Freedom Vision (Chester Himes)

Freedom Vision (Chester Himes)


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Oftentimes, the lynched man would not only be hung but

his fingers, toes and genitals cut from his body—an infinite

segmentation—and customarily the dismembered corpse would

be left hanging in full view for days, as a symbol of white

power over the icon of black strength.



If He Hollers Let Him Go!  /  Cotton Comes to Harlem  / Rage in Harlem  / The Third-Generation  / Cast the First Stone

The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years: Autobiography  / My Life of Absurdity-Autobiography  /  The Collected Stories of Chester-Himes

The End of a Primitive  /  Yesterday Will Make You Cry  /  Lonely Crusade  /  Conversations with Chester Himes

*   *   *   *   *

Freedom Vision

interrogation-story, imprisonment-fact, subjection-theory,

 reverse lynching and the no way out of the black panoptics, and the better world

 By Keenan Norris


“They handcuffed my feet together and my hands behind my back, hung me upside down on an open door by the handcuffs about my ankles with my handcuffed hands hanging down along my spine past the back of my skull. Then they stuck the butts of their pistols inside their felt hats and began beating me about the ribs and testicles. I wanted to faint but I remained conscious. There was too much pain and not enough hurt. Finally, I mumbled that I would confess” (Himes, The Quality of Hurt, 56).

Chester Himes’ account of his interrogation in regard to the Cleveland Heights’ jewel theft, for which he would eventually serve seven and a half years in the Ohio State Penitentiary, testifies, I think, to a transitional phase in the American penal system. Himes was tried and sentenced in December of 1928 and served from 1929-1936 for his crime. Chronologically, this places his arrest, interrogation and conviction at the end of the Ku Klux Klan’s last great spasm of serial lynching and still prior to the post-WWII migration of poor blacks from the South into the Northern ghettoes, an exodus that would eventually create the base of impoverished city-dwellers necessary for the United States’ current imprisonment-age. The imprisonment-age, while not more brutal than the earlier methods of punishment, has multiplied the means of punishment– chiefly by an increase in the numbers of prisons and prisoners—exponentially.

Looking closely at the technique of torture visited upon Himes, we see a strange conflation of the extravagant Jim Crow-era style of punishment and the modern refinement of the methods of punishment. On the one hand, there is a black male body hung from a great height; he is handcuffed so that his “hands [are] hanging down along [his] spine,” and he is beaten about his ribs and genitals. The image recalls nothing so much as that epitome of the unreconstructed South, the lynched black male body. It also recalls nothing so much as the antiquated and extravagant execution that Foucault describes as “the infinite segmentation of the body of the regicide: a manifestation of the strongest power over the body of the greatest criminal, whose total destruction made the crime explode into its truth” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 227). Oftentimes, the lynched man would not only be hung but his fingers, toes and genitals cut from his body—an infinite segmentation—and customarily the dismembered corpse would be left hanging in full view for days, as a symbol of white power over the icon of black strength. Through lynching, not so much the crime, but the suppression of dissent exploded into its truth. 


Way Down South in Dixie

(Break the heart of me)

They hung my dark young lover

To a cross roads tree.


Way Down South in Dixie

(Bruised body high in air)

I asked the white Lord Jesus

What was the use of prayer.


Way Down South in Dixie

(Break the heart of me)

Love is a naked shadow

On a gnarled and naked tree.

                            (Langston Hughes, “Song For a Dark Girl”)

Hughes’ poem, which I remember like a tolling bell, positions the lynched black male body in its iconic role. Its nakedness implies its exposure and physical violation, its figuration as shadow implies its blackness. Though the poem is entitled “Song For a Dark Girl,” the subject here is not the girl but her male lover. Although there is a considerable literature regarding the objectification and subjugation of the black female body, it is important to remember that the primary image of black suppression in the public imagination of segregation-era America was the lynched black male body. As Hughes’ poem suggests, while this was an image created and imposed on blacks by white vigilantes, the lynched black male body became iconic in the black popular imagination as well as the white; the only difference being that some whites might have thought the suppression justified, whereas blacks thought it unjust and indefensible.

Ethical opinions aside, the centrality of this image is crucial. Black Americans have a historically adversarial relationship to their government (enslavement, segregation, etc.) so to maintain a relatively peaceful nation, it was imperative that rituals of discipline and punishment be visited on this group to dissuade them from revolt. “The primary technique in . . . enforcement,” Ralph Ellison writes, “is to impress the Negro child with the omniscience and omnipotence of the whites . . . effected through an elaborate scheme of taboos supported by a ruthless physical violence, which strikes not only the offender but the entire black community” (Ellison, Shadow and Act, 84). In particular, it was imperative to attack black America at the supposed center of its strength, the black male body. Thus, though black women, Jews and others were lynched in the South in great number, it was the image of the lynched black male that functioned as the primary example of the result of dissent. Again, Ellison: “Having learned through experience that the whole group is  punished for the actions of the single member, [the black community] has worked out efficient techniques of behavior control” (Ellison, 90).

This was the old way of things.

With Himes case, we move into a strange borderland between the segregation-era style of suppression which Ellison and Hughes describe and our very different modern system of control. The new system was envisioned by Foucault: Panopticism, the substitution of a complex set of rules, probations, physical limitations for actual physical violence. The genius of Panopticism, as Foucault laid it out, was that unlike actual violence, which is as limited as the body upon which it is visited, discipline via impersonal enforcements can become infinitely more various and ultimately more restricting.

As evidence of this shift, note the subtle difference between the lynching described in the Hughes poem, or any lynching for that matter, and the punishment visited on Himes. First and most importantly, Himes is hanged upside down so that he will not die; it is literally a lynching in reverse. Second, he is tortured in a concealed interrogation chamber far from public view. Third, he is beaten only badly enough to make him confess, not to faint, let alone die. The act, made legal by the fact that officers of the law are perpetrating it, can only legally be termed an interrogation; even Himes terms it an “interrogation” (Himes, The Quality of Hurt, 56).

It is not a lynching. Because it reverses the physical dynamics of a lynching and because it is enacted outside public view and because its object is the criminal’s submission, not his dismemberment and death, Himes’ punishment foreshadows the insidious subjection of Panopticism: a penalty that will take as its aim an “indefinite discipline” and an “interrogation without end” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 227). That the event takes place in Ohio, a Midwestern state, is also not without at least symbolic significance: for the Midwest is, to black people like me, a kind of middle ground between the slave and segregationist past in the Old South, and the future that we have sought in the North, the East, the West and the New South. What too many of us have found in our search is a Panopticon of punishments and complicities, endless in their variety and power.


If there is any nation that is realizing the Panoptic Plan, it is the United States. If there is a group most subject to this nation’s imprisoning grasp, it is black males.

The statistics, though not new to me, can only continue to hurt: the PBS site for their NOW documentary on prisons in America reported that as of 2001 nearly six-point-six million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole by year’s end, a number that represented three-point-one percent of all U.S. adult residents, or one in every thirty-two adults (Prisons in America). NOW’s site reports that as of 2002 the United States boasted seven-hundred prisoners per hundred-thousand persons, the highest per capita figure of any nation in the world. By comparison, Russia had six-hundred eighty prisoners per hundred-thousand persons, China one-hundred-ten and France eighty. The math is not complicated.

Even accounting for China’s massive population, well in excess of a billion persons, the United States’ prisoner population easily outstrips that nation in sheer number. There were two-million, twenty-four thousand, four-hundred seventy-nine people in United States prisons in 2001, up from a previous high of one-million nine-hundred sixty-three thousand six-hundred sixty in 2000 and one-million one-hundred forty-eight thousand seven-hundred two in 1990. “There are more people behind bars literally, and proportionally, than any time in our history,” the PBS site reports, and “We have a higher proportion of our population in prison than any other nation” (Prisons in America).

NOW culled its statistical information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Justice Policy Institute, International Centre for Prison Studies, ACLU: Prison Issues, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Drug Policy Alliance and Centre for Crime and Justice Statistics. A perusal of these official sites tells essentially the same story: The Bureau of Justice Criminal Offender Statistics, for example, reports that as of December 31, 2001 there were an estimated five-point-six million adults who had at one time or another served bids in State or Federal prison, four-point-three million of those were former prisoners and one-point-three million were currently imprisoned.

Almost one-third of former prisoners were still under correctional supervision, seven-hundred-thirty-one thousand on parole, four-hundred-thirty-seven thousand on probation and one-hundred sixty-six thousand in local jails. As of 2001, an estimated two-point-seven percent of adults had served time in prison and since “nearly two-thirds” of those incarcerated are first-time incarcerations, the Bureau estimates that one out of every fifteen persons, or six-point-six percent of the general population, will serve time in prison during their lifetimes (Criminal Offender Statistics).

This last estimate of imprisonment increase is especially important because it suggests, as does the consistent increase in number of incarcerated ever since the ’80’s, that prison rates in the United States will continue to rise. If we cast a backward glance at the American past, we can see that current rates of imprisonment mark a sharp change from the way in which discipline and punishment had been practiced in earlier epochs. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in a Press Release entitled “The Punishing Decade: Prison and Jail Estimates at the Millennium,” documents this shift and gives it its historical context: “Throughout most of the [twentieth] century prior to 1980, the incarceration rate, and the raw number of people behind bars, has risen and fallen with wars, depressions, economic booms and busts, as well as the rise and fall of the crime rate. But . . . the last thirty years, and particularly, the last decade have witnessed the kind of huge jumps in prison commitments that bear no historical comparison.”

In 1910, there were one-hundred twelve thousand three-hundred sixty-two people in prison or jail. In 1920, just over one-hundred ten thousand. In 1940, two-hundred seventy-two-thousand nine-hundred fifty-five, in 1950 two-hundred fifty-two thousand six-hundred fifteen. In 1960, three-hundred thirty-two thousand nine-hundred forty-five, in 1970 three-hundred thirty-eight thousand and twenty-nine. The figure, of course, rises over time, as does the population; but there is no dramatic upsurge and in fact there are several decreases in prison population from one decade to the next due to various of the above mentioned factors.

But between 1980 and 1990 the number rose from a relatively stable four-hundred seventy-four thousand three-hundred sixty-eight to one-million one-hundred forty-eight thousand seven-hundred two, and in the next decade the number rose to one-million nine-hundred sixty-five thousand six-hundred six sixty seven in 2000 (“The Punishing Decade“).

There are several factors leading to this increase. Most basically, a lot of people are being arrested and jailed, rearrested and re-jailed. Perhaps it is criminals’ proclivity toward crime which explains our proclivity to lock them up. However, focusing an analysis of prison growth and its consequent extension of discipline and punishment on individual behaviors elides the larger scale investigation of societal causes that alone can explain this phenomenon. A press release by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice states that “[t]here is little correlation between states with skyrocketing incarceration rates and the recent crime declines witnessed across the country. The ‘New York Miracle’— the sharp drops in homicides and violent crime rates . . . between 1992 and 1997—have occurred at the same time that New York State had the second slowest growing prison system in the country, and at a time when the city’s jail system downsized” (“The Punishing Decade“). By the same token, the Justice Policy Institute reports that Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin all had similar declines in index crime from 1993 to 2002, yet Wisconsin’s incarceration rate rose by ninety-five-point-five percent, whereas Michigan and Minnesota’s rates increased much more modestly, twenty-two-point-nine and thirty-nine-point-eight respectively. 

Evidently, the correlation between the actual crime rate and the rate of punishment for crimes is inexact. In fact, the essential lack of correlation where here we should see a basic cause and effect—a crime is committed, then it is punished, punishment eliminates criminals and deters future aspirants—suggests an extra-legal impetus and deeper societal logic propelling the mammoth increase in American incarceration.

Left without an alternative vocabulary to describe his punishment, Chester Himes simply refers to the ritual by which he was “. . . handcuffed [with] my feet together and my hands behind my back, hung . . . upside down on an open door by the handcuffs about my ankles with my handcuffed hands hanging down along my spine past the back of my skull” and beaten “about the ribs and testicles” until he confessed as an “interrogation” (Himes, The Quality of Hurt, 56). Himes’ word choice is as patently absurd as an incarceration rate that rises by a multiple of five over a twenty-year period without evident correlation to population, economic booms and busts, or even the actual crime rate.

But, in fact, Himes’ experience was not an interrogation and our jails and prisons do not constitute a system of justice. They are, instead, a system of suppression. Where a system of justice acts to redress wrongs and enacts justice on the behalf of people, irrespective of the good of institutions, a system of suppression acts to perpetuate those institutions and the society they under gird, and eliminate all anti-social behavior. Whether the aims of the system are good or bad is finally less relevant than its maintenance.

Very often, black Americans’ best interests have been in opposition to the best interests of the state. At least in the theater of our popular culture that which is figured as ‘black’ in America is still seen as a kind of counter or anti-culture, so to interrogate the extra-legal aims of discipline and punishment here in America we must return to the example of black America, or, rather, the example made of black America by the larger society. The Bureau of Justice Criminal Offenders statistics report that in 2001 sixty-four percent of all prison inmates belonged to “a racial or ethnic minority” and among that sixty-four percent about forty percent were black. The Bureau estimates that “[b]ased on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32% of black males will enter State or Federal prison during their lifetime . . .” (Criminal Offender Statistics).

The idea that a black male child born today has a one in three chance of finding himself behind bars recalls Ellison’s observation on segregation-era suppression in which “The primary technique in . . . enforcement is to impress the Negro child with the omniscience and omnipotence of the whites . . . effected through an elaborate scheme of taboos supported by a ruthless physical violence . . . ” (Ellison, Shadow and Act, 90) except that now it is not the omnipotence of white society so much as a faceless, incomprehensible legal system that is imposed and in place of ruthless violence it is the legal system’s technique of “indefinite discipline” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 227) that enforces itself.

Either the American prison system is especially interested in jailing black men, or black men are especially interested in being jailed; if we aren’t racists, the latter is implausible to us, but, even if we are, a basic understanding of human self-interest suggests that most black men probably do not want to spend their adult lives confined in jail cells. Blacks make up twelve percent of the U.S. population, an estimated thirteen percent of drug users, but fifty-five percent of those convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute. This is the logic not of crime and punishment, cause and effect, but instead evidence of race-based discipline and punishment.

The political and social consequences of our legal system’s tactics begin to come clear when we reflect that all felons in this country have their voting rights restricted for a time and that in some states their voting rights are permanently eliminated upon first incarceration. In their Press Release, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reports that “1.4 million African American men, or 13 percent of the black adult male population have lost the right to vote due to their involvement in the criminal justice system. In the states with the most restrictive voting laws, 40 percent of African American men are likely to be permanently disenfranchised” (“The Punishing Decade“).

The consequences are tangible: the number of disenfranchised in Florida during the 2000 Presidential election exceeded George W. Bush’s margin of victory 1500-fold (Justice Policy) and to consider the cohesiveness of the black voting block is to understand that the President is a product of the prison system and the black vote was disabled long before election day voter-fraud.


Chester Himes’ interrogation was not an interrogation but a lynching-in-reverse. But what is that reverse? What is the opposite of a socially sanctioned torture in a racist nation? I have called it a system of suppression but already I feel that that may be too glib. I would at least submit that this mysterious reversal of spectacular violence is not peace, nor is it freedom. This essay seeks to compare, perhaps align, perhaps dis-align current phenomena in our American criminal justice system with Foucault’s theory of Panopticism as laid out in Discipline and Punish

Judith Butler, in her Introduction to The Psychic Life of Power, scans the theories of subjection proposed by Hegel, Nietzsche, and Foucault. Beginning with Foucault, she writes “[I]f, following Foucault, we understand power as forming the subject as well, as providing the very condition of its existence and the trajectory of its desire, then power is not simply what we oppose but also . . . what we depend on for our existence and what we harbor and preserve in the beings that we are” (Butler, The Psychic Life of Power,  2). Foucault’s vantage, of course, is deeply influenced by his forebears even as Butler’s analysis of subjection and subject formation is colored by Foucault’s work.

It is useful to follow Butler in her parsing of previous philosophers, for instance her discussion of the Hegelian allegory in The Phenomenology of Spirit in which the slave, having escaped his master and found freedom, rediscovers a subjection at once old and new within his consciousness where he has become master of himself. This ideal, so desperately sought, becomes a hell of “self-beratement, the effect of the transmutation of the master into a psychic reality” (3). The slave, thus, becomes the master and is negated as a self-formed person simply by seeking out self-mastery, thereby appropriating the character of the oppressor.

Thus, Nietzsche’s theory of bad conscience is prefigured in the Hegelian notion of the slave’s unhappy consciousness. “Such a notion,” Butler notes, “appears difficult, if not impossible, to incorporate into the account of subject formation” (4). Put another way, when the subject becomes uncreated by the system and vocabulary under which he serves, his original identity is disappeared and his ability to articulate his true situation is negated. Returning, for means of an example, to Himes, the Hegelian allegory explains Himes’ inability to name a state of being as anything other than what the police would have him believe it to be.

Thus, that experience which is obviously no longer a lynching can only be called an interrogation and a means toward justice and the victim is compelled to seek out his punishment. Butler caustically notes that this is one of “the least interrogated” of Hegel’s formulations, perhaps because its narrative of liberation elides into a philosophical quandary of self-enslavement and, I will add, self-effacement (31). No longer a slave, the ex-slave only knows himself as master.

Of course, as analogue this is powerful: black people, uprooted and enslaved, dehistoricized and lynched, come to know themselves as niggers and when their government finally grants that they are no longer subject to the law’s most brutal caprices, they are told that this allowance is their peace, this reprieve their name. But reprieve is nullity and allowances are for children. The only adult identity available anywhere becomes that of the master.

“What,” Butler asks, “are the points of convergence and divergence in Hegel, Nietzsche, and Foucault?” (The Psychic Life of Power, 33). What follows in Butler’s book is a section on “Hegel and the Production of Self-Enslavement” which is less important to the designs of this essay for its explanation—which is feudal and densely allegorical—than for its result: self-enslavement. The process of self-subjection that I want to delineate is not feudal and certainly not Eurocentric, so I will push away from Hegel.

In her chapter on “Nietzsche and Freud,” Butler indirectly distinguishes the Hegelian focus on consciousness from the Nietzschean focus on conscience. That is, the former’s focus on a mentality that is pre-moral or that assumes its morality, as opposed to the latter’s focus on a mentality that questions the moral and, in fact, achieves the post-moral. In Nietzsche’s formulation of conscience “the will is said to turn back on itself” (The Psychic Life of Power, 63) just as Hegel’s slave coils back on himself and becomes his own master. “The notion that morality is predicated on a certain kind of violence is already familiar, but more surprising,” Butler writes, “is that such violence founds the subject . . . This is, in part, what led Nietzsche to reflect that morality is a kind of illness” (64).

Further illustrative of this illness is the realization that in this schema “there is no formation of the subject without a passionate attachment to subjection” (The Psychic Life of Power, 67). Of Foucault, Butler writes that the Foucauldian line dictates that power, as we stand in opposition to it, cleverly situates us in our opposition as subject to that role, so that we depend on this at once adversarial and subservient relationship to the powerful “for our existence” (The Psychic Life of Power, 2). Here, we can connect Butler’s three theorists as prophets of psychic nullity; more importantly, and disturbingly, we can also connect their theories to ourselves.

Upon reflection, I can see that in my own life America’s reliance on a Foucauldian Panopticism not only as a system of discipline and punishment but as a structuring ideal for social order is very much in evidence. Reaching beyond the walls of the prisons, our reliance manifests itself in a pervasive interconnectedness and interdependence of our system of discipline and punishment and the larger societal structure each upon the other: thus, the system of discipline and punishment that I have detailed rays out like an infinitely variegated light and becomes an almost imperceptible system of societal order, even as the vividness of reds and yellows masks the omnipresence of white light. Punishers and punished are bound together in complicity and mutual reliance.


My cell phone is a microcosm. It sits on my computer desk as I type this. It buzzes infrequently when a friend calls, but mostly it just sits here silently until I leave home and attach it to my belt, where it travels silently at my side. A quick perusal of its contents, however, reveals its silently kept secret: among the friends, colleagues and acquaintances I can conveniently scroll through here, connections to the criminal justice system abound. Among the black friends and family in my phone the connectedness of persons back to the American penal system is even more uniform—and this, of course, should be no surprise, the tactics of discipline and punishment having been brought most to bear on black people. 

In my cell phone, I start at A: my friend August, half-black, half-Mexican, whose father was a policeman and whose boyfriend majored in Criminology at my alma mater. She tells me he doesn’t want to be a beat cop, he wants to work for the CIA itself, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency. Apparently, that’s an achievement that will require more than a Bachelor’s from UC Riverside. Next, my several Aunts, among whom there is not one current or former inmate but nevertheless an unfortunate familiarity with the tentacle-nature of the penal system: incarcerated or formerly incarcerated brothers and boyfriends; a child or two known to the juvenile justice system; and the endless bureaucratic entanglements that accrue from even the vaguest contact with these systems, envelopes in the mail, phone calls at work and worries at night.

B: B is for a long list of Brians and Bryans and a second aunt compelled to raise a child who is not hers due to the parents’ parole and imprisonment respectively. The boy is here too, in the T’s. When I called that beautiful woman asking to interview her, she told me off with a quickness: “Why you diggin into my personal stuff?” By which I believe she means not her exemplary personal life so much as her extended family’s extensive entanglements.

D begins with my dad, who, like practically everyone else in this microcosm, has never been arrested for anything more consequential than unpaid parking tickets, but who nevertheless knows the system. He’s a rehabilitation counselor now; he’s taught GED classes in California prisons, been threatened with bodily harm over the difference between a passing and failing grade. What I’ve come to realize in writing this public rumination is that my inspiration in regard to my subject is something that cannot be called knowledge but that goes beyond mere interest; a kind of intense closeness inspires me, a closeness to this omnipresent system of communal order and individual punishment.

Of course there is nonetheless a distance between being an inmate, property of the state, and being a rehabilitation counselor, as my father is, or a Creative Writing teacher at a Bay Area prison as a writer-friend of mine has been. A logical chasm between Kris, a bodyguard for Oakland-area rappers and an after-school counselor, between my friends Nicole and Nicole who study pre-law at UCR and Mills, but who want to be advocates for social justice in that profession, so much so that the latter has supplemented her study with inter-disciplinary work at various women’s prisons in the Bay Area, between a friend whose father is an attorney in Chicago, between me, myself, whose close relations are neither attorneys nor judges nor inmates but to whom all these connections occur like the most apparent realities and any actual criminal.

That chasm is the difference between those who have been incarcerated for the commission of illegal acts, crimes, and those who are legally innocent. That there is minimal correlation between the actual rate of criminal activity and American incarceration increases is one factor working to de-stabilize this apparent difference between criminals and the general population (“The Punishing Decade“). Then there is the fact of the complicity by which the criminalized and the innocent have come to occasion each other’s existence and perpetuate the current penal system.

Foucault writes, in Discipline and Punish, that “[t]he plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies—this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city” (Foucault, 198). It would be difficult, and perhaps fundamentally false, to try to analogize the United States to a plague-stricken city; though similarly problematic it would, however, be more telling to analogize black America to such a city. Ravaged by plagues literally (AIDS, diabetes, etc.) and figuratively (the penal system), this American sub-section correlates with Foucault’s vision of a “pure community” upon which “one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power” (Discipline and Punish,198).

Made vulnerable, the community becomes subject to the state and is, in fact, incorporated by that subjection into the fabric of the state. Thus, I am not only referring to the black underclass who form the fodder for the prisons and jails, but the middle- and upper-classes, too, who become engaged in the defense of their brethren and are thus, strangely, enlisted in the Panoptic apparatus. They become members of the “hierarchy” that surveilles, observes and writes about the inmates. The community as a whole thus becomes “immobilized,” or at least effectively surrounded and encumbered by the all-extensive power that Foucault envisions. My family, friends, and acquaintances working as cops, guards, counselors, activists and the like find themselves performing a positive good within an almost imperceptible system of entanglement and attachment to punishment the fundamentally troubled nature of which they cannot influence. 


That system is, at least in part, Panoptic in that it bears resemblances to Foucault’s vision of Panopticism. “We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage,” he writes, “but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves since we are parts of its mechanism” (Discipline and Punish, 217). Translated to the current-day, those parts in the Panoptic mechanism would be not only the inmates and jailers but the legal activists, after-school and rehabilitation counselors. Thus, the psychological rehabilitation of a parolee can be at once fundamentally good and fundamentally bad: good in that it might rehabilitate the person by means other than punishment and physical restriction, bad in that it is nevertheless a mechanism of the over-arching system of punishment and restriction, its very existence occasioned by that system which itself might be deeply unjust. Put another way, ask some committed social workers if they would rather have more or fewer clientele.

Thus, the theory runs, from Hegel to Nietzsche, from Foucault to Butler, subjection is a self-perpetuating and seemingly inescapable result of itself. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault provides an explanation for the revolution away from public torture and a vision of a society the symbols of which are the court and the prison, the aim its citizens’ self-regulation. “The prison, that darkest region in the apparatus of justice, is the place where the power to punish, which no longer dares to manifest itself openly, silently organizes a field of objectivity in which punishment will be able to function openly as treatment and the sentence be inscribed among the discourses of knowledge” (Discipline and Punish, 256). Foucault, here, articulates our current state of things, in which punishment masquerades as rehabilitation and is even construed as a means toward knowledge. Since we have already misconstrued a crucifixion as the basis of our enlightenment, perhaps it is unsurprising that lengthier and lengthier prison sentences are also thought to be good for both criminals and society.

That I refer to Foucault’s work as visionary rather than scholarly should suggest my at least partial skepticism with him. Visions become problematic where they fail to recognize apparent reality: Foucault is, perhaps, too impressed with his insight to call it the hell that it is. Moreover, his Panopticism does not read very well on to a whole host of progressive Western European governments. His vision speaks to the United States because this is not a progressive nation, at least not as regards our prison situation or the role of blacks within that system, enlisted so heavily on both sides of the bars as we are.

Finally, his vision speaks to a kind of hope where the other philosophers referenced here do not. Foucault’s historicization of the disciplinary shift from the bloody public spectacle to dark-room surveillance and mass incarceration implies that a specific set of ideas and actions, not misty human nature, led to the current situation. The gradual de-criminalization of narcotics, the immediate restoration of the rehabilitated’ right to vote and a fundamental money-shift away from those most brutal aspects of our national power, our prisons and our military, can create a better world.

This essay is obviously not that revolution. It is more a beginning, a furtive call: language, word, and name. That the attempt to name and re-name the terms of the criminal justice system might involve us in a further philosophical trap I grant; that the attempt is nevertheless necessary I grant importance. There is an intellectual silence that the language of our laws has exploited: remember, again, Chester Himes’ upside-down lynching and uncommon “interrogation.” Consider again the confusion of terms by which police, lawyers, and judges prosecute individual irresponsibility while all the while enabling the irresponsibility of the system under which they labor to the citizens that are its charge. Clearly, there is an underlying mental lack; and it is this lack, this terrible emptiness that allows stupidities to stand and condones our indifferent sighs. It is time to think and think again.

Keenan Norris has been published in the Santa Monica, Evansville and Green Mountains Reviews, as well as Rhapsoidia magazine, ChickenBones and other journals. His short stories were nominated for the Pushcart in 2004 and in 2005. The title piece of his short story collection “hap & hazard highland” will appear in Heyday Books’ Inlandia, an anthology of Inland Empire literature, in November 2006. He is currently marketing the book-length collection (which also includes “fresno gone”) to publishers. He teaches at College of Alameda and lives in Oakland, CA.

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#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . .

Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry

By Rita Dove

Selecting poets and poems to represent a century of poetry, especially the riotous twentieth century in America, is a massive undertaking fraught with peril and complication. Poet Rita Dove-a Pulitzer Prize- winning former U.S. poet laureate, professor, and presidential scholar- embarked on what became a consuming four-year odyssey. She reports on obstacles and discoveries in an exacting and forthright introduction, featuring striking quotes, vivid profiles, and a panoramic view of the evolution of poetic visions and styles that helped bring about social as well as artistic change […] Dove’s incisive perception of the role of poetry in cultural and social awakenings infuses this zestful and rigorous gathering of poems both necessary and unexpected by 180 American poets. This landmark anthology will instantly enhance and invigorate every poetry shelf or section.—Booklist

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Sonata Mulattica: Poems

By Rita Dove

This 12th collection from the former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient is her third book-length narrative poem: it follows the real career of the violin prodigy George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780–1860), a former pupil of Haydn, as well as the grandson/ of an African prince, or so his promoters and teachers in England said. Moving to Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars, the violinist met and befriended the famously moody Beethoven, who was prepared to dedicate his famously difficult Kreutzer Sonata to Bridgetower until a rivalry for the same woman drove them apart. Dove tells Bridgetower’s story, and some of Beethoven’s and Haydn’s, in a heterogenous profusion of short poems, some almost prosy, some glittering in their technique. In quatrains, a double villanelle, what looks like found text, short lines splayed all over a page and attractive description, Dove renders Bridgetower’s frustrated genius: Music played for the soul is sheer pleasure;/ to play merely for pleasure is nothing/ but work. Dove does not always achieve such subtleties—those who loved her early work may think this book too long: few, though, will doubt the seriousness of her effort, her interest at once in the history of classical music and the changing meanings of race.—Publishers Weekly

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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Karma’s Footsteps

By Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Somebody has to tell the truth sometime, whatever that truth may be. In this, her début full collection, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie offers up a body of work that bears its scars proudly, firm in the knowledge that each is evidence of a wound survived. These are songs of life in all its violent difficulty and beauty; songs of fury, songs of love. ‘Karma’s Footsteps’ brims with things that must be said and turns the volume up, loud, giving silence its last rites. “Ekere Tallie’s new work ‘Karma’s Footsteps’ is as fierce with fight songs as it is with love songs. Searing with truths from the modern day world she is unafraid of the twelve foot waves that such honesties always manifest. A poet who “refuses to tiptoe” she enters and exits the page sometimes with short concise imagery, sometimes in the arms of delicate memoir. Her words pull the forgotten among us back into the lightning of our eyes.—Nikky Finney /  Ekere Tallie Table

Her Voice   / Mother Nature: Thoughts on Nourishing Your Body, Mind, and Spirit During Pregnancy and Beyond  

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Aké: The Years of Childhood

By Wole Soyinka

Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception


a lyrical account of one boy’s attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits


who alternately terrify and inspire him


all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that “God had a habit of either not answering one’s prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward.” In writing from a child’s perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack.

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.

The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 12 October 2006




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