buy a chicken bike for his seven-year-old son, built-in two weeks afterwards his sentencing.
“Whatever activity has in store,” Rahman wrote, “I move into this new year with beneath bitterness, and accordingly added love, added life, in my affection because of your friendship.”
When Rahman’s age-old typewriter bankrupt down, adverse his progress, L’Engle lobbied PEN for a admission to buy a new one. “I acquisition him an abnormally accomplished and absorbing boyish man,” she wrote to Morrone at PEN, “and annihilation I can do to accomplish activity added accessible and added abounding I appetite to do.” PEN awarded Rahman $100 adjoin a $259 Smith Corona portable, with cartridges; she paid the aberration but didn’t acquaint Rahman.
L’Engle aggregate capacity of Razorblade with her arcane agent, but the atypical would never be published. The arrangement has disappeared—detritus of the years, perhaps, or abroad destroyed in the archetypal tumult of bastille that broadcast so abundant of their correspondence. Periodically, Rahman was befuddled in “the hole,” a acoustic denial corpuscle area he was captivated by the abhorrence of “coming out weeks afterwards to acquisition all of my assignment ‘lost.’ ” Profoundly disturbed, L’Engle offered to admit the abbey of New York, “who is accepted for demography on abhorred cases.” Rahman promised to acquaint her aback the time was appropriate for such help.
“Whatever activity has in store,” he wrote to her on January 2, 1980, “I move into this new year with beneath bitterness, and accordingly added love, added life, in my affection because of your friendship.” He banned despair, akin afterwards a knife advance that abatement larboard his aback assuredly scarred.
There were affidavit to hope: A 1980 Michigan Supreme Court accommodation afflicted the abomination annihilation law beneath which Rahman had been convicted. His undergraduate assistant and friend, Gloria House, organized the Chargeless Ahmad Campaign, and the afterwards years were abounding of petitions, acquittal lath appeals, appeals to Detroit legislators, and all-encompassing advantage in the Detroit Chargeless Press. The actual L’Engle-Rahman belletrist are about all from the four-year aeon of 1976 to 1980, predating these efforts.
Rahman began coursework adjoin an M.A. in history with the ambition of earning a doctorate through the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was confused about bristles altered accessories amid 1980 and 1990. The noise, smoke, and bottleneck bedfast his adeptness to write. “These are actual acrid canicule for me, old friend,” he wrote to L’Engle in 1990. Gray hairs brindle his beard. His son was a green at Ohio State. He afflicted the absent years. “When I anticipate about all of the affliction that has active his activity because of my not actuality there…tears able-bodied up in my eyes.” Finally, in November 1992, Michigan’s governor commuted Rahman’s sentence. (The man who pulled the activate had been paroled in 1983.) He was 41 years old and had spent added than 21 of those years abaft bars.
Rahman began volunteering at the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice in Ann Arbor and was anon assassin as accessory director—a acute aboriginal advantageous job afterwards prison—by the center’s director, Tobi -Hanna-Davies. “He was ablaze and apprehensive and had a calm spirit, no amount what was activity on,” she says. “A actuality of solid integrity. Wise.” Months later, they were afraid to ascertain that they both knew Madeleine L’Engle. Hanna-Davies and her ancestors had developed up with L’Engle’s accouchement in the tiny New England agriculture apple of Goshen, Connecticut, area the columnist lived in the 1950s at her country home, Crosswicks.
“I booty your acumen actual seriously,” Rahman had accounting to L’Engle in 1987, “and, insha-Allah, I will one day be the ‘marvelous’ abecedary you feel I can be.” Twenty years afterwards that letter, he appear his doctoral argument as his aboriginal book, The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora, and becoming administration as accessory assistant of history at the University of Michigan in Dearborn.
“He was giving of himself and accessible to acceptance in a way that I’ve never apparent from any added professor,” says Joe Lunn, a history assistant on the lath that interviewed Rahman. The two afterwards became acceptable friends. Rahman invested abnormally in the marginalized on campus, including Muslim acceptance who acquainted “under siege” in the decade afterward 9/11, recalls Lunn.
“Dr. Rahman became like a ancestor to a lot of students,” says Natasha Gilbert, a apprentice in his History of the Civil Rights Movement advance and admiral of the Black Apprentice Union for which Rahman served as adroitness adviser. Gilbert emphasizes the power, for Black teenagers, of the attendance of a assistant of blush on campus. “Black men in accurate would actually adhere to Dr. Rahman. He was consistently an ear to listen, but he was additionally a articulation of acumen and an advocate.”
L’Engle died the year afore Rahman becoming tenure. Admitting they never met in person, the two kept in blow sporadically by buzz and mail until her crumbling bloom became an obstacle. She would acquire been appreciative to see him alleged Academy Assistant of the Year in 2013 by the Michigan Council for Social Studies. “Madeleine and I already discussed Dr. King’s apperception of the Beloved Community,” he would write, absorption on his teaching achievements. “Believers in God and a bigger apple consistently should strive to actualize this community…by their accomplishments ‘unto the atomic of these.’ ”
Rahman never appear fiction, but he approved his biting storytelling adeptness in claimed narratives and op-eds printed in the Detroit Chargeless Press, and in a acutely researched article on the acceleration and abatement of the Black Panther Party in Detroit for Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party. Through it all, he remembered L’Engle’s long-ago advancement that he address a memoir.
By 2013, he had at aftermost about completed that work—all but one chapter: “the one about Madeleine’s acute attendance during those years” in prison. “She was a cogent airy adviser for me aback I was in the afflictive crypts,” he told Hanna-Davies. “A lifeline.” If alone he had their letters, and permission to adduce from hers. Hanna-Davies put him in blow with L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, who now manages Crosswicks, Ltd.
Glad to help, Voiklis searched boxes of her grandmother’s affidavit and scanned all the belletrist she could acquisition (L’Engle had generally kept carbons). Voiklis and Rahman anon began a accord of their own. He beatific her a photo of himself with his three boyish accouchement and capacity of his memoir. In a cautiously paced narrative, he at continued aftermost wrote his American nightmare.
By September 2015, Voiklis was aggravating to acquisition Rahman a arcane agent. “His autograph was so acceptable and beautiful, and his adventure so compelling, that I capital to advice get it out there,” she says. But he abruptly chock-full responding to emails. Months later, she abstruse that Rahman had died on September 21 of a abrupt affection advance at the age of 64. The account has never been published.
In 2018, the bazaar year of L’Engle’s birth, Voiklis was analytic for appropriate means to account her grandmother’s legacy; she had continued afore accepted Ava DuVernay’s adjustment of Wrinkle, out that March. “I’m absolutely flabbergasted,” says DuVernay, aback she afresh abstruse of the L’Engle-Rahman friendship. It “affirms article for me aural her assignment that I saw and was berserk admiring to, which was a altruism and a account for everyone’s dignity.” Aback Voiklis abounding a PEN America accident that April and mentioned her grandmother’s connection, she saw addition opportunity.
Caits Meissner, the accepted administrator of what is now alleged PEN America’s Bastille and Justice Autograph Program, hadn’t accepted of the correspondence, either. Abundant of the program’s history had been lost, forgotten, or active in athenaeum at Princeton University Library. Besides, not all correspondences acquire been so affluent or successful. In 1981, Norman Mailer lobbied for the acquittal of his own accomplished correspondent, Jack Henry Abbott; weeks afterwards his release, Abbott dead a man. William Styron, Edward Albee, and added PEN associates attempted accident control, but the alignment was accused of auspicious criminals. In 1989, some associates of the controlling lath absitively to deliquesce the program. Resources were advance thin, and what business did writers acquire with inmates, anyway? But at the abutting lath meeting, Larry McMurtry—newly adopted admiral of PEN America—stood up: “You can annihilate this program,” he said, “but you can’t do it on my watch.” The vote was canceled.
By the time Voiklis met Meissner, added than 300 mentorships were beneath way. Carmen Maria Machado, columnist best afresh of In the Dream House: A Memoir, refers to her accord with confined biographer Greg Goodman as “a absolute gift.” Goodman, who was afresh appear afterwards about 30 years in prison, has appear abundant pieces of work. “I acquired confidence,” Goodman says of his assignment with Machado. “I acquired a faculty of validation.”
Voiklis aggregate the belletrist with Meissner, and with abutment from Crosswicks, Ltd., PEN created the L’Engle/Rahman Award-winning for Mentorship to account mentorships in PEN America’s Bastille Autograph Program. Meissner said the belletrist will become training materials. “There’s no faculty of ‘I’m actuality to advice you’; there’s no faculty of ‘Wow, this makes me absorbing and air-conditioned because I’m accomplishing this work.’ It feels authentic, open, and like two bodies advancing to the page, analytical about what will arrive.”
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