Guest Post by Holly Genovese
Last weekend, Albert Woodfox walked free after 43 years of incarceration, much of which was spent in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for the murder of prison guard Brent Miller. Woodfox, alongside Herman Wallace and Robert Hillary King, has long contended that they were unfairly incarcerated because of their association with the Black Panther Party.
I have spent the better part of three years writing about Woodfox, Wallace, and King. My interests began in the Black Power origins of the Angola 3 and their connections to the New Orleans Black Panther Party. But as I continued to write about the Angola 3, I started to argue for an intellectual history of the Angola 3. Knowledge creators and producers don’t have to be in positions of power and in fact the Angola 3 follow in a long line of incarcerated writers and artists using art and intellectual pursuits to gain power. The Angola 3 have done just this. By writing and participating in art projects the Angola 3 have attempted to change narratives about the Black Panther Party and its aims, as well as the perceived guilt of Albert Woodbox and Herman Wallace in the 1972 murder of prison guard Brent Miller.
The Angola 3 are by no means the first or most significant intellectuals to come out of the American carceral state. From Martin Luther King Jr to George Jackson to Eldridge Cleaver the Angola 3 follow in a long tradition of African American writers, artists, and activists who have claimed agency and protested their condition through art and writing. But by using art and writing to protest their condition, the Angola 3 have shifted conversations about both the use of solitary confinement and the Black Panther Party.
Robert Hillary King, inspired by his favorite book Native Son by Richard Wright, wrote his autobiography From the Bottom of the Heap in his cell at Angola. In his autobiography King details his early life, his struggles with poverty in New Orleans and family issues. King also writes about his politicization and his eventual engagement with radical politics. In his book, King declares that he would not stop fighting until both Herman Wallace and Albert Woodbox were freed. Through writing King found a way to help cope with the intense isolation of incarceration and to control his own story and the memory of his incarceration. It also allowed King to articulate why he wanted to be involved in both the Black Panther Party and the Angola 3. King argues that while self-defense attracted him to the Black Panther Party, that he felt that the non-violent Civil Rights movement had abandoned low-income African Americans and Black Power fit his goals more closely. King emphasizes the community centered aims of the Black Panther Party over the rhetoric of the national party focusing on self focus and his writing allowed him to articulate these preferences.
The late Herman Wallace used both poetry and art to decry his treatment in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He published poetry in places like Prison radio, and while he asserted that he was not a poet, he wrote poetry as protest and to publicize his condition. Wallace wrote, in his poem A Defined Voice, that “The louder my voice the deeper they bury me I SAID, THE LOUDER MY VOICE THE DEEPER THEY BURY ME! Free all political prisoners, prisoners of war, prisoner of consciousness,” and very explicitly linked his writing to his activism. Both Herman Wallace and Albert Woodbox wrote essay’s in Anita Roddick’s collection on kindness to further publicize the Angola 3 and the immorality of solitary confinement. Wallace also worked with artist Jackie Sumell on The House that Herman Built collaboration that resulted in a documentary, website, and book in which Sumell helped Wallace design his dream house. This served to expose the cruelties of solitary confinement and to humanize Herman Wallace.
Albert Woodfox also participated in numerous documentaries created to publicize the unjust treatment of the Angola 3 and their status as Black Panthers such as The Angola Three: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation. These documentaries often compared Angola to slave plantations, focused on COINTELPRO and the government fight against Black Power, and depicted the Angola 3 as martyrs and activists suffering because of their dedication to Black Power and bettering prison conditions.
Activists outside the Angola 3 have also used intellectual pursuits to change the narrative around the Angola 3. Former Black Panther Malik Rahim helped create the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3 and has spoken out in various mediums in support of the Angola 3. Orissa Arend, a New Orleans based Psychotherapist, wrote a book on the New Orleans Black Panther Party and the Angola 3 entitled Showdown in Desire. Arend’s book is heavily based on oral history interviews and explicitly argues that Woodfox, Wallace, and King were targeted because of their association with the Black Panther Party. Countless murals were painted, most recently Brandon Odum’s New Orleans mural of Albert Woodfox that emphasizes the small size of his prison cell and the unfairness of his incarceration. In 2014, Amnesty International published a French language graphic novel that depicts former Angola Warden Burl Cain in an unflattering light and attempts to vindicate the Angola 3. When taken together, these projects represent a movement in which the Angola 3 has become both a cause celebre and the center of an intellectual movement, undergirded by the ideology of the Black Panther Party, to redefine the meaning of Black Power and emphasize the immorality of the criminal justice system. By focusing on incarcerated people as intellectuals as well as activists we can recognize their historic intellectual and artistic contributions.
Holly Genovese is a Ph.D student in the history department at Temple University. She received her M.A. in history from the University of South Carolina in 2015. Her interests are in late 20th century urban history, the New South, and race and incarceration. Her first article, Not a Myth: Quakers and Racial Justice, was published in the March 2015 issue of Quaker Studies.