“What are you doing Brother Berry?”
Well, any fool could see what I was doing. I was mopping up the damn mess hall floor. But I wasn’t about to go off on Big Earl Little. No doubt, Earl was the biggest, baddest man locked up at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, MO.
“Just mopping the floor, Earl, minding my own business.” Didn’t matter that I answered politely, he got angry all the same.
“I can see what you’re doing right now. I’m not a blind man,” he hissed from behind clenched teeth. “What are you doing with your life?”
A lot. I’d been studying some business management, some law, and a lot of history. I loved reading about American history, but world history, you could take that. I hated it. I figured while I was doing my stretch of time I could get my diploma. I always felt embarrassed about not graduating high school.
“Oh, nothing much. Writing some songs, working in the kitchen, doing half-assed jobs to make the time go by. I’m studying for my high school diploma and –"
“Now why you doing that? For the white man’s stamp of approval? You need the white devil to tell you you’re qualified? That you rate? That’s not where it’s at brother.”
I stopped mopping and leaned my chin on the handle. Is that why I was doing it? I didn’t think so. The Man was never going to give me his blessing. That was sure enough. What’s it been, five years, since the law got on my tail, starting in June of ’58 when a tire blew out on the way home from Topeka? Joan was in the car, a fine young thing, when that flat-top stopped and the state patrol officer got out.
“What’s the trouble, boy?”
Not that boy shit. I got all humble and sweet.
“Just fixing my tire officer. Then I’m on my way home to St. Looie.”
It wasn’t long before he searched my peach Cadillac and found a week’s pay, almost $2000, and my revolver, which I always took for safety on those long car rides after a gig. He didn’t ask me no questions, just slapped on the cuffs and brought me to the station. Possession of a concealed weapon. I signed my own bond and got out of there pronto, but they kept my money, and my gun. Joan was escorted home.
“I don’t see it that way Earl. Just trying to better myself.”
Earl clucked his tongue.
“Have you heard of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, The Messenger of Allah?”
I shook my head.
“He’s a black man, like us, and a great teacher. Do you know the true knowledge of the black man? We are the original men, raped, murdered and exploited by the devil white race. Just look at what they did to you.”
December 1959. Two black plain clothes cops came down the stairs at Club Bandstand, my club.
“Do you know Janice Escalante?”
“Did you bring her from Yuma, Arizona?”
“No sir, from El Paso.”
“Do you want to make a phone call?”
That was it. Charged with white slavery, but made bail again. She said she was 21, but I didn’t know that for sure. Find ‘em, fuck ‘em, forget ‘em. I forgot that last one when I hired Janice to be a hostess, dressed as a squaw. After all, she was an Apache Indian.
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad has said that black prisoners are the symbol of white society’s crime of keeping the black man oppressed and turning them into criminals. The true history of the world has been whitened. Blacks have been brainwashed for hundreds of years, told they are worth less than the white man, especially in this country, a country that made us slaves and cut us off from our African history. We have no knowledge of our true identity Brother Berry.”
I was listening; maybe this Elijah fellow was onto something.
“The Negro,” he spat out the word like something foul in his mouth, “was beaten into worshipping a blond, blue-eyed, golden haired god. They turned the Negro against himself, taught him that black is a curse, and the Negroes learned to turn the other cheek, grin, bow, shuffle, sing the devil’s music and prance around for the amusement of white society.”
I thought of my eye-rolling and duck-walking and a wave of shame swept over me. I was an entertainer, a clown, a joker and a minstrel for the white man. I was left wide open to take in his words, words that seared my soul.
“Once there was a paradise on earth, a blissful world of black men and women. The moon separated from the earth, then the original men came and Mecca was founded. But there was one man, Mr. Yacub, who preached angry words in Mecca and was exiled. He put a curse to create a bleached out person as revenge on Allah. It took centuries and centuries to make the devil whites dominant. When it happened, the devil race turned our heaven into their hell.”
My hell began in January of 1960. They said I violated the Mann Act, that Joan was underage when I took her across state lines. Then, in March, I appeared before a cracker judge, again charged with violating the Mann Act. This time they said Janice was only 14. They had no proof, but all you had to do was look at that girl to know they were wrong. No way she was 14!
Two weeks later I was found guilty, sentenced to five years behind bars and fined $5,000. I won an appeal, and then the Joan case was dismissed in June. But they weren’t going to let me off that easily. Not the racist white judge, not my Jew lawyer who started by begging for mercy, not even trying to show I was innocent. It made me sick to my stomach. Three years, $10,000 fine. That’s why I’m here, 35 years old, in prison clothes, a black man who never stood a chance. I saw that as clear as day now that Earl explained it to me.
I was deep in thought when I realized Earl was still talking.
“Muslims do not defile their bodies with narcotics, tobacco or liquor. A Muslim does not eat pork, a filthy creature that bathes in its own excrement. The key to being a Muslim is submission, reaching toward Allah. Brother, could you bend your knees and pray with me?”
It was hard to kneel in prayer. Why? I’ve bowed and stooped and strutted and walked like a beast for the amusement of the white world that only responded with scorn, prejudice and violence. Why couldn’t I bow to Allah?
As if he heard my thoughts, Earl said, “You’ve bent down for shameful reasons. Do it now for exalted ones.”
My knees hit the hard floor. From that position there was nowhere to go but up.
“You are lost Brother Berry. Are you willing to be found? Are you willing to join your brothers and sisters in the Nation of Islam?”
I would be getting out in October, again a free man. But now, with the things I’ve learned, I’m already there. Sorry great white father. You can’t imprison my soul.
Chuck Berry’s legal troubles began in June 1958, charged with possession of a concealed weapon on his way home from Topeka with Joan Mathis. The following December he met Janice Escalante in Juarez, Mexico and hired her to work at his club. Berry was arrested on white slavery charges at the end of the month. The Mathis trial began on January 25, 1960 and was dismissed on June 2. The Escalante trial started on March 12. Two weeks later Berry was found guilty but won on appeal. In October 1961, he was found guilty and sent to prison. Berry wrote “No Particular Place to Go,” “Nadine,” “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land” while in Springfield. Chuck Berry was released on October 18, 1963.