About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My earliest memories come from living in Thomasville, Georgia, a dot of a small town in the country, not far from Tallahassee. Thomasville is located in the heart of what you might call the “deep South.” A slice of heaven, it was as far away in every respect from the prison in Connecticut that I would eventually call my home for over 18 years. I was living with my Grandparents, because my Mom was looking for a job back home. Ma also wanted to keep us away from my stepfather for a while, because he was abusive at times. I don’t remember much about Georgia–I was very young–but I do very clearly remember how I felt: I felt loved; I felt safe; and I felt comfortable. My Grandparent’s house was more than a place to live, it was a home. They had a screened in back porch and a yard. We’d eat grits out on the back porch, and steak, and chicken, and biscuits…and so much more! Man, it was awesome. Food so good you could smell it a block away. My Grandmother would make us do chores, and my Grandfather worked very hard cutting wood and selling it. My Grandparents were good people, and to this day I still think of them a lot. We weren’t there long–my Mom eventually sent for us, and when we left Thomasville, it kind of felt like I was being sent to the moon, because our new home in Connecticut couldn’t have been more different.Connecticut is known for its wealth, privilege and charm, with its picturesque early-American villages, luxurious estates and beautiful seaside communities. At the center of it all stands Hartford, one of America’s first cities, with the Capitol’s radiant gold dome anchoring the skyline. I came of age in Hartford in the 1970s, literally and figuratively in the shadows of the capitol, when it was anything but the vibrant and welcoming city it is today. A time many remember for big hair, tight pants, crazy outfits and disco, I remember living in an empty, desolate city, trash littering the streets, the water polluted so badly it was hard to drink and the sound of desperation that seemed to follow you around every corner. Hartford’s economy was in ruins. Poverty and crime rates were on their way to historic highs as people fled to the suburbs, taking the life out of the city, along with most of its jobs. The city was in many ways a lifeless gray concrete façade that hid the lives of people most didn’t think about. I was one of those people. This was the Connecticut that I called home. Somewhere in this crumbling city, the values that would later define my life began to take shape: to live a life of conviction: to believe in myself, especially when no one else did; to live in service to God, or something greater than me, even when situations were so dire it seemed that God wasn’t present; and to never, ever, give up. The power of conviction would eventually set me free, but first I would have to learn a horrible lesson about the power to convict.Growing up, we didn’t have very much. We were poor, living in the land of plenty. In fact, I felt like I was living on an island, which I know sounds strange given that I was literally living elbow-to-elbow among suffocating masses of people, squeezed into one dilapidated housing project after another. It was rarely quiet, and there were times when I felt like I was drowning in the noise from the cranking of city life around me, made all the more impenetrable by the hum of traffic on I-91–a major highway that stretches from Connecticut’s coast to Canada, that was practically pushed into the projects where I lived by the Connecticut River that flows steadily alongside it.My older brother, Willie, and my younger brother Dennis and I were raised by my mother–a single woman earning minimum wage and working hard to make ends meet. My Mom carried with her the stress of a hard life, along with an unshakable faith in God. Life was not easy for my mother, and I somehow knew that. My mother just didn’t have the time to do it all, which meant that I was on my own a lot. At the time I never took it as a negative–like feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have my parents around. It was just the way things were, so I learned how to take care of myself, especially on the streets, which would serve me very well later in life. Even as a little kid, I started to develop my own code–the James Tillman Rules for Survival. While I am outgoing and one who likes to connect, I also like to quietly observe, and I learned a lot by watching people. I quickly noticed that those who were well respected carried themselves a certain way–I could see it in the way they held their head high, how they looked at people, how people looked at them, in the tone of their voice and in the power of their words–their words meant something–they didn’t just blab on about nothing. So I began to pay attention to how I carried myself.