16 Analysis: Utilizing Literature to Examine U.S. Mass Incarceration

As racialized populations are forced into the system, racial capitalism is able to exploit them for labor. As both Davis and Du Bois point out, racial capitalism’s specific model of exploitation has changed with history, but the intent has always been the same–to inflict violence based on hierarchies of race in order to acquire capital. The story of H in Yaa Gyasi’s novel, “Homegoing,” allows us to track the different modes of exploitation that racial capitalism implements. H is enslaved on a southern plantation until he is 13. He is released from captivity during the Civil War, after which he becomes a sharecropper, doing the same work he did while he was enslaved for meager pay. He is then imprisoned from “studyin’ a white woman” (Gyasi 2017: 158), and is sold to a pit boss by the police chief deputy in a scene that closely resembles a slave auction. Essentially, H is arrested for being Black; this illustrates the disproportionate and purposeful imprisonment of Black populations that both Ehrenreich (2011) and The Sentencing Project (Nellis 2019) point to in their data. H is forced to work in the coal mines outside of Birmingham, Alabama under inhumane conditions. Each phase of H’s life speaks to a mode of domination under racial capitalism.

In one scene, a prisoner is whipped to death for being 171 pounds short of his coal quota. The prisoner’s body is left in the mines for two days, a reminder to the other prisoners of the consequences of underproduction (Gyasi 2017: 160). Gyasi shows how prisoners are rendered disposable and reduced to their output, the coal prioritized over their bodies. “At least when he was a slave, his master needed to keep him alive if he wanted to get his money’s worth. Now, if H died, they would just lease the next men” (Gyasi 2017: 162). Author and activist Angela Davis (2003) echoes Gyasi’s comparison between the disposability of enslaved and incarcerated people when she writes, “Slave owners may have been concerned with the survival of individual slaves who, after all, represented significant investments. Convicts, on the other hand, were leased not as individuals, but as a group, and they could be worked literally to death without affecting the profitability of a convict crew” (32). It should not be lost on readers that the form of punishment used in the mines parallels whippings common during slavery.

Gyasi makes clear that the criminal justice system uses and reproduces the same racial hierarchies as chattel slavery. H notices that “the convicts working the mines were almost all like him. Black, once slave, once free, now slave again” (Gyasi 2017: 162). White convicts in the mines were convicted of murder, while Black convicts were accused of refusing to cross the street for a white woman and given the same sentence (Gyasi 2017: 165). H is beholden to the racialized hierarchy established by racial capitalism even after his release from the mines. The scars on his back from past whippings signal his belonging to the underclass; “…he knew that he couldn’t go back to the free world, marked as he was” (Gyasi 2017: 167). Instead, H moves to a mining town to continue the work he performed while in captivity. Because he is marked by scars from both enslavement and incarceration, he cannot assimilate into white society and is forced to continue producing for the coal industry until he dies prematurely, a death undoubtedly caused by poor working conditions. H embodies Alexander’s “period of invisible punishment,” as he is held in exploitative systems of production even after he is no longer incarcerated. Through the case study of H, readers can gain insight into the inner workings of racial capitalism and its establishment and maintenance of racial stratification.

A more contemporary example of mass incarceration’s role in the larger system of racial capitalism can be found in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Beale Street tells the story of Tish, a woman young and in love who is hit with the harsh reality of mass incarceration when her boyfriend, Fonny, is detained and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Baldwin’s novel tells a story of racial control carried out through the carceral state–when a white man gropes Tish at the market, Fonny physically defends her, beating the man to the ground. Tish stops the fight from progressing, but not before a white police officer, officer Bell, notices the scene and approaches Fonny, ignoring the white man altogether. Officer Bell belittles Fonny, calling him “boy,” and attempts to arrest him but is stopped by the grocer, who corroborates Tish’s claim that Fonny was not the aggressor. Officer Bell leaves, but not before telling Fonny that he would “be seeing you around,” (Baldwin 2006 [1974]: 139); a clear threat that is realized when he falsely accuses Fonny of being at the scene of a rape, a crime for which Fonny is eventually charged. The fact that  Fonny was home with Tish and a childhood friend during the attack makes clear that his imprisonment is racially charged.

Through officer Bell’s racist allegations and Fonny’s false conviction, Baldwin speaks to the wide-spread and intentional mass imprisonment of Black men in America. Officer Bell’s accusations model the modern form of racial control that both Davis and historian Mary Ellen Curtin compare to Southern lynchings; “after emancipation the courtroom became an ideal place to exact racial retribution” (Curtin 2000: 44). The unequal power dynamics between Officer Bell and Fonny also point to the racial make-up of the criminal justice system that Gonzalez Van Cleve (2020) illustrates in her ethnography of Cook County Jail. Those with positions of power within the system (police officers, lawyers, judges) are disproportionately white, as Gonzalez Van Cleve points out, and therefore have the ability to reproduce racial hierarchy, as exemplified by Officer Bell. Baldwin makes clear that Fonny’s incarceration speaks to a systemic issue with the story of Fonny’s friend Daniel, who is also falsely accused of a crime and spends a traumatic two years in prison. “I guess they just happened to need a car thief that day” (Baldwin 2006 [1974]: 109) Daniel says about his arrest. Ironically, Daniel tells Fonny and Tish that he can’t even drive a car (Baldwin 2006 [1974]: 106).

In addition to a specific critique of mass incarceration, Baldwin zooms out and names racial capitalism as a whole through a discussion of vocational school. He writes, “They say the kids are dumb and so they’re teaching them to work with their hands. Those kids aren’t dumb. But the people who run these schools want to make sure they don’t get smart: they are really teaching the kids to be slaves” (Baldwin 2006 [1974]: 36). Here, Baldwin makes direct links between slavery and modern forms of racial capitalism, specifically the school-to-prison pipleline. Notably, Fonny is likely subjected to prison labor during his sentence, where he is forced to work for the benefit of corporations and the state for little pay–a reality very close to that of a slave. Both Gyasi and Baldwin’s work exhibit clear examples of racial capitalism’s utilization of carceral punishment to exert violence and control on racialized bodies in the name of profit.


Power: Origins, Instances, and Protest Copyright © by Candy Lucero-Sanchez; Leah Rivera; Leslie Paz; and Liam Madigan. All Rights Reserved.

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