Today, I read a news story about a young man named Sherrill Roland. As he was about to begin graduate school as a fine arts student, he received a call from a detective with a warrant for his arrest. He was asked to turn himself in for crimes he didn’t commit.
The young man was tried, convicted, and spent 10 months in jail for crimes he didn’t commit. A year later, new evidence proved his innocence.
My reason for sharing this isn’t to repeat or attempt to fully reflect upon the shameful statistics about young black men—even innocent ones—and the American criminal justice system. What I feel compelled to share about this story is how this young, black man chose to respond to what happened to him.
Sherrill Roland is an artist.
He found a way to share his talents with other inmates during his time in jail:
“I drew for other inmates ― portraits of their families that they could send as gifts. … We on the inside did not have anything to give. It is really powerful creating something …, helping them get a gift from someone who can’t obtain one any other way. I was willing to make things as long as they meant something.”
Roland is now sharing his experience of incarceration and its effects with the rest of us via a performance art piece he began as an MFA student: the Jumpsuit Project. He wears an orange prison jumpsuit in public spaces, engaging with his “audience” according to their response to him.
In the article, he said:
“It’s not always about jail itself, but about overcoming things. Sometimes it’s just about getting through a struggle.”
He could have emerged too bitter to speak with us. He might have lashed out or given up in the face of a system willing to jail innocent black men. Instead, Sherrill Roland is making something that means something, including conversation.How many of us can claim to have wrought something so elevated from such base injustice?I hope I’m making a small contribution to Roland’s conversation by sharing it with you.