Forthright History, Forgotten Story

Black/Inside image

The 2.3 million people inside of America’s prisons and jails constitute a “prison nation.” Yet the confluence of poverty, race, and conceptions of justice that have led to this current state implicates all Americans, not just those behind bars. The exhibit “Black/Inside,” currently on display at the African American Cultural Center at UIC, attempts to show how those outside the prison system are trapped in a prison nation as well.

Years ago, in a rural Pennsylvania antique shop, Mariame Kaba came across a stash of
Bertillon cards (the precursor to the modern mug shot). The Chicago-based community organizer, author, and educator has been collecting prison memorabilia ever since. Her years of collecting and conceptualizing are now on display as “Black/Inside: A History of Captivity & Confinement in the United States.” The exhibit showcases a set of civil rights era pins, posters, photos, and newspaper clippings dating back to the antebellum era and places mass incarceration within a historical and narrative context.

Mariame, and a team of curators and consultants, began with the Constitution. The doc- ument notoriously prevented the slave trade from being outlawed until 1808 and outlined the Three-Fifths Compromise. America’s institutionalization of racism and black criminality started with the Constitution. Yet, it only gets worse from there.

“Black/Inside” displays reproductions of slave posters–clear reminders of the early American reality that slaves were property. Alongside these reproductions are original deeds of emancipation, or “freedom papers,” and the bizarre examples of photo-postcards–actual postcards that displayed black convicts standing around coal mines and stock yards. As the exhibit continues, it takes the viewer through the early jails of the North and the rise of the convict-lease system in the post-Civil War South. The Southern states placed convicts into private labor agreements in which mines and road crews would “lease” convicted men for ten dollars a month. This economic logic made men literally disposable: if one died due to the poor working conditions, his “employer” could just get another. Meanwhile, the North did away with the Quaker model of reformatory penitentiaries and replaced them with the Auburn model, a system that introduced strict rules, uniforms, lockstep, solitary cells, hard labor, and corporal punishment.

The exhibit navigates the nineteenth and 20th centuries with original newspaper clip- pings, exposés on the conditions of state prisons. An entire wall is dedicated to the Scottsboro Trials and several narratives of political incarceration and activism during the civil rights era: George Jackson, Angela Davis, and The Black Panther movement are all included. But instead of the expected tribute to Dr. King and his time spent in prison, “Black/Inside” focuses on the untold or under-told narratives of incarcerated black women.

Images Courtesy of AACC

One such woman is Laura Scott. Mariame came across Laura Scott’s Bertillon card and couldn’t resist investigating further. It’s easy to see why. Laura Scott’s photo features a withering stare, an impressive scowl, and a hat as wild and striking as Aretha Franklin’s 2009 inauguration headpiece. From this one photo Mariame has put together a 27-page zine entitled “Laura Scott, Negress, San Quentin Prisoner #23287.” A formidable achievement of research and storytelling, it follows Laura’s life from childhood, through her multiple arrests and incar- cerations, up until her second release from San Quentin, when the trail runs cold. Mariame’s zine illuminates a story that is so scarcely told: what it was like to be a black woman, incarcerated or free, in the early 20th century prison nation.

“Black/Inside” tells a part of United States history that is not so tidy. It untangles the historical roots of black confinement through by telling forgotten stories. In Chicago, crime rates have declined since 1990, yet the rate of imprisonment has shot up drastically. Problems in our rhetoric and in our policy must be considered along with the forces of narrative and history. “Black/Inside” answers the question of how we got here and addresses us right back with, “so what can we do.”African American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago, 830 South Halsted Street. October 23 to November 21. Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm. Saturdays 11am-4:30pm. Free. (312) 996-9549.