Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
Bc. Michal Golis
Black Power Prison Narratives:
The Influence of Prison on the Black Power Movement
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: Jeffrey Alan Smith, M.A., Ph.D.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor Jeffrey Alan Smith, M.A., Ph.D. for his endless patience and valuable feedback. I would also like to thank my family and friends for their encouragement and moral support.
Table of Contents
1.Modes of Repression 7
1.1.U.S. Prison System 10
1.2.Black Power 13
1.3.Prison as a Constructive Force 15
2.Black Power Prison Narratives 18
2.1.Biographical note on the selected writers 24
3.Revolutionary Prison Identity Formation 26
3.1.Political Prisoners 26
3.2.Eldridge Cleaver 32
3.3.George Jackson 38
3.4.Angela Davis 43
Works cited 52
České resumé 60
A significant part of Black Power literature was written in prison or informed and shaped by the writers’ prison experience which makes the concept and reality of prison and its various modes or manifestations crucial for understanding the Black Power movement and ideologies. Those in turn illuminate and provide insights into the issues of control, punishment, oppression and their relation to race, still so relevant today in an era of mass incarceration and ongoing social problems. This thesis attempts to situate selected prison narratives written by Black power activists within the context of the broader civil rights and racial struggle in this period, discuss the manifold influence of prison and incarceration on the movement and ideologies as reflected in these narratives, and trace how prison as a concrete institution and a symbolic device shaped the writings both topically and contextually, moving along the axes of writing on prison and from prison. Focus is put on how the narratives are used as instruments of the prisoners’ identity construction.
The first part of the thesis discusses the oppressive mechanisms which have historically been used to subjugate and control the African Americans and tries to show how the US prison system has become a potent tool of political and social repression. An instrument of control, prison has, however, also served as a site of masculine affirmation of the prisoners, space for their personal rebirth and an important ideological instrument of the movement. A brief commentary on the Black Power movement is offered that should provide certain social and ideological perspective on the narratives which are discussed later.
The second part of the thesis is concerned with prison manifestos of Black Power activists as tools, symbols and products of the liberation struggle as well as instruments of their authors’ personal re-imagination. Emphasis is put on the writers’ self-identification as political prisoners and revolutionaries. Next a brief biographical sketch is provided on Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson and Angela Davis whose prison writings are analyzed in the final part.
The final part deals primarily with three selected autobiographical prison narratives – Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Angela Davis’ Angela Davis - An Autobiography. While there have been a number of scholarly articles written about Malcolm X’s autobiography, other prison narratives of Black Power activists have not yet received significant critical attention. These narratives were furthermore selected because of the emphasis they place on gender and sexuality, reflecting both their important place in the ideologies of Black Power and the influence of prison as an environment threatening to the prisoner’s sexual identity. The writings are thus presented as narratives of gendering and sites of the writers’ identity construction. A comparison is also drawn between the male and female prison experience which found reflection in Davis’ conception of revolutionary prison femininity and Cleaver’s and Jackson’s narratives of masculinity.
From the time they were forcedly taken from their African homeland and brought to the Thirteen Colonies, the history of the black people in the United States was, or as many would argue, has been one marked and characterized by continuous oppression. Awareness of the omnipresent oppressive apparatus, whether real or imagined, permeating virtually every area of African American experience in the United States, whether it be culture, politics or social standing, is thus a necessary precondition for any discussion of the black prison experience as its direct manifestation.
Does the history of the African Americans in the US paint a picture of slow rise and triumph, victory of faith and perseverance against prejudice and oppression, a journey from slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation and legal freedom to combatting segregation and attaining civil rights, symbolically culminating with Barack Obama’s winning elections in 2008? Or is it as others argue, conversely, one of unceasing systematic oppression merely changing its forms and guises in order to accommodate different historical or political climate?
In 1964 president Lyndon Johnson famously called the passing of the Civil Rights Act “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battleﬁeld” (“Remarks”). In the eyes of many people this legislation represented the fruition of the years of Civil Rights struggle, fulfillment of the promised unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all the Americans regardless of the color of their skin. Strikingly similar comments could, however, be heard also four decades later when Barack Obama became the first African American president in the US history. Congratulating the newly elected American president to that “historical moment” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: “Twenty-five years ago Martin Luther King had a dream of an America where men and women would be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. Today what America has done is turn that dream into a reality.” (as cited in Malkin) An African American president was viewed as the highest testimony to his country’s color-blindness, confirmation of the about-turn it has achieved in the area of race relations. The United States were said to have finally demonstrably become the country of Martin Luther King’s dream where one’s race does not present any impediment or obstacle to one’s rights and pursuit of happiness.
There are, nevertheless, others who point out that in spite of bold legislations such as Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, landmark court decisions like Brown vs. Board of Education, a growing number of African Americans in posts of political influence or widely dissipated success stories of some people of color supposedly illustrating the progress of the entire race, there have always been large segments of African American population for whom equality, liberty and prospects of better future have largely remained as abstract, elusive and unattainable as they were in the times of Jim Crow. Lacking proper housing, receiving substandard education and practically segregated in rundown neighborhoods plagued by rampant crime, widespread substance abuse, mass incarceration and soaring unemployment, they still represent a weak spot in the story of African American progress in the USA.
According to a lawyer and civil rights activist Michelle Alexander, “the arguments and rationalizations that have been trotted out in support of racial exclusion and discrimination in its various forms have changed and evolved, but the outcome has remained largely the same” (1). Alexander argues that after a brief period of “stasis” the old systems of control, albeit officially declared dead, have historically always been revived in a different form with different institutions or mechanisms and merely adapted to their new context. Just as after a period of rejuvenation from the relative freedom following the abolition of slavery the stringent Jim Crow policies were put into force in order to neutralize its effects and maintain the status quo, neither the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that separate was inherently unequal nor the Civil Rights Act truly dealt with the deep-seated institutionalized racism and ongoing disenfranchisement of the African Americans or put an end to their repression and social marginalization (Alexander).
Douglas A. Blackmon writes that coupled with the legal measures collectively known as the Black Codes and later the Jim Crow laws, an intricate web of social practices and institutions as well as a system of economic control through harsh working conditions, forced labor, convict lease system, and the so-called prison industrial complex were enacted and implemented in the aftermath of the Civil War. This meant that the country entered into an era of neo-slavery with the vast majority of the black population, albeit officially emancipated in 1863 and having their fundamental rights protected by the 13th Amendment, remaining at the very bottom of the American society, ruthlessly exploited as a cheap labor force, segregated or imprisoned in appalling conditions in many respects mirroring or even amplifying those experienced by former slaves. It was not until the American involvement in the WWII that this covert form of slavery finally gave way to a more democratic treatment and better economic situation for the African Americans having to do with their mass participation in the war effort and the need for national unity (377-378).
According to Blackmon, the ongoing subjugation and repression were not simply inevitable consequences of the preceding era or a natural shift stemming from the new social and political reality but rather results of very concrete policies and deliberate decisions that were taken by the men in power and condoned by the majority of population (Blackmon). Other intellectuals have taken his argument even further, claiming that rather than being confined to a specific historical period this pattern reappears whenever some gains are made by the African Americans posing a threat to the status quo (Alexander). In such a reading of the African American history the problems plaguing black communities today are merely manifestations of yet another transmutation of the self-preserving racist mechanism lying at the core of the US society. The so-called prison industrial complex is said to have become its most potent instrument. Sociologist and criminology professor Elliott Currie writes: “Short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time.” (21)