From Plantation to Penitentiary to the
Literature of the American Prison
(Paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Convention, December, 2000.)
The prison looms today as a central feature of American society. Since 1976, we have been building on average one prison every week. More than two million Americans are now crammed into the nation's still overcrowded jails and prisons. In fact, there are now about as many prisoners in America as there are farmers. Over half of those incarcerated are people of color. More than four million Americans, again mainly people of color, have been permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions, many under laws enacted explicitly to prevent African-Americans from voting. (1) Studies have shown that this disenfranchisement has had a significant impact on the outcome of presidential and senate elections prior to 2000. (2) We need no detailed studies to show the direct impact of this disenfranchisement on the most recent national election. Prior to November 2000, one third of the African-American men in Florida were convicted as felons and then stripped of their right to vote, while thousands more were purged from the voting rolls as alleged felons by fiat of a corporation hired by Governor Jeb Bush. If only a small percentage of Florida's 204,000 disenfranchised male African-American citizens (not to mention the other 200,000 disenfranchised ex-felons in Florida) had been allowed to vote in 2000, even the U.S. Supreme Court could not have installed George W. Bush as President of the United States.
As the prison has become ever more central to American society, oral and written literature created by American prisoners and ex-prisoners has become ever more vital to understanding its wider significance. One central theme unifies the entire body of American prison literature, a theme that emerged from African-American experience: Who are the real criminals? As Frederick Douglass wrote in 1845 about the law-abiding citizens of America: "I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery." A hundred and twenty five years later, George Drumgold, writing from Comstock Prison, expressed a similar idea in this couplet:
They say we're the criminals, a
threat to society
But in truth they stole us, so how can that be?
But there's a difference. Unlike Drumgold, Douglass did not have to be convicted of a crime to be enslaved.
Prior to the Civil War, African-American slavery was not legitimized or rationalized by any claim that the slaves were being punished for crimes. That was to come next. The necessary legal transformation was effected in 1865 by the very Amendment to the Constitution--Article 13--that abolished the old form of slavery:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States . . . .
Article 13 actually wrote slavery into the Constitution of the United States, but only for those people legally defined as criminals. So America now had to transform the freed slaves into criminals--by law and through culture.
Why? Because massive slave labor was needed for the plantations, coal mines, lumber camps, railroad and road construction, and prison factories, where during the Civil War white slaves produced equipment for the Union army.
The former slave states immediately devised legislation--the Black Codes--branding almost every former slave as a criminal. These laws specified that many vaguely defined acts--such as "mischief" and "insulting gestures"--were crimes, but only if committed by a "free negro." Mississippi's Vagrancy Act defined "all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen" as criminals unless they could furnish written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. (3) "Having no visible means of support" was a crime being committed by almost all the freed slaves. So was "loitering" (staying in the same place) and "vagrancy" (wandering).
Many of the new convicts were leased. The convict lease system had a big advantage for the enslavers: since they did not own the convicts, they lost nothing by working them to death. For example, the death rate among leased Alabama black convicts during just one year (1869) was 41 percent. (4) Much of the railroad system throughout the South was built by leased convicts, often packed in rolling iron cages moved from job to job, working in such hellish conditions that their life expectancy rarely exceeded two years. (5)
Besides leasing convicts, states expanded their own prison slavery. The infrastructure of many southern states was built and maintained by convicts. For example, aged African-American women convicts dug the campus of Georgia State College, and prisoners as young as twelve worked in chain gangs to maintain the streets of Atlanta. (6) Some states went into big business, selling products of convict labor. Hence the vast state prison plantations established in Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, where cotton picked by prisoners was manufactured into cloth by other prisoners in prison cotton mills. These plantations dwarfed the largest cotton plantations of the slave South in size, brutality--and profitability.
The old plantation slave songs now metamorphosed into the convict work songs of the prison plantations, the forest-clearing and tunneling crews, the road and track-laying gangs. The encoded hopes for liberation and mass escape characteristic of the slave songs were now replaced by the grim desperation of such widely sung convict songs as "Go Down Old Hannah," with its visions of "a dead man, on every turn row," or hammer songs that turned the beat of the work instrument into the beat of despair or hope for individual escape. Another hope lay in some heroic existential triumph over the machine and the bosses, as in "John Henry." But the most audacious figure was the Black Bad Man, the criminal as hero. Singing songs such as "Po' Laz'rus" thus itself became a form of rebellion against the white man's law and order, suggesting a direct line from these songs to Gangsta Rap.
Scores of African-American convict artists then transmuted those collective prison songs into individual works that shaped the blues tradition forming the fountainhead of jazz, soul, rock, and rap--that is, the core of modern American music--which has become the dominant music of the world.
The prison experience is explicit in many of the formative blues songs such as "Penal Farm Blues," "Prison Bound," "Back in Jail Again," "My Home Is a Prison," and the many different songs entitled "Prison Blues," "Jailhouse Blues," and "Chain Gang Blues." Many of the finest artists were prisoners and ex-prisoners: Bukka White, Leroy Carr, Charley Patton, Cow Cow Davenport, Robert Pete Williams, Texas Alexander, Son House, Willie Newbern, and of course Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, whose ankles bore the scars of chain gang shackles, and Billie Holiday, who was first jailed at the age of ten for resisting a sexual assault.
From the 1860s until the mid 1960s, Black prison literature remained predominantly oral. Unlike the period before the Civil War when prose narratives by former slaves were widely published, African-American convicts had few publishing avenues prior to the mid 1960s. Even one of the rare exceptions--the great convict novelist Chester Himes--was forced into European exile to gain access to publishers and an audience.
Meanwhile, however, written literature by white convicts had become increasingly influential. Writers such as Jack London, Agnes Smedley, Kate Richards O'Hare, Robert Burns, and Nelson Algren had given America terrifying visions of itself from the bottom of its class pits. These two streams, Black and white, oral and written, merged into an explosive torrent of prison literature in the mid 1960s, signaled by the publication in 1965 of one of the most influential books in American literature, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The tidal wave of great literature--fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry--that poured out of America's prisons from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s did not emerge by chance. Tens of millions of Americans were being drawn into the global struggle against colonialism and imperialism, a struggle that swept into America in the urban rebellions that began in 1964 and culminated in April 1968 with revolts in 125 U.S. cities the week after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. A year earlier, King, himself a former prisoner, had declared that in Vietnam our nation was fighting on "the wrong side of a global revolution" and our government was now "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." The radical voices from prison were now as varied as George Jackson, Etheridge Knight, Iceberg Slim, Piri Thomas, Jack Abbott, and Donald Goines.
In response came a ferocious repression of prison literature: Creative writing courses and other prison educational programs were defunded. Congress abolished Pell Grants for prisoners. "Son of Sam" laws outlawed convicts earning money from their writings. (7) By 1984, every journal devoted to publishing poetry and stories by prisoners was wiped out.
Amid this repression, the literature coming out of America's prisons today is even more crucial, as writers like Jimmy Santiago Baca, Patricia McConnel, Dannie Martin, Kathy Boudin, and Mumia Abu-Jamal reveal what our society is becoming. American prison literature is now a defining feature of American culture.
Once upon a time, before the late 1960s, the literature canonized in our anthologies and the literature taught at all levels of American education, not to mention the literature departments of most colleges and universities, were all as white as the skeleton on the prow of the slave ship in Herman Melville's Benito Cereno. And the literature of the ante-bellum United States was being taught as though it were not the product of a society that revolved around its most distinguishing institution: African-American slavery. In the wake of those urban rebellions, racial integration began to penetrate literature departments, anthologies, and the canon of American literature. No enlightened person today would think of teaching exclusively white American literature or--and this is a more critical point--teaching nineteenth-century American literature without reference to slavery as its matrix. Just as slavery was the central and distinguishing feature of American society before the Civil War, the modern prison system, which was largely an American innovation, has ever since the Civil War been evolving into a central institution of contemporary America. Indeed, today the prison-industrial complex is a feature that distinguishes American society from all other societies in the twenty-first century. So if we teach modern American literature without reference to the American prison and its literature, we are behaving like those who failed to see, hear, or speak about slavery and its literature.
1. On the history of felony disenfranchisement laws, including explicit expressions of the intent to prevent African-Americans from voting, see Andrew L. Shapiro, "Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy," Yale Law Journal, 103 (1993), 537-566.
2. See Jamie Fellner and Marc Mauer, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, 1998) and Jeff Manza, Christopher Uggen, and Marcus Britton, "The Truly Disfranchised: Felon Voting Rights and American Politics," Working Paper, 2001.
3. David M. Oshinsky, "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), 21. This book provides a marvelous history of how the penal system was used to reenslave African-American people.
4. Report of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts for the State of Alabama, cited in John G. Van Deusen, The Black Man in White America (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1938), 124.
5. Oshinsky, 58-59.
6. Paul Oliver, The Meaning of the Blues (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 240; W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Fawcett, 1961), 134.
7. Joseph Bruchac, "The Decline and Fall of Prison Literature," Small Press (January/February 1987), 28-32; Scott Christianson, "Corrections Law Developments: Barring the Convict from the Proceeds of His Story," Criminal Law Bulletin 16 (May-June 1980), 279-287.
Copyright 2002 by H. Bruce Franklin. All rights reserved.
E-mail to H. Bruce Franklin: firstname.lastname@example.org