Tales of Fortress America An author examines how black power challenged racial oppression and punishment in America.

Prison Power: How Prison Influenced the Movement for Black Liberation

By Lisa M. Corrigan (2016, University of Mississippi Press) 197 pages, including index and notes

Editor’s Note: Author Lisa M. Corrigan, associate professor of communication and director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Arkansaswill present her lecture, “Revolutionary Suicide: Necropolitics, Radical Agency, and Black Ontology” Tuesday, February 20, 4-5:30 pm, at Washington University in St. Louis’s Seigle Hall, Room 301.

 

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         1. Manchurian Candidates

 

“What the hell is psychological warfare?”

—Alan K. Abner, Psywarriors: Psychological Warfare during the Korean War (2001), a question that the author, a World War II fighter pilot, poses to his wife when he is told to report to Georgetown University for instruction in psychological warfare

 

In Prison Power, Lisa Corrigan notes the fact that American prisons were on the minds of many Americans during the 1950s as “[major]prison riots in California’s four major penal facilities –Soledad, Alcatraz, San Quentin, and Folsom—in the 1950s paved the way for political agitation around prisoners’ rights …”  (47) She also mentions the legendary sociopath Caryl Chessman, a prison author of four books who fought his death sentence for more than 11 years and became a cause celebre around the world as the poster boy against capital punishment. (His crimes would not get him a death sentence today even in a death penalty state since Chessman did not murder anyone.)  She might have mentioned how, in 1952, 31 inmates at the notorious Angola State Prison in Louisiana cut their Achilles’ tendons to protest the prison’s horrific conditions and made international news.

If we use the conventional starting date for the civil rights movement as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that de-segregated (or tried to) American public schools, then it must be said that there something even more far-reaching about prison and imprisonment that was on the minds of most Americans before the crucial years of civil rights and Black Power that Corrigan considers in her book. The Korean War ended in July 1953; one of the biggest issues for the public about returning American combat veterans was what happened to those held in North Korean and Chinese-controlled POW camps. There was the typical concern about beatings, starvation, and various other forms of mistreatment and torture that one might expect when soldiers are being held by the enemy. Under the Geneva Accords, these things are not supposed to happen, but in reality, they do. The Japanese were notorious during World War II for ignoring the Accords in their treatment of prisoners. The North Koreans and the Chinese followed suit in Korea. Mistreating prisoners was (and is) a way of breaking their morale. But the far bigger concern with the Korean War was about traitors, POWs who collaborated with the enemy, turned on their fellow prisoners, who denounced the United States, for, in effect, captured soldiers are political prisoners. New words were introduced to the American public as a result of the Korean war: brainwashing, re-education, and psy-war. Chinese and North Korean POW camps during the Korean War were turned into re-orientation centers. Ranks were not recognized: officers were separated from their men, enlisted men from non-commissioned officers. African Americans were separated from whites and subjected to questions about why they were fighting for a racist regime. (Incidentally, this confrontation of an Asian communist soldier questioning the motives of a black American soldier was strikingly dramatized in Samuel Fuller’s controversial 1951 Korean War film, The Steel Helmet. The subject of Americans becoming traitors while in POW camps is the subject of such Korean War films as Time Limit (1957), The Rack (1956), Sgt. Ryker (1968), The Bamboo Prison (1955), Prisoner of War (1954) and, of course, the most accomplished and complex of the lot, the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate.)[1]

What the Korean War presaged before the civil rights movement made it plain is that imprisonment is psy-warfare pure and simple.

What particularly unnerved Americans back home was the fact that 21 POWs refused repatriation and remained in North Korea, having become sympathetic to communism as a result of their re-education in the camps. (Nearly all of these men, including the one African American among them, did eventually return.) Classes were held and prisoners were given Marxist books to read.  (Long before The Autobiography of Malcolm X gave us the myth and symbol of prison as a place of re-education, the North Koreans and Chinese used it as such.) Americans back home were shocked that many of the men could not, in debates with their captors, defend their political system, that some found communism’s critiques of the West reasonable, if not convincing.  Rhetoric failed these men. Many blamed our educational system for insufficiently training our students to be able to argue in defense of the superiority of our system, instead of being merely told that it is superior. The U.S. military responded to this crisis in the faith of our military with the 1955 Prisoner-of-War Code of Conduct, which delineated exactly how soldiers were expected to conduct themselves when captured by the enemy, what their behavioral and rhetorical responsibilities were, what they were permitted to say and do.

What the Korean War presaged before the civil rights movement made it plain is that imprisonment is psy-warfare pure and simple. I have no idea if it is true that the personal is the political but it is true that all politics is psychological, a game about who controls your mind or more cynically put, who or what do you want to control your mind? It is all about the hunt for Manchurian Candidates or the creation of them. Lisa M. Corrigan’s Prison Power tells the story of race and the rhetoricized psy-warfare of American prisons, the battle of the mind and for the mind, the decolonization of the mind, the reformation of the mind (which, after all, was something a prison-like Eastern State Penitentiary promised when it opened in 1829, so prisons were always about the mind.) Most of black America must have been deeply aware of this psy-warfare of prison by 1968, the height of the Black Power Movement; it must have in fact become an integral part of black American popular culture, otherwise the cover of soul singer’s James Brown Live at the Apollo Vol. III LP, released in 1971, would have made no sense and surely the title, Revolution of the Mind, would have been inscrutable.

 

 

  1. In the Belly of the Beast

 

“Don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison.”

—Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots,” November 1963, his most widely circulated and best-known speech

 

“The black community, unfortunately, had come to look upon white policemen as an occupying force, and in many cases for good reasons.”

—James N. Reaves, an African-American career police officer, from his book, Black Cops

 

Stanley M. Elkins’s controversial and classic 1959 book, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, which offered, in part, the thesis of the remarkable resemblances between American plantation slavery and Nazi concentration camps as closed systems of oppression meant to reshape the personalities of its victims, did, if nothing else, place an academic imprimatur on the metaphor that America, ironically and ideologically, the land of the free, has functioned  basically as a prison for blacks. And the goal of this imprisonment was the creation of a pliable, degraded, will-less personality that Elkins called Sambo, the first Manchurian Candidate. It must be remembered as well that Elkins’s book was published during the height of the civil rights movement, which meant that he was informed by this dramatic social change as he informed it with his book. It is no wonder that, as Corrigan points out in Prison Power, the civil rights movement was obsessed with the idea of de-mystifying prison for African Americans and redefining it, in some significant measure, for all Americans. The idea, the politics, and the mythology of blacks as imprisoned people captured the zeitgeist of the civil rights era. White liberals were transfixed by the question of what the institutions of America had done to blacks; blacks themselves were only partly concerned with that. They were more concerned with what the institutions of America had prevented them from being. This fixation explains the transformation from civil rights to Black Power better than anything else. The civil rights movement made blacks aware of the abiding symbol of prison in their lives; Black Power was meant to alter and correct their personalities as imprisoned people.  This articulation of radical redefinition underscores how important Corrigan’s observation that when Carmichael mouthed the phrase “Black Power,” whites understood it as race war being initiated by blacks, (21) so invested were they in the rightness of their fundamental assumptions about their hegemony. The civil rights era of nonviolent demonstrations revealed fully the nature of the affliction that African Americans faced; Black Power was the cure. If the cure does not seem to have worked to this point, it would be argued by many blacks that it has yet to be implemented. It exists purely as a theory.

The idea, the politics, and the mythology of blacks as imprisoned people captured the zeitgeist of the civil rights era. White liberals were transfixed by the question of what the institutions of America had done to blacks; blacks themselves were only partly concerned with that. They were more concerned with what the institutions of America had prevented them from being. This fixation explains the transformation from civil rights to Black Power better than anything else.

Prison Power “[underscores] how Black Power rhetoric influenced political actors within the [civil rights] movement and outside of it, particularly as prison became a central facet of their resistance,” writes Corrigan (5). As she describes it, the civil rights movement, through its non-violent action phase under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., flooded Southern jails with demonstrators in an attempt, largely successful, of challenging the power of imprisonment to frighten blacks to acquiesce to the power of a racist state. She shows that the most important piece of black resistance rhetoric of this period was King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” although she also notes King’s lesser known “Letter from an Albany Jail,” written from a jail during the Albany, Georgia, campaign which preceded Birmingham and his “Letter from a Selma Jail” written during the Selma campaign which followed Birmingham. In the latter missive, King noted “THERE ARE MORE NEGROES IN JAIL WITH ME THAN THERE ARE ON THE VOTING ROLLS” (40).

As Corrigan correctly avers, jail or prison became a central part of the experience of being a civil rights demonstrator and a major signifier of one’s commitment to it. This view explains why she sees the Black Power movement as less a repudiation of the civil rights movement (even if many Black Power advocates saw it that way) than a natural, inevitable outgrowth of nonviolent resistance. Black Power, according to this perspective, is a deeper progressive, indeed, revolutionary, response to white America’s redefinition of itself as a “law and order” society, a more blatantly oppositional response to white America’s deeper dive into seeing itself as a national security state.  “ … I see the writings of imprisoned Black Power activists as a natural extension of earlier ‘jail, no bail’ strategies [of the civil rights movement] and as a continuous strategy of interrogating white supremacy through prison.” (23)  Corrigan’s preoccupation is language, as she “charts the ways in which the Black Power vernacular utilized a new space, that of the prison, to reframe black oppression and resistance as the black liberation movement evolved. Prison writers functioned as vernacular intellectuals as they introduced utilized vernacular vocabularies, speaking from and to vernacular communities, and yet removed from the very spaces and peoples that build the vernacular culture from incarceration and/or exile” (8). As she states later, the book is “[attempting] to trace how the shift to Black Power was a significant rhetorical and political intervention into discourse about civil rights because of the centrality of the prison and political prisoners, ‘law and order discourse,’ and conflict over lawlessness versus social protest.” (147)

Prison Power seems to be a Marxian literary analysis of the works of three seminal Black Power figures from whom prison is a central aspect of their political experience as African Americans: H. Rap Brown (Die, Nigger, Die!), Mumia Abu-Jamal (Live from Death Row, Death Blossoms, and All Things Censored) and Assata Shakur (Assata: An Autobiography). All were accused and convicted of killing police officers. But that is not quite right: the book is more an exploration of how these works authenticate a certain form of politics through the political and moral authentication of the lives of the people who wrote them.  In this way, for Corrigan and, as Corrigan assumes for most readers, the books function in ways that are similar to the antebellum slave narrative. She certainly deconstructs the books structurally in much the way that Gilbert Osofsky, Robert Stepto, Bill Andrews, Henry Louis Gates, Jean Fagin Yellin, and other foundational scholars deconstructed slave narratives.  Corrigan does not provide an analysis exactly or purely but more of an intellectual and political validation of the books as part of an oppositional discourse about the United States that reveals the country for the oppressive state that it is and the writers as extraordinary political actors.

The chapters might be seen as stages of black radical political commentary built around the existence of the Black Panther Party, the real and truly admired ghost that animates the academic machinery of this book, along with Malcolm X, the progenitor of modern black political radicalism in the United States. Brown’s book was published in 1969 after his term as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had ended.  (He succeeded Stokely Carmichael.) The book also came at the end of the brief merging of SNCC and the Black Panther Party during which he served as the minister of justice, the merger signifying the end of civil rights nonviolence and the adoption of not just self-defense but of an ideology of violent opposition to the United States and the overthrow of the American regime. (At this point, young black radicals were among the nation’s strongest believers in the Second Amendment and even CORE president Roy Innis, a lifetime NRA member, advocated for blacks to get guns. “Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself,” so went the title of one of Amiri Baraka’s works of the period.) So, Brown, it might be said, was present at the creation of Black Power. His conviction for killing a policeman did not come until 2002, after he had converted Islam while in prison (1971-1976) for robbery and had become an imam.  He was accused of killing a police officer in Atlanta who had come to arrest him on a warrant on the relatively minor charges of speeding and impersonating a police officer. Corrigan argues that the conflation of Brown’s black radical past and his conversion to Islam during the War Against Terror (9/11 happened after his arrest but before his trial and conviction), sealed his fate in the state’s never-ending war against Black Power (152-155).

Mumia Abu-Jamal came to the Black Panthers as a Philadelphia high school student in 1969. He became a noted oppositional or radical journalist and activist as an adult, offering leftwing critiques of the police and Philadelphia politics. He was a fellow traveler with MOVE, the radical commune involved with violent showdowns with the police in 1978 and 1985. He was convicted of murdering police officer Danny Faulkner during a police car stop in December 1981 and sentenced to death. His oppositional and well-written journalism from prison, particularly his writings about being on death row, made him a cause célèbre around the world, not unlike Caryl Chessman, and by 2011 his death sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Assata Shakur joined the Black Liberation Army after the demise of the Black Panthers and was convicted of killing a police officer in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973. She eventually escaped from prison and wound up in exile in Cuba.  Her autobiography, along with Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power, has become a major testament of the Black Power movement from a woman’s perspective. Corrigan sees Shakur’s feminine or feminist view being something of a complement to and perhaps something of a correction of Abu-Jamal more masculine-heroic, quest-for-a-father view of the tradition of black radical politics in America.

Corrigan is offering the thesis that a certain body of social and political protest literature, through its vernacular of black speech-making, its myth-making surrounding victimhood, and sacrifice, its morality of justified rebellion, effectively unravels any claim to legitimacy that the dominant white narrative may try to claim.

The chapters dealing with these writers and their books are often engaging, the one on Brown being especially incisive, a canny mixture of descriptive summary, Marxist analysis, and leftwing polemic, as she sees this literature, in effect and quite correctly, as suggested earlier, as a political and creative extension of the slave narratives of antebellum America. But what is more important is that Corrigan is offering the thesis that a certain body of social and political protest literature, through its vernacular of black speech-making, its myth-making surrounding victimhood, and sacrifice, its morality of justified rebellion, effectively unravels any claim to legitimacy that the dominant white narrative may try to claim. The chapters on the other two writers were fine interpretations of Abu-Jamal as “moral badman” and Shakur as “regenerative” bad woman. As a native Philadelphian, I thought the chapter on Abu-Jamal might have needed a bit of refinement:

 

  1. Corrigan inadvertently gives the impression in that chapter that law-and-order tough guy Frank Rizzo was mayor of Philadelphia for both the 1978 and 1985 MOVE confrontations with the police. But Rizzo left office after finishing his second term in 1980. He was followed by liberal Irish pol Bill Green, who served one term and was succeeded by the city’s first African-American mayor, Wilson Goode, who was the mayor at the time of the 1985 MOVE tragedy.[2]  Rizzo had been out of office for five years at this point. Also, it should be remembered that Rizzo got 34 percent of the black vote in 1975 when he ran for re-election, a substantial portion for a man with his law-and-order pose, and an indication that while he was hated by black (and white) leftists and intellectuals, he was much less hated by rank-and-file black voters.[3]
  2. Rizzo was not responsible for, nor did he head, the CD unit of the Philadelphia police department that became the model for COINTELPRO. It was run by a very knowledgeable and ingratiating detective named George Fencl, who was far better at undermining radical organizations with his face of reasonableness than Rizzo ever was as the tough guy.[4]
  3. MOVE, contrary to what many white and black radicals seem to think, was hated by their black West Philadelphia working-class neighbors. MOVE cultivated rats (obviously a problem for a black neighborhood already fighting with rat infestation) and issued endless rants on bullhorns at all hours of the day and night. The working-class blacks in the neighborhood called the police constantly about MOVE and wanted them out of the neighborhood (not violently, of course) as the commune was destroying the value of the homes in the neighborhood, the most important economic investment these working-class black folk had. The working-class blacks in the neighborhood felt that the city was failing them in not helping them with a problem that they surely would have helped middle-class whites with, had MOVE been located, say, in Society Hill.

 

What Corrigan writes about MOVE and the city is essentially true but the points she missed may have added greater texture and complexity to the chapter about Abu-Jamal. With race, things are sometimes not as cut-and-dry as they might seem.  Nonetheless, she captures from a leftist perspective the paranoia and opportunism of white Philadelphia politics very well.  On the whole Corrigan’s book is a well-conceived and well-executed book, written with a polemical chip on its shoulder, to be sure, but with an earnest intelligence that makes it compelling and at times even absorbing to read, revealing a striking self-awareness of the stakes and the drama of the psy-war that prison custodians and their prisoners engage in. It is a welcome addition to the literature about the literature of African-American life and prison, a nice companion to the classic that Corrigan so admires, H. Bruce Franklin’s Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist (1982).

[1] One of the best books on the subject of the American POW experience during the Korean War is Raymond B. Lech, Broken Soldiers, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000). For a fascinating account of the modern history of psy-war, mind control, and interrogation of the enemy, see Dominic Streatfeild, Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control, (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007). For more about films about the Korean War, see Paul M. Edwards, A Guide to Films on the Korean War, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997)

[2] For Goode’s account of the 1985 firebombing of the MOVE house, see W. Wilson Goode (with Joann Stevens), In Goode Faith, (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 1992), pp. 207-251.

[3] See S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America, (Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1993), p. 271

[4] For an interesting take on George Fencl, see James N. Reaves, Black Cops, (Philadelphia: Quantum Leap Publisher, 1991), p. 109.  Epigraph taken from page 105

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