Interview: Hill Harper on ‘Letters to an Incarcerated Brother’

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'Letters to an Incarcerated Brother' book cover

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ast week, during my one-on-one with Hill Harper, we talked about what inspired him to author such a motivational book like ‘Letters to an Incarcerated Brother,’ demystifying the process of success, the dangers of what he calls “lotto mentality” and how his late father (a psychiatrist who worked in a maximum-security prison in Fort Madison, Iowa) associated a hot breakfast with being a mother. Besides being a genuine man who encourages and gives hope to others, Mr Harper is also best known for his roles on CSI: NY and CSI: Miami as Dr Sheldon Hawkes, and is listed as a New York Times Bestselling Author four times.

Sure, Mr. Harper is a Harvard Law School alumnus, a humanitarian and a successful award-winning actor with over 20 years of experience and a meritorious résumé, but he still faces dissuasion, like the rest of us.

“The publishing company did not want to publish this book. So, I had to rework my contract, take a compensation cut, do a number of things to get this book published and that’s why, in part, I’m so proud of it because they told me people wouldn’t support this book. They told me people would sit back and say ‘Well, I’m not in prison, why would I read this book?’ and it’s not true, he admitted to HuffPost Live.”

Being someone who aspires to be a notable and successful writer, role model and a groundbreaking woman in the entertainment industry via the means of journalism, the following questions were important to ask for the benefit of my audience and myself:

If this book is something you made because of the tragedy of African-American crime and conviction rates, is there a particular inmate or a story that compelled you to write it?

The very first letter, in the book, that I present was a letter that brought me to my knees when I got it. The earnestness and the honesty from the young man who wrote it to me said,

‘My name is Brian. I’m sixteen years old and I’m in jail,’ and he goes on to say that he didn’t have a role model that’s why he’s in jail, but he has one now and his name is Hill Harper,’ and that struck me like a ton of bricks because if he’s going to tell me, that I’m his role model then, what am I going to do to step up to the plate? To actually serve in that capacity. What am I going to do to make sure that I am serving in that way?

I started researching. I started writing. I started meeting and interviewing and doing whatever I could to work on this issue, and this book is my most important book to date and I’m asking people to support it and read it. Again, it’s not just about people — you don’t have to be in a physical prison to hopefully enjoy and get something out of this book, but obviously, for the brothers and sisters who are in prison, I’m asking people to get the book to them. [I’m] asking them to go onto — I created a site called incarceratedbrother.com where people could get a list of prisons, Warden’s names, so, if they wanted to go on Amazon or whatever, and have the book sent directly and donate it to the prison library.

This is a transformative work because, in many ways, we are ignoring our brothers and sisters once they get sent off to prison and we’re doing them as well as us, a disservice.

In a recent interview, you talked about demystifying the process of success. Could you speak a little bit more about that? How would one, whether it is someone that is in prison mentally or physically, be able to break down the barriers or the bridges that we create, in order to attain our success? What speckle of advice could you share with us?

You know, one thing that came out of this book without question, was me interviewing all of the different experts and having different people who are certainly much smarter than I am, contributing to the book. You realize success is a system. It’s not some kind of a mystical thing where it’s good luck or it’s this or it’s that, it’s just a system, and it’s about making things more conscious to our subconscious, and there’s so many things that most of us carry from our history to our gender, race, socioeconomic status, culture, [and] where we grew up. We carry all this stuff, and it’s all subconscious and we end up making choices, and we can’t even articulate why we made this choice versus this choice or why we made this decision versus this [decision]. And what success in the system means, it means taking a step back from all [of] that and making it all conscious. Sketching it out, is it active architecture. Blueprinting it out. Blueprinting every minute of your day, if that’s what it takes.

Saying: I’m going to do this, then, I’m going to do this. Then, I’m going to do this. I’m going to make these 7 phone calls between 7:45 and 8. And now, I am going to make these 10 emails between 8 o’clock and 9. Then, I’m going to have breakfast from 9 to 9:30. Then, I’m going to brush my teeth from 9:30-9:40. That’s what it’s about. Literally creating a system of success and filing your blueprint and knowing why you’re using your time, the way you are, why you’re making every decision you’re making and therefore, things start to move. It’s just like a car. Cars only work, if they got gas in the tank. If you actually turn it on, if you put it in the drive, you take your foot off the break, and you press the gas. You can do any of those by themselves, and independently, the car does not move. So, we have to think of ourselves like that, and part of the problem is if you come from a community when you haven’t been taught those lessons organically or you don’t have the support network where they kind of make you do it that anyway, then you’re like kind of left out and you end up with what I call “lotto mentality.”

‘Yo, I just need to win the lotto, man’ or what a lot of young brothers say, is the only way they can get out is crack, rap or ball. That’s it. As if, literally those are the three alternatives that they have. Someone convinced them of that lie, and therefore, they make choices that fulfil that lie, but it’s just absolutely untrue.

Well, I think that has a lot to do with what they’re seeing though. Maybe, they don’t necessarily see the path of a doctor or an actor.

You’re absolutely right. They will role model what they see, without question. Three-quarters of our young men are being raised in households not headed by the father. They don’t see that father getting up in the morning and going to work. Right? They don’t see it cause he’s not there. So, they don’t model that, but who do they see the most, who’s an adult? They see the drug dealer on the corner. Why? Cause that person’s not at work. The other men in the community that are actually going to work, they don’t see them, cause they’re at work. And so, it’s in common upon all of us in the communities to reinforce these other images. Take them to see people at work. Take them to a firehouse. Take them to a factory. Take them to see these images, so we’re questioning what’s good parenting. You understand? It’s like, the responsibility still falls back on us in the household. The world is not going to raise your child, and if you know that most of the imagery your child sees is negative, on the corner, then take him somewhere else so he’s not on the corner. Make him crack open a book like Letters to an Incarcerated Brother and write a book report about what he reads, but you gotta read the book too, so you know what’s he talking about.

So, it’s pretty much — Everyone has to take a leadership role, in order to make it work?

Without question. Without question, and then obviously, this is a bottom-up approach. This book represents individual responsibility approach, and I want to be clear, I’m not advocating the top-down approach either. It’s flawed, the system is broken. We need changes to the system itself, but they are not mutually exclusive. Meaning, just because the system is broken, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take personal responsibility to getting your stuff together.

Who did you look to as a mentor? Who was in the leadership position for you, for which you were able to not end up like someone that might be a statistic?

I was lucky. I was raised by a single parent, but I was raised by my father. So I looked at my father. I saw him get up every morning. My father believed that he was father and mother. His mother cooked him breakfast — This is how crazy and deeply subconscious things are — His mother, my grandmother, cooked him breakfast every morning, a hot breakfast every morning, and somehow in his mind, that’s what he thought mothers were. He associated a hot breakfast with being a mother. So, he said When I was a single parent, I wanted to get up every morning and cook you a hot breakfast because that’s what being a mother is. So, I want to fill that role too.’ So, he cooked me a hot breakfast every morning…

Wow.

And he was not a touchy-feely type of dad, like ‘I love you’ or anything like that. None of that, but he cooked me a hot breakfast every morning and he felt that’s what a mother does. He needed to fill that role. So, I’ve learned about being a man from him and I respect him for that. He’s passed away and I appreciate — that you know — He wasn’t a perfect man, but nobody is perfect. Nobody expects perfection, but I was definitely blessed to be raised by someone I saw get up every morning, work hard and support me and my brother.

There are approximately 20 copies of ‘Letters to an Incarcerated Brother’ left in stock on Amazon. Purchase it as a gift for a loved one in need of motivation this holiday season and/or for yourself. I think we all need a tinge of encouragement a few times a week.


About Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones

A compelling, important addition to Hill Harper’s bestselling series, inspired by the numerous inmates who write to him seeking guidance. After the publication of Hill Harper’s Letters to a Young Brother, which was named Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association and won two NAACP awards, the accomplished actor began to receive an increasing number of moving letters from inmates who yearned for a connection with a successful role model. Disturbed by the fact that the incarceration rate for black men is more than six times higher than the rate for white men, Harper made it a priority to address the tragedy of African American crime and conviction rates.

A powerful message from the heart, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother provides advice and inspiration in the face of despair along with encouraging words for restoring a sense of self-worth. As the founder of Manifest Your Destiny, a nonprofit outreach program for at-risk teens, Harper has seen firsthand the transformative effect of mentorship and keeping an eye to the future. The latest addition to his Letters series (Letters to a Young Brother, Letters to a Young Sister) delivers this wisdom through visionary, compassionate messages in response to real-life circumstances drawn from his readers. As with the other Letters books, Harper will include moving contributions from top educators, activists, thought leaders, and entertainers. The spirit can always triumph, Harper assures us, and we can conquer the voices of doubt and become active architects of our lives.


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