Criminalizing Race and Gender
At UNH, Marshall is hard at work writing her first book, Apprehending Black Womanhood: Prisons and Punishment in African-American Women’s Literature. She’s using black women’s literature as a lens to see how Americans have theorized prisons and punishment, focusing on African-American incarceration.
According to U.S. Bureau of Justice estimates, as of 2008, black men constituted 40.2 percent of all inmates in the prison system. Yet African Americans make up only 13.6 percent of the U.S. population. This high rate of black male incarceration has led some scholars to suggest that prison is the newest form of disenfranchisement for blacks. University of Ohio Law Professor Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, noted that there are now more African-American men in prison and jail, or on probation and parole, than were slaves before the start of the Civil War (as reported in Huffington Post, 10/12/11).
Marshall is exploring the different ways in which African Americans have been defined as criminals. Initially thinking her studies would focus mostly on contemporary issues, Marshall quickly found that she had to start much farther back, after the Civil War when the convict leasing system was developed. At that time, the idea of the African American as a happy slave under paternalistic guidance changed to that of a lawless threat to society.
“After the Civil War, whites didn't have anybody to do the work formerly done by slaves, so powerful people used the criminal justice system as a new form of control,” explains Marshall. “They enacted laws against vagrancy and walking next to a railroad and all sorts of rules designed to transform African Americans from a race of slaves to a race of criminals. They wanted to put African Americans in jail so that they could then be leased to work. So I'm interested in how gender fits into that picture, how we theorized punishment, how we theorized segregation, how the prison is a legal, cultural, and architectural entity in our lives. How do we rely on the criminal justice system to put forth definitions of what it means to be a black woman?”
While the convict leasing system was primarily a system for male incarceration, there were other cultural redefinitions that worked to criminalize black women. Marshall is exploring the stereotype of the mammy figure in slavery and how that same “happy” female slave becomes, in the 1890s, the immoral black woman who might steal silverware from her employer or prostitute herself. Marshall is researching cartoons, essays, and other writings from that period to trace the evolution of this change.
What makes Marshall’s work unique is her focus on black women’s literature to explore the subject of prison and race in America. Foregrounding black women allows her to break from the common positioning of the black male as the subject of study in this area (although there are a handful of academics who do look specifically at black women and criminality), while the focus on literature provides a promising approach that is seldom used in prison research.
“When I first started my research, I read to see what was out there, books such as Native Son and A Lesson Before Dying,” says Marshall. “The black women in these books were incensed at how the justice system claimed their sons or their nephews or grandsons, and I said, well, but what do they feel about the law’s claim on their womanhood? How do black women experience life in America as imprisonment, as punishment? That really got me going.” So Marshall started looking for those black female voices and listening to what they had to say.
One such voice is that of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett who in 1884 unsuccessfully sued a Memphis railroad company after she was expelled from a “lady’s car,” a white-woman-only railway car, for defying Jim Crow laws. The humiliation, the attack upon her sense of womanhood, and the loss of bodily freedom had stinging effects. Black women who defied laws could also face legal penalties.
For Marshall, a direct line can be drawn from these and other early acts that criminalized black women to the stereotype today of the black welfare queen who is sexually out of control (i.e., has too many babies) and is stealing from the rest of us (i.e., living off of the state). Marshall wants to understand where, why, and how the language for such characterizations developed.
Let's Get Talking
Marshall hopes that her book will be part of a growing conversation about the implications and effects of the American prison system.
That conversation takes place now inside her classrooms, where students discuss the cultural phenomenon of prison and not simply in other states with diverse urban populations, but one present right here in New Hampshire. In places like Berlin, the economic health of the town depends on fully functioning prisons. With the possible opening of the federal prison there later this year, Berlin may soon house a diverse group of inmates from all over the country and employ large numbers of people formerly displaced by the loss of paper manufacturing. What are the implications for society when increased incarceration rates provide economic stimulus?
The more people who talk about these issues, the better, Marshall contends. “The numbers of folks of color in prison is growing—it’s mushrooming, and the humanities should have something to say about this institution, the way we have something to say about religion, marriage, and science,” Marshall says. “This thing that’s right in our midst that drives so many of our cultural fantasies about freedom and labor and race—what do we have to say?”
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