Amid the recent protests against police violence, Black Lives Matter activists have called for the urgent transformation of the criminal-justice system. The United States currently has the highest prison population in the world, and the growth of the carceral state has disproportionately affected Black and Latino populations. Literature written by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated writers such as Assata Shakur and Angela Davis speak powerfully to the lived experiences of those affected by the rise of mass incarceration in this country. These essays, books, and letters prompt readers to think about how we can build a more just society, what public safety means, what purpose the police serve, and whether prisons should exist.
These are not new challenges. In the 19th century, Austin Reed began writing The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict—the first known prison memoir by an African American—from New York City’s oldest juvenile reformatory, where he was incarcerated at the age of 10. As Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote in The Atlantic, Reed’s story is a “reminder of the power of prison … to break human beings.” Betts, who was tried as an adult at the age of 16, recounted his own incarceration in a 2009 memoir and a 2019 book of poetry. He wrote of developing a love for literature while surviving the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. Similarly, Malcolm X, in his posthumously published autobiography, described coming to political consciousness while serving time at a Massachusetts state prison.
In these personal narratives, writers often theorize about how to advance the struggle for racial justice. During the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” outlined his philosophy of using nonviolent direct action to dismantle racist laws. More recently, in 2017, Susan Burton—the formerly incarcerated founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project—published Becoming Ms. Burton, which highlighted the adversities facing incarcerated women and her efforts to build a justice system founded on compassion and empathy.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.
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What prison takes away
“In The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, completed about five years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Reed reveals the stark reality beneath a comparison that has become a rhetorical staple: the shared logic of prison and slavery. His account is a reminder of the power of prison, despite whatever rehabilitative designs lawmakers and administrators may endorse at different times, to break human beings.”
(Reginald Dwayne Betts)
From prisoner to poet
“For my birthday I was in a cell that I only left for showers every three days and rec twice a week. … Two days after my birthday, I was on the door yelling for a book when someone threw The Black Poets by Dudley Randall under my cell door. James Baldwin said that people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. The poets in Randall’s book were telling the history in shades of gray, telling the stories I never found in schoolbooks.”
📚 Felon: Poems, by Reginald Dwayne Betts
(Don Cravens / The Life Images Collection / Getty; Bettmann / Getty)
Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’
“I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.”
(ILLUSTRATION BY GLUEKIT)
The legacy of Malcolm X
“For all of Malcolm’s prodigious intellect, he was ultimately more an expression of black America’s heart than of its brain. Malcolm was the voice of a black America whose parents had borne the slights of second-class citizenship, who had seen protesters beaten by cops and bitten by dogs, and children bombed in churches, and could only sit at home and stew.”
📚 Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable
📚 Soledad Brother, by George Jackson
📚 Angela Davis: An Autobiography, by Angela Davis
📚 Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur
(COURTESY OF CHICAGOVOTES)
“[Meggen Massey] had always thought of herself as a voter, but when she arrived in jail in Los Angeles County with an arson charge, some of her fellow detainees told her that she had lost that right. … But that turned out to be wrong. With the help of Susan Burton, the founder of the women’s-reentry program A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and a group of voter-registration volunteers, Massey was able to request and cast a vote by mail ballot.”
About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kristine Guillaume. The book she’s reading next is Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
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