This book was originally published in 1971, three years after Richard Nixon declared his War on Crime when he was campaigning for the U.S. presidency. As I have written elsewhere, Nixon’s declaration of war in 1968 marked the beginning of what would be called “mass incarceration.” Loic Waquant, a sociologist and social anthropologist, takes on using “mass incarceration” to describe the disproportionate imprisonment of Black and Brown men and women. “Hyperincarceration,” Waquant argues, is a more accurate term, since these here United States do not incarcerate “the masses.” But that’s another story.
The ”introduction” to this book is a letter James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis. Baldwin knows that if we allow the carceral state to come and take people in the morning, then surely “they will be coming for us that night.” We know that agents of the state come in the early morning hours with “no knock” warrants, that specialized tactical law enforcement teams (TNT: Tactical Narcotics Teams) explode on the scene and into people’s homes when they are asleep and leave death in their wake, think, most recently, Breonna Taylor, but also think Fred Hampton, assassinated by law enforcement on December 4, 1969.
Angela Davis is a living icon, and I have had the pleasure of crossing her path three times in the last 20 years, all at events dealing with some aspect of the carceral system. Most notably, about 15 years ago, at an American Studies Association conference in Connecticut. Three of my colleagues, including Bell Chevigny, editor of “Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing,” proposed a panel discussion on “prison literature” to the American Studies Association, and it was accepted. Our argument was that the American Academy needed to value writings from prisons and jails, and that they should be taught in the ivory towers. I think of Dostoevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, how the American Academy uplifts and values the writings of these “Russian prisoners,” but not their own. In fact, I’ve been in literary circles, and when I stated, “Right now, as we speak, there’s someone in an American prison laboring over what could be the next ‘Great American Novel,’” my counterparts, whom I could accuse of literary snobbism, would give me that look, as if I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, for the most part, but the American Studies Association scheduled Angela Davis’ panel discussion and ours on prison literature at the same time! Of course, more attendees went to Angela’s panel discussion., (I would have gone, too if I weren’t a presenter!) The Association should have known that these two panels would draw the same crowd, and thus not schedule them at the same time. After the panels, we ran into Angela in the hall of the hotel hosting the conference. We told her we wanted to come to her panel discussion but that we were presenting at the same time, our panel on “prison literature.” Angela said she wanted to attend our panel discussion, but obviously could not! Perhaps Angela’s panel should have been in the morning, and ours that night.
I highly recommend this book to all concerned about justice, which is far more elusive than “finding Waldo.”