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  • Protest, Resilience, and Agency in Neoslavery
  • Douglas Flowe (bio)
Dan Berger. Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 416 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $34.95 (cloth); $27.95 (paper); $33.99 (e-book).
Dennis Childs. Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 260 pp. Notes and index. $79.00 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).
Talitha L. LeFlouria. Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 280 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper); $38.99 (e-book).

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander cites the difficulty of marshaling compassion for imprisoned people as one obstruction in the way of addressing mass incarceration. “After all,” she writes, “criminals are the one social group in America that nearly everyone … feels free to hate.”1 The three books reviewed here aim to address the paradox of rampant and unequal imprisonment and the speechlessness engendered by the stigma of criminality. They each confront confinement and regeneration, immobility and negotiation, and varying levels of silence broken by the strained but powerful voices of those yearning for freedom in lawful captivity. The books are synchronized in dealing with the implications of a faulty system of incarceration and in unveiling what an American tradition of racial injustice in detainment indicates about our culture. Following Michel Foucault’s assertion that prisons are “symbols of the present order of society,” Berger, Childs, and LeFlouria are all determined to understand how the current crescendo in prison population came about, and what this development says about the post–Civil War period and the twentieth century. They each do this by exploring different shapes and forms of confinement, the lives of the imprisoned, the brutal and imbalanced treatment of incarcerated African Americans, and the subtleties and detonations of the prison system’s transition into “neoslavery.” Although they often [End Page 327] address histories already covered by scholars such as Douglas Blackmon, Mary Ellen Curtin, and Alex Lichtenstein, their innovative approaches to the subject and tendencies to analyze historical imprisonment within the context of current issues are fresh and imaginative.2

Sadly, there is much about this history that is still relevant today. The release of these books coincides with a contemporary groundswell of concern about black criminality and historic racial inequity, police violence, and state sanctioned commodification of black bodies in a burgeoning prison-industrial complex. They often speak to recent developments such as President Obama’s attempts at prison reform, grassroots protests against aggressive policing, and the broader efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement by providing useful formats for mapping U.S. history onto popular discourse. The release of Dan Berger’s Captive Nation is not only well timed but crucial to contemporary discussions about mass-incarceration and protest. His work is an extensively investigated inquiry into the roles of imprisonment, prisons, and especially prisoners, in shaping the Civil Rights Movement and Black Freedom efforts of the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing from a comprehensive list of primary sources, including the Bancroft Library’s Social Protest collection and papers from the National Lawyers Guild, he convincingly connects a long history of black incarceration to changes in tactics of civic engagement and an increasingly militarized system of policing and detainment. In six dense and invigoratingly complex chapters, Berger capably conveys the power that radical prisoners wrested from their impossibly constricted circumstances, and he inserts them into discourse about racial liberation. “Black activists,” he writes, “thrust the prison into public view, established prisoners as symbols of racial oppression, and conceptualized confinement as a persistent feature of black life woven throughout the American racial landscape” (p. 4). Many advocates of prison reform discussed the reality of race and imprisonment as symbolic of the “constricting experience of American racism.” Working from this unique metaphorical usage, Berger identifies the ways in which the prison as an institution became a central celestial body in a constellation of black activism against institutional subjugation. Combined with an inherent suspicion of federal power, prisoners and outside operatives...


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