Liberating Blackness: African-American Prison Writers and the Creation of the Black Revolutionary

Jonathan T Wolf, Fordham University


Liberating Blackness: African-American Prison Writers and the Creation of the Black Revolutionary takes an in-depth look at a selection of works written by African-American writers who, in autobiographies and novels written during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, utilized their own experiences with the carceral system to articulate revolutionary Black identities capable of resisting racial oppression. To articulate these revolutionary Black identities these authors would develop counter-narratives to three key historical discourses—scientific discourses of Black bodies, pedagogical discourses of Black minds, and political discourses of Black communities—that had, respectively, defined Black bodies and Black intellects as inferior to White bodies and White intellects, and subordinated the political interests of Black communities to White communities. These discourses would be used by state and federal agencies to justify racially disparate practices and processes of incarceration. In my first two chapters, I closely read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soledad Brother, Assata: An Autobiography, and Angela Davis: An Autobiography to look at how, respectively, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis utilize their own experiences in prison to craft counter-narratives about Black bodies and Black minds. I argue that while these counter-narratives aided readers in developing Black identities resistant to racist stereotypes, the dialectical frameworks that X and Jackson used in shaping their revolutionary subjectivities, informed by heteronormative, misogynist, and patriarchal beliefs, had the effect of (re)producing many of the practices of exclusion that justified the carceral system. In reaction, Black women prison writers, like Davis and Shakur, would utilize a dialogical model to develop a revolutionary Black female intersubjectivity based on practices of inclusivity, diversity and community. In my last chapter, I explore the novels Iron City by Lloyd L. Brown, and House of Slammers by Nathan Heard, novels written at the beginning and end of the era I review, to display how the counter-narratives put forth by all of these authors shaped the political landscape during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. I argue that the changes in tone between these two works, from optimism to pessimism, reflect on how X and Jackson’s dialectical models encouraged the political balkanization of Civil Rights and Black Power organizations, which inhibited them from mounting as effective a resistance against the carceral state as they could have had they taken heed of Davis and Shakur’s intersubjective model.

Subject Area

African American Studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Wolf, Jonathan T, "Liberating Blackness: African-American Prison Writers and the Creation of the Black Revolutionary" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10281261.