Academic journal article African American Review

Inheriting the Criminalized Black Body: Race, Gender, and Slavery in Eva's Man

Academic journal article African American Review

Inheriting the Criminalized Black Body: Race, Gender, and Slavery in Eva's Man

Article excerpt

The question is not whether slavery still exists but whether people still treat each other as if it did. (Roach 231)

It is secret that racial minorities constitute a disproportionate percentage of those incarcerated in the United States. According to the Human Rights Watch ("World Report 2000"), blacks in 1999 constituted 46.5 percent of state prisoners and 40 percent of federal prisoners, even though they only make up 12 percent of the national population. For women, the statistics are particularly striking. "Black non-Hispanic females (with an incarceration rate of 199 per 100,000) were more than 3 times as likely as Hispanic females (61 per 100,000) and 5 times more likely than white non-Hispanic females (36 per 100,000) to be in prison on December 31, 2001. These differences among white, black, and Hispanic females were consistent across all age groups" (Harrison and Beck 12). These statistics raise the obvious question of why black women are being incarcerated at such alarming rates. One could argue that race does not play as important a role in predicting the likelihood of incarceration as do the socioeconomic conditions that growing numbers of Americans face in an era of postindustrial decline. Perhaps the emphasis on the racial breakdown of prison populations obscures the socioeconomic similarities of the prison population, where poor people, regardless of race, lack access to key factors (such as education) that determine economic success.

Angela Davis dismisses this "culture of poverty" argument, instead accounting for the high rates of black female incarceration by insisting that while traditional forms of racism have become largely unacceptable, structural racism is even more deeply entrenched in American society. The vast populations of black people in prison indicate that, even under the guise of a colorblind judicial process, racism becomes reinscribed onto the black body in the act of brutal confinement (Davis 265). While both socioeconomic factors and institutionalized racism are crucial to understanding the rates of black incarceration, here I explore another avenue based on my reading of Gayl Jones's Eva's Man, a prison narrative concerned specifically with the Gordian knot of race, gender, sexuality, agency, and criminality. Higher today than in 1976, when Jones's novel was first published, the high rates of black female incarceration suggest that public discourse only recognizes black women in their criminality, a direct legacy of slavery in which blacks were without agency except when that agency was criminalized. The prison, as a mechanism to control a society's alleged abject and its aberrant, naturalizes and continually reinvents the relationship between black agency and criminality that was established during slavery.

Of course, black agency has always been articulated in multiple forms limited only by the rich imagination. I am interested in the moment when that agency is recognized within public discourse, when the voice of the subaltern enters the public realm dominated by (white) patriarchal Law. Only by the recasting of black female subjectivity as criminal can black women's voices be officially heard. This official hearing does not attest to the vibrancy of black articulation, but rather confirms notions of black femaleness as inseparable from criminality. Thus, black female agency can only be officially recognized when it is reconfigured as inherently criminal.

In mapping out black female agency, Jones privileges sexuality, and draws direct links between agency and desire. For Jones, the most over-determined sites of agency are the expression of desire and the lack of desire, twin themes that she uses to structure Eva's Man. She shows repeatedly in all of her novels that, from slavery forward, black women's sexuality forms the painful site where battles over agency take place. Even while female slaves were configured as property entirely subject to the will of their respective "owners," black women have also paradoxically been seen as sexual predators, asserting their (sexual) agency to seduce and consume the white master. …

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