Willie Lynch, On Language

I am a self-styled language cop, especially as it relates to criminal justice language, how it has been used not only to dehumanize and stigmatize people with criminal justice involvement, but also to control the narrative, how such people with criminal justice involvement in their history are perceived, and thus how they are treated.

Recently, I re-read “The Willie Lynch Letter: The Making of a Slave.”  This time, I focused on the section where he writes about “controlling the language.”  In fact, Lynch writes about creating and “institut[ing] a new language that involves the new life’s work of both,” that is, controlling the “nigger slave.”  Part of the process of “making a slave,” was to sever the people from their original beginning.  Among other things, this meant to “completely annihilate the mother tongue.”  This also meant to keep the people illiterate.  (Ever wonder why it was a crime to teach an enslaved person to read?)  Lynch is clear: if you teach a slave “all about your language, he will know all your secrets, and he is then no more a slave, for you can’t fool him any longer.”  Think the Haitian Revolution, the very same words, Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort, that inspired the French revolutionaries, inspired Haitian revolutionaries and ignited the Haitian Revolution.  Think also the three major slave rebellions in the United States, led by Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and Gabriel Prosser.  These ministers of the Gospel knew, using the very same Bible slave masters used to justify and rationalize slavery, that God did not mean for them to be slaves.  A totally different reading of the Word and exegesis than the slave masters’!

Not surprisingly, there is a connection between slavery and imprisonment.  Look closely at the language of slavery and the language of law enforcement, and you will see this connection, how similar they are.

One thing though is clear from the Lynch Letter as it relates to language: control the language and you control the narrative.  You also assume a great deal of control over how you are perceived and treated.


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An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language, by Eddie Ellis, President, NuLeadership on Urban Solutions

Dear Friends:

The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions is a human justice policy, advocacy and training center founded, directed and staffed by academics and activists who were formerly incarcerated.  It is the first and only one of its kind in the United States.

One of our first initiatives is to respond to the negative public perception about our population as expressed in the language and concepts used to describe us.  When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons.  All terms devoid of humanness which identify us as “things” rather than as people.  These terms are accepted as the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies.  However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them.

In an effort to assist our transition from prison to our communities as responsible citizens and to create a more positive human image of ourselves, we are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE.  People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE.

We habitually underestimate the power of language. The bible says, Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” In fact, all of the faith traditions recognize the power of words and, in particular, names that we are given or give ourselves. Ancient traditions considered the “naming ceremony” one of the most important rites of passage. Your name indicated not only who you were and where you belonged, but also who you could be.  The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me, is that I begin to believe it myself “for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  It follows then, that calling me inmate, convict, prisoner, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly what I can be.   I can be and am much more than an “ex-con,” or an “ex-offender,” or an “ex-felon.”

The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions believes that if we can get progressive publications, organizations and individuals like you to stop using the old offensive language and simply refer to us as “people,” we will have achieved a significant step forward in our life giving struggle to be recognized as the human beings we are.  We have made our mistakes, yes, but we have also paid or are paying our debts to society.

We believe we have the right to be called by a name we choose, rather than one someone else decides to use.  We think that by insisting on being called “people” we reaffirm our right to be recognized as human beings, not animals, inmates, prisoners or offenders.

We also firmly believe that if we cannot persuade you to refer to us, and think of us, as people, then all our other efforts at reform and change are seriously compromised.

Accordingly, please talk with your friends and colleagues about this initiative.  If you agree with our approach encourage others to join us.  Use positive language in your writing, speeches, publications, web sites and literature.

When you hear people using the negative language, gently and respectfully correct them and explain why such language is hurting us.  Kindly circulate this letter on your various list serves. 

If you disagree with this initiative, please write and tell us why at the above address or e-mail me at eellis@centerfornuleadership.org. Perhaps, we have overlooked something.

Please join us in making this campaign successful.  With your help we can change public opinion, one person at a time.  Thank you so much.

In Solidarity and Love,

Eddie Ellis




4 Easy Steps To Follow


  1. Be conscious of the language you use. Remember that each time you speak, you convey powerful word picture images.
  2. Stop using the terms offender, felon, prisoner, inmate and convict.
  3. Substitute the words PEOPLE and RETURNING CITIZENS for these other negative terms.
  4. Encourage your friends, family and colleagues to use positive language in their speech, writing, publications and electronic communications.
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Words Matter: Another Look at the Question of Language, by Eddie Ellis, President, Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions

We need to be constantly reminded about this language:

Words matter.  They shape perceptions and understanding, both of past and present events and of future possibilities and, therefore, future events.  Semantic and public acceptance of terms like “formerly incarcerated” or “returning citizens” (rather than ex-felon, ex-offender or ex-inmate) are of fundamental importance to the process of public opinion formulation, positive media images, effective social service delivery and, most importantly, progressive policy change.  The creation of a NuJustice Paradigm, a paradigm rooted in the concept of human justice[1] — which incorporates the tenets of social, economic, environmental and criminal justice — requires a redefinition of the language we use.  Language defines the way that we think and articulate our ideas.  If the language that we use is framed in negative terms, then the thoughts, ideas and actions we discuss and move forward will be done from this frame of reference.  If the language is dehumanizing then, by default, our thoughts and actions will reflect this also.

Eric (Easy) Waters, [former director of Jail-Based Services] programs at the Osborne Association has written, “In our reentry work  .  .  . we are very mindful of the oftentimes dehumanizing language of the criminal justice system,  that is, defining people by the crime they were convicted (murderer, robber, drug dealer, burglar) or their “status” in the criminal justice system (parolee, probationer, prisoner, defendant), and have made a concerted effort to eliminate this law enforcement language from our vocabulary. . .  we talk about people, people convicted of crimes, people involved in the criminal justice system, people in prison, people on parole,  etc.  If we begin our reentry work with the above in mind, honoring people’s humanity, then the people we work with will respond as the humans they are and we can begin to help people transform their lives, their communities, and we can all help in transforming the criminal justice system.”

Margaret Love, former Pardons Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, puts it another way:  “Felon is an ugly label that confirms the debased status that accompanies conviction.  It identifies a person as belonging to a class outside many protections of the law, someone who can be freely discriminated against, someone who exists at the margins of society.  In short, a “felon” is a legal outlaw and social outcast.  But the word “felon” does more work than that. It arouses fear and loathing in most of us.  I confess that it arouses those visceral feelings in me.  I do not want to live or work around felons.  I do not want to socialize with them. The word “felon” conjures up images of large, scary people (men, of course) whose goal in life is to steal my things and hurt me, the staple weekend fare on MSNBC.  Affixing an “ex-” changes nothing. Felons deserve a wide berth and whatever opprobrium they get.”

Activists from Critical Resistance, in their workshops on language have emphasized, “words alone can’t save us.  But our language does shape what we can imagine, and by using new words and old words differently, we can imagine new things.”   At the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, we use a teaching concept we refer to as maginal educationwhich is specially designed to stimulate the imagination of our participants and to inspire that imagination to reach beyond its current confines to move towards ever new images of themselves and the possibilities for a fuller and richer life. It is based in part upon concepts developed originally by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire while he was a consultant at Harvard University’s School of Education.

Critical Resistance advocates have noted, “A major reason the prison industrial complex grows is that we are told there isn’t another option.  We need to use language creatively to make healthy systems possible as we develop strong, specific challenges to the system.”   The way people talk about policing, prisons, safety, and crime shapes what we think these things are, and forms the ways we imagine change can or should happen.  Words are not neutral, and it’s important that we break down and reshape their meanings in our own materials, writings and conversations. We can use language to shift debates, make people see things differently, and challenge our own assumptions and fears.

All social justice and human rights advocates and criminal justice reform activists, academicians and others, must begin to revise their language – rethink what in effect has actually been law enforcement language that government agencies, individuals and organizations have adopted — when writing and speaking about our population.

The proper, progressive and visionary way to refer to the 25 million people in the United States who have criminal convictions and/or have spent time in prisons must now be as “returning citizens” or “formerly incarcerated people,” not ex-offenders, ex-felons, ex- cons or ex-anything.  We are not “ex-,” we are human beings.  The derogatory and dehumanizing terms, formerly used so frequently, are no longer acceptable and, in fact, impede our process and progress towards human justice.  If organizations and individuals of good will can be convinced or compelled into creating and using a new terminology, the long term impact on public perception and understanding of people returning to the community after spending time in prison, and those with criminal convictions, will be profound and constructive.

We can use language and ideas to transform how people think about public health and public safety.  We can challenge the ways people are told to imagine what makes their communities safe and we can create public dialogue and materials that makes clear a vision of community safety that does not primarily rely on controlling, caging, or removing people as a response to socio-economic conditions, especially in under-served urban communities.  We need to be able to determine and create safety for ourselves, without leaving anyone behind.  In creating a new public conversation and the materials to facilitate it, we need to recognize how we can best use language to make our ideas clear and common sense, without falling into the trap of  “tough on crime” rhetoric that compromises the long-term vision of  deconstructing a system we all agree is flawed beyond repair.

The point here is not just to change the words we use, but to examine how changing our words changes what we can see.  Changing the language will help point out what assumptions we might decide to hold onto and which ones to let go.  We can agree, for example, that there is a fundamental difference between stealing a stereo or writing a fraudulent check and physically hurting another person, but saying “non-violent” and “violent” is only one semantic system for demonstrating that difference, one set up by the state through its laws.  We validate that state action every time we use this distinction.  We must create new terms and a new language that more properly expresses both our understanding of the present reality and our vision to challenge and change that reality for the future.

“Social liberals and fiscal conservatives alike pay lip service to the supposed American ideal of second chances,” Margaret Love has noted, “but our language, like our law, points in the opposite direction.  We have schooled ourselves to avoid other stigmatizing labels that in the past were used to distance mainstream society from ethnic and racial minorities, and those groups from each other, because we understood that labels function to distract and excuse us from the hard work of building community.  The word “felon” (and for that matter other less ugly but still degrading labels like “offender,” with or without the feckless prefix “ex-“) is no less dysfunctional.   We can do better.” 

Eddie Ellis,

January, 2013

Editor’s note:  This is the first of a periodic series of “Essays for Change,” sponsored by the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.  They are designed to stimulate thought and action towards challenging and changing policy, programs, procedures and practices within the criminal and juvenile punishment system.

 [1] The concept of Human Justice was developed by the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions to transcend the existing, traditional, criminal and social justice paradigms.  It offers an instructive vision for what “justice” looks like in the context of the needs, aspirations and well-being of ordinary people.  We define Human Justice as the merger between Human Rights and Human Development.  The merger seeks to anchor the pursuit of  justice within the fundamental principles of Human Rights –as articulated in the 1948 United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, especially articles 25 and 26 — while ensuring that the course of  justice is informed by the practice of  human development.

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On my early morning ride on the #4 train the other morning, a young woman in Muslim garb, including a hijab covering her head, enters the train at Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn and stands by the door. She’s holding a cup of coffee. At the next stop, Atlantic Avenue, the door is closing and a big, blue slippered foot with a dirty white sock or gauze on it, is placed between the closing doors, preventing the train doors from closing. A big, dirty brown homeless male who looks like the Thing enters the train. He has on a dingy, patterned pair of pajamas, a dark sweat shirt, and a brown woolen hat with New York emblazoned on it on his head. He doesn’t smell as some homeless people smell, but immediately two young Black women get up from their seats and move towards the middle of the car. The homeless man slides into the seat they’ve vacated. Another Black woman stays seated at the opposite end of the seat. There is room for two more people. The Muslim woman offers the homeless male her coffee. He takes it, nods his head in acknowledgment. She then reaches into her pocket and withdraws a health bar snack and offers it to him. He declines, but acknowledges the offer. He takes off his hat and rubs, scratches his head. The young woman sits down next to him, and once again offers him the health bar snack, which he again declines. By now he’s finished his coffee. He drops the cup on the floor. The train makes its way through the stygian darkness. At the Brooklyn Bridge stop, the young woman rises to exit. The homeless man extends a big swollen hand. She takes it, and they exchange a gentle handshake. I am moved by her actions, her humanity, her fearlessness in facing someone, some “Thing” to others, that we encounter every day, on the streets, in the subterranean subway system, and I feel hopeful. I have noted that not once, since he’s entered the train, has she recoiled from him.

After the young Muslim woman exits the train, the two spots near the homeless man remains vacant until he gets off at 125th Street.

This has been a powerful moment; it makes me think about something I have been reading about, about transformative leadership. In watching this young woman, I saw leadership traits. For the rest of the day this young woman is on my mind, and I think it’ll people like her that will make America great again.

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Remembering 9/11/

Almost everyone has a 9/11 memory.  On that fateful day, I was on an uptown #4 train, heading to work.  When the first plane struck the first tower at 8:46 AM, I was still underground, in a tunnel, riding the iron horse.  When I emerged from the train station at Nevins Street and took a right on to Fulton Street, going East, the smoke was already rising but it was behind me, slightly northwest.  My mobile phone rang.  “Did you hear what happened?”  At this time, it wasn’t known that it was a terrorist attack.  Moments later, at 9:03 AM, it was clear that this was no mere accident.


Two months prior, I was standing in line in one of the twin towers, to go up on the Observation Deck with someone who had not been born in this country but was now a Brooklynite.  We were about to pay for our tickets when she said she was tired, from a day of shopping, and that perhaps we could do this another day.  We got out of the line.  Incidentally, the person who called me on 9/11 was the very same person standing on that line with me in the tower.

The weekend before 9/11, I was on a boat in the East River.  As the boat passed the World Trade Center, I snapped several pictures of the iconic towers.  Months later, when I got the film developed, I looked at the pictures of the towers, date stamped 09/08/11.

In the office, a TV was set up in the staff lounge.  My coworkers, silently, in disbelief, watched the tragedy unfold.  I don’t remember getting any work done this day.  We were mostly glued to the TV, watching the endless coverage.

Hours later, legions of Brooklynites crossed the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, escaping from Manhattan.  They filed down Fulton Street, covered in soot.  It was surreal.  It was…apocalyptic.  You could see the shock etched on the faces of these survivors.  One coworker, who went straight from her home to lower Manhattan because she had court, was among the legions, the seemingly endless line streaming across the bridges, filing down Fulton Street.  She, too, was covered in soot, clearly traumatized.  She made it into the office.  Before the end of the day, however, she was taken to the hospital, still in shock.  All these years later, she doesn’t remember how she got back to Brooklyn and to the office.


I am a born and bred Brooklynite.  I have memories of standing on the Brooklyn promenade in Brooklyn Heights throughout the course of my life looking at the Manhattan skyline.  I have countless pictures with and now without the towers in them.


On that fateful day, the City that never sleeps, where dreams are born, entered a terroristic nightmare.  New Yorkers, though, as resilient as they come, emerged from that nightmare and, as the Empire state motto declares: Excelsior (“ever upward’).  Just look at the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn Heights, the buildings going up.

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Bill Cosby v. Jeronimo Yanez

On its face, there doesn’t appear to be any connection between the bill Cosby sexual assault case and that of former Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Philando Castile on July 6, 2016; but if we look at the two cases together, we see a disturbing pattern within the criminal legal system.

On June 16, 2017, Jeronimo Yanez, Minnesota police officer, was acquitted of shooting and killing Philando Castile during a “routine” traffic stop – note that Castile had been stopped over forty times driving while Black!

On June 17, 2017, after the jury was “hopelessly deadlocked” in the bill Cosby sexual assault trial, the judge declared a mistrial.

Yanez, 28, while awaiting trial, was out on his own “recognizance” – translated, he did not have to post bail for a manslaughter case, the killing of Philando Castile, a Black male.

When #BlackLivesMatter activists make the case against law enforcement in killing mostly unarmed Black males, this, not imposing any bail on Yanez, once again proves a point in terms of the disparate treatment of law enforcement officials accused of killing people and any other civilian – there’s probably no recorded case of anyone outside of law enforcement being released on his or her own recognizance for the “unlawful taking of human life.”

On the other hand, Bill Cosby, while awaiting trial for a decades old sexual assault case, at 79, was out on $1 million bail, for the sexual assault of Andrea Constand, a multiracial female from Canada.  (Bill Cosby had many other accusers, but the statute of limitations to file charges against him had expired, and then again, what’s the point in mentioning these “cases,” but to imply that Bill Cosby is a “serial sexual assaulter,” to disparage Cosby even more?)

In imposing a $1 million bail, we must ask why.  The case was more than a decade old, Cosby, famous, was not a flight risk, and on his next birth, less than a month away, would be 80.  Cosby, a millionaire, could make such a bail, but that is not the point.  The Constitution requires “reasonable bail,” and given the totality of the circumstances of the case, clearly, I think, a $1 million-dollar bail violated the spirt and letter of the Constitution.  Note that former Judge Bruce Wright, was called “cut ‘em loose Bruce” by the tabloids because he followed the Constitution as it pertained to bail and gave bail based on the crime and other factors such as ability to pay.

There is history in the U.S. where law enforcement officials literally get away with killing unarmed Black males.  There’s case after case after case, and often no charges are even filed against cops when they kill unarmed people.  Note that in Minnesota there were about 200 cases that never resulted in an arrest and indictment of law enforcement for killing a civilian.

There is also history in the U.S. where Black males accused of sexual offenses, especially against white females, is dealt with in the most severe manner, both outside (lynch and castration mobs) and inside (sentenced to death) the courtroom.  In fact, in 1963, 17 states, almost all of them in the Southern and Western United States, the District of Columbia, and the Federal government, authorized the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman.  By 1977, only one state, Georgia, continued such a practice, until the United States Supreme Court, in Coker v. Georgia, ruled that such, imposition of the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman, was grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and struck down that state’s law.

The prosecution in the Bill Cosby case stated that he will retry Cosby.  Jeronimo Yanez walked away from a possible prison sentence for manslaughter.  He was fired by the police department for which he worked.

Until we as a society, and the judicial system look seriously at the “unlawful taking of human [Black] life,” especially by law enforcement, and prosecute such crimes to the fullest extent of the law, more and more people will lose faith in a system that has proven repeatedly that there is not “justice for all.”

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Timeless Enemies, Timeless “little” White Lies

In my penultimate blog, I wrote about the TV series, “Timeless.”  At the end, I mentioned Puerto Rican nationalist-revolutionary Oscar Lopez Rivera, and how the opposition to honoring him in the 2017 Puerto Rican Day Parade is connected to “Timeless,” in that “Timeless” revolves around protecting history, especially the “little” white lies,  as we know it.

Oscar Lopez Rivera was part of FALN, Puerto Rico’s Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation).  Between 1974 and 1983, FALN was responsible for about 120 bomb attacks on United States targets that killed five people and injured several others.  U.S. law enforcement officials have labeled FALN a terrorist group, as well as labeled Lopez Rivera a terrorist, even though he was not convicted of a violent crime.  (Note that U.S. law enforcement officials have never labeled the Ku Klux Klan a terrorist group, even during its heyday of the 1860s, 1920s and early 1960s, and even though it is responsible for far more than five killings of mostly Black people on American soil.)

In a statement, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, Inc. acknowledges that “while Lopez Rivera is undoubtedly ‘controversial,’ he is nevertheless an extremely influential Puerto Rican.”  It went on to say, “Some people call him a terrorist while others think of him as a freedom fighter, as was the case with Nelson Mandela.”

We are familiar with the saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.  Indeed, all of the revolutionary Founding Fathers were considered at least rebels by the British – today, perhaps they would be labeled terrorists; the Confederates during America’s Civil War were considered rebels by the Union – history should remember them as domestic terrorists –yet today Southerners still put up a fight to preserve monuments and statues and the treasonous Confederate flag of these rebels; and prior to the creation of Israel in 1948, the British considered the following Jewish paramilitary groups terrorist groups: Haganah, Irgun and Lehi (also known as the “Stern Gang”) – Irgun was responsible for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1945, and the Deir Yassin Massacre on April 9, 1948.  Note that many of Israel’s Prime Ministers were affiliated with or led these groups, including Israel’s “founding father,” David Ben Gurion, and Yizhak Shamir who, at 5’ 0”, earned the sobriquet, “the little murderer.”


History is not timeless.  It is not etched in stone.  It is like re-reading a book at different stages of your life.  You are bound to see things differently, assuming you have more knowledge and have become more enlightened.  This “seeing things differently” might be called “revisionism” by some because we are looking at history with different eyes.  Indeed, read different accounts of history, not just the accounts of the victors, and obviously you will see at least two sides of history.  A case on point is Christopher Columbus.  His supporters would say that he “discovered America,” his detractors that he was nothing but a pirate and set in motion the genocide of the indigenous people in the “Americas.”


When we look at the Puerto Rican Day Parade, let us not forget how it became a territory of the United States.  America defeated the Spanish in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and as a result of that acquired, among other things, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

In the final analysis, Lopez Rivera bowed out of being honored, and will simply march in the parade as a proud, regular Puerto Rican.  Say what you want about the man.  He stood for what he believed, then and now, and that’s…timeless.

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