Reginald Dwayne Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts headshot

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. A 2021 MacArthur Fellow, he is the Executive Director of Freedom Reads, a not-for-profit organization that is radically transforming the access to literature in prisons through the installation of Freedom Libraries in prisons across this country.

For more than twenty-years, he has used his poetry and essays to explore the world of prison and the effects of violence and incarceration on American society. The author of a memoir and three collections of poetry, he has transformed his latest collection of poetry, the American Book Award winning Felon, into a solo theater show that explores the post incarceration experience and lingering consequences of a criminal record through poetry, stories, and engaging with the timeless and transcendental art of paper-making.

In 2019, Betts won the National Magazine Award in the Essays and Criticism category for his NY Times Magazine essay that chronicles his journey from prison to becoming a licensed attorney. He has been awarded a Radcliffe Fellowship from Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emerson Fellow at New America, and most recently a Civil Society Fellow at Aspen. Betts holds a J.D. from Yale Law School.


Blood History

—Reginald Dwayne Betts

The things that abandon you get remembered different.
As precise as the English language can be, with words
like penultimate and perseverate, there is not a combination
of sounds that describe only that leaving. Once,
drinking & smoking with buddies, a friend asked if
I’d longed for a father. Had he said wanted, I would have
dismissed him in the way that youngins dismiss it all:
a shrug, sarcasm, a jab to the stomach, laughter.
But he said longing. & in a different place, I might
have wept. Said, once, my father lived with us & then he
didn’t & it fucked me up so much I never thought about
his leaving until I held my own son in my arms & only
now speak on it. A man who drank Boone’s Farm & Mad
Dog like water once told me & some friends that there is no
word for father where he comes from, not like we know it.
There, the word father is the same as the word for listen.
The blunts we passed around let us forget our
tongues. Not that much though. But what if the old
head knew something? & if you have no father, you can’t
hear straight. Years later, another friend wondered why
I named my son after my father. You know, that’s a thing
turn your life to a prayer that no dead man gonna answer.

From Felon (2019) by Reginald Dwayne Betts, Poets.org.


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