Author: cjackson26

The Implication of Mass Incarceration on Black Families

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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?

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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.

Lost Change: The Wage Gap’s Effect on Black Women

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This is a project created by Cameron Jackson for ENG 238 African American Literature, Pre-1945 at Elon University (Spring 2015), 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: W.E.B. DuBois and Sojourner Truth

Issue: The Wage Gap for African American Women

W.E.B. DuBois: Truth, we both know that the black women of our time were under appreciated for far too long. This issue still exists today since black women are one of the lowest paid minority groups in the work force. I suggest that our sisters focus more on long-term education and becoming civically engaged in order to influence policies on pay equality. As I wrote in my essay, “The Damnation of Women,” we should be uplifting a well-rounded, independent black woman: “We will pay women what they earn and insist on their working and earning it; we will allow those persons who vote to know enough to vote, whether they be black or female, white or male” (770). Rather than entering the workforce so quickly, our sisters should focus on obtaining advanced degrees and less on working minimum wage jobs and starting families. Additionally, they must pressure legislators to recognize their economic plight.

Sojourner Truth: Dubois, I am honestly not surprised by this mistreatment, but you place too much value on changing the white-dominated economy. If they will not respect us enough to give us equal pay, then we must pay ourselves. We must be self-supporting and invest in more black female-owned businesses. During my speech, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?,” I told the audience about the work that black women can endure: “I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and arn’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well—and arn’t I a woman?” (180). We could always do the same work as men, but never shared the benefits. We must value our own entrepreneurship, because my black sister has been stripped of her earnings for far too long.

DuBois: To be quite frank, your vision is beautiful, but unrealistic. It sounds quite easy for every black woman to turn to her own resources and operate her own separate economy, but this would not last and would be detrimental to the nation’s economy. Do not underestimate the impact that a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree could have on a young black woman’s trajectory. Black women began their economic freedom through menial, yet physically laborious work: “they furnished a million farm laborers, 80,000 farmers, 22,000 teachers, 600,000 servants and washerwomen, and 50,000 in trades and merchandising” (768). Instead of having to struggle through minimum-wage work, a woman could increase her chances for higher pay if she were to reach for the highest peaks of education. By breaking these glass ceilings, my hope is that she would weaken patriarchal values that do not grant her equal pay.

Truth: Your suggestion lacks practicality itself. Black women everywhere, not just in minimum wage jobs, are earning less pay. This does not allow them to have as much money to spend on certain expenses such as food and gasoline, let alone higher education. How do you expect all these young black women to pay for all of these advanced degrees? You attended the prestigious Harvard University, but not everyone has that privilege. They have always excluded us from education: “Den dey talks ‘bout dis ting in de head—what dis de call it?’ ‘Intellect,’ whispered some one near… ‘If my cup won’t hold but a pint and yourn holds a quiart, would n’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?’” (180). We have always had to forge our own way economically, instead of waiting for an institution of higher learning to tell us how we can achieve it.

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DuBois: Truth—that is a very good point. However, that ties into my argument earlier about civic engagement among black women. Because our race is not always able to provide for ourselves in terms of higher education, we must put more pressure on policymakers to see our young women as an investment in the future. As I have said in my own writing: “The uplift of women is, next to the problem of the color line and the peace movement, our greatest modern cause. When, now, two of these movements—woman and color—combine in one, the combination has deep meaning” (769). Both of these movements involved striving for civic engagement, and we must do the same. More scholarship programs must be created for graduating high school students. Additionally, black people in our nation who have been through higher learning and experienced its economic benefits must dedicate themselves to uplifting others through financial support.

Truth: You say that we must prove to “them” that our young black women are worth the investment. What better way is there to do that than to allow them to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors? We have capital. We have talent. Most of all, we have willpower. Black females have always been underestimated. As I asserted during my own speech: “if de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all ‘lone, dese togedder….ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again, and now dey is asking to do it, de men better let em” (180). We’re just asking for the chance to forge our own way. DuBois, I question whether you are more of an advocate for your own woman or for the white educational and economic system…

DuBois: I must admit, I am slightly offended. Never doubt my belief in the willpower of black women. I have always shown my support for my sisters, throughout my life and in my writing. As I wrote before: “I have always felt like bowing myself before them in all abasement, searching to bring some tribute to these long-suffering victims, these burdened sisters of mine, whom the world, the wise, white world, loves to affront and ridicule and wantonly to insult” (771). Truth, I believe in them just as much as you do. But because I know so much about their strength and ability to conquer all things, I fully believe in their ability to conquer the educational system. We must stop viewing the educational and economic system as something that is just “white.” Because it was built upon the backs of our ancestors, we must take our claim to it as well.

Truth: Pardon me, but I have always been suspicious of the systems that have been established in this nation. I frequently speak of religion because it has a large impact on my life. Yet, the white men have been using religion as a tool to keep black women out of their systems for centuries. I have tried to use Jesus Christ in an argument to change minds: “Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ want a woman…Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him” (180). No matter how loudly we speak, or how much we work to refine our points of argument, they will not hear us. Now you see why I favor autonomy in our economic activity. There needs to be a change, because the current systems are just not working for us.

DuBois: All I ask is that you have a little faith. The black woman is capable of many, many things. But above all: “The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge” (761). In order to gain wisdom and refine her skills, I believe every black woman has the right to a solid education. I must say, your arguments have swayed me, and I do see value in creating more black female-owned businesses. Yet, I do urge them to further develop themselves in college before they enter into the workforce. After that, they can start their own companies, or open local businesses, whatever they want to do to show the world their talents. Truth, I think that we can reach a compromise since we both care so much about the state of black women in our nation.

Truth: Now you are seeing my side! Perhaps I was being unrealistic in arguing that all black women should stay away from the traditional workforce. I just think that it would feel good to create our own value, since black women have never been made to feel important. As I said in my infamous speech: “Dat man ober der say dat women needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to have de best place every whar. Nobody eber help me into carriages, or ober mud puddles, or give me any best place” (180). Since no one has ever tried to help us, it’s time for us to help ourselves. By taking control of our lives economically, we will find independence through many other avenues. I must add, your thoughts have changed my view as well. I do see the value in using education as a supplement to our economic endeavors.

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.