America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

By Lee Bernstein | Go to book overview

confronted with a growing awareness among the people that the concentrated effort to maim and murder revolutionaries is just another form of the daily genocide of police brutality, and impoverished living conditions of ghettos and barrios.”2 In his wildly popular Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver similarly argued that “it is only a matter of time until the question of the prisoner’s debt to society versus society’s debt to the prisoner is injected forcefully into national and state politics, into the civil and human rights struggle, and into the consciousness of the body politic. It is an explosive issue which goes to the very root of America’s system of justice, the structure of criminal law, the prevailing beliefs and attitudes toward a convicted felon.”3 This straightforward metaphor that America is itself a prison for African Americans helped the 1970s generation of inmates see themselves as potential leaders in movements for social change. As they grew to understand the political and historical dimensions of their confinement, some, like George Jackson, believed that incarcerated people would serve as the vanguard of a revolution. They hoped they would inspire large-scale revolt and unprecedented attention to the writings, thought, and creativity of incarcerated people.

As in Shakur’s comment, debates over prisons and the criminal justice system became a way to more broadly contest the meaning of American history and society. The connection between the penitentiary and the plantation highlighted the sense of injustice. If America was a prison, it became one in the aftermath of slavery. Standing beneath of statue of Sojourner Truth in Detroit’s Kennedy Square in December 1970, Fania Jordan urged her audience to understand activists who struggled to abolish prisons as akin to those who had fought to abolish slavery the century before: “We stand before the monument of Sojourner Truth, a Black woman liberation fighter,” Jordan told the crowd. “She was on the slaveowners’ most wanted list, just like Angela Davis, another freedom fighter, was on the FBI’s most wanted list.”4 Jordan was Davis’s sister and cochair of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis. In speaking about and below the statue of the famed feminist and abolitionist, Jordan sought to make clear that people deemed enemies of the state should more accurately be understood as working to bring about a just society. In a California court

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America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - We Shall Have Order 19
  • Chapter Two - The Age of Jackson 51
  • Chapter Three - What Works? 75
  • Chapter Four - We Took the Weight 99
  • Chapter Five - Cell Block Theater 129
  • Chapter Six - Radical Chic 151
  • Conclusion 173
  • Notes 185
  • Index 215
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