Prisoner Albert Woodfox, held in solitary confinement for more than 43 years. Mural by Brandan “Bmike” Odums, photo by courtesy Brandan Odums.

Teaching histories of race and incarceration in the prison capital of the world

By Benjamin Weber

I have been thinking a lot about the challenges of teaching the history of policing and prisons in New Orleans ever since the AFT asked me to write for this issue of Voices on Campus. You might think it would be easy, given the current situation down here. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It also has one of the worst records of racial disparity in sentencing. In fact, last year the American Civil Liberties Union found that black Louisianans were 23 times more likely than whites to get life without parole for a nonviolent offense, and currently make up 91.4 percent of those prisoners. In New Orleans, one in 14 black men is locked up. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, the sheriff is pushing to build yet another jail with recovery money. In reflecting on the course I taught this fall, three points — about empathy, urgency and collaboration — seem especially worth sharing.

In the key of empathy

Pedagogically, the magnitude of this crisis creates problems of scale. So in some ways, the first difficulty is for students to make meaningful connections out of abstract statistics. This is easier for some than for others. After I took my class to see Richard Ross’ photography exhibit “Juvenile in Justice,” for example, I found one student outside the building sobbing. “I can’t take it,” Maria told me. “The kid under the bed … I have a son who’s his age.” Gia Hamilton, director of the Joan Mitchell Center and the exhibit’s curator, was similarly struck by that particular image, as was Voice Monet, a local artist who is also the mother of teenage boys. Unlike Hamilton and Monet, however, Maria, who is white, cannot know as intimately what it is like to raise a black teenager in New Orleans. Yet, her lived experience as a mother, along with the age, gender, posture and predicament of the photo’s subject created a powerful moment of recognition for her.

Photo of Richard Ross’ Juvenile in Justice exhibit, Creative Alliance of New Orleans Gallery

Other students were not so easily moved. We began the class by unpacking ahistorical explanations for the contemporary crisis of mass imprisonment. Statements like “that’s just how things are” or “because people are racist” beg the question. How have things come to be like this? In what ways has racism operated? I chose readings that would introduce students to a range of different explanatory frameworks. Not everyone was initially convinced by Loïc Wacquant’s “racial control” thesis, or by Angela Davis’ argument for prison abolition. When considering art-activist Jackie Sumell’s invitation to “imagine a landscape without prisons, barren of the desire to punish,” one student dismissed it out of hand as “naive.”

Indeed, the deep-seated assumption that “bad people deserve to be locked up” is surprisingly durable.

To ensure that all students had the chance to grapple with issues of incarceration in a concrete and personal way, I designed a postcard exchange with prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola. Inspired by artist Mark Strandquist’s “Windows from Prison,” I asked prisoners who had lost a loved one while they were in prison how they would like that person to be commemorated. I started by reaching out to a group of prisoners from New Orleans who, along with more than 85 percent of the inmates, are serving life sentences at Angola. They responded by sharing a story about their lost loved one, and describing where and how we could help them pay respects. I encouraged my students to pick one that resonated for them.

“… Your story about your love Dakota Jackson really touched me,” Melanie wrote in her letter back to one of the prisoners. “The only love I have ever known, my former boyfriend Joe, got sent to jail in California in the middle of this semester. … Even though we broke up, we still talked almost every day,” she explained. “Your story about Dakota was bittersweet because you found love but then she was taken away.” Here again, the student’s lived experience shaped the nature of her connection to this particular story. At the same time, the academic study of incarceration provided a wider context for her to make sense of it.

Photo of a commemoration by the author, fall 2015

No academic writing on loss and dislocation caused by imprisonment can have this kind of effect. “It was an honor to assist you in her balloon release … it was therapeutic for me,” as Melanie put it. “I wrote on every balloon. … We read your letter out loud and when we released the balloons we said, ‘Dakota, Gerald will always love you.’ It was a very special moment that I will never forget. Thank you for writing in to us and allowing us to honor Dakota for you. …”

I believe that we learn differently when we feel personally connected to what we are learning. There are ongoing debates in several disciplines about whether empathy is something we should, or even can, teach. For some, it seems presumptuous to assume we can ever really know what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes. While we may not be able completely to understand an experience from someone else’s frame of reference, what happens when we endeavor to teach in the key of empathy? I started out with the problem of scale as a measure of dimension, and ended up thinking about music. The metaphor may not be perfect, but it highlights the need for art and creativity in helping us reach students in a different register.

With a sense of urgency

The pressures of the present created another set of challenges. I needed to help students make sense of current events, and to find the right language to talk about issues of media representation. When teaching history, the past is always in conversation with present and future, yet I had never felt this more strongly.

A month before the start of class, Sandra Bland was found hanged in her jail cell in Hempstead, Texas. She had been pulled over for failing to signal, and thrown to the ground after a verbal confrontation with the officer. There can be little conjecture about what was said; it was caught on his dashcam. Everyone could hear the officer scream “I will light you up!” And, we heard her indict his misogynist behavior when she told him, “I bet you feel like a real man, now.” Yet, there was plenty of speculation about her actions over the ensuing months. It was the kind of conjecture with which black women are all too familiar. “If only she hadn’t been so outspoken, so combative,” went one version of this type of victim-blaming. Thus, it was clear from the first day of class that many students were desperately seeking to engage in these conversations about police misconduct. How could they explain to their friends and families how the video was being interpreted in the media, or the way that something as seemingly self-evident as what we see and hear can become racialized and gendered?

Dashcam Footage of Sandra Bland’s Arrest during a Traffic Stop

Reading Judith Butler’s article, “Endangered/Endangering,” on the role of white paranoia in the 1991 police beating of Rodney King proved especially timely. For one thing, it gave students some words to call out conjecture. In class, they swapped stories of how quick people are to offer their opinions about what they imagine to have happened just prior to what actually appears on video: “I bet he had. …” Or, what they imagine would have happened immediately afterward: “But, I’m sure he was going to. …” They recalled the ways that Michael Brown’s movements in Ferguson, Mo., were described as threatening, how his unarmed body itself came to be seen as a weapon.

A few months into the semester, video was released of the Chicago police shooting Laquan McDonald, another unarmed black teenager, 16 times, to death. Again, my students were stunned by the way their peers felt more comfortable judging the past and the future — what might have occurred, or was about to occur — while the uncomfortable present, what occurred on camera, stood there staring them squarely in the face. Much of this speculation creates a horrifying false moral equivalency, holding some alleged crime against property up against the taking of life.

Contemporary social movements, like Black Lives Matter, are working hard to create urgency around these police killings. For prisoners, time is also of the essence.

In Louisiana, time sometimes has a way of standing still. Albert Woodfox, the last remaining member of the “Angola 3” in prison, was held in solitary confinement for more than 43 years before his release in February. This past summer, before his release, artist and activist Brandan “Bmike” Odums painted a 25-foot mural of Woodfox to bring renewed attention to his case (see opening photo). So, as students read fellow Angola 3 member Robert King’s autobiography in class, they also had the opportunity to engage with Woodfox’s struggle.

Here in New Orleans, time can also run backward. Right before the semester’s start, for instance, the officers convicted of the Danziger Bridge shootings were given a new trial for killings they committed 10 years ago. In the days following Hurricane Katrina, they shot Ronald Madison in the back with a shotgun, killed teenager James Brissette and wounded four others. In fact, that week police officers also shot Keenon McCann, Matthew McDonald, Danny Brumfield and Henry Glover. The convictions of some of the officers involved in the cover-up and burning of Glover’s body were also later overturned, leaving only officer Gregory McRae to serve time.

Now, try taking those current (and recurrent) events, and placing them into a genealogy of racial violence stretching from slave patrols to lynch mobs, citizens’ counsels to neighborhood watches, militarized police forces to death-dealing drones. Add insights from recent literature on the policing and incarceration experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. What you get is a deeply depressing, yet urgently necessary, recognition among students of just what people have been capable of doing to one another. It can be challenging to push back on the Whiggish notion of a glorious march of progress. Still, we must somehow summon the courage to face the future.

Alongside those who know

Collaboration can be challenging, and academia tends to encourage us to go it alone. Teaching the history of policing and prisons last fall, however, reminded me very tangibly of something I have believed for a long time:

People most directly affected by an issue have the greatest insight into it.

Through the postcard exchange with prisoners, students got the chance to relate to their family members. I was struck by how some prisoners described a person they wanted us to go and meet, in the section of the form that asked where they would like the commemoration to take place. These interactions proved to be most meaningful. It showed how in spite of their incarceration, some prisoners sought to improve the design of our project. Although we set out to commemorate prisoners’ deceased loved ones, their living loved ones began showing up more and more. At an event to exhibit the postcards and gather community feedback on students’ project drafts, for instance, a death-row prisoner called his fiancé who was in attendance, and we were able to put him on the microphone so he could speak to everyone.

Mac Phipps, portrait by his mother, Sheila Phipps, 2010, photo courtesy of the artist

Sheila Phipps, local artist and mother of incarcerated rapper Mac Phipps, also came to the event. By the time it was over, she had agreed to contribute her portraits of incarcerated and exonerated men and to advise my class on its submission to the national traveling exhibit, “States of Incarceration, being coordinated by the New School’s Humanities Action Lab in New York City.

At this event, my class also collaborated with local high schoolers from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) who performed the prisoners’ stories as monologues. This added yet another dimension to the already embodied learning experience of having gone out and done the commemorations themselves. And, it created another opportunity to learn from those who know best. After the performance, one young person described the way that rehearsing these monologues helped her get over her embarrassment about family members who had been in prison.

For my students, it also brought home one of scholar-activist Dan Berger’s arguments they had just read. In reframing the history of black freedom struggles in the U.S. through the lens of prisoner activism, Berger describes a moment when, for many political activists, going to prison switched from a brand of shame to a badge of pride. This was both because of the resistance to injustice it symbolized, and also because of the growing acknowledgment that the criminal justice system itself was institutionally racist.

Having Norris Henderson, the executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender who was imprisoned at Angola for 29 years before being exonerated, speak to the class was an experience students will never forget. It was a forceful reminder to put things in perspective.

While some students worry about saying the wrong thing, many people of color worry about being shot by the police or wrongfully incarcerated.

As scholars Naomi Murakawa and Katherine Beckett put it in their article “The Penology of Racial Innocence,” while many white people think that racism is waning, if not altogether a thing of the past, in this age of racialized mass incarceration, people of color feel it ever more acutely.

Students in History 4991/5991 “Policing and Prisons in Local and Global Perspective,” fall 2015

My thoughts on the challenges of teaching the carceral crisis, for what they’re worth, can be summarized as follows. Try to teach in an empathetic way, with a sense of urgency, alongside people who know. In my experience, this created opportunities for students critically to examine their own beliefs and relate them to the world around them. Sadly, in New Orleans, as with much of the rest of the country, this is a world in which almost everyone has some friend or family member who has been to jail. The future demands we do better.


Student names have been changed to respect their privacy.

Benjamin D. Weber is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard University and adjunct professor of history at the University of New Orleans, where faculty are represented by the AFT’s United Federation of College Teachers. He is working on a study of domestic and overseas U.S. prisons entitled America’s Carceral Empire: Confinement, Punishment, and Work at Home and Abroad. You can contact him at bdweber@uno.edu.

The University of New Orleans students’ projects created in this class have been incorporated into the national traveling exhibit, States of Incarceration, coordinated by the Humanities Action Lab at the New School for Social Research. For more information, visit http://humanitiesactionlab.org/.

For more images of the commemorations, see Benjamin D. Weber, Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors at http://arcg.is/1HoonA7.

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