In my research, I always emphasize the Black woman’s story. Our narratives comprise a perspective that is often left out of literary canon of sociology and criminology. For example, social movement research typically focuses on male leaders and often minimizes the voices of women activists. Protests, sit-ins, marches, books, art, and other methods of resistance have been employed by Black women to fight against racism and sexism experienced daily. There are many pieces on large scale or infamous political demonstrations; however, there has been a segment of Black women that are largely (or virtually) ignored in social movement scholarship, incarcerated Black women. The current (limited) scholarship shows that Black women face specific challenges within the prison system, but what we do not know are the mechanisms employed daily by these women as they fight back against the system while incarcerated.
I admit, I initially ignored this population within my social movement research. It was not in the realm of possible dissertation topics nor did it come across any of my literature reviews. Most corrections literature state similar facts, theories, and statistics*. The majority of incarcerated Black women are victims of sexual and domestic abuse which made them vulnerable to their male partners and more susceptible to be accessories to their illegal activities. Black women are disproportionately represented within the criminal justice system, receive harsher treatment, and are more than two times as likely as white women to be incarcerated. The socioeconomic status of incarcerated Black women prior to sentencing is less than white women. Black mothers are typically the sole providers of their children and many times their rights are terminated while incarcerated.
In spring 2018 during my weekly Inside Out class (a joint class with outside university students and inmates) inside the local jail with Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad, one inside student, Diane**, shared a story changed the trajectory of my research. Earlier that week, Diane had walked out of a class because the assigned reading contained “nigger” throughout the book. The use of the book was defended by the teacher because it was “classical literature” and she refused to choose another. Diane did not want to participate because she felt that book was insulting and insensitive. Therefore, after her request was ignored, she left the room. She walked out despite the repercussions and penalties that could occur, such as being removed from the class and future programming. She did not see herself as making a grand political statement and she had nothing to gain but could lose a lot. A consequence to her protest was that she was unable to receive a certificate of completion.
By listening to this story, I began to parallel her actions to the acts of resistance which occurred in the Black women’s social movement literature; they demonstrated similar characteristics. First, individual and collect actions can occur because of an injustice experienced. Next, within and outside of correctional facilities, we are socialized in society to follow rules or a punishment will follow. Public political demonstrations can result in police interference or violence. In a facility, hunger strikes, walkouts, or other infractions that are considered inappropriate can result in disciplinary actions such as solitary confinement, privileges being taken away, or physical actions against the inmate. Finally, Black women have used the resources and power they have. Diane only had her body to make a statement and activists use their community connections, economic power, or available platforms to express themselves.
As I frantically made connections between Black women activists inside and outside of prison while listening Diane’s story, I eventually settled on one question: how do Black women resist sexism and racism while incarcerate? Although the inmates are secluded from the world, the rules of society still permeate the walls. When they enter into a carceral space, correctional officers, administration, and the inmates themselves embody and sometimes act upon prejudices related to all social identities. Those prejudices translate to policies, practices, and contribute to the prison culture. Black women have contested their unequal treatment for decades. Although correctional facilities are structured to restrict one’s agency, Black women still find tactics to challenge discriminatory actions. These stories of resistance need to be added to our understanding of Black women’s activism because our story of defiance does not end once behind bars.
*The following information about incarcerated Black women is included in The Status of Black Women in the United States, however you can contact author for additional resources.
**Names have been changed to protect privacy.