Sunday, October 30, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed by Congress on Jan. 31, 1865 and ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865, states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
A critically acclaimed new documentary, “13th,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, builds a powerfully drawn, engrossing argument for interpreting that pivotal amendment less as a decisive end to the immoral system of human bondage and more as a transitional point from one period of black indignity to the next.
The film was directed and produced by Ava DuVernay, the Golden Globe Award-nominated director of “Selma,” among other works.
When slavery ended, DuVernay argues, the systematic imprisonment of blacks began. And just as the mythology of black inferiority justified slavery, the mythology of black criminality has justified the mass incarceration of black people that, as of yet, has no historical end point.
The specter of black criminality has been ruthlessly deployed for numerous ends within American society: to secure free labor in order to rebuild the South after the Civil War; to keep blacks, who migrated to the North in waves largely to escape daily acts of terror, contained within pockets of great urban cities like Chicago; and to suppress acts of large-scale, organized dissent against oppression.
DuVernay’s “13th” is a devastating play-by-play of this history of criminality, played out over a soundtrack that is both haunting and transgressive.
There’s a clear line, DuVernay shows, from the 13th Amendment to the criminalization and subsequent murder of black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Hampton — both of whom were depicted as public enemies by top law enforcement officials and politicians.
“We know the history of folks who have done this kind of standing up to these systems,” notes one talking head. “And we know how the system has murdered them, assassinated them, exiled them, excluded them or found ways to discredit them.”
Harvard historian Henry “Skip” Gates was succinct about the fate of the Black Panthers.
“The whole movement was criminalized and destroyed systematically by the government,” Gates said.
“I think people haven’t thought about what it means to lose a Fred Hampton, who somehow was able to pull together blacks and whites and Puerto Ricans and Native Americans to fight for justice at 21,” said Van Jones, roughly 45-minutes into the 1 hour and forty-minute film. “He had to go.”
“They literally went and shot his whole house up with his pregnant wife sitting next to him in the bed,” Jones said. “So afraid of a leader that can unite people.”
DuVernay’s argument isn’t new or particularly surprising. She deploys talking heads from across the ideological spectrum, including Newt Gingrich and Angela Davis, to make her case. Many of them are authors of books that DuVernay likely read in preparation for the film.
Here’s a short list of some of those authors included in the film and the books that flesh out and substantiate DuVernay’s narrative. You can pickup their work at Maywood’s only independently owned bookstore, AfriWare Books, 1701 S. 1st Ave., Suite 503, or order the books at AfriWare’s online home here.
You can also check out a copy of some of the books at the Maywood Public Library.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (2010)
From a 2012 New York Times book review:
The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.
The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, by Khalil Gibran Muhammad (2010)
From a summary of Muhammad’s book by Harvard University Press:
“Following the 1890 census, the first to measure the generation of African Americans born after slavery, crime statistics, new migration and immigration trends, and symbolic references to America as the promised land of opportunity were woven into a cautionary tale about the exceptional threat black people posed to modern urban society.
“Excessive arrest rates and overrepresentation in northern prisons were seen by many whites—liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners—as indisputable proof of blacks’ inferiority. In the heyday of “separate but equal,” what else but pathology could explain black failure in the “land of opportunity”?
“The idea of black criminality was crucial to the making of modern urban America, as were African Americans’ own ideas about race and crime. Chronicling the emergence of deeply embedded notions of black people as a dangerous race of criminals by explicit contrast to working-class whites and European immigrants, Khalil Gibran Muhammad reveals the influence such ideas have had on urban development and social policies.”
The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress, by William Jelani Cobb (2010)
From a summary of the book by Kirkus Review:
“While time alone will reveal the meaning and impact of Barack Obama’s election, the author strives to make early sense of an event of such magnitude that it warranted a New York Times headline (‘Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory’) in the same 96-point type used for the Apollo moon landing, Richard Nixon’s resignation and 9/11.
“Both an observer and participant in the 2008 election—he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention—Cobb describes the forces and subtle changes in American society that led to Obama’s victory. He notes the election marked the passing of the Jim Crow era; many young African-Americans now first encountered the words ‘For Colored Only” in museums. Generational hues were apparent in the fact that young people—black and white—were convinced Obama could win. They knew an Obama presidency would not end racism, but would at least “represent a fundamental change in the way this society understands race.’
“Obama waged a campaign against cynicism and challenged people to believe a black man could be president, and voters responded. Obama won more than 95 percent of the black vote, without the support of traditional civil-rights leaders, who were threatened by racial progress and acted like an old-style ethnic political machine in endorsing Hillary Clinton.
“Cobb is especially good on the contrast between Obama and Jesse Jackson, whose celebrated work had opened many doors for Obama, but who now failed to inspire most young African-Americans. Obama embodies the face—multiracial and cosmopolitan—of the next generation, and his ‘ultimate significance may be less as a president than as a harbinger of what comes after his presidency.'”
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis (2003)
From a review in Political Affairs:
“While the US prison population has surpassed 2 million people, this figure is more than 20 percent of the entire global imprisoned population combined. Angela Y. Davis shows, in her most recent book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, that this alarming situation isn’t as old as one might think.
“Just a little over 30 years ago the entire prison population stood at 200,000 in the US; that is a tenfold jump in just one generation. In California alone, 3 prisons were built between 1852 and 1952; from 1984 to the present, over 80 facilities were constructed that now house almost 160,000 people. While being jailed or imprisoned has become “an ordinary dimension of community life,” according to Davis, for men in working-class Black, Latino, Native American and some Asian American communities, it is also increasingly an issue women of these communities have come to face.
“Davis points to the increased involvement of corporations in prison construction, security, health care delivery, food programs and commodity production using prison labor as the main source of the growth of the prison-industrial complex. As prisons became a new source of profits, it became clear to prison corporations that more facilities and prisoners were needed to increase income. It is evident that increased crime is not the cause of the prison boom. Davis writes ‘that many corporations with global markets now rely on prisons as an important source of profits helps us to understand the rapidity with which prisons began to proliferate precisely at a time when official studies indicated that the crime rate was falling.’
“Corporations such as Westinghouse, Minnesota Mining and Manufacture, General Dynamics and Alliant Techsystems push their ‘crime fighting’ equipment for consumption by state and local governments. Board members at Hospital Corporation of America helped to found Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), now the largest private prison corporation in the country. By 2000 there were 26 for-profit prison corporations that operated 150 prisons across the country. Additionally, billions in profits come from using prisons as exclusive markets for selling such products as Dial soap, AT&T calling cards and many other items. Some corporations have come to rely on contracted prison labor, a modern version of slave labor.” VFP
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