Free At Last?

By Wendell Simpson
Updated: November 2, 2007

“I’d like for people to learn from my situation …just to know a few minutes of fun could be a lifetime of hard times.”

— Genarlow Wilson

ORLANDO — Gleaning that nugget of existential wisdom cost Genarlow Wilson two years of his life. It was the young man’s first public statement after his release from prison two weeks ago but for many young brothers, especially those as high profile as Wilson is and was, it resounds as an epitaph.

Justice is still separate but unequal, and for the Black male in particular the inequities are compounded by a ponderous and insidious cultural burden. Everyday is a new fight to throw off the yoke of vilification, the stigma of a supposed inherent criminality and the notion of over-sexualization, all of which keeps them consigned to the netherworld of myth, legend and white society’s unreasoning fear.

Young Mr. Wilson is a victim of that social and cultural baggage.

Wilson was convicted in 2005 of aggravated child molestation under an anachronistic Georgia statute that stipulates certain sexual acts involving teenagers, in this case fellatio, constitute a felony-level crime.

By all accounts, Wilson was on the fast track to beat the inevitability that seems to await so many young African American men these days. Bright and handsome and a talented athlete, Wilson was a college athletic recruiter’s dream: his 3.2 GPA was good enough to attract the interest of Ivy-League schools, his ‘good kid’ reputation and clean criminal record enough to justify the attention.

Of course, all teenage males are ruled mostly by their hormonal juices: girls, sex, alcohol, rites of passage — it’s all encoded on the DNA of youthful indiscretion. For a young man as popular as Wilson, the opportunities were plentiful, dangling in his face like the fruit of the tree.

When opportunity did call, Wilson bit. And then naiveté collided with a highly sexualized cultural norm and the voyeuristic sensibility of the MySpace generation. He taped it.

And that was all the evidence the State of Georgia needed.

There were mitigating circumstances: the act was consensual and both kids were minors; Wilson was 17, the girl 15. But under Georgia law, a fifteen-year old cannot legally consent, and so mitigation — and context — got thrown out of the window.

Indiscretion + Black male + stud status + video camera + the culturally embedded notion of the sepia savage = guilty. Throw in a large helping of the sexual Puritanism that permeates the Bible Belt’s backwater parish mentality and Wilson gets sentenced to ten years in prison and life as a registered sexual offender.

Critics of the verdict and the sentence pointed out that the law was never intended to target or punish teenage peers, but the Douglas County district attorney in the case, Thurber Baker, an African American, went for the easy win, citing the letter of the law as the ultimate arbiter. Former president Jimmy Carter, commenting on the case, noted that the sentence was inordinate and suggested that the racial dimension was pivotal in the verdict.

And so what’s new? We’ve seen it all before. Kobe Bryant, Mike Tyson, the La Salle basketball team a couple of years ago, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dobby.

The myth of the Black sexual savage is so preponderant, so visceral, so radioactive and so universally accepted that, in Wilson’s case, several major media outlets initially described the young girl in the case as white when she was, in fact, African American like Wilson.

The fear prejudges before you walk into the door and lingers like an atomic shadow seared into a Hiroshima bridge when you leave.

These young men have not figured out yet that being Black, being male and especially being a jock — members of the Duke LaCrosse team excepted — comes with risks, temptations and dangers others never have to consider.

The spotlight shines brighter and more harshly and the adoration that comes with their celebrity status, no matter how big or small, ain’t free.

The cost “could be a lifetime of hard times…”

Last month, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the Wilson verdict, grandfather-ing in a Romeo and Juliet clause in subsequent legislation that makes all sexual contact between minors a misdemeanor — and so two weeks ago, after two years behind bars, inmate # 1187055 got to walk out of jail.

A smattering of the media attended, hardly reaching the Britney Spears level of attention, but that’s because injustice doesn’t pull in the ratings.

His prospects for a football scholarship gone, and encumbered by a criminal record and the long memory of a society that seems to embrace the bad stories, Wilson says he is not bitter. He looks forward to getting on with his life, and says of the ordeal that it has “taught me valuable life lessons…it feels real good to be free.”

His sanguinity and courage are encouraging and inspiring, but can anyone say, with his history, that Genarlow Wilson, just 20 years old, will ever truly be “free”? In fact, who among them will ever be free of the stigma, the mythology, the presumption and the fear that still shackles every young Black male in America?