Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"We Are All Prisoners": Privileging Prison Voices in Black Print Culture

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"We Are All Prisoners": Privileging Prison Voices in Black Print Culture

Article excerpt

The April-May 1971 and October 1972 issues of The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research were devoted to the subject "The Black Prisoner," and featured essays and poetry written by black prisoners as well as community organizers and academics from throughout the United States. (1) In the wake of a series of uprisings by African American and Latino prisoners in California's San Quentin Prison in 1971, the April-May 1971 issue of The Black Scholar took the position that the San Quentin prisoners' struggle to fight racism and social injustice was an issue that the journal's readers should engage as well. The Black Scholar reported that African American and Latino prisoners in San Quentin formed the Third World Coalition in February 1971, but were met with opposition from the prison guards and some inmates. This incident was one of many uprisings that took place in correctional facilities where African American and Latino prisoners were developing self-awareness and cultural pride. The Black Scholar and other publications became vehicles for informing readers outside prison walls about the conditions that black inmates were experiencing behind the walls.

  Over half the population of San Quentin is Black and Chicane. Their
  future well-being depends in large measure on the outcome of this
  recent protracted struggle against racism. We of the Third World
  Community at large must take action and organize support for our
  brothers inside. ... It's time for the Third World on the outside to
  investigate the Third World on the inside. San Quentin is a
  good place to start. (2)

This essay is an examination of how black print culture in the early 1970s privileged the voices of black prisoners by inviting incarcerated men and women to share their stories and reflections on the criminal justice system with unincarcerated men and women. "We Are All Prisoners," was the title given to an open letter to The Black Scholar readers from political prisoner Fleeta Drumgo, one of the famous Soledad Brothers. "We" referred to "black people" and not just the highly visible "political prisoners" who were imprisoned because of their ideological beliefs, but to all African-descended people who may or may not have experienced clashes with law enforcement officials or the racialized criminal justice system in the United States. Embedded in the title, "We Are All Prisoners," was the notion that in the early 1970s no black man or woman was completely free of racial constraints that could easily force them to become entangled in the criminal justice system. To illustrate how black print culture sought to facilitate understanding on both sides of the prison walls, I focus on two publications: The Black Scholar, based in Northern California; and Black News, published by the EAST organization in Brooklyn, New York, whose mission was the same as the antislavery journalists--to "Agitate. Educate. Organize." While these publications were not solely dedicated to agitation for black prisoners, they were consistent in their efforts to re-educate African Americans about the prison system and to reach out to prisoners with a message of self-education and self-determination. Most importantly, these two publications shared an unwavering commitment to build bridges between incarcerated and unincarcerated black men and women who, according to their contributors, were imprisoned by racialized social structures offering primarily substandard housing, failing schools, job discrimination, and pressures to integrate physically and psychologically.

While The Black Scholar and Black News are central to this discussion, it is imperative to contextualize their efforts to build bridges between black prisoners and the larger African American community. The lens through which I am viewing this project is the long struggle for black self-determination and its impact on the development of black print culture. The role of Malcolm X in serving as a model of literacy is examined because Malcolm helped to redefine the black prisoner in black cultural consciousness, while promoting the value of self-determination most closely associated with the Black Power and Black Arts movements. …

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