WHAT PRISON TAKES AWAY
From the May 2016 Atlantic
“Certain kinds of black men’s stories are ever in vogue, stories that offer the easy paradigm of criminality and putative redemption.” This warning, from the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s essay “A Black Man Says ‘Sorbet,’ ” was aimed at the prison memoirist. It challenged and haunted me as I wrote my own memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. What I wanted to say about the eight years I spent in prison (from the ages of 16 to 24) was inevitably tied up in stories that have become all too familiar today, when one in three black boys in the United States can expect to go to prison. Assuming the role of redeemed witness to the chaos of incarceration poses a danger: You risk reinforcing the stereotype of black criminality and fueling a notion that the worthy will emerge from the hell of imprisonment the better for it.
Enter Austin Reed, the author of the oldest known prison memoir by an African American. He was locked up as a 10-year-old boy in the early 1830s, in the nation’s first juvenile reformatory, the House of Refuge, on New York City’s Bowery. By the time he finished writing his account, probably in 1858, he was behind bars in upstate New York, one of the small fraction of black inmates in a then overwhelmingly white prison population. In and out of prison, he wasn’t writing as a redeemed witness, nor was he describing a penal system as racialized as the modern criminal-justice process has become. Reed—likely named after Austin Steward, the abolitionist and author of Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, who lived in Rochester, New York, while Reed was growing up there—wrote from the perspective of a freeborn black man acutely aware of the whip’s power to destroy humanity. In The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, completed about five years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Reed reveals the stark reality beneath a comparison that has become a rhetorical staple: the shared logic of prison and slavery. His account is a reminder of the power of prison, despite whatever rehabilitative designs lawmakers and administrators may endorse at different times, to break human beings.
Read the rest of the essay here: WHAT PRISON TAKES AWAY