On Romanticization Versus Advocacy for Incarcerated Individuals

Since we first encountered it a few class sessions ago, I’ve been captivated by Mariame Kaba’s essay “Free Us All,” and its wariness of building movements around individuals. Rather, Kaba cites the #FreeBresha and #FreeMarissa movements as being successful precisely because organizers took “great pains to understand that each survivor is one among thousands of Black women and girls who have been and continue to be criminalized for trying to survive.” Collective defense is a critical component in Kaba’s call for prison abolition.

In light of this information, I find myself wondering where we draw the line between romanticization and purposeful remembrance/advocacy in the face of cycles of forgetting? Is it even a useful distinction to make? I would argue that to some extent, it is extraordinarily necessary. If we don’t react critically to rhetorical strategies as they are presented to us, we run the risk of being manipulated by language rather than engaging with it fairly.

Solnit and Snedecker’s Unfathomable City also informs this dilemma. Chapter 7 includes six portraits of incarcerated persons who are, to some extent, conscripted into performing victimhood and/or criminality (Solnit and Snedecker, 58-59). It’s also an extremely limited look at their lives as a whole. We are introduced to them as a person and a prisoner simultaneously, as if the label they’ve been proscribed is inextricable from their personhood. These images are romantic in some ways. The flattering sepia shadows through which we are challenged to sympathize and identify with them makes me wonder if I wouldn’t be in their shoes if I had been born in different circumstances. This appeal to pathos is coupled with hard data and more generalized (and thus, as Kaba might suggest, sustainable) narratives that seek to impress upon readers just how all encompassing the snapshots of prison life really are in the state of Louisiana (Solnit and Snedecker, 60). In some ways, specifics like the ones presented in Unfathomable City are extremely useful as a tool to push back against the human erasure intrinsic in our current era of the carceral state.

Ultimately, I would argue that categorization is hard to avoid in conversations about incarcerated people, who are assigned numbers, prison jobs, sentences, and other such statuses that dictate what their prison experience will be like. Categorization like this already causes harm for these people, so I’ve decided to give myself permission to explore individuality and sympathy in the face of a system that promotes an anonymous, out-of-sight and out-of-mind approach to correctional justice. As a historian and a student of English, balancing general trends with exploration into individual examples is the key to producing valuable work, and I hope I’ve captured that here.

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