Bird Uncaged

An Abolitionist's Freedom Song


By Marlon Peterson

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From a leading prison abolitionist, a moving memoir about coming of age in Brooklyn and surviving incarceration—and a call to break free from all the cages that confine us.
Marlon Peterson grew up in 1980s Crown Heights, raised by Trinidadian immigrants. Amid the routine violence that shaped his neighborhood, Marlon became a high-achieving and devout child, the specter of the American dream opening up before him. But in the aftermath of immense trauma, he participated in a robbery that resulted in two murders. At nineteen, Peterson was charged and later convicted. He served ten long years in prison. While incarcerated, Peterson immersed himself in anti-violence activism, education, and prison abolition work.
In Bird Uncaged, Peterson challenges the typical “redemption” narrative and our assumptions about justice. With vulnerability and insight, he uncovers the many cages—from the daily violence and trauma of poverty, to policing, to enforced masculinity, and the brutality of incarceration—created and maintained by American society.

Bird Uncaged is a twenty-first-century abolitionist memoir, and a powerful debut that demands a shift from punishment to healing, an end to prisons, and a new vision of justice.


I don’t believe in cages of any kind. Let me tell you why.

Dear Marlo’,

The first thing you should know is that you were a beautiful, brilliant, bubbly Black boy. Your big black lips were just the right size. No need to hide them by folding them inwards. No need to hide your presence.

You were talkative, and that was okay. It was your way of sharing your light. No need to hide your voice by playing small. Your smile… your smile was contagious. No need to hide it by masking it with screwfaces. Your ability to carry on big people conversations as an eight-year-old was a gift. No need to hide your maturity. It was one of the ways you learned about the world, even if you did raise your parents’ phone bill to over $1,000 dollars by calling 1-900 numbers to play Jeopardy!

You were a nerd. No need to hide your intelligence.

You should know that your 1980s Crown Heights, Brooklyn, neighborhood needed young Black boys like you to shine and inspire.

Too many of you hid, in cages of your own creation, but mostly in cages created for you. Often the two were indistinguishable.

My mother, Elsa, is a hardworking woman who loves her children. She was once a little Black girl in Trinidad who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. She lived during a time when tightly coiled hair on a girl was considered nigger naps, something to be ashamed of and hide away. So my mom hid her hair under berets to avoid feeling that she was ugly because of her hair. My mom also witnessed both her biological father and her stepfather plagued by alcoholism, and her mom get beaten regularly by the latter. She told me and my pops about the abuse a handful of years ago. She kept that information hidden for over sixty years from two of the closest men in her life. Despite that part of her childhood, Mommy was the gem of her mother’s eyes, and spoiled.

Daddy, also known as Jaego but whose government name is Michael, was saga boy, barber, and panman. Saga boy is Trini for a man who is always in fashion who has it good with the chicks. My father was also a steelpan player back when only thugs and poor people were associated with the instrument. His band, North Stars, won the first two National Panorama competitions in Trinidad and he toured the Caribbean with his neighborhood band, Westside Symphony. I am told he was nice with the blades as a barber back in the ’60s in Trinidad, but as his son who got Daddy haircuts until my freshman year of high school, I beg to differ.

Daddy grew up living between his biracial grandmother, his father, and his mother. The second oldest of seven, he learned how to survive with few resources since neither of his parents had much of anything. His first exposure to Jehovah’s Witnesses came through this grandmother, a Kittitian. His father was also a drunk, but a cool one, I am told. I never met either of my grandfathers—they both died during my infancy—so it’s the stories of my parents and older brother and sister that taught me about my grandfathers, romanticized but sprinkled with some real.

Michael and Elsa, both from the same St. James neighborhood in Trinidad, met each other at eighteen and never looked back. They both bought the Kool-Aid of the American dream, though my pops admits today that he read and heard about all the racism in America before he left Trini, but that he convinced himself that none of that racism was happening in New York. It was the South he thought Black people had to fear in America. He was wrong.

I saw the American television and I was attracted to the nice clothes, the parties, and the music. I wanted to try my hand at it. I saw the stories of racism in America, but I didn’t realize how serious it was until I get here. They killed Martin Luther King right after I got here. That was real sad.

Elsa was the first of the two to go to New York. She visited in 1965, a few months after Malcolm X was assassinated. She had a friend who lived in Harlem and frequented the Apollo often. But she was severely homesick; she was unaccustomed to the busyness of the city, and frightened by the droves of heroin-addicted women and men who languished along the streets of Harlem. After only eight months she retreated back to Trinidad to her mom and her boyfriend, Jaego.

When Jaego had saved enough money to travel to the US, he packed what few belongings he had and decided he would create a new life for himself in America. Elsa joined him. In 1967 they both officially made Brooklyn home—a one-room apartment in Bushwick with a shared bathroom and kitchenette. That was their exposure to the American dream.

One year later they gave birth to my sister, Kelly, who we called Kels, and three years after that, my brother, Mike.

Both of my parents overstayed their visas and lived as undocumented residents of NYC raising two young children with little money and agency. When they found a cigarette burn on Kels after they picked her up from the babysitter, they told no one. They didn’t call the police because they feared doing so would mean immigration finding them out, which would lead to deportation. So they figured the best way to deal with the situation would be to pull Kels out of that day care and not allow Mike to go through anything similar.

They decided to send infant Mikey to Trinidad to live with his maternal grandparents. Mike stayed in Trini until 1976, when he was five years old. I think those five years away from our parents caused family drama that no parenting class could prepare my parents for. They didn’t have cell phones or computers to communicate with someone living in another country. Airmail letters and expensive long distance calls were their only way of getting in touch. So for the first couple of years of Mike’s life, he saw his grandparents as his parents. Of course, he knew of his real parents, but they were foreign to him in a foreign country. Kels would sometimes visit him during the summer months, so he knew his sister. But that could not curtail his feeling that his parents did not love him as much as Kels did.

Mommy and Daddy could have joined Kels to visit Mike, but because of immigration policy, it would have prohibited them from ever returning to the US. Two years earlier the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 had abolished the American immigration quota system that gave preference to Western European immigrants, and excluded everyone else.1 Prior to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, American immigration policy gave preference to Western Europeans over Eastern Europeans—classic white on white violence executed through policy. In a speech to the American Committee on Italian Migration in 1963, President Kennedy described these quotas as “nearly intolerable.”2 The 1965 Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, opened up American borders to Eastern Europeans, and to others. My parents were among the others. Visitor’s visas, the golden key that unlocked entry into the US, had expiration dates. If you overstayed the expiration date on that visa, you became civically illegal—an illegal immigrant, illegal alien—though I prefer the term undocumented resident.

This ain’t just an argument about semantics, though. Since the 1970s, the consequence of being caught overstaying a visa could mean deportation by the US government. So my parents avoided interactions with police, welfare agencies, and other parts of the US government that could expose them as undocumented. They were hiding within cages of their own making, with the help of borders that, though they had finally opened to Black and Brown immigrants, limited the number to twenty thousand per year, exactly. Poor working-class immigrant families like mine made difficult decisions in order to avoid being labeled and deported by the government. My parents overstayed their visitor’s visas, becoming the new nigger to America: illegal aliens. They sacrificed their Trinidadian discomfort for a new American discomfort that caged them through policy. Today, if they were to get caught, they’d be put in physical prisons built on old immigration policy. Survival isn’t always logical to the observer.

When Mike returned to NY he spoke little to his parents and cried for his grandparents. He was now a foreigner in his parents’ home.

And then I was born a few years later in 1979. I was supposed to be an abortion because my parents could barely afford me. Kels told me this years later when I was in my twenties in a cell, though I never felt like a mistake to anyone… except to my brother. We grew up estranged.

My first bed was a beautifully decorated dresser drawer, the penthouse of the dresser set. The other compartments of the dresser were filled to occupancy with clothes and bedding sheets. My parents couldn’t immediately afford a crib or bassinet, and though momentary, it would not be the last time I slept in something not made for humans.

Fortunately, one of my father’s new Jehovah’s Witness friends was told about my sleeping situation and bought me a crib. Another sister from my father’s congregation in the Kingdom Hall volunteered to babysit me. Daddy was convinced that Jehovah was blessing him and his family. New job, new baby, and new friends freely giving their time and money to us.

My mother didn’t care for it. She had married a man who hung out too often, smoked cigarettes regularly, weed sparingly, and sexed other women discreetly. My mother was content with the man her husband was becoming, but she wanted no part of the religion. She was a baby-baptized Catholic, and though she could tally the number of times she’d been to a church since moving to America on the back of one of our many apartment roaches, she felt she was losing her friend.

With the new godly blessings came rules. Lots of rules. No Christmas or birthday celebrations. No holiday specials on television. Daddy chastised Mommy for using profanity. He viewed soca music as vile and un-Christian.

Mommy cussed, bought us gifts for Christmas, partied, and played her soca music in the house, sometimes behind his back, sometimes in his face. The latter came with arguments, plenty of them.

Mommy was convinced that Daddy was brainwashed into a religious cult. She was incensed that he dragged her three children along with him to the Kingdom Hall.

Michael, alyuh JeeHovah Wickedness ain’t nuttin’ but ah cult!

Elsa, why yuh ain’t hush yuh shtupid mout!

To Mommy, Daddy’s sanctimonious evolution was depriving her kids of their childhood. There was a one-hour Bible Study on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., a two-hour service on Wednesday from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., field ministry on Saturday mornings for at least two hours, followed by more field ministry on Sunday morning, followed by another two-hour service. Too much religion.

Kels and Mikey were in their early tweens during Daddy’s early transition to Brother Peterson, the Jehovah’s Witness. His grip on them wasn’t as tight; they rebelled against the routinized religiosity. They stopped going a few years after I was born, and Mommy was their excuse. She defended them against Daddy’s new blessing, and won.

But me, I was born into the routine. Daddy enrolled me into a Jehovah’s Witness preschool, and I loved it. But, when that one year of Jehovah Witness kindergarten ended, I was off to public school—the notorious, at the time, PS 138.

It was here that I first learned to keep hurtful experiences secret.

I was in the first grade the first time I was jumped. I can’t remember why they did it, probably because they banged my head so hard, but two classmates slammed my head against the porcelain sink in the boys’ bathroom of PS 138. We were probably just playing too rough, at my expense. Dizzy, I struggled to my feet, peed, flushed the toilet, washed my hands, dried my fingers on my clothes, went back to class, sat in my seat, said nothing. I told a silent lie to myself that what had happened to me was too embarrassing to divulge to anyone. I eventually forgot it ever happened, only remembering it during therapy almost three decades later.

Most of the kids in the de facto orphanage of our Brooklyn neighborhood were trying to break free from the lie that we were tasked to work extra hard not to die. Once I stepped outside apartment 4B at 616 Nostrand Avenue I had to navigate other hurting Black boys who were willing to rob and beat me, and intimidate me with stares; I needed to decipher between a harmless crackhead and one who was delusional enough to prey on me for a high. This and more happened before I got to the school where, in the third grade, I witnessed my first face slashing. A couple of rooms away from my third grade classroom a fourth grader was rushed out of class because he was cut on his face by another kid. I don’t know why it happened. We saw the kid get carried to the stairwell by nurses and security guards, blood leaking along the way, and we went back to class. No counseling. No nothing. We moved on.

Most of us learned to hide just enough to not be discovered. Discovery could expose you to deportation, drug misuse, AIDS, teen pregnancy, or being killed by police, a crackhead, or some hurting kid from the block. Back in the 1980s, mass incarceration was not a term we knew. We knew that people went to jail, but we had not realized that millions were going to jail, some never to come back home. So our parents were not acutely aware of the Black fear of prison, and neither was I. Black people in prison was more of an abstract idea, something that happened to drug dealers; I didn’t yet understand it as the day-to-day weight that we now know always existed for all Black people, just in different outfits. Twist locks evolved into handcuffs. Ankle bracelets are trending now.

The intersection of Nostrand Ave and Pacific Street, or NA Rock as some might know it, was our thoroughfare. We had a doctor’s office, pharmacy, a record shop, Chinese takeout, West Indian ital stores, barbershops, a laundromat, a Korean vegetable stand, a hardware store, a Yemeni bodega on one corner, and a Latino-owned bodega on the next end—and that was just my block.

We were poorish, but not in the way that I ever missed a meal. My parents’ pride prevented them from admitting to being poor “like dem American Blacks who doh take advantage of all de tings dem have here. We doh have all these opportunities back home.” My parents prided themselves on never going on welfare or food stamps because it allowed us to maintain a self-image that othered the welfare and food stamp–dependent people who lived in our drug-infested building. I guess that was their understanding of loving parenting—denying that we were struggling to make ends meet all the time. We were a family of working poor, and that difference gave us enough latitude to avoid being labeled as welfare-dependent. Being undocumented was enough. To be dependent on government aid would incur more interactions with the people who could figure out my parents had overstayed their visas, and get them kicked out of the country.

My parents, like most poor Black immigrants in America, created fantastical delusions for the overreach of systemic oppression. “The man” had to be avoided at all costs.

Though we lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor, our apartment was 4B. Nope, that doesn’t make sense, and not much on that thoroughfare on Nostrand Ave made sense to me… then. Empty crack vials were everywhere: in our apartment building, floor, elevator, and sidewalks. They were never in piles, but usually in single lines along the edges of the concrete and ornamented with the perfume of piss or a hock spit dressing.

One night, when I was about six or seven, I remember my fidgety mother being more nervous than usual. Kels and Mikey were going in and out of the apartment, and my pops was trying to get everyone to calm down and “mind they bizness,” in his fake Black American accent. I was confused, initially, when Mommy told me that our neighbor’s teenage daughter had been thrown off the roof of our six-story building. In an attempt to rape her, a man coaxed her upstairs to the roof. The roof door was always broken open. Fighting him off, she was thrown from the roof. She suffered only a broken leg and badly bruised arm and back.

She eventually healed, at least physically, I think. Who knew? I never asked her, nor was I aware that there was more than one way to suffer from pain. Her cast was tagged up with the names of all her friends, and she eventually walked regular. She was good. She moved on.

I was good. We moved on. Another neighbor was killed two floors up from us. We were good. We moved on. An older teen was shot in the head while talking on a pay phone on the corner of Nostrand and Pacific, a clear view from our living room window. Too bad for him and his family, but we were good. We moved on. Gunshots rang from the street often. As long as we followed the protocols we were taught—“take off de lights, get low to de ground, and stay away from that blasted window!”—we could continue watching television without interruption. We were good. We moved on.

I wish someone told me that simply moving on was not freedom from the harm felt and seen. I wonder if anyone taught my parents this lesson.

My father read to me on most nights, even on the nights that gunshots rang out, from a Jehovah’s Witness book called My Book of Bible Stories. Every two-page story in that book covered an important event in the Bible. From Eve’s first sin of listening to the serpent in the book of Genesis to the utopian hope of living forever in a paradise Earth after God and Jesus killed all the wicked people in Armageddon, or God’s war. I could not get enough of the stories. By the age of four I was reading the stories along with my father. I began believing the stories. I got mad at Eve for causing men to sin. This is when I learned to fear God and give him glory. No glory for me. It was during this time that I developed a love for learning. There was so much to learn about the Bible, and that trickled into my schooling. My interests were piqued during history and language arts class—that is, as long as it did not conflict with anything I learned from the Bible.

I gave my first five-minute speech in front of my congregation when I was eight years old. I was what was called an unbaptized publisher, which meant that I was spiritually qualified to participate in field ministry, conduct Bible studies with people I met in the community, and give five-minute Bible-based talks. My father was proud of a son who was following him, unlike his other children. My mom was proud that her son was mannerly and smart. My siblings did not care for either. The neighborhood thought I was a punk. I thought Jehovah was blessing me.

Daddy was my closest friend during those days. He and I shared a bond that he wished he could experience with Mommy, Mikey, and Kels. When he took me to the park I’d be on the swings while he studied from his Watchtower magazine. He taught me how to ride a bike, no training wheels. He affectionately called me Marlo Barlo. He made soggy rice with cut sweet corn from the can for me. He made big uneven pancakes. He made french fries for me. We talked about the Bible. We prayed together.

He taught me about the birds and the bees, but not about relationships. He exposed me to Broadway shows and Star Wars, but concealed the story of the steelpan, the instrument he loved as a young man. He inculcated honesty to Jehovah, but left out the part about being honest to myself. He was being a good dad. I loved him because he was a great dad to me. I did not know about his past days as Jaego, the philanderer, cigarette smoker, and weed puffer. I did not know that those parts of him could rub off on me despite his hiding them. I knew that I adored him. Worshipped him. And loved Jehovah. I was dedicated to preaching in the field ministry. At the same time, I wanted to learn more about the world he vigorously tried to tuck away.


Dear Marlo,

When I think back to your childhood, you were real good at suicide. The schoolyard game played at PS 138, the elementary school a few yards away from where police killed Arthur Miller.1 A remixed version of flys up where one kid would bounce a handball high up against a wall while a group of kids vied to catch the descending ball. Remember, if you dropped the ball trying to catch it you had to sprint to the same wall that it bounced off of and yell “suicide!” when you touched it.

If one of the other players picked up the dropped ball before you got to the wall, they had the right to sling the ball at you like a major league baseball pitcher. Some guys would run up to you and sling the ball at your face, back of the neck, and ears. You all played that game in the heat of summer and in the icy winter. There were times that you were hit so hard with a half-frozen handball that you thought your face had split into uneven parts. Although you wanted to cry from the pain sometimes, you understood that crying in public was out of the question, an abomination, considered cowardly even for a seven- or eight-year-old; fighting was a more honorable pain reliever.

We yelled “suicide” to be saved from hurt.

Despite the pain, you loved suicide, partly because you were always good at catching. But the real thrill came from hitting someone with the ball or the danger of being hit. Even back then you were developing the ability to endure and inflict harm.

Suicide was dangerous. There were black eyes, bloody noses, swollen temples, and busted lips. Remember that girl who got hit so hard she passed out—and she wasn’t even playing? Someone misfired and thought nothing of it. You thought nothing of it. You kept playing. Maybe it was you who misfired and hit that girl. I wish you had been more attuned to the pain of Black girls at the expense of your own fun, or trauma, or inclination to hide. I wish I was more attuned in my adult years.

Life for us was similar to that game eerily called suicide. The slightest mistake usually resulted in the most severe pain. That hurt was before Biggie Smalls penned the articulable language “do or die.” Before then most of us were just doing and trying not to die, but without the syntax. Just like the game of suicide, you could not choose where you would be hit, just be ready to feel pain. Similarly, life did not give me the choice of consequences, I just had to be ready for the next bad thing to happen. This is the story that you will have to fight to not believe. These are the stories that I want to break free from; the stories I don’t want to arrest you. Don’t be paroled by these experiences. Create a liberation from a world that embeds within us our own overseer, slaver, jailer, parole officer, and undertaker. Try not to let your pain lead you. At some point I want you to understand that everyone and everything that scarred you was not your fault.

Sixth grade was a tough year for me. Sixth grade was a successful school year for me.

Back in 1990, IS 390 in Crown Heights was an infamous junior high school. It was across the street from Albany Houses, a nine-building high-rise residential experiment for poor Black and Brown people. Elevators never worked, building maintenance budgets were not prioritized, and people were left to act like owners of a building where the landlord was the City of New York. This was the projects and the people living there were taken care of like a project no one cared about.

Like all other geographies that surround housing projects, people did dumb unloving shit. Cursed teachers out in school. Organized themselves into gangs. Robbed each other. Shot each other. There were 2,605 murders and 112,380 reported robberies in NYC that year, the highest ever. A lot of unnecessarily dumb and harmful things were happening in 1990, and not just in New York City. Black unemployment was three times that of whites. Brooklyn had the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the city, and 50 percent of those people were Black. Forty-five percent of Black women who headed households in the country were poor. The media, police, and politicians told us that crack was a Black drug, though crack-cocaine was really a poor white drug, with over 65 percent of whites admitting they used to pipe up—compared to 26 percent of Blacks. That’s not my stat. That’s the United States Sentencing Commission Report to Congress. Some of us bought into the narrative that white life was better. We shot, robbed, raped, and harmed our own communities in the ways we were conditioned to by media, police, and politicians—as illegal aliens, crackheads, crack babies, lazy welfare queens, predators, and promiscuous STD carriers. But there were always reasons behind our so-called senseless violence—our monstrous acts. Who taught us that there was no sense behind our responses to being treated senseless and unempathetically? Survival of the oppressed isn’t always logical to the oppressor when observing the oppressed. None of our people are monsters—none. The moment we describe people as monsters we shift human behavior into the realm of the unexplainable. Every act of violence can be explained—especially ghetto shit.

Remember, running away from slavery was a crime and a diagnosis for mental illness. Senseless running away. Yet, entire biographies get written when white boys and white men shoot up concerts, churches, synagogues, schools, and protestors. White people made us believe that our pain was monstrous, senseless, and pathological. We have reasons.2

Anyways, I only lasted a month or two in IS 390. It was the first time I would be robbed. My victimization wasn’t reported to the police, so I wasn’t included in that 1990 statistic of 112,380 robberies.

It was early in the new school year. I started the sixth grade at ten years old and it was the first time I was in a school where we went to different classrooms from period to period. One day me and a couple of my new classmates were going down the steps to lunch. There were several separate but adjacent stairwells leading to the lunchroom. I decided to take a separate stairwell from my classmates. I always had a penchant for taking my own course.


  • “Marlon Peterson lyrically and powerfully narrates his own experience with the injustices of American prisons, from the cruelty of incarceration to the cages of masculinity. Bird Uncaged is a freedom dream, and important reading for anyone thinking deeply about our carceral systems.”
     —Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist
  • “Marlon Peterson’s memoir tells the intimate story of how the twin forces of patriarchy and white supremacy have combined to build a life of cages for generations of Black men in America. Marlon’s work—a narrative of men who have suffered under, been complicit in, and then attempted to upend their involvement in patriarchal systems—is just the kind of book we need to build toward a liberated future for all Black people in America.”
     —Kimberlé Crenshaw, author of On Intersectionality
  • “Peterson has done what is rarely done in American literature: created a classic memoir that shows contemporary readers how to rewrite our lives and future readers how to reread the possibilities of abolition. This is a stunning memoir that pulls off everything it attempts and somehow it made me want to ask more of myself as a writer, human, and abolitionist.”
     —Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
  • "Real heroes aren't branded. Many are celebrated far too late. But on rare and triumphant occasions, the people who commit to doing the monumental world-changing work of transformative justice end up being celebrated while they are among us, in community. Marlon Peterson is one of those people. His words are necessary balm. And we need them now more than ever. What a gift he has given us in his debut book. Lives will be forever changed because of his memoir and work."—Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire
  • "Marlon Peterson's gift is one of immense heart. He carries with him a deep love for humanity, an unwavering faith that we can overcome our challenges, and the righteous spirit of a man committed to being an example of how it's all done. He has been tested throughout his life -- he has had his freedom taken away from him in the most real sense. That has provided Marlon with the kind of perspective often missing from conversations of justice and violence and transformation and healing. Marlon is a healer. His work provides a space for all of us to convene under his wisdom to consider new ways of being in community with one another that honors that we are flawed but respects us enough to believe we are not limited by those flaws. He is nothing short of an inspiration."—Mychal Denzel Smith, author of Stakes Is High
  • Bird Uncaged is heart-wrenching without being sentimental. It’s beautiful without ever being flowery. It’s one voice without ever being just one thing. It’s all honest without ever pretending to be complete. I hope you love it. It deserves to be a thing you love.”
     —Danielle Sered, Author of Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair
  • Bird Uncaged is a story of trauma and survival; a lesson in what it means to confront all of the ugliness of the past and dare journey to forgiveness and something more. Peterson is resolute in these lines, because he has seen enough to know that the healing and the hope is in the journey. The journey found in these pages isn’t just a coming of age story, but rather is a crucially important confronting the ways a man has hurt and been hurt, and come to believe honesty might be a pathway away from shame and more suffering.”
     —Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Felon
  • Bird Uncaged is an exquisitely excruciating exercise in emotional excavation that is at once a profoundly personal story as well as a sweeping indictment of this country’s systems and norms and practices. Bravo, Marlon. I am grateful for your intrepidity, voice, and humanity.”
     —Sophia Chang, author of The Baddest Bitch In The Room
  • “In Bird Uncaged, Marlon Peterson offers compelling insights from his remarkable life story. It is a tale for our times: how a young man of promise ends up finding meaning and direction despite numerous challenges and obstacles, not least of which is a lengthy stint in prison. Bracingly powerful and painfully honest, Bird Uncaged is a call for change that should be read by anyone with an interest in justice in the United States.”
     —Greg Berman, executive director of the Center for Court Innovation
  • “Marlon Peterson’s Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist’s Freedom Song is a viscerally honest, bracingly insightful, exquisitely lyrical memoir that is impossible to put down and even more impossible to ever forget having read. It is raw testimony. It bears witness to modern-day slavery. And it is a full-on education: about what America is and what it foolishly imagines itself to be. The book should be required reading in schools from one end of the USA to another.”
     —Dr. Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations
  • “Challenging the typical ‘redemption’ narrative and assumptions about justice, Peterson draws from his time in jail and explores the vulnerability that comes with exposing one’s trauma.”—The Root
  • “Over 50 years ago, Maya Angelou told us why the caged bird sings. Now in the 21st century, Marlon Peterson, a formerly incarcerated advocate, continues the legacy as he calls for us to break all cages that confine us: from prisons to toxic masculinity to poverty and beyond. In this timely memoir, he shares how one traumatic moment changed his life forever and made him rethink everything we’ve been taught about justice and redemption.”—Elle
  • “A worthwhile contribution to evolving conversations on race and criminal justice.”—Kirkus
  • “Peterson embraces the hard work of getting clear on the societal racism that disallows Black and brown humanity; on one’s own agency and choices; and on the abusive prison system that isn’t working. Peterson’s writing is straightforward, both about his experience and himself, and confirms that not acknowledging the humanity of those involved in violent crime and allowing incarceration to remain as is results in amplified destruction.”—Booklist

On Sale
Apr 13, 2021
Page Count
224 pages
Bold Type Books

Marlon Peterson

About the Author

Marlon Peterson is the principal of The Precedential Group, a social justice consulting firm. He is host of the Decarcerated Podcast, a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity, a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, and a 2015 recipient of the Soros Justice Fellowship. Ebony Magazine has named him one of America’s 100 most influential and inspiring leaders in the Black community. His TED Talk, “Am I not human? a call for criminal justice reform,” has over 1.2 million views. He contributed to Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin’s How We Fight White Supremacy. His writing has appeared in Ebony, The Nation, USA Today, Colorlines, and more. A graduate of New York University, he lives in Brooklyn and plays the steelpan during the summer.

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