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Product of Environment or Sum of Experiences? Essay by Troy Burgundy

North Philadelphia

Photo: brookeipse/Flickr

I am not a product of my environment. The concrete and asphalt that make up North Philly is the same stuff they use in the suburbs — the same brick, mortar, and wood that form the buildings out in the country (somewhat) similar to my neighborhood…

I am the sum of my experiences. See, down my way at least half of the kids only got half of their parents, or none of their parents; and they’re raised by their parents’ parents. If it took two to make me, it should take at least that many to raise me, right? You ever go to bed hungry and wake up starving? Yeah,that’s what’s going on down my way. We ain’t use the oven to bake (it wasn’t no food), we used the oven to stay warm (it wasn’t no heat)… either that or sleep in coat.

We got police just like the country, but they don’t “serve and protect,” they “subdue and punish.” Would you believe that a hospital around my way “doesn’t take gunshot victims,” even if the wounds are life threatening? I was critically shot not two miles away and they wouldn’t take me,(true story). Our schools don’t have programs like the country’s do, we ain’t even got books!! Showing up and not getting on the teachers nerves will earn you a passing grade.

Am I a product of my environment? Did North Philly give me drugs to sell? (They don’t make drugs in North Philly). Did North Philly hand me the gun? (They don’t make guns in North Philly). What is it about my environment that makes it a “high crime area?”

Is this the sum of my experiences? Why is it that so many people around here receive government assistance and still live below the poverty line? (We’re too broke to even be poor). How easy is it to starve, could you do it? Could you watch your siblings, your children moan and wail from the pains of hunger? What are you prepared to do about it? If you had a friend (R.I.P. Kevin Heath) shot in his back by a grown man at the age of twelve, what confidence would you have in the “justice system” if no charges are ever filed? In summation: I am poor; I am black; I am doomed…

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that a conspiracy exists to “get me,” per se, that’s not how it works. The system set in place is a maze — laced with “booby traps,” and shrouded in camouflage. Being poor is essential to the scheme; having to worry about basic needs diverts your attention from the acquisition of superfluous indulgences. If surviving tonight is a challenge, saving for a retirement is a joke.

Miseducation is next. Being told — or even shown for that matter — that I am inferior will, through rote absorption, breed inferiority within me. If my schools teach me that getting a job is how to survive, why would I ever seek the independence of of self employment — being my own boss? If society teaches me to be a “good boy”… and to “keep my head down,” then what spark is there to ignite within me the flames of revolution and seek not overcome my oppressors?

The reality behind the true nature of the American prison system is not the matter here; that’s not why I’m in prison. I currently reside in prison, not because I am a product of my environment. Being from North Philly is not a crime; but when you add all of the circumstances of living there, then the implications become evident. Again, poverty is a distraction; ignorance is a screen, and it is all shrouded in racism. The choices we (I) make are governed by the information provided. You only told me that the building was burning and that I needed to save myself.

The mantra is the same throughout every patch of impoverished land in this country, we are all trying to “escape;” to “save ourselves” trying to “get outta here!” So when you say the building is burning, jumping through the window doesn’t seem so bad when compared to the alternative. This is how I view the choices that I made that landed me in prison. Although they may have seemed reckless, irrational, even dangerous, that’s only because nobody ever told me about the fire escape on the side of the building. My point: given the option, opportunity, or if provided with the resources and information, the path I choose to tread in pursuit of my ‘inalienable rights’ would be considerably different.

If I were a product of my environment, then this prison with its cold steel and concrete would have made me callous and apathetic. The monotonous and redundant prison routine would’ve caused lethargy in me. Why hasn’t the racism and dissention that occurs from guard to prisoner, and prisoner to prisoner; (even race to race/ young to old), made me aloof and repressive? Why hasn’t residing in the “belly of the beast” made me an animal? Despite all of these detracting factors, my mind is clear, my focus is sharp, and my spirit is at ease. Not because of my environment, but IN SPITE of it. This cathartic swing is chiefly due to my exposure to new ideals and information. Being afforded the time to explore alternative perspectives; learning about diverse cultures and customs has reshaped me into a more well rounded, complete man. A man full of potential, and the desire an aptitude to maximize that potential. North Philly didn’t make me a bad person. Bad circumstances put me in a bad position — and influenced bad choices.

The cold, debilitating prison system has not crippled me either. I have been blessed to have gained new insight, to demand higher self criticism, and to make better informed choices. Confine a plant to darkness and surely it will wither and die… but show it even the thinnest sliver of light and it will reach and stretch and pull itself toward growth and enhancement.


Troy Burgundy

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