Locked inside a New Jersey prison, I found a book to serve as a guide on my road to redemption.
“Scenes From My Life” is a memoir written by the late actor Michael K. Williams, whose portrayal of the legendary character Omar on the television series “The Wire” earned him multiple Emmy nominations. The book was released in August, almost one year after Williams died from a drug overdose.
Williams experienced significant trauma in his life but always maintained an optimistic spirit. Before his death, Williams became a hero to his neighborhood of East Flatbush, in Brooklyn, because of his service there. His book is a must-read for guys that grew up like him — guys like me — who have made missteps and fought to redeem themselves.
The early years
Growing up, Williams’ mother took a tough-love approach with her son. “Mom’s love was harsh like sandpaper, suffocating like a thick pillow,” he wrote. She treated him differently than his older brother Paul, who was lighter-skinned than Williams, a proper student and better behaved. Paul was his mom’s “good son.” She told Michael that he had a touch of evil in him and called him her black and ugly child. At times, she whaled on him for transgressing her strict rules.
The violence came from a place of love, Williams wrote. It “was so ingrained in her that it was actually a type of love in her mind. She felt she had to protect me at all costs and she understood that every time I left the house, violence was a vortex that could suck me in. So whatever it took to keep me out of it was worth it to her.”
At home, speaking up for himself was frowned upon, and others held out little hope for him and his peers. A sixth grade teacher told Williams’ class: “Some of you are not going to make it.” As a result, the young Williams felt self-doubt trying to find his place in the world and sometimes acted out to seek attention.
He was attracted to peers with swagger, had run-ins with truancy and smoked marijuana on the train. In an early sign of his lifelong struggle with addiction, Williams took his first blast of crack cocaine when he was in high school, a vocational and technical school with no art or music program. This was the 1980s, and crack was blowing up on the scene.
Williams’ predilection for the performing arts came early. He learned to act from a young age, imitating what he thought his mother wanted to see. And he also latched on to music. He played the trumpet and performed dances in the neighborhood courtyard to impress the local cliques. It was through the arts that he developed a voice, and he hoped to attend a performing arts school. But his mother didn’t believe the arts were a respectable trade. He wrote that she choked off something that had given him a sense of identity.
I, too, sought negative attention growing up. Like Willams’ mom, my mother was a “listen, don’t speak” type. I acted out in school, and my sixth grade teacher told me I would one day make the news — and not in a positive way.
My mom had few options to change my behavior. She was strong and tough, and she stripped away my privileges. But I was addicted to the streets. No matter how much my mom tried to hold me, I pulled away and acted out until she screamed, “Get the f–k out!”
“The hood puts certain labels on your understanding and limits who you can be,” Williams wrote. I can relate to that.
By the time he was 19, Williams was completely strung out. By 22, he had two unsuccessful attempts at rehab.
Daring to dream
Fresh off a 13-month stint in rehab, Williams moved back with his mom in the summer of 1989. That’s when he discovered Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video.
He danced along, picturing himself next to Jackson. It was, he writes, like a “message sent from a place where I belonged, a home that I didn’t know existed.”
He was beginning to realize a dream.
Through connections, Williams began modeling and dancing. Early on, he struggled to book gigs and slept on couches, still looking for a high. Eventually he relapsed and landed back on his mother’s couch.
But he caught another break and eventually landed a spot in the show after another model stopped showing up for rehearsals.
That was all before a brawl outside a bar in New York City left him with a scar across his face.
A scar, a star
Williams was sliced in the face with a razor blade on Nov. 21, 1991. The next morning, he had plastic surgery to repair the damage to his cheek and eye, but he still carried a scar.
Still, when one of the dancers for the American singer Kym Sims backed out of a performance, a mentor volunteered Williams to fill the spot. The Kym Sims tour led to more opportunities. Williams was able to tour with Technotronic, Ginuwine, Mya and Crystal Waters.
After the scar, Williams believed no one would want to look at him again, but another opportunity came. Williams describes how the rapper Tupac Shakur saw his headshot and recommended that Williams play the role of his little brother in the 1996 movie “Bullet.”
“[My] biggest mistake got me my first acting gig,” wrote Williams.
The infamous Omar
When Williams landed the shotgun-toting role of Omar on “The Wire,” he felt the character overlapped with him. Like Williams, Omar Devon Little was sensitive and vulnerable. And Omar also aspired to be someone who didn’t give a damn.
In theory, playing Omar should have been positive for Williams, but his method acting approach was unhealthy at times. Williams disappeared into Omar; and when he left the character, he was not the same.
Or was he? Eventually, Williams relapsed again. During the second season of “The Wire,” on days that he was not shooting, he would get high. “The dark world where Omar resided was part of what led to my relapse,” he wrote.
When Williams felt vulnerable, a voice crept in and asked: “When are they going to find out you’re a phony? When are your secrets going to be revealed? And when are they going to turn on you?”
After “The Wire” ended in 2008, Williams caught two charges in two months for driving under the influence and was sentenced to 250 hours community service. Furious at himself for putting others at risk, he saw this as a chance to be a positive influence in the community. He decided to go to high schools and speak with teenagers with backgrounds similar to his. He began recognizing himself in the kids. “‘I need to know that you see yourself in me because I see myself in you all,’” he told the youth.
In my neighborhood, guys are celebrated when released from the joint. I dropped out early and saw nothing wrong with doing time. As a young kid, I aspired to be a gangsta because that’s what I witnessed.
“Scenes from My Life” has inspired me to speak my truth to youth. I grew up believing vulnerability was a weakness. I wasn’t taught how to express myself.
Growing up, all I saw was sports and drug dealing. I couldn’t play ball, and drug dealing was easy and lucrative, so I chose that path. Now I’m in prison serving a 130-year sentence. But I still have my voice.
Like Williams, I want to give the youth permission to be vulnerable and let them know that they do not have to go through the trenches to learn their worth.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.