[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]
Today I received a journal rejection. It wasn’t my first and it won’t be my last. But this rejection hit me in a way that the others have yet to do. Many of the criticisms have weight: I could read more prison writing, I can revise my structure and my writing, I could include more historiographical footnotes. But others seemed to ignore, and argue against, the very premise of my article. I argued that the Angola 3, because of their long-time imprisonment, status as a cause celebre, and association with radical politics, haven’t been considered intellectuals in their own right. I argue that because of their incarceration, they used non-traditional means like education, protest, and candy production as intellectual work – and that these are a form of intellectual production, in the same way that writing is. But my reviewer commented that the tutoring and political education classes held within the prison meant that the Angola 3 were educators, not intellectuals. That their political organizing meant they were activists, not intellectuals. That their time spent reading George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, and Malcom X meant that they were simply well read and not intellectuals. I stopped reading, confused about what these incarcerated men would have to do to receive the stamp of “intellectual.” Can’t a well-read educator and activist be an intellectual? In fact, aren’t they often? To the reviewer, even writing an autobiography in conversation with prison writers and political philosophers wasn’t intellectual work.
Maybe this means I didn’t prove my point. I’m not sure. But I know it means that my definition of intellectual, however fuzzy and broadly construed it may be, is not something that eliminates people with non-traditional backgrounds from conversations, but takes pains to include them.
If writing and reading, thinking and organizing, and teaching aren’t works of intellectual production for the incarcerated what is? If the incarcerated can be intellectuals, but only if they operate under certain standards and parameters, is this truly a more inclusive acknowledgement of intellectual work? I don’t think so. I still contend that the members of the Angola 3 are intellectuals – because of their poetry and memoir, their organizing and tutoring, their candy production, and speaking tours. They have used them to assert their own critiques of inequities and of the Black Panther Party, and to me, that is enough.