In the opening montage for Orange Is the New Black, the made-for-Netflix series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, disembodied lips of different races and ethnicities mouth the words to Regina Spektor’s song “You’ve Got Time.” The message is clear: we are all the same (we all have lips, I suppose). The faces are both stripped of identity, yet are identifiably female. The introduction sets the stage for the show’s focus on the idea of a universal feminine experience. From the illicit groping between Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) to the hair salon run by Sophia (the awesome Laverne Cox), the show treats its viewers to a titillating version of female camaraderie that might exist on the WB or in the catalogues of a Seven Sisters college.
In fact, Piper Kerman (renamed “Chapman” for the Netflix series) invites the comparison to an all-women’s collegiate experience herself in her memoir. “I was surviving,” she writes about her time in a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., “perhaps [because] I had gone to an elite women’s college. Single-sex living has certain constants, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty…There was less bulimia and more fights…but the same feminine ethos was present — empathetic camaraderie and bawdy humor on good days, and histrionic drama…on bad.”
The series reflects this same “all women be crazy” ethos, and the comparison to college dormitory living does seems apt. The viewing experience is really a lot like Felicity in its gossipy will-they-or-won’t-they feel, down to the symbolic meaning attributed to hairstyles (for some reason, this is the sine qua non of feminine culture on popular television). It’s also deliciously, compulsively watchable, not just because the acting is compelling, but also because it reinforces what the audience would like to view as a universal truth: there isn’t much difference between people on the inside and people on the outside. The success of both the show and the memoir evince the public’s current insatiable thirst for prison narratives — so long as they aren’t too violent or dirty. (Kerman inoculates her memoir, and the show, against any charges of girl-on-girl sexual assault: Oz this is not.) Still, one wonders, is this perceived similarity between those on the inside and us on the outside just to make us (liberal, middle-class, educated) feel better (or worse) about the prison state that is the U.S., circa now?
The prison narrative has been around for a long time. Not only have great authors spent time in prison (Thomas More, Marquis de Sade) but great works have also been written about prisons (The Count of Monte Cristo, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). “Prison lit,” as a dedicated genre consisting of first-person accounts of trial and punishment, seems to have come about around the 16th century as large numbers of literate, educated dissenters spent time behind bars; they wrote as a way to spark conversation about the role of incarceration in society. Not coincidentally, the 16th century also saw the rise of imprisonment as legal punishment. On top of the religious and political minorities, there were also greater numbers of vagrants and debtors who were locked up.
Similarly, the American tradition of “prison lit” has its roots in social protest. Thoreau, in Resistance to Civil Government, wrote that, “[u]nder a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” launching the idealistic notion that great thinking and writing come from behind prison walls. Early 20th century prison writings were generally by activists who sought to expose the inequities of the justice system. My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie was one of the first widely-read first-person accounts of prison life. Lowrie was sentenced to 15 years at San Quentin for burglary (he was out in 10 on good behavior). Lowrie attempts to chronicle the daily humiliations of prison life while also maintaining the idea that he wasn’t a born criminal, but rather a victim of bad circumstances that conspired against him: “And despite a long term in prison, I am not yet a criminal.” He separates himself and his fellow inmates from their crimes: “But I know that all men are human.” This idea of a constant humanity resonates with the same appeal as other “outsider” narratives.
During the Civil Rights era, prison literature became a way to unite both individual struggles with political ones, although the works were arguably still the product of a few great minds. The Autobiography of Malcom X, for example, galvanized a movement. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice similarly links the African-American male prison experience with the greater historical atrocities of colonialism and slavery, crimes where African-Americans lost their ability to move freely. Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard, published in 1967, is heralded as one of the greatest prison novels, reveling in psychological verity and presenting an array of criminal “types” familiar to any outside audience today.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of prison narratives in America coincided with a dramatic increase in prison populations during the ’70s, putatively as a reaction to the anti-establishment mores of the ’60s. This trend continues today at least partially because of popular anti-crime campaigns, the “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” political rhetoric. Various memoirs and stories emerged to expose the horrendous conditions of most penitentiaries; not coincidentally, many of them focus on social conditions preceding incarceration, like poverty, lack of family support, substance abuse, homelessness, and exposure to criminal activity. Many of these narratives are written by African American writers addressing a presumptively white audience and take on a semi-educational stance not unlike slave narratives: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers (1984), for example, in addition to the works mentioned above.
One role of the prison narrative is to combat the dehumanizing process that is the modern prison system. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explained incarceration as a way for the State to maintain its absolute power and authority over its citizens. Certainly, penal institutions try their very best to effectively erase the individual as we know it. For this reason, prisons separate inmates by race, women are housed separately from men, and a series of bureaucratic trials are imposed — bodies are counted at certain times of day, sleeping situations are altered, and procedural delays are rampant. Some states also have versions of various laws that prevent author-inmates from profiting off of their writing, which limits free expression, a Constitutional ideal that we profess to hold dear.
It makes sense, then, that prison literature today seeks to reaffirm the triumph of the human spirit, so to speak. Kerman, as an example, continually reasserts her ability to maintain her can-do pluckiness: “I hated the control the prison exercised over my life, but the only way to fight it was in my head.” Rather than dwell on her misfortune or become too accustomed to prison life, Kerman stages a protest, Oprah-style: no one can keep her down. She still has her favorite things: her radio, her running, her prison “cheesecake,” and the companionship of the other women.
At the same time, the inmate-author is in a unique position to testify as to the conditions and injustices rampant in the system. Interestingly, contemporary prison narratives rarely claim that incarceration is wrong in itself, but rather focus on cruel and inhumane treatment. Kerman relates in detail the administrative nightmare that is the judicial process — she pleads guilty and surrenders but must wait over a year for her sentence to begin. Yet, she does not ever argue that she did not deserve punishment. The PEN Prison Writing Program’s website includes thoughtful essays about concerns like solitary confinement and the death penalty without exhorting the reader to rethink the concept of the penitentiary more generally. No one, it seems, wants to argue that murderers and rapists don’t belong in prison.
For example, in writing about the death penalty, J. Michael Stanfield Jr. speaks directly to us, the outsiders: “Okay, so maybe I’m coming off as just a tad bit facetious here, but it doesn’t change the fact that murder, even the government-approved variety, is still murder, by the very definition of the law. What’s more (and I’m going out on a limb here), capital punishment is immoral, and it’s a sin of our modem, civilized society.” The reader of this cannot help but be morally implicated, particularly since the political reality is that prisoners cannot vote (and most states limit the ability of ex-felons to vote in some manner). In Stanfield’s piece, the reader, who is viewed as potentially complicit with the government, becomes an agent for moral decision-making: we can decide that murder, in all its varieties, is immoral and, therefore, seek to eliminate the death sentence. Yet, Stanfield doesn’t argue that crimes (like murder) are undeserving of punishment; in fact, he says quite the opposite.
Prison narratives exert their moral authority by emphasizing their “truth.” Whether the piece is fiction or not, readers want to feel as though the information or story is conveyed with some deeper understanding, similar to the way readers want to read about war but never actually want to go there. One way that present-day prison writing emphasizes the notion of “truth” is by sheer volume. Infamous bastions like San Quentin publish anthologies of inmates’ stories and verse, and the PEN Program fosters prison writing’s “restorative and rehabilitative” powers and sponsors writing contests. Wally Lamb has assembled two anthologies (Couldn’t Keep It to Myself and I’ll Fly Away) of work by women inmates in a Connecticut women’s maximum-security prison. In these cases, the emphasis is on a collection of writing, a community on the inside speaking truth to us on the outside. Rather than one great writer, like Thomas More, writing for a small intellectual elite, these anthologies are mass marketed for a consumer audience of liberals. We cannot deny the power of these stories because there are just too many of them; however, the highly consumable quality of the publications — not entirely unlike the idea of watching a whole season of Orange at one sitting — makes it less likely we will act.
In truth, the American prison system is in crisis. The number of people in prison since the 1980s has more than tripled, to 751 per 100,000 people (that’s nearly 1 percent of our population). The U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other country in the world. We house half of the world’s prison population. Over half of those in prison are African-American or Hispanic. There are more black men within the various incarnations of incarceration — prison, probation or parole — than there were slaves during the height of slavery. For many urban, minority communities, prison is simply a fact of everyday life (as is prison rape, if evidenced by the number of times detectives on Law & Order: SVU threaten accused rapists and pedophiles with it). The penitentiary is both a subculture and the dominant culture all in one.
Whatever you may think about the causes of the prison population explosion or what should be done about it, America has long held contradictory views about incarceration. On the one hand, incarceration is perhaps ideally all about rehabilitation: after a certain amount of time (not necessarily commensurate with the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines), we assume or believe, given evidence, that an offender can grow to regret his crimes and become a productive member of society.
There are a lot of problems with that view, not the least of which being that overcrowded prisons seem unlikely to produce anything productive. It does, however, explain the surge in prison programs that teach inmates job training, anger management, art, drama, music, writing, etc. The idea is that these programs reduce recidivism, and most of them seem to do so. Reducing recidivism is popular among the public and politicians alike — while no one wants to be seen as “soft on crime” (especially when it comes to violent offenders — it’s a bit easier to make the case for nonviolent offenses), arguing that programs prevent ex-cons from returning to prison reduces costs all around.
But rehabilitation is at war with the other main ideology driving prison sentencing, retribution. In other words, people should be punished for what they do. This is, after all, the American way — submitting oneself to a greater authority (God and/or the state), manfully accepting that one has done wrong and deserves punishment. In his book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, author Robert Perkinson traces this foundation back to slavery — subjugate, discipline, punish (especially African-Americans).
Yet, even more contrarily, the manner in which prisons dehumanize individuals — stripping them of possessions, bodily integrity, identity, community, and dignity — confuses the issue of retribution. If someone who commits a crime is a monster, someone with whom we don’t want to identify, then the arduous procedural elements of the criminal justice process — the hearings, the trial, the parole board hearings, the write-ups for good or bad behavior, the psychological profiles — simply impede the public’s desire for good old retribution. Hangings in the public square at least are consistent, and possibly more humane than solitary confinement in a supermax. As some said, or thought, when Ariel Castro hung himself in his cell, good riddance. In other words, he was so subhuman that he didn’t deserve the chance to be stripped of his humanity. It’s often even the same voices who so quickly demonize unlikable offenders — people who, say, shoot down innocent civilians in a movie theater or plant bombs at the end of the Boston marathon — that will also exhort the virtues of rehabilitation. Furthermore, advances in science may well indicate that the causes of violent behavior are at least partially biological, which may mean that rehabilitation is simply asking the wrong questions.
Retribution is fundamentally inconsistent with rehabilitation. Retribution relies on a theory of individual choice, arguing that wrong-doers deserve punishment, while rehabilitation accepts that some people may not have been capable of making other choices at that moment (but they should know better in the future once they are schooled in guilt). You cannot think that people deserve to be punished for wrongdoing and simultaneously believe that people who commit offenses are wrong-headed and need guidance to find the proper path. And, yet, we do.
You can see these conflicting ideologies within any prison memoir. In the PEN anthologies and others like it, the author chooses how much he would like to reveal about his crime and the events which landed him in prison. Does it affect our reading of the work? It only seems to serve as a way to further sell the outside audience on an authentic experience while also making the author an autonomous agent capable of self-reflection, even though that self-reflection is state-imposed. Part of the current allure of the authorial gesture in contemporary prison writing is that the writer is permitted to become someone else — the past is in the past. As the tagline of an O magazine article on Wally Lamb’s work with inmate-writers states: “In prison, they are robbers and murders. On paper, they are women not so different from the rest of us.” Even if the crime is revealed, usually a redemptive gesture follows to argue that this crime merely represents one bad decision or moment; the writer’s life is (or now is) composed of more than that.
This rehabilitative gesture allows us, the readers, to see the inmate as like us on the outside (presumably the readership of O magazine does not include large numbers of incarcerated individuals). I was at a performance in San Quentin where inmate-actors all gave their own short pieces based on their life experiences. Someone in the audience said, “It made me think about my own life.” This move — my, he is relatable/yes, I am just like you — explains the enduring appeal of these narratives. Wouldn’t we all like to truly understand our motives and improve ourselves if only we had the time to do so? And in order to make this mental turn, to go from seeing oneself as worthless to worthy of someone’s time and attention, requires a belief in personal agency, both the ability to commit crimes of one’s own free will and to seek forgiveness for them. The writer must feel the pain of his acts, an action consistent with parole board hearing where an inmate must express requisite apologies.
At the same time, a prison narrative must reinforce its boundaries, physical and emotional. In other words, since the very function of a prison is to display the mighty power of the state, a prison narrative must focus on the day-to-day, mundane nature of life behind bars. In Kerman’s memoir, I lost count of the number of times she runs around the track. Bray’s novel spends many pages on the mundane details of prison life alongside the portrayal of each character’s inner struggles. The potential for growth in a prison narrative comes from the interior journey. Since prison, by its very nature, circumscribes a person’s ability to move freely (and is very, very boring), writers have ample opportunity to reflect on past events and motivations.
Part of what makes Orange so interesting is the fact that Piper Kerman is the presumptive consumer of her own material. She is white, liberal, educated, scornful of the trappings of uneducated femininity (like big weddings), with just a bit of a wild streak (which I like to fancy I have myself). This places her in the unique position to both testify to her own dehumanizing treatment and advocate for the better treatment for others who cannot achieve her level of discourse.
It’s a forgone conclusion that Piper is dreadfully sorry for what she has done. She writes this over and over. Yet, is this memoir a rehabilitative one? Did Piper need to spend 16 months in a federal prison to learn that being involved in a drug cartel was a bad idea? Per the book, no. Piper spends little time dwelling on why she made that decision — instead, at moments, she seems to glorify the freewheeling, thug life she had. She very judiciously states that she is “no better” than anyone else she meets in prison.
And yet, in saying so, she clearly marks herself as not from the inside. Her time in prison is like a student spending a study abroad trip in South America, a dip into an exotic culture. What about the other inmates? Do they exercise the same autonomous agency that Kerman claims she possesses? Both the show and the books seem to argue no. The other inmate characters’ crimes are as accidents, the wrong place at the wrong time, born of circumstances like poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. The show deals with this neatly — it provides each character an intriguing backstory, giving them psychological motives for their crimes, but also humanizing them, so that the audience can imagine, if they wish, that the characters have the ability to reclaim their non-criminal individual identities. Yet Kerman/Chapman herself never wrestles with this question of her own agency, so she is always an outsider, placing any authenticity of her claim to self-improvement in question.
Since the writing of the memoir and the production of the Netflix series, Kerman mostly devotes herself to advocating for improvement in prison conditions, a worthy goal. Certainly, Kerman and other writers of prison narratives are not defending the current penal system; the contradictions in their narratives are related to the contradictions inherent in the criminal justice system. But as a consumer audience, we can wonder whether these works really serve the political purposes they’d like.
We must acknowledge that, like all creative works, prison narratives are intended for consumption by readers like us. Do we read them just to exorcise our guilt? That seems to take away from the profoundly moving nature of the genre. Whether it’s because people are seeking authenticity of individual expression in an era where so much feels prepackaged and marketed or whether it’s because incarceration speaks to some kind of universal human experience, I am not sure. But the emotions are not manufactured. During the performance I attended at San Quentin, people in the audience were profoundly, genuinely moved — I saw tears and handholding, a vast swelling of catharsis among the non-incarcerated audience. Even I wanted to believe.
Image Credit: Flickr/wallyg
The morning after I saw the timely new documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, I picked up the New York Times and read an article about the Attica prison uprising, which came to its bloody end exactly 40 years ago and is prominently featured in the documentary. The article quotes newly discovered audio tapes of phone calls New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller placed to President Richard Nixon after he had ordered 1,000 police, including sharpshooters, to storm the prison, where rioting inmates had taken 33 guards hostage.
“They did a fabulous job,” Rockefeller crowed to Nixon hours after the four-day uprising was snuffed by a rain of bullets that left 39 people dead. “It really was a beautiful operation.”
At the time, the truth was not yet out – that 10 white guards were among the dead, and that the dead inmates and hostages had all been shot by police sharpshooters, not, as was originally believed, by the rioting inmates. Another truth was that negotiators had been close to a settlement with the leaders of the uprising, who were willing to free all hostages unharmed in return for amnesty from prosecution. But Rockefeller refused to go to Attica to talk directly with the inmates, fearing he would appear to be capitulating, and he adamantly refused their demand of amnesty. Instead he ordered a bloodbath.
The decision won Nixon’s hearty approval. “The courage you showed and the judgment in not granting amnesty, it was right, and I don’t care what the hell the papers or anybody else says,” Nixon told Rockefeller during their first phone call on Sept. 13, 1971. “If you would have granted amnesty in this case, it would have meant that you would have had prisons in an uproar all over this country.”
In a follow-up call to Nixon the next day, after the truth had begun to come out, Rockefeller was a bit more subdued but far from repentant. “Well, you know, this is one of those things,” he said. “You can’t have sharpshooters picking off the prisoners when the hostages are there with them, at a distance with tear gas, without maybe a few accidents.”
“Well,” Nixon replied, “you saved a lot of guards and that was worth it. You stand firm there and don’t give an inch. Because in the country, you see, the example you set may stiffen the backs of a few other governors that may have a problem.”
And then the other shoe dropped. “Tell me,” Nixon said, “are these [prisoners] primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?”
“Oh yes,” Rockefeller replied, “the whole thing was led by blacks.”
Later that day, Nixon, the master of spin, asked his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, if reports from the prison included the fact that the uprising was “basically a black thing.” Then Nixon fretted that Rockefeller’s “beautiful operation” might backfire: “That’s going to turn people off awful damn fast, that the guards were white.”
A state commission later reported that the riot was driven by black inmates unwilling to submit to the “petty humiliations and racism that characterize prison life.”
The footage that makes up The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, including footage of the Attica uprising, was shot by Swedish television crews and shown on various Swedish TV programs in the ’60s and ’70s, then consigned to a basement archive for some 40 years. It was recently discovered there by a documentary filmmaker named Göran Hugo Olsson, who stitched the footage together and added contemporary interviews with some of the people onscreen and others whose lives they influenced, including Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, the poet Sonia Sanchez, and the musicians Erykah Badu and Questlove. The result is an impressionistic portrait of how racism gave birth to the pacifist civil rights movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., how that then morphed into the more militant Black Power movement, and how the U.S. government managed to tear it apart through acts like the Attica raid, spying on militants, aggressive prosecutions, and even, according to some activists, the introduction of heroin into Northern ghettos. It’s a sobering, inspiring, and ultimately sad picture, and it shows, in black-and-white and in grainy color, how far this country has come and how far it still has to go. Barack Obama may be a huge improvement over Richard Nixon, but Rick Perry is waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, according to a new U.S. Census report, poor and middle-class blacks continue to sink even farther and faster than their white counterparts.
There are many unforgettable sequences in this documentary, which won acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is now playing in New York. (There is an accompanying exhibition of still photos, artifacts, and a video at Third Streaming gallery in SoHo, and next spring Haymarket Books will publish transcripts of the interviews Olsson conducted for the film.) In one sequence, a Swedish TV crew is trying to interview Stokely Carmichael’s mother Mabel in her living room in 1967 while her famous son sits quietly on the floor nearby. She’s reticent, obviously uncomfortable about being interviewed. Frustrated by what he’s hearing, Stokely, who by then had graduated from the pacifist Freedom Rides and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to a far more militant stance, grabs the microphone from the reporter and sits on the sofa beside his mother. Speaking softly, Stokely gets her to open up and explain that the family was poor because her husband, a carpenter, was frequently laid off jobs. Why, Stokely persists, why was he laid off so often? Finally he coaxes it out of her. “It was because he was colored,” she says, adding, almost apologetically, “In those days we didn’t say Negro.” This last remark lends the interview its proper sepia tone, establishing it as a relic from a long-gone era. And it emphasizes just how far the young man with the microphone had to travel before he could dare to coin the electrifying slogan “Black Power.”
Another memorable sequence is a 1972 interview with Angela Davis, the former student of Herbert Marcuse who, at the urging of California Gov. Ronald Reagan, had been fired from her job teaching philosophy at UCLA because of her affiliation with the Communist party. The interview took place in the jail cell where Davis was awaiting trial on trumped-up charges that she was the owner of a gun that was used in a courthouse shootout. (President Nixon applauded the FBI for capturing this “dangerous terrorist” after she fled California. She was later acquitted.) When the jailhouse interviewer asks Davis how she responds to charges that the Black Power movement is violent, she bristles. In a stinging, sometimes shrill voice, she delivers a thumbnail sketch of what it was like to grow up black in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, Ala., what it was like to have friends die in church bombings, what it was like to live in constant fear of vigilante violence. “And you ask me about violence?!” she cries indignantly at the Swedish reporter.
These two segments put a personal and very human face on the roots of a movement that has, over time, come to be remembered largely for its rhetoric, its slogans, and its icons, including the raised clenched fist, the Afro, the black panther, the gun-toting men in berets, shades, and leather jackets. This humanizing is a great service. In addition to Carmichael and Davis, we see Harry Belafonte chatting with Dr. King in Stockholm, we see the articulate Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party, being interviewed in Stockholm, and we see a frayed and chain-smoking Kathleen Cleaver in Algeria in 1969. The Black Panther Party’s communications secretary looks haunted, hunted. Without saying so outright, the movie implies that such a look comes with the territory when you’re married to a man who was on the run from an attempted murder charge, a man capable of writing a book as incendiary as Soul On Ice.
There is, mercifully, a bit of dark humor here too. The movie reminded me of something I had forgotten – that when Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme likened the U.S.’s 1972 bombing of Hanoi to Nazi war crimes, the U.S. froze diplomatic relations with Sweden. Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” was, obviously, capacious enough to accommodate entire nations. Sweden comes in for more heat in the documentary when the editor of TV Guide is shown slamming Swedish journalists for their “hostile” coverage of American news. The documentary then points out, dryly, that TV Guide was published by Nixon’s wealthy crony Walter Annenberg, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.
The charge against the Swedish journalists is not only fatuous and self-serving, it’s simply wrong. As The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 demonstrates, these journalists approached their interview subjects with great openness and compassion, which is more than can be said of many American journalists in that era. The result is three-dimensional portraits of people who were responding to 400 years of repression in the only ways they knew how – sometimes through prayer, sometimes through passive resistance, sometimes through fiery slogans, sometimes through political organizing, and sometimes through violence. As the divisions of class and race continue to harden and widen in this country, I say we could use more leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, with their beautiful, hard-earned fury. The time for the Nelson Rockefellers, Ronald Reagans, and Richard Nixons and their “beautiful” operations is gone. Now, with the poor of all races getting poorer and with the middle class sinking fast, it’s time to dust off an old question and an old slogan. The question: Where is the outrage? The slogan: All Power to the People.
Think of classic books by black Americans, particularly those written before the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll come up with a lot of autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Richard Wright’s Black Boy; and James Baldwin’s lightly fictionalized Go Tell It on the Mountain. There’s a good reason for this. From Frederick Douglass to Barack Obama, African Americans wanting to enter a national literary conversation dominated by white writers have first had to make the more basic assertion that their voices deserve to be heard, and for much of American history they have done that by telling their life stories. But for almost as long as African Americans have been writing autobiographies, white critics have been claiming the black authors didn’t write the books that bear their names. Early slave narratives often included phrases like “written by him/herself” in the title to reassure readers they were getting the straight story, and in the case of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, some scholars mistook Jacobs’ memoir for a polemical novel written by her white editor, Lydia Maria Child.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X presents quite the opposite problem. The cover of the book states clearly that someone else – namely, Alex Haley – wrote the text, but since it was published in 1965, most readers have naturally assumed they were hearing the unfiltered voice of Malcolm X. In his new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, the late Manning Marable argues that “[i]n many ways, the published book is more Haley’s than its author’s.” Marable claims that Haley, a liberal Republican who favored racial integration, tempered Malcolm’s more extreme positions, particularly his anti-Semitism. In addition, Marable argues, Haley helped to idealize Malcolm, smoothing over the bumps in his sometimes rocky marriage to Betty Shabazz and skirting possible homosexual behavior in Malcolm’s past as well as an adulterous affair Marable contends may have continued right up until the last night of Malcolm’s life.
This is potent stuff for those who care about Malcolm X and his legacy. Marable’s biography, which has earned largely positive reviews from the mainstream press, has drawn blistering attacks from critics like Karl Evanzz, author of The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad, whose review calling the Marable book “an abomination” was so incendiary it had be withdrawn from the journal that commissioned it. But whether The Autobiography represents the true testament of a martyred black icon or a sly act of ventriloquism by his more moderate collaborator, the book presents, to my mind, a more puzzling literary conundrum: how did the story of a man who for most of his adult life considered white people “devils” become a classic beloved as much by the very white readers it attacks as by the black readers it champions?
The answer no doubt has something to do with Haley, who wrote for white-owned mainstream magazines and knew how to shape his subject’s story for a white audience. But I would argue that the book’s enduring transracial appeal has far more to do with the singular journey Malcolm X takes in the Autobiography from fiery black separatist minister who describes himself as “the angriest black man in America” to a profoundly religious man gunned down by his former followers for, among other things, daring to profess that white people are not devils. This narrative arc soothes the conscience of white readers laboring under the weight of historical guilt, putting them in the novel position of rooting for a black martyr against the forces of intolerance, and more subtly, offering them a route to racial absolution. If the “angriest black man in America” no longer hates you, the book seems to say to white people, then maybe you’re not all bad.
Whoever wrote it, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a hell of a book. First, there is the story itself, which remains in its broad outlines unscathed by Marable’s scholarly sleuthing. Malcolm Little’s father, Earl, was a Baptist minister and committed black separatist in Lansing, Michigan who was cut almost in half by a runaway streetcar – whether by accident or at the hands of racist whites, no one can say for sure. After his father’s death, Malcolm’s overwhelmed mother slowly lost her grip on reality and landed in a mental institution, causing young Malcolm to quit school after the eighth grade and strike out for the East Coast, first to Boston, and then to New York’s Harlem, where he became a pimp, drug dealer, and burglar. The memoir paints an indelible portrait of 1940s Harlem where Malcolm seemed to know everyone, from musicians Sonny Greer and Billie Holiday, to colorful hustlers like West Indian Archie, a mathematical prodigy and numbers runner capable of keeping hundreds of his customers’ lottery picks in his head without resorting to pen and paper.
Ultimately, though, the most fascinating character is Malcolm himself. By his own admission, he was a feral figure during his Harlem days, operating with “a jungle mind,” scamming everyone he met to get what he needed:
I believed a man should do anything he was slick enough, or bad or bold enough, to do, and that a woman was nothing but another commodity. Every word I spoke was hip or profane. I would bet that my working vocabulary wasn’t two hundred words.
It is this attitude, borne out by the book’s descriptions of Malcolm’s hustler persona, that makes his later prison transformation so riveting. When he first arrives in prison, Malcolm is so angry and violent his fellow inmates call him “Satan,” but within months of his introduction to the Nation of Islam, he discovers both a deep religious faith and a latent intellectual passion. These passages, the famous scenes of Malcolm in his cell reading Spinoza by the dim light coming through the bars, are among the most memorable in the book – and, I would argue, offer clues to the enduring appeal of the book for educated white readers. For one thing, his metamorphosis from functional illiterate to world-class intellectual seems to confirm the liberal white piety that all poor black people lack is education, while at the same time taking the onus for providing this education away from white society. After all, the man was in prison. No special program was required, no tax dollars had to be expended to send him to college. All Malcolm needed – and in a certain kind of white reader’s mind, all any poor black man needs – is some time and a little self-motivation.
More subtly, though, the prison section draws educated readers because it offers them an unexpected emotional connection to an angry, uneducated black felon. I’m sure this is true for readers of all races, but it seems to me it’s uniquely true for whites, who, if they are anything like me, first encounter The Autobiography in college. The first time I read it, between my junior and senior years at NYU, I was myself awakening to a deep hunger for books and knowledge. I still remember sitting on the fire escape of my squalid shared apartment in Hoboken, reading the passage in which, discovering he can barely read, Malcolm assigns himself the task of copying the entire dictionary word for word. “I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened,” he writes,
I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from the until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of a book with a wedge.
This was deeply moving to me. This former ghetto hustler and thief could not have been more different from me, but he was experiencing the same intellectual transformation and feeling the same intellectual excitement that I was. It wasn’t just that I admired Malcolm in these passages. I wanted to be him. For fifty-odd pages, this white college kid from the California suburbs identified with – idealized, even – the angriest black man in America, and I’m going to guess I wasn’t alone.
There is, of course, a fundamental callowness in this. Malcolm was reading to save his very life, whereas I was reading to finish college and follow my parents into a secure white-collar profession. Still, the primal power of this emotional identification with Malcolm can’t be underestimated, because from the prison section onward readers like me aren’t just following the interesting adventures of a historical figure – we’re traveling with him. We feel his triumph as he races around the country establishing mosques for the Nation of Islam. We relish his public jousting matches against racist whites and “Uncle Thomases Ph.D.” Most importantly, we begin to see the world through his eyes. We go with him back to the Harlem streets he once knew and meet the ruin that West Indian Archie has become, a ghostly figure “in rumpled pajamas and barefooted” living a cheap rented room. And because we have come to trust Malcolm’s razor-sharp mind, we begin to draw the same conclusions that he does, that white people are to blame for this tragedy, and for the wider tragedy of black poverty in Harlem and around the nation. That most illogical of propositions – I am evil – begins, in the pages of Malcolm X’s memoir, to seem the only rational conclusion one could draw.
This is why the ending, both Malcolm’s abandonment of his black separatist ideology and his eventual martyrdom, is so crucial to the story’s appeal. The great enigma of the book is Malcolm’s attachment to Elijah Muhammad, the quiet, gnomic nonentity at the head of the Nation of Islam. If Malcolm is so smart, the reader wants to know, how can he be taken in by this obvious charlatan with his cockamamie racial origin theories and his sad parade of pregnant secretaries? There is, I think, a deeply personal answer to this question. The memoir begins with the death of Earl Little, whom Malcolm both feared and idealized, and Elijah Muhammad, for all his flaws, serves as the proud black father figure Malcolm lost when he was six. But it is also true that Muhammad spoke to the darkest side of Malcolm’s rage. Muhammad’s theology, with its slapdash mix of ersatz sharia law and tent-show hokum, makes no sense at all, and his political philosophy of total disengagement from white society is a dead end. But what makes sense to Inmate “Satan” locked away in a Massachusetts state prison, is the image of white people as “blue-eyed devils” bent on destroying a once proud race of black people.
If the book had ended there, with Malcolm fulminating about “blue-eyed devils” and “so-called Negroes,” The Autobiography likely would have shared the fate of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, another popular 1960s memoir by a radicalized former convict, which is now little more than a museum piece. Instead, The Autobiography has sold millions of copies, inspired a major Hollywood film starring Denzel Washington, and remains even now, 46 years after its publication, a staple of college syllabi. All this, I would argue, is due to Malcolm’s final separation from the Nation of Islam.
The break with Elijah Muhammad officially followed Malcolm’s public comment that the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy was a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” but really it turned on a far more intimate matter: Muhammad, the great moral arbiter of the Nation of Islam, had impregnated a string of secretaries, including, Marable claims, one of Malcolm’s former girlfriends. Once unseated from his powerful perch in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became The Man Who Knew Too Much, and was marked for death by his former co-religionists. His response to this betrayal displayed an almost superhuman moral courage. First, he organized a group to carry on his fight against discrimination in America, and second, he decided to take his Islamic faith seriously and make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Malcolm X’s journey to Mecca is the stuff of legend. He completed the Hajj, the ritual visit to the most holy sites in Islamic culture, and in the days leading up to it, he was treated with respect by Arabs who, had they been Americans, would have been considered white.
That morning was when I first began to reappraise the “white man.” It was when I first began to perceive that “white man,” as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, “white man” meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.
It is odd, to say the least, for an American in 2011 to read of devout Islam as a bastion of tolerance, and Malcolm, who knew little about the Middle East, vastly underestimates the seething tensions that have riven that part of the world for centuries. But for a white reader pre-9/11, Malcolm’s about-face on the moral capacity of white people offered an escape from the bind presented by the rest of the book. White people are not evil by nature, Malcolm now says, but become evil through social conditioning, which means that a white person can choose not to be evil.
In its content, this message is no different than the teachings of Martin Luther King and other black leaders of the period, but here it is the source that matters. Just a hundred pages earlier, when a young white woman sought Malcolm out after a speech to ask what she could do, he told her flatly, “Nothing.” Now, he says he wishes he could find that girl again and tell her what she can do, which, he emphasizes, is not to join hands with black people in the ghetto for a few rousing choruses of “We Shall Overcome.” Instead, he calls on white people to go “out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities.” This, finally, is what is so potent in the story of Malcolm X for white readers: he grants us our moral agency. He is not asking for our pity. He is not asking for our money. He is asking us, in the plainest way possible, to exercise moral courage in our own lives just as he has done in his. A few dozen pages later, when he is gunned down by Nation of Islam thugs during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom, he is, in one sense, dying in the defense of the proposition that people of all races possess that moral courage, and that if they exercise it they can change the world.
In March 1986, my first winter in New York, I was mugged in a deserted parking lot a few blocks north of Madison Square Park while coming home from a party downtown. It’s a funny story, actually. My mugger was unarmed, basically a panhandler who’d decided to take the direct approach, and by the time it was over I’d talked him into giving me my money back. But what strikes me now, thinking back on that night, is how alien my mugging story seems to the New York I live in now. My old neighborhood, which now goes by the trendy moniker NoMad, was then a sketchy warren of all-night bodegas and welfare hotels. A block from where I was mugged a friend of mine was held up at gunpoint by a nine-year-old. A girl I dated fended off a would-be rapist who surprised her on her apartment building’s elevator by biting the man on the face. And on just about any night you could walk along 23rd Street below Madison Square Park where the hookers hung out and see car after car with Jersey plates parked along the sidewalk, lights off, the motor running, a half-naked girl draped over the driver’s seat.
That New York is gone now, buried beneath a glossy veneer of banker dollars and realtor blarney. In his new book, The Savage City, T.J. English pulls back this moneyed façade to expose an angry, crime-ridden New York City all but forgotten in the rush to gentrify picturesque blocks of former ghettos like Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. His tale makes for fascinating history and a necessary corrective for those who imagine the New York of a bygone era as all pencil skirts and three-martini lunches, but it is a story I fear is destined to fall on deaf ears in today’s amnesiac, relentlessly forward-looking city.
English, the author of several earlier books on organized crime, structures The Savage City as a kind of police procedural, following the story of a slow-witted young black man named George Whitmore, who is framed by corrupt police officers for a number of violent crimes, including a headline-grabbing murder of two young white women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But English is after bigger game than a simple true-crime thriller. He uses Whitmore’s ten-year ordeal in the New York criminal justice system as a lens onto a broader story of racial conflict, radical politics, and police corruption that takes readers from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in 1963 to a series of vicious cop killings carried out by a violent offshoot of the Black Panther Party a decade later.
This tactic of using a reader-friendly narrative device to drive a complex, multi-level work of social history can be risky, but in Whitmore, English has found a perfect vehicle for the story he wants to tell. Quiet, polite, and so nearsighted he was clinically blind, Whitmore, “the proverbial invisible Negro,” was in New Jersey watching Dr. King’s famous speech on television on August 28, 1963 at the moment the two young, white “career girls,” Janice Wylie and Emily Hoffert, were brutally murdered in their apartment on East 88th Street in Manhattan. A few months later, while hunting for work in Brooklyn, Whitmore became ensnared in the investigation of an unrelated sexual assault of a Puerto Rican woman. Whitmore’s description of his police interrogation at the station house that night casts a light on an ugly, violent underworld:
“The detective kept on saying that I was suppose’ to have raped this lady, and then he started punchin’ on me…Then they stood me in front of a chair, and every time I said, ‘I never seen this lady before,’ I got knocked into the chair until I thought the chair was going to break underneath me. I told them, ‘If I told you that I did do what you said I did, I’d be lyin’.’ They called me a liar and kept beatin’ on me. So I just broke down and said, yes.”
After police persuaded him to “confess” to this crime, along with a second unsolved rape case involving a middle-aged black woman, yet another detective tried to get Whitmore to confess to the so-called Career Girls Murders as well. This took some doing, since not only had Whitmore never heard of the Career Girls Murders but he’d never even been to the Upper East Side. No matter. After nearly twenty-four hours of police questioning, he copped to that crime, too, and the next morning the “jig named Whitmore” was paraded before the press as a serial rapist and murderer.
From this beginning, English widens the aperture to include a bent cop on the take named Bill Phillips and a former gangbanger and petty criminal with the chosen name of Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who became a leader of the New York arm of the Black Panther Party. And herein lies the real value of English’s book. Typically, you see these stories handled separately. You get a book like Serpico on the culture of corruption in the New York Police Department that led to the infamous Knapp Commission hearings. Or you get books like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice or Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flack Catchers, which deal with the politics of the Black Power Movement. Or you get any one of hundreds of books and articles exploring the causes of the rise and fall of the crime epidemic in New York City in the second half of the 20th century. In The Savage City, English combines these three stories into one, arguing in effect that none of them makes sense without a full understanding of the other two.
At times, the disparate threads of English’s narrative threaten to unravel, but what ultimately holds them together is the endemic poverty found in neighborhoods across 1960s New York, especially those populated by recent black transplants from the rural South. “There were no social services in these neighborhoods,” one Italian-American cop recalls:
“Nobody picked up the garbage. In East Harlem people would throw their garbage out the back window and it piled up almost to the first-floor windows. And there were rats everywhere. More than once I saw young children who had toes gnawed to stubs because their apartments were infested with rats.”
Grinding poverty, combined with rigidly enforced residential segregation, begat a culture of lawlessness, which was met, in turn, with violence and indifference from the judicial system, which was run almost entirely by white people. Cops routinely beat confessions out of black suspects they believed to be guilty, and without black lawyers, judges, or in many cases even black jurors, there was no way for an innocent black man to defend himself. Worse, the widespread sense among white police officers and civilians alike that black people were inherently criminal led crooked cops to prey on defenseless ghetto-dwellers. While corrupt policemen wet their beaks in all precincts of the city, English argues, they were especially aggressive in their graft in poor, black neighborhoods. “The truth was, most cops hated the ghetto,” he writes. “And for many it was a short leap from being disgusted by the people and the conditions of that environment to fleecing it shamelessly for personal profit.”
Finally, in the 1960s, black New Yorkers struck back, first through the fiery rhetoric of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, and after his assassination in 1965, through the far less disciplined leaders of the Black Panther Party. Much of The Savage City is devoted to placing the split between the nonviolent Southern Civil Rights Movement and the more violent Northern Black Power Movement into its proper historical context. In the South, segregation was the law, which meant Dr. King and others could afford to wait for Southern lawmen overplay their hands on national TV and then push the courts to change the laws. In Northern cities like New York, the Bull Connors of the world would never dream of turning their dogs on preachers and innocent school children. They did their violence behind closed doors, which gave Northern race activists little option but to take their fight to the streets, which they did with a vengeance in the late 1960s.
Unlike many historians of the era, especially white liberal ones, who tend to adopt the faintly patronizing stance that to be poor and black is to be by definition without moral complication, English has some sympathy for the white cops. As the violence ratcheted upward in the later years of the decade, hard-line black activists tended to direct their attacks not against ordinary citizens, but against the police, who were often the only white people who actually ventured into the ghetto. By the early 1970s, once the Black Power Movement had run its course and its leaders had split into warring factions, the more extreme elements of the movement unleashed a series of attacks in which cops were lured by false emergency calls and then ambushed. In one especially unsettling incident in 1972, two NYPD officers were gunned down execution style by multiple gunmen, one of whom “danced in the street and fired shots in the air in celebration” after shooting one of the wounded cops in the groin.
English argues that the scars of this savage era lives on today even as New York has been transformed into America’s safest big city, but I’m not so sure. Pockets of abject poverty still exist in New York, and as the Sean Bell killing five years ago attest, New York’s Finest can still be trigger-happy when it comes to young black men. But New York today is nothing like it was a generation ago. In the 1980s, when I first moved here, 42nd Street was a squalid eyesore. The South Bronx looked like a bomb had hit. The subways were terrifying after midnight, and whole neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Northern Manhattan had been laid to waste by crack cocaine. That just is no longer true today. After 9/11, New Yorkers fearful for their safety began to look upward, scanning the skies for low-flying planes, rather than into the dark alleys of their own neighborhoods.
A sense of how utterly the memory of the bad old days has faded in the half century since George Whitmore was framed for the Career Girls Murders can be found in how little critical heat The Savage City has attracted. Jon Stewart put English on The Daily Show, but the New York Times has yet to do a full-scale review, and a Google search for other reviews of The Savage City turns up a smattering of newspaper and blog raves alongside stories about an R&B band called Savage City. This isn’t English’s fault. He has done his part by turning out a terrific work of social history, but he’s spitting in the wind. Since 9/11, and even more so since the election of Barack Obama, New York City – and white America, in general – has been living in a bubble of denial when it comes to the issues of race and poverty. White people say, “Yes, yes, of course racism still exists,” and shake their heads at the ever-growing income gap and the shocking incarceration rates of young black men, but as a society, we lack a communal memory of where these factors can lead. What I don’t know, and what The Savage City cannot tell us, is whether this complacency is rooted in genuine systemic change or whether it is just – well, denial. After all, most white New Yorkers in the early 1960s had no idea how angry the poor black people around them were, either. They, too, lived in a bubble of denial, telling themselves, “Yes, there are racists down South, but here in the North, we all get along just fine.” And then ten years later, radicalized black men were shooting cops in cold blood and dancing with joy over their corpses.