U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Makes a Prison Writer?

This year at the National Council on Public History Conference, I had the honor of seeing the Duchess of Stringtown, a play written and researched by women in the Indiana Women’s Prison. Elements of the story were dramatized, and some characters were composites, but the play was overwhelmingly based on intense archival and library research. The play focused on the life and death of the Duchess of Stringtown, a powerful woman living in the former Red Light district of Indianapolis. The play was amazingly acted and written-but more than that it was an important piece of historical work.

Over the past year, I’ve been writing about African American women’s prison writing and the ways in which it is excluded from the canon of prison writing that has developed in the last few decades. This isn’t to say that there aren’t scholars working and writing about these issues-the work of literary scholar Judith Schleffler comes to mind. While work written by white prison writers is often seen as literature, which no description or disclaimer attached (think Oscar Wilde and Fyodor Dostoevsky). The canon of prison writers is often dominated by African American men, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, even Eldridge Cleaver. The most well known exceptions to this phenomenon are Angela Davis and Assata Skakur. 

It’s easy to explain away the under representation of African American women’s prison writers by statistics. The prison population is overwhelmingly male. But there is more to this story: do women’s prison have the same kinds of writing classes, programs, and prison magazines? Do they have access to the same resources from places like Pen America? Not necessarily.

In some of my work, I’m doing some close readings of some African American women’s prison writing, and exploring the ways in which rage manifests as a political act. Many of the scholars of women’s prison writing have argued that it’s useful as a form of expression or a therapeutic tool, but most don’t treat it has literature or history or scholarship it’s own write.

My next few blog posts will focus on individual pieces of African American women’s prison writing- some published in anthologies like Judith Schleffer’s Wall Tappings and Pen America’s 4th City, while other’s will come from the American Prison Writing Archive, an amazing digital project that nevertheless only features two pieces by African American women. By focusing on some of these writings individually, I hope to focus on the political critiques, the historical work, and the ways in which these women are still some of the most overlooked intellectuals.

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  1. Just wanted to say I am looking forward to this series–I did not realize until reading your post just how much of a chasm there was in my reading diet!

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