The Implication of Mass Incarceration on Black Families




This is a project created by Josephine Gardner for ENG 238 African American Literature, Pre-1945 at Elon University, taught by Dr. Crystal Anderson. It is a conversation between two African American writers who discuss a contemporary issue. This dialogue gives students an opportunity to engage in close reading and relate literary texts to contemporary ideas.

Authors: Sojourner Truth and Frances E. W. Harper

Contemporary issue: Mass Incarceration

Sojourner Truth: From one feminist to another, I understand the difficulty of being a black woman in America. We face the ‘dual consciousness’ and ‘double jeopardy’ of being dually oppressed by our status of being black and a woman.  Therefore, it saddens me to see the new birth of slavery: Mass incarceration. Which has left women yet again to fend for themselves. Like the New Jim Crow law, “ I denounced slavery as a moral abomination tempting the wrath of God on America” (p. 177).  If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, we have the power to fight for justice and equality in the private and domestic sphere. In my speech of “Ain’t I a Woman? At the women’s Right Convention, I explained the strength and the spiritual will women posses from the divine power. However, Harper, you believe progressive reform and government legislation is going to reverse the systematic oppression, poverty and the social pathologies of racial stereotypes. I ask you this, how can the system be expected to protect those it was never meant to protect?


Frances E. W. Harper:  Truth, your idea to advocate and hold speeches for black women and their rights is useless. We need progressive political reform and new legislation that brings forth tangible action and results to eradicate the mass incarceration of our black men.  Yes, black women are strong and independent and can do the same work as a man. However, just like slavery institution, the New Jim Crow law is responsible for destroying familial relationships and the very fabric of the black family. Women have the power to give the social advancement and the moral development to the human race: “the social and political advancement which woman has already gained bears the promise of the rising of the full-orbed sun of emancipation” (Woman’s Political Future, pg. 470).  Today, women hold in their hands the power to influence and enact new laws. The ballot in the hands of woman means power added to influence to change the course of America’s very foundation to make sure black men and women and most importantly black families are protected under the law.

Sojourner Truth: I understand the power of legislative laws. However, how do you enforce laws that are just written on a piece of paper?  We have tried that with the 13th and 14th Amendments and the integration of public schools. Young black men of color are discriminated and disenfranchised by the people who swore to protect and serve them as a result of decades of misguided criminal justice and public safety policy to address poverty.  Throughout history, when the blacks asked for their social problems of drug-infested communities, urban poverty, crime and violence to be averted, the policy makers changed the course by expanding the prison industrial complex. Mass incarceration has placed our black men in racial caste subordination and placed them permanently as a second-class citizen. The new Jim Crow law operates under the old Jim Crow law where during slavery, the white men in the south maintain the system in the legal way: “but men is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, women is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard” (Ar’n’t I a Woman, pg. 178). Even in modern day, in the era of colorblindness, “there are more African-American under correctional control-in-prison or jail, on probation or parole-than were enslaved in 1850” (Alexander, 2011).  As a result, a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. Therefore, I strongly argue that legislative laws is just words written on a paper. What black people need is protest and justice through their own doing, not through some politicians.

Frances E. W. Harper: I want to elaborate on how today there are more African-American black men in prison or in jail than ever before. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt (Alexander, 2011).  This reminds me a lot of slavery in its true sense: “political life in our country has plowed in muddy channels, and needs the infusion of clearer and cleaner waters. I am not sure that women are naturally so much better than men that they will clear the stream by the virtue of their womanhood” (Woman’s Political Future, Pg. 471).   Just as slavery was injustice, so is mass incarceration and I believe rather than directly relying on race, we use the criminal justice system to label people of color as ‘criminals’ ” The legal system has replaced one racial caste system with a new one and that is why it is important to tackle social injustice through the court system.

Sojourner Truth: It is because of systematic imprisonment of whole groups of population that women and children have to cope psychologically with the absence of husbands and fathers locked in incarceration and adjusts life without a male-figure. To tell you the truth, the law is against black men, once labeled felon, he is branded for life, he will experience economic disadvantages, erodes opportunities for employment because of his criminal records, loss of his right for welfare benefits and voting rights. Thus it is impossible for black men to integrate fully back into society so they are more likely to return back into prison. This destroys the natural order of the home causing women to be placed in a position that was not designed by the natural order. Fortunately, Since the inception of slavery black female have been head of their families, providing stable environment and financial support for our children, since, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” (Ar’n’t I a Woman, pg. 178).

Frances E. W. Harper: Yes, throughout history the black communities have been led by matriarchal society. However, I argue that the breakdown of African American families through slavery and now mass incarceration contributes to the ghetto poverty and the crime and distortion of urban communities. Mother’s have to endure poverty and the high demand of living standards set today that does not allow a family to live comfortably with just one income. Men behind bars cannot fully play the role of fathers and husband.  Also, children who grow up in poor communities and raised by single parents are less likely to finish school or have good health.  In ‘The Slave Mother’ I discuss separation of families and the devastating pain that mother, specifically, suffered in bondage: “ saw you the sad, imploring eye? Its every glance was pain, As if a storm of agony Were sweeping through the brain” (pg. 450).

Sojourner Truth: Society has given black women the perception that they can only rely on themselves since at any moment; black men in their life can be uprooted. The American culture has come to associate black men as ‘criminals’. We live in an individualistic and desensitized society where we view prisoners as external to society, placing physical wires and barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. When I read newspapers, black words written on white papers by white people: “Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed with abolition and niggers” (Ar’n’t I A Woman, P.179.) I am no words or a nigger but this is how I am viewed. Don’t I have the right to raise my family, don’t I have the right to equality. These are the questions I still ponder.

Frances E. W. Harper: Truth, you advocate that black women should be self-sufficient and independent. However, the underlying concerns and the focus should be on the very foundation of black families since, “so close is the bond between man and woman that you can not raise one without lifting the other” (Woman’s Political Future, P. 470).  The exclusion of black men from our community not only does this affect black men, it also affects their families and their children who have to bear the stigma of being associated with a felon. As a result of this, children in these communities are raised in broken homes losing a male figure and a role-model. Thus, how can a nation be uplifted just by black women when half of its race is behind bars.

Sojourner Truth: Ar’n’t I a woman who has as much muscular power, who has “plowed, planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me… I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now” (Ar’n’t I A Woman, p. 178-180). Because of the muscular power that I have in me, I will be able to raise my children and provide them with everything they need. If black women rely on black men they will experience severe social, psychological and economic distress because the criminal justice system continuously targets our black men and place them in isolation with shackles on their hands and on their feet.

Frances E. W. Harper:  I think you are not understanding the social, economical and political implication of mass incarceration. Let’s agree to disagree. But I just want to reiterate my point that, “ I do not believe that the most ignorant and brutal man is better prepared to add value to the strength and durability of the government than the most cultured, upright, and intelligent women. I do not think that willful ignorance should swamp earnest intelligence at the ballot-box, nor that educated wickedness, violence, and fraud should cancel the votes of honest men” (Woman’s Political Future, p. 471).  For these reason I feel that the correlation between mass incarceration, slavery and all injustice should be viewed this way.

Gates Jr, Henry Louis, and Valerie A. Smith. The Norton Anthology of African American         Literature 3, no. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.