Academic journal article Social Justice

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender; Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

Academic journal article Social Justice

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender; Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity

Article excerpt

Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender; Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)

SARAH HALEY'S NO MERCY HERE: GENDER, PUNISHMENT, AND THE MAKING of Jim Crow Modernity is a beautifully written, empirical yet nuanced account of imprisoned and paroled Black women's lives, deaths, and struggles under convict leasing, chain gang, and parole regimes in Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the majority of Haley's book focuses on Black women, she notes that 18 percent of Black female prisoners were not yet 17 years old (42). One prisoner was 11 years old (96) at the time of her sentencing. The majority were young adults, many in their early twenties, some remaining imprisoned for decades. All, regardless of age, were sentenced to hard labor.

Haley ties together wide-ranging archival data gathered from criminal justice agency reports and proceedings, government-sponsored commissions to examine prison and labor conditions, petitions and clemency applications, letters, newspaper articles, era-specific research, Black women's blues, historic speeches, and other social movement materials. This breadth of data coupled with Haley's Black feminist analysis and methodology unearths the issues of Black women's imprisonment, abuse, rape, and forced labor under Jim Crow's carceral push into modernity.

Haley also presents records of white women's imprisonment, as well as their living and labor conditions, and discusses the responses these elicited from politicians, criminal justice agents, social organizations, and media outlets. Though the number of white women ensnared within Georgia's carceral regime was limited, these records are significant in Haley's comparative analysis, through which she uncovers white power's gendering binaries. The outrage white women's imprisonment and sentences to hard labor elicited from media and larger social forces contrasted starkly with their nonchalant response toward Black women's far more punitive sanctions. For Black women, "no mercy here" was (and still is, I would argue) an institutionalized practice deeply woven into the fabric of the criminal justice system and the large-scale economies that depend on gendered and racialized exploitation.

To piece these hidden, fragmented, and willfully forgotten portions of history together, Haley incorporates multidisciplinary frameworks drawing from philosophy, sociology, history, physics, literature, and ethnomusicology, among others. She uses Black feminist analyses and methodologies to fill in the gaps, highlighting that which can be found between the lines of official records. She connects the dots and evokes common-sense conclusions to produce a book that speaks on matters deemed unspeakable (Morrison 1989), allowing us to confront that which we have been told is unthinkable (Hartman 1997).

In No Mercy Here, Haley outlines the early binds that wove institutions and cultures of plantation slavery into criminal justice system formations occurring at the turn of the century. Beyond the obvious ties between criminal justice regimes and chattel slavery (demographics; violent labor extraction; carceral control and punishment; surveillance; forced immobility and migration; rape and other practices of gendered racial terror; etc.), Haley illustrates how criminal justice institutions were invoked after the Civil War to renew slavery's power in manners that reasserted and institutionalized white power.

Haley starts No Mercy Here with a chapter dedicated to the cultural and institutional forces that constructed Black women as not fully gendered within Jim Crow binaries of manhood and womanhood. Because Jim Crow required a gendering of all persons, the nongendering of Black women placed them within a shadowed arena of nonpersonhood. Evidence of this is found within the repeated placement of Black women within proximity to masculinity, rendering them fit to perform hard labor otherwise reserved for men. …

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