The Howard University professor moved around the circle of D.C. jail inmates and undergraduate students, asking each of the 20 why he or she had enrolled in her once-a-week, three-hour course examining crime and justice.
Minkailu Davies, a 23-year-old inmate, said he wanted to change society’s perception of black men. Rolanda Taylor, a senior at Howard, has studied the juvenile justice system and now wants to learn about the adult system.
Then the professor arrived at 36-year-old Nick Cannon — Howard University’s newest celebrity undergrad, who was slouching forward in his seat doodling on his black-and-white composition notebook.
“I want to hear your stories and journeys,” said Cannon, who is majoring in legal communications. “So when I am speaking on these big platforms, I am speaking for all of us, and not just my own opinion.”
Cannon, a singer and actor best known these days as the host of “America’s Got Talent,” enrolled this semester at Howard University. He’s shuttling by plane from his celebrity and family commitments in Los Angeles and New York to Washington, where he’s taking a full course load — including “Inside Out: Crime and Justice Behind the Wall,” which meets every Thursday at the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility. The course’s 14 inmates learn alongside six Howard students.
The inmates, all men, are in jail on charges that include drug possession, burglary and arson. They are part of the city’s reentry program and have release dates scheduled in the next 180 days. Each inmate applied to the class, was interviewed by the professor and was selected because he could articulate why he wanted to take the class and continue his education.
During last week’s class, professor Bahiyyah Muhammad asked each student to think about their formal and informal education backgrounds. What values and skills did they learn as children and adults that contributed to the people they are? Why did the inmates decide to put their “formal education on the back burner,” while the Howard students opted to pursue their degrees.
“It’s the lack of education — that’s why it’s put on the back burner,” said inmate Timothy Kelly, explaining that he never had any educated role models to teach him the importance of schooling.
Cannon, wearing jeans, a black hoodie sweater and unlaced boots, nodded in agreement as Kelly spoke. He then raised his hand and jumped into the conversation, drawing parallels between his childhood in the San Diego projects and those of many of the inmates.
His family, Cannon said, was far more concerned about how they were going to eat each day than whether he would attend college.
“I have best friends serving life in fed. People I grew up in the same house with serving 15 years,” Cannon said. “I could have easily been in a different situation. And as all of you know, it’s one mistake that separates me from you, or one mistake that you get caught for.”
In recent months, the actor has made headlines for his work as an activist; he participated in a Black Lives Matter protest outside the Republican National Convention and has criticizing both political parties for failing to listen to black communities. In March, he released a spoken-word video called “Too Broke to Vote,” lambasting the political failures that have isolated black communities from the political process. And just last week, a few days before he was sitting in class at the jail, he was at the White House for “South by South Lawn,” a festival for arts, ideas and technologies.
All of this, he said, is why he needs to earn his degree. When he stands at rallies advocating for youth empowerment and education — and when he talks to his twin 6-year-old children about their futures — he wants to be able to hold a degree of his own.
“Instead of doing all these keynotes on it, I’m doing it. I’m walking the walk,” he said. “That's something no one can take away from you — your knowledge and wisdom.”
And he opted to enroll at the Mecca — with a capital M, as Howard became known during the 1960s. The historically black university is considered by many as the center of black intellectualism, and Cannon said he wanted an education that spoke to his experience as a black man.
“I wanted it to be a unique perspective where it speaks to my own history,” he said. “I thought not only would I get a typical education, but at an HBCU I would also get an education of self.”
The class held at the jail is aimed at helping inmates transition to life outside and discussing the challenges they will face.
Muhammad asked Cannon to explain how he juggles his long list of commitments.
“Ultimately, it’s time management,” Cannon said, acknowledging that he has hired people to help him. “I do the difficult stuff first, and everything else flows like dominoes. It’s that momentum — you get the bigger stuff done first.”
“I like that,” Darryl Williams, an inmate, chimed in. “I never thought of it that way. I always did the easy stuff first.”
Muhammad said that Cannon, who is taking another class this semester on community policing with her, has attended office hours outside of class and has asked for reading recommendations. He was particularly interested in the laws surrounding the crack and cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s that led to the mass incarceration of African Americans.
Cannon said he ultimately wants to earn a PhD. Muhammad refers to him as “Doctor” in class, as she does for all of her students as a way to motivate. And in many ways, he has been just like any other student.
“When Nick came for the first week, I was blown away,” Muhammad said. “He was kind of nervous. It was great. He really mirrored my other new or transfer students.”
Inside the drab makeshift classroom at the D.C. jail Thursday, there were a few oblique references to Cannon’s fame. And sure, every inmate wants to shake his hand before class starts and after it ends.
But during that three-hour class, Cannon raised his hand and spoke no more or less than his classmates. He nodded along as classmates talked and said “Word up” when he agreed. He didn’t check his phone once. He occasionally fidgeted in his chair and twiddled his fingers.
At the end of the class, he, like each of his classmates, was assigned six readings and a three-page reflection paper due the following week.