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Geographies of Prejudice: Self-Narration and Radical Teaching in the Prison
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Geographies of Prejudice:
Self-Narration and Radical Teaching in the Prison

Most days, my walk to class takes me across the university’s well-manicured quad. I pass the hundred-year-old trees, the ubiquitous Frisbee-tossing undergraduates, and the numerous reminders of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. Each fall semester brings with it the sound of hopeful laughter, the sight of nervous freshmen, and the feeling of expectancy—meeting new friends, balancing studies and socialization, graduating and moving into the uncertain “real world.” This semester, however, my walk lacks this festive blend of joie de vivre and youthful debauchery. In its place, I hear the ominous slamming of steel doors, see the wary gaze of jaded guards, and feel the looming presence of four gun towers. To reach my classroom in this medium-high security prison, I must pass through more than a dozen locked doors, cross the bizarrely quad-like courtyard with its razor wire and irregular lines of closely guarded inmates, and enter the education wing, a small space of learning by which my university is transported into the prison. Each of these strikingly different—yet similarly institutional—spaces calls for a radical [End Page 51] response (pedagogical and political), but the distinct populations, with their unique prejudices, complicate the forms of radical teaching.

In order to teach “radically,” I embrace the instructor’s responsibility to use the classroom to “make sure that the future points the way to a more socially just world, a world in which critique and possibility … function to alter the grounds upon which life is lived” (Henry Giroux, “Lessons from Paulo Freire,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct 22, 2010). In my traditional, campus-based courses, I strive to articulate course content to the experiences of oppression—to make visible racism, sexism, and class inequality, even when my students are often insulated by privilege from the worst consequences of these power dynamics. This basic yet complex goal takes many forms, as I attempt to show my students that racism and sexism are relevant, that forms of oppression are connected, that each student can narrate his or her various positions within these interlocking systems of power and privilege. As I strive to radicalize my classrooms, though, I am all too aware of the power differential between teacher and student: I find myself challenging students’ articulation of their own privilege in order to correct a narrative that often seems skewed toward the dominant—a dialogue frequently dominated by the dominant as I seek tentatively to offer the counter-narratives of oppressions to which I am not subject.

This brief essay recounts my efforts to deploy a similar radical pedagogy with a student body I imagined as much different. Beginning with my preconceptions of incarcerated students, I discuss my efforts to teach Richard Wright’s Native Son inside the prison: as I foregrounded the forces that shaped my prison students’ journey from urban, impoverished youth to “inmate” (a word I use here only to capture the widespread dismissal of incarcerated persons), I found a unique complication. Yes, I could ask them to share their experiences, which supplemented our discussions of the novel with the extra-literary, tragically real consequences of retrograde economic and racial politics. No longer was it necessary for me, for example, to describe the effects of systemic racism: my incarcerated students could do so far more poignantly—and far more eloquently. I found myself part of a more leveled dialogue, as I became as much student as teacher. Not a truly safe space, but an environment in which key goals in my effort to teach radically—like allowing the “antagonist [to become] power as it was deployed within our classroom” and in the social forces that brought each of us to that classroom—seemed within reach (Elizabeth Ellsworth, “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering?” Harvard Educational Review, Aug. 1989). At the same time, though, I confronted the murky overlap of experience and performance. My students shared freely, revealing a complex blend of progressive and reactionary beliefs as they struggled to express their own experiences of oppression alongside the prison’s socially necessary performances. Throughout this essay, I offer this multivalent...