- A Manifesto on African American Prison Literature
The radical confession “I am a sick man...a spiteful man” could be Aesop without the fabulist’s mask—Augustine the unconverted, a shameless Marquis de Sade, an organic Antonio Gramsci. Jean Genet on his knees fighting capitalism. But it is, of course, Dostoevsky in another voice and flesh that bares the soul, illustrating a problem through its psychic consequences—Dostoevsky warning of a threat to a nation—nation’s metonymic everyman whose imagined, unsympathetic audience would warn “[t]alk about yourself and your own miseries in your stinking hole, but don’t you dare say all of us.” Etheridge Knight’s early poem from Indiana State Prison, “On Universalism,” is a problem echo:
No universal lawsOf human miseryCreate a common causeOr common historyThat ease black people’s painsNor break black people’s chains.
The disagreement issues, of course, from the language of race in the United States and a peculiar institution, one instigating what would eventually claim Black writing for Black-bottomed readers. This would be the politics of blaxploitation. But history demonstrates the seeming boundlessness of the White gaze and the ultimate failure to claim Black literary production as Black-owned property. What, then, of the Black body and soul?
When we talk about African American “prison literature” we usually revisit widely-distributed prose narrative by Black writers published in the wake of Johnson’s Great Society (1964) and the Kerner Commission Report (1967). And perhaps then we are reminded of Robert Beck’s debt to the exilic Chester Himes. Attractive to patricidal White audiences primed by the modernist and postmodernist trouble of alienation and authenticity, and imprisoned and ghettoized Blacks likewise desiring soul-recognition, the works are, however, not the first examples in the racial canon. Robert Reed’s 1858 memoir The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict offers the earliest known example and literal illustration that northern, antebellum Negroes could be prisoners but not slaves, at the same time that our impulse to trace a genealogy of prison writing leads us to fugitive slave narratives. And so, we do better from a broad-narrow view—a view of the genre that can bear the weight of contradictions present in the world from which it issues. Poised against both scientific objectivity and narrow claims to experience, we seek a definition of the genre broad enough to be useful—a breaking with (as opposed to a reform of) the constraints that imprison, whether they be literary or literal.
The sick man could be Wheatley, as property (and thus the additional burden of repressing spite), speaking of diabolic stains and their contrary, angelic trains. Yes, Frederick Douglass’s fight, flight, and oratorical fire provide a pattern that Bigger Thomas and his fate would help cement in our minds, but with a difference, as would the epic return down south of Ralph Ellison’s nameless invisible man. Detroit Red, the man who goes by many names, but who speaks to many as Malcolm, Eldridge Cleaver writing as the rapist that everyone assumed Bigger to be, the reformed pimp Robert Beck writing as the amanuensis of Otis Tilson reads like the confessions of an imprisoned queer, as do many of his Oedipus blues numbers. Donald Goines, beckoning unilaterally toward the end-times—the revolutionary passion of Fanon inflicted on his body. To speak is to live for the other and, therefore, to indict the self. But also Harriet Jacobs speaking the unspeakable and of being holed-up to the Cult of True Womanhood, revealing a lie that we often consent to, the lie that this is all about Black Macho. So too in Bessie’s blues, that antiphonal Black feminist thought sung-back in perfect pitch by Michelle Wallace and Angela Davis. Gayl Jones’s Eva speaking from a madhouse of having bitten and assimilated her man. An aural tradition set to tune by Archie Shepp and the New Breed translating the avant-garde moans of the Attica blues to the people. Black Norfolk speaking for itself. And, no less, Lomaxian man hitting playback from Southampton, Parchman Farm and post-racial America still on its...