CHICAGO — The origins of artist Vic Mensa’s Books Before Bars program trace back nearly a decade to a copy of Huey P. Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide.”
Mensa sent the 1973 autobiography to a friend who was incarcerated, sharing the story of how the Black Panther co-founder “mastered his memories and, essentially, transported himself mentally beyond the walls of a prison” during his own imprisonment in the ’60s.
When the friend was released, he said Mensa’s gesture of sending him “Revolutionary Suicide” was the “most impactful thing anybody did for him during his bid,” Mensa said. Mensa has sent books to incarcerated friends, family and loved ones ever since.
The Books Before Bars program, an initiative funded through Mensa’s cannabis line, 93 Boyz, continues his lifelong mission to “bring truth to the people,” he said.
People with incarcerated loved ones can contact 93 Boyz at email@example.com and have a collection of books chosen by Mensa delivered to prison facilities in Illinois.
Books on the list range from “The Autobiography of Gucci Mane” by the Atlanta rapper to “Sister Outsider,” a collection of essays and poems by Audre Lorde. Mensa buys the books in bulk from the Black-woman-owned bookstore Semicolon, he said.
“I’ve seen how the right book at the right time can be a seed which, if watered and natured, can grow an internal freedom even within the walls of a modern-day plantation,” Mensa said. “I started [Books Before Bars] with the cannabis company because I wanted to provide a freedom.”
Mensa co-founded 93 Boyz, the first Chicago-based, Black-owned cannabis brand, with rapper Towkio nearly a year ago to shift the status quo in a billion-dollar industry dominated by white-owned companies, he said.
Before the legalization of recreational weed in 2020, Black Chicagoans were arrested and jailed in droves for decades for selling cannabis. Even as Illinois has legalized recreational cannabis, the overwhelming majority of dispensaries in the state are white majority owned.
Additionally, funding for books in the Illinois prison system has dropped drastically in the last decade, according to data from the Illinois Department of Corrections. In 2019, the department banned hundreds of books — many about race and racism — before changing its policy after public outcry.
Mensa always envisioned 93 Boyz as a way to “address prison reform and equity in the cannabis space,” he said. Books Before Bars is one giant leap in that direction, he said.
“Cannabis has been used to snatch freedom from so many families,” Mensa said. “I felt it was imperative to provide freedom in whatever ways I could. It wouldn’t be responsibly aligned with my values to not have that socially minded angle within the larger framework of the cannabis business.”
Mensa is “one of the few people who is really about what he talks about,” said Danielle Mullen, founder of Semicolon in River West. Supporting his Books Before Bars program was an easy decision, she said.
“When Vic says he intends to support something, he gets it done,” Mullen said. “That’s the kind of work I like to support. He shows up in person. I respect that. He has been in the store packing boxes.”
Mensa had full access to the store’s collection to choose books for the program, Mullen said. And while they had fun “agreements and disagreements” over selected titles, Mensa and Mullen collaborated to use her bookstore-operating skills to add to the collection, she said.
Semicolon is closed until August as it transitions into a nonprofit model, but Mensa was able to buy books in bulk before the store went on hiatus. Mullen said she’d be available to help Mensa get more books whenever he needed.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m always at work because I do exactly what I love,” Mullen said.
As someone with a criminal record from stealing books “because my family couldn’t afford them,” Mensa’s program hits close to home for Mullen, she said.
“Anytime I can be a part of giving books away, especially considering how books are a luxury item, I’m going to do that,” Mullen said. “Books allow people to dream and exit their space no matter where they are.”
Mensa has always been an avid reader, he said. But he grew up “more concerned with literature, history, science and nonfiction,” he said.
When he learned about the “self-help metaphysics type books,” like “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle — one of the many curated books — “it honestly became my favorite genre,” Mensa said.
All of the books — and the authors — on the program’s list speak to Mensa personally and professionally, he said.
Tolle’s ideas helped Mensa “cultivate a powerful mindset,” he said. Malcolm X “politicized me and gave me conscious context to my experience as a Black man in America,” Mensa said.
The program’s long list “can be significant in helping one transform their mindset,” Mensa said.
“As an artist, I believe we’re an amalgamation of our inspirations. When you mix all this together, you create new colors,” Mensa said. “In a way, these books provide some of the colors that I use in my art to create my own unique perspective and pieces. These are some of the colors I paint with.”
Books Before Bars is the first of several initiatives Mensa hopes to launch under his 93 Boyz line, he said.
Each idea sparked under the brand will help fulfill Mensa’s purpose of transforming disinvested communities for the better, he said.
“I hope and believe that the books I send into the prisons will impact and change the way people think, live and treat each other and themselves,” Mensa said. “That’s a lifelong pursuit.”
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