[This was written in haste and I have a ton to do today. I felt that I had to write this post as an ally to black girls and young women who are consistently maligned, insulted, assaulted, pathologized and oppressed. Many of the young women who I have and currently work with and love are "teen mothers." I want them to know that I have their back. I am sure that I will return to this topic again soon. For now, here's what I have to say.]
When I was in college, I read an account by a free black man named Solomon Northup who had been kidnapped and held as a slave for 12 years. In 12 Years A Slave, he described the closing scene of a New Orleans auction in 1841:
“…The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall [a Negro child] must go alone. Then Eliza [his mother] ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her — all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain.
“Freeman [the dealer] damned her, calling her a blabbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place and behave herself, and be somebody. He would soon give her something to cry about, if she was not mighty careful, and that she might depend upon.
“The planter from Baton Rouge, with his new purchase, was ready to depart.
“‘Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,’ said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door.
“What has become of the lad, God knows. It was a mournful scene, indeed. I would have cried if I had dared.”
This was going to be a post about the roots of racism and their implications for organizing to end mass incarceration. Then I “watched” the Oscars on Twitter and saw a tweet by the Onion about 9 year old black actress, Quvenzhané Wallis:
My head exploded. I took to Twitter to rant about how disgusting I felt the Onion was to say such a vile thing about a child. I tried to stop there but then went on a tirade about the historical context for this sexual objectification of a black girl. I suggested that originating in slavery, the idea that black women are loose, promiscuous, and generally easygoing about sexual matters still circulates throughout the dominant American culture and has an impact on intra-racial and inter-racial gender and sexual politics.
Look, I am not dumb and I enjoy a good joke as much as anyone else. I understand that this was an attempt by the Onion to make fun of the way that actresses are talked about in the media. But I was deeply offended that they chose to pick on a 9-year old black girl in this way. I tried to take a couple of hours away from social media but still found it difficult to calm down. I am an insomniac but I was even more agitated than usual so I decided to write in greater depth about the sources of my anger and disappointment. My thoughts are inchoate and regular readers are used to this so here goes…
This is a quote from Fannie Lou Hamer and I think that it speaks volumes. I am moved to write this morning because I have been feeling very triggered by the “discussion” about rape over the past couple of days. Once again, social media is abuzz with asinine comments made by another Republican Congressman about rape and pregnancy.
So I want to write about oppression and resistance today. More specifically, I’d like to focus on black women and girls’ resistance to sexual violence.
I have mentioned historian Danielle McGuire’s work on this blog a few times. She wrote an excellent book titled “At The Dark End Of The Street.” I hope that everyone who is interested in women’s history, black history, American history, the history of social movements, and criminal legal issues will read it.
McGuire (2010) writes that black women who were sexually assaulted often spoke out about their experiences and took action on their own behalf:
“Black women did not keep their stories secret. African-American women reclaimed their bodies and their humanity by testifying about their assaults. They launched the first public attacks on sexual violence as “systemic abuse of women” in response to slavery and the wave of lynchings in the post-Emancipation South.”
This weekend, I led a bus tour of various Chicago landmarks central to the history of black confinement and captivity. The group included youth and adults and I think that everyone learned something new. I will run the tour one more time on Saturday.
As I planned the tour along with the Black/Inside exhibition, I was reminded again about the overlooked chapters of black history. As I was doing my research, I learned of an episode that took place in 1850 in Chicago after Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 and its provisional bill, the Fugitive Slave Act (FSA).
The Fugitive Slave Act denied runaway slaves the right to a trial by jury, authorized federal marshals to call upon bystanders to help them capture suspected fugitives, and imposed stiff fines and imprisonment on any citizen who aided escaped slaves or prevented their capture. Antislavery forces (mainly the Abolitionists) in the North declared the law to be unconstitutional. The law was intended to curtail the Underground Railroad. It had the opposite effect instead galvanizing resistance across the country. For example, abolitionists across the North printed posters warning black people that they were in danger.
In Chicago, the response to the law was swift and dramatic. On September 30, 1850, more than three hundred black Chicagoans gathered at Quinn Chapel, the first black church in Chicago, located on the east side of Wells Street near Washington Street, to protest the Fugitive Slave Act. At the time, the city’s population was about 23,000 people (with only 378 blacks).
John Jones, a free black abolitionist and a leading figure of Chicago’s black community, rose to address the crowd. He read a series of resolutions conceived by himself and fellow black abolitionists, Henry O. Wagoner and William Johnson. Jones spoke out at the gathering:
We who have tasted freedom are ready to exclaim with Patrick Henry, “Give us liberty or give us death”… [and] in the language of George Washington. “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” We will stand by our liberty at the expense of our lives and will not consent to be taken into slavery or permit our brethren to be taken.
To protect its members from “being borne back to bondage,” the group created a vigilance committee consisting of a black police force of seven divisions; each division had six persons who were to patrol the city each night to watch for slave catchers. The group also formed a correspondence committee, modeled on that of the American Revolution, called the Liberty Association, “for the general dissemination of the principals of Human Freedom.”
The committee’s resolutions reveal how Chicago’s black abolitionists viewed themselves and their fellow African-Americans: as a free people, heirs to the rights won by the American Revolution, ready to sacrifice their lives, if necessary, to maintain that freedom. This view of African Americans as rightful citizens of the Republic was central to the abolitionist movement of the mid-nineteenth century and key to understanding the actions of those in Chicago and elsewhere who worked to end slavery.
On October 21, the Chicago Common Council (now called the City Council) formally denounced the Fugitive Slave Act as unconstitutional and nonbinding. By a vote of nine to two, the council resolved that the “Senators and Representatives in Congress from the free States who aided and assisted in the passage of this infamous law…are only to be ranked with the traitors Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot.” It also resolved that it would not require the police to assist in the arrest of fugitive slaves. John Jones and the other black people who had resisted the Fugitive Slave Act in Chicago had won something significant.
It’s crunch time. Only 5 days until we open the Black/Inside: A History of Captivity & Confinement exhibition. While the exhibition focuses primarily on the concepts of captivity and confinement of Black people in the U.S., it also interrogates the meaning of “freedom.”
This brings me to an important artifact that I acquired and hope to exhibit as part of Black/Inside. It’s still iffy that we will be able to include it but I hope so.
The Constitution of the U.S. included a fugitive slave clause which insured that owners could recover runaway slaves across state lines. Any black person in the Colonies was vulnerable to being captured and sold into slavery. In order to protect themselves, free blacks had to prove that they were in fact “free.” Only a letter or document from their former slave masters or a white employer counted as “proof.” Yet even having such a document in hand was no guarantee that one couldn’t be re-enslaved. These “certificates of freedom” or “freedom papers” were treasured documents for some blacks. These documents were the tangible proof that they were no longer “captives” (to some degree).
Below is an example of a “certificate of freedom” dated 1796 that emancipates slaves named Caesar (age 20), his wife Sarah (age 25), and their children (Ann and Adam). I recently bid successfully on this item at auction and it is one of my prized possessions. I like to think of it as the original “papers please” example in American history.
1796 Virginia Emancipation (Freedom) Papers for Slaves Caesar, Sarah, and their children (Ann & Adam)
Stop by the exhibition during its month-long run (October 23-November 21) to see if this certificate of freedom will in fact be on display…
As I have often mentioned, long-term confinement for black people who transgressed the law was rare until after the Civil War. The most widely used form of punishment for slaves in the South was whipping. Christopher R. Adamson (1983) points out that:
“The very idea of imprisonment as a punishment for crimes committed by slaves was a contradiction. The African slave was already a prisoner. Whereas the white felon was punished for violating norms of freedom, slaves were punished for rejecting the rules of bondage. Any idea of rehabilitative confinement for slaves threatened the philosophical basis of the peculiar institution (p.557).”
There were however occasions when a slave might need to be detained while awaiting the administration of “justice” usually some form of corporal punishment (as has already been discussed). Below is a photograph of the Oakridge Jail which was originally located on a Louisiana plantation:
The Oak Ridge jail is believed to be the only surviving pre Civil War wooden jail in Louisiana. The parish sheriff used to lock up any criminals, whether free or slave. It is of plank construction with no corner posts or framing materials. The walls, floors and ceiling are fabricated of three sets of heart of pine boards, laminated together with thousands of nails. This construction technique created a four inch wall that could not be penetrated with an axe or hatchet. Chains and shackles were located on the walls of the two small cells.
As regular readers of this blog know, I collect prison artifacts. I mostly focus on pre-1960s items (with a particular interest in the early 20th century). A couple of weeks ago, I decided to add to my collection of original vintage mug shots; I have dozens ranging from the early 20th century through the 1970s. I won’t go into why I started collecting these photographs — that will be a story for another day.
So I came across this Bertillon criminal card for sale online. These mug shot cards were known as Bertillon cards after the French law enforcement officer, Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered criminal identification techniques such as anthropometry (measurement).
I knew instantly that I had to have this one. The card provides some basic details (though I won’t list them all).
Criminal Name: Laura Scott
Reg No: 23187
Height: 67.8 inches
Crime: Pt. Larceny & Prior
Sentence: 5 years
Measurements taken: August 8, 1905
Laura Scott’s face is mesmerizing. There is a look of defiance in her eyes. This is the look of a woman who has been through this before. And then that incredible hat…
Aren’t you curious to know Laura Scott’s story? Well I certainly was and since I am a complete nerd, I set out to learn everything that I could about this black woman who was incarcerated at the infamous San Quentin Prison in 1905.
How did Laura Scott end up on that Bertillon card? Well, an item that appeared in the August 5, 1905 edition of the Los Angeles Herald offers some initial clues:
“Laura Scott, negress, pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of grand larceny and was sentenced to one year in San Quentin prison. The woman was accused of stealing (85?) and a gold watch and chain from Carson. ”
Over the next few weeks, I will share a story of Laura Scott with you. It’s a story that has led me to the California Archives and to Census Records from the 1800s. It’s a story cobbled together from disparate sources and is based on my original research. Laura Scott’s story has its roots in Reconstruction era Alabama, in the Black Belt and takes us all the way to California at the turn of the 20th century. Through Ms. Scott’s story, I hope to provide a portrait of what life was like for female prisoners in the late 1800s-early 1900s in the U.S. I hope that you’ll continue with me on this journey.
P.S. Reading about the history of San Quentin Prison makes me appreciate this song by Johnny Cash even more…
State and local governments across the U.S. are going broke. In 2011, budget deficits in state houses across the country will necessitate increased revenue and/or spending cuts. As Republicans have made significant gains in governorships and state houses, conventional wisdom expects that they will focus on “spending” cuts rather than on raising taxes. New governors like Chris Christie in New Jersey, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Scott in Florida are all promising to cut their public employees and cut various public services.
Therefore it is not surprising to me to read the following article about a proposal to increase the use prisoners to respond to natural disasters.
The Missouri National Guard plans to start training some of the state’s prison inmates to help it during natural disasters and other emergencies.
Missouri Guard Maj. Tammy Spicer said that under the proposal, the inmates would become a more formalized part of the Guard’s disaster response. She said it would give the Guard a larger and better trained pool of workers to respond to emergencies.
The training would focus on skills such as filling and stacking sandbags and removing debris.
“We’re trying to do something better for Missourians,” Spicer said.
Inmates have been used in the past to help local officials during floods and other emergencies. Over the past several years, they have worked to shore up levies and fill sandbags along flooding rivers from near St. Louis to northwestern Missouri.
Then there is also news that female prisoners in New York States will be running a DMV call center:
Female prisoners at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County are staffing a Department of Motor Vehicles call center. The facility employs 39 inmates, including 31 full-time and part-time customer service agents, six team leaders and two trainers.
The program has been going on for years at the Bayview Women’s Prison in Manhattan, but that has been converted to a re-entry facility for short-timers being released into the community and Bedford Hills has a larger inmate population with longer sentences.
The men’s Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island also operates a DMV call center. Between the two, one million calls are expected yearly with a savings to taxpayers of $3.5 million annually.
In addition to saving money, it will provide job skills for participating inmates, said prisons spokesman Erik Kriss.
“They do earn a small stipend for doing this work and that helps them to afford items in the commissary and so forth and it gives them motivation,” he said. “Everyone needs motivation, whether you are outside prison or inside prison.”
The inmates who participate do not have access to DMV computers and are not able to access any customer data. Inmates convicted of a telephone related crime or credit card or computer fraud are not eligible to work at the center. Calls are monitored at random.
I expect that many other states will be starting similar programs if they haven’t already done so in the next few years. I expect that this is only the beginning of using prisoners to meet the needs of the public sector during our upcoming era of austerity.
Chain Gang of Prisoners in North Carolina (1910) Engaged in Roadwork
Description of the photograph: The prisoners are quartered in the wagons, which are equipped with bunks and move from place to place as labor is utilized. The central figure is J.Z. McLawhon, county superintendent of chain gangs. The dogs are bloodhounds used for running down any attempted escapes
If you are a reader of this blog, you will notice that I regularly focus on the historical underpinnings of the PIC along with its current manifestations. My reason for this is that it is impossible to understand what is currently taking place in terms of mass/hyper-incarceration without looking back at our history. It is not an accident that people of color (particularly black people) are disproportionately impacted and targeted by the criminal legal system. In addition, without a historical context, one cannot currently understand people of color’s (particularly black people’s) mistrust and fear of the American criminal legal apparatus.
Last week I shared a few songs about jail/prison based on a request that I received from a reader of this blog. One of the songs that I mentioned was Sam Cooke’s classic “Chain Gang.” This prompted someone to send me an e-mail asking if chain gangs were still in operation in the U.S. The short answer to that question is YES.
In terms of prison iconography, the chain gang is one of the most recognizable and enduring images. I doubt that many people are aware that even in the 21st century chain gangs continue to exist in states across the U.S. A few years ago the insane Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona started a chain gang for men convicted of DUIs and his “innovation” was to make the men wear pink clothing while toiling.
Here is a clip from a recent film called American Chain Gang that illustrates its current incarnation in the U.S.
Chain gangs are an extension of the convict lease system. Robert Perkinson (2010) suggests that the creation of the chain gang in the early 20th century “was celebrated as a humanitarian advance” (p.151). In his terrific book “Texas Tough,” he quotes Joseph Hyde Pratt, a convict labor advocate in North Carolina, who provides a rationale for the chain gang: “Life in the convict road camp…is more conducive to maintaining and building up the general health and manhood of the convict than when he is confined behind prison walls” (p. 151). Proponents suggested that this was particularly so for black prisoners. According to the assistant director of the U.S. Office of Public Roads: “The negro is accustomed to outdoor occupations…[and is] experienced in manual labor…[he] does not possess the same aversion to working in public…as is characteristic of the white race” (in Texas Tough, p. 151). It is important to understand that both the convict lease system and chain gangs were forms of neo-slavery. They were created as a way to maintain black cheap (free) labor after slavery officially ended.
Perkinson (2010) explains why chain gangs gained favor especially in the South:
“[P]oliticians rallied to the chain gang because it provided public works on the cheap. Between 1904, when state felons first began working on its roads, and 1915, convicts were primarily responsible for expanding Georgia’s surfaced road grid from two thousand to thirteen thousand miles, making its state highway system the most advanced in the South…Just as leasing had jump-started postbellum railroad construction, sugar milling, and coal mining, chain gangs helped lay the infrastructure for twentieth-century rural development. The American South was built not only by slaves but by convicts (p.152).”
David Oshinsky (2006) describes some of the black people in Mississippi who found themselves on the chain gang:
The chain gang took people like Walter Blake, a ‘crap-shooting little colored boy’ who received a $50 fine for illegal gambling and a $132 bill for court costs, a sum he could not possibly raise. Blake spent a full year working off his debt. A ‘negro thief’ named Julius Hoy found himself reduced to virtual peonage during his stay on the Covington County chain gang. “He is being charged 60 cents per day for board,” a local attorney noted, “and at present the fine and accumulated board amounts to approximately $89.20, and it will never be possible for him to serve out his time” (p.42).
I am currently re-reading the wonderful “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” by Angela Davis. In the book, Davis suggests that imprisonment was one of the central themes in blues music. Davis explains that Ma Rainey’s “Chain Gang Blues’ “most incisively and realistically addressed this omnipresent fact of life in the black community (p.102).”
The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
The judge found me guilty, the clerk he wrote it down
Just a poor gal in trouble. I know I’m country road bound
Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe
Many days of sorrow, many nights of woe
And a ball and chain, everywhere I go
Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand
Chains on my feet, padlock on my hand
It’s all on account of stealing a woman’s man
It was early this mornin’ that I had my trial
It was early this mornin’ that I had my trial
Ninety days on the country road and the judge didn’t even smile.
According to Davis (1998), “Sandra Lieb points out that the lead sheet for this song contains a penultimate verse which was omitted in the recording.”
Ain’t robbed no train, ain’t done no hanging crime
Ain’t robbed no train, ain’t done no hanging crime
But the judge said I’d be on the country road a long, long time.
Davis (1998) writes: “Black people throughout the South who listened to Rainey perform ‘Chain Gang Blues,’ and who were all too familiar with the chain gang and convict lease systems, likely would have interpreted this song as a deeply felt protest aimed at the racism and sexism of the criminal justice system.”
I share this information about Ma Rainey’s music because it is important to point out that as black people we have always RESISTED our oppression. This is particularly important to remember at this juncture in our history when what we need is a mass movement to resist the hyper-incarceration of black people. We need to remember our history in order to change our current conditions.
One of the most important parts of Blues music is improvisation. Singers and performers take songs and then interpret them for themselves. They often change lyrics and therefore the meaning of the songs. Here is Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 interpretation of Chain Gang Blues. Listen closely to see how he reinterprets the original lyrics as performed by Ma Rainey.
Let’s take some inspiration from our past to affect change in the present…
Gurgaon, May 19 (IANS) Supreme Court's Justice P. Sathasivam, who is also the executive chairman of the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), Sunday said that cases related to women are being given priority by courts after the Delhi gang-rape. […]
By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian NEW YORK (Reuters) - Up to 20 percent of children in the United States suffer from a mental disorder, and the number of kids diagnosed with one has been rising for more than a decade, according to a report released on Thursday by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In the agency's first-ever study of mental di […]
India, May 17 -- "Judge saheb, meri beti ko insaaf dilaiye (please ensure justice for my daughter)," the mother of the December 16 gang-rape victim, with her hands folded, requested the special court hearing the horrific rape case on Friday.Deposing before the court of additional sessions judge Yogesh Khanna, the woman made fervent pleas for justic […]
WASHINGTON, May 14, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Justice Department will recognize nine citizens and law enforcement officers from four states for heroic and exemplary efforts to protect children, during the annual National Missing Children's Day commemoration in Washington, D.C., 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 15. The award recipients are from Illinois, […]
India, May 9 -- A juvenile involved in a string of murders in Uttarakhand has joined the ranks of close to 24 persons to be apprehended for their alleged involvement in the sensational slaying of liquor baron-cum-real estate honcho Gurdeep alias 'Ponty' Chadha and his brother Hardeep last November.The accused juvenile hails from Rudrapur in Uttarak […]
Combatting violence against women in Iraq spawns higher education partnership between Vanguard University and University of Duhok. Visit to California includes training with 12th District Court Judge David O. Carter, OC Juvenile Justice Douglas Hatchimonji, OC Juvenile Services, OC Child Abuse Special Teams (CAST) and Westminster Police DepartmentCosta Mesa, […]
New Delhi, April 20 (IANS) Amid a public outcry over a brutal sexual assault on a five-year girl here, a report by rights group Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) shows there has been an increase of 336 percent in cases of child rapes from 2001-11. […]
HOUSTON, April 19, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Juvenile rights, education and national juvenile defense standards will be the focus of the 12th Annual Zealous Advocacy Conference to be held May 16-17 at the University of Houston Law Center. Co-sponsored by the Center for Children, Law & Policy and the Southwest Juvenile Defender Center, the two-day s […]