A Receipt for a Human Being: Ghetto Prisoners Rise!

The first peculiar institution aimed at defining, controlling and confining its black population was plantation slavery.  Afro-Americans are cognizant that their ancestors came to America not on the comfortable mayflower as pilgrims, but on tightly-packed ships as slaves.  While Americans of European descent can discuss their Irish, Scottish, or English heritage, Afro-Americans have been robbed of their heritage to be able to know what ethnic group in Africa they come from – whether the Yoruba, Ashanti, or Igbo, they can only speculate.   The Middle Passage and subsequent forced labor of Africans destroyed the kinship structure of Africans, thus current Afro-Americans have been deprived of detailed information denoting where their ancestors labored, who exactly their ancestors were, and who owned their ancestors.


rootsThe PBS Program Finding Your Roots hosted by Henry Louis Gates seeks to fulfill this void in black history.  In a recent episode, the Queens Bridge poet Nasir Jones is informed that his 3rd great grandmother Pocahontas was purchased for a mere $830 when she was fifteen years old.  Nasir Jones looks upon the receipt issued for his foremother, ponders it for a while, and with a sobering pain inside him laments, “That hurts.” He poses the rhetorical question, “A receipt for a human-being?” It is agonizing for him to fathom that his foremother was considered as a mere piece of property, but Nasir Jones presses on, although nothing could mentally prepare him for the next segment.


ghettoprisonersNasir Jones is shown a picture of a bearded man. Dr. Gates states, “This is the white man who owned your ancestor.”  With ache showcasing in his face expression, Nasir proclaims,” This is the face that my ancestors look at every day? The eyes they looked at. Now I am looking in their world. Now I can see where they walked, what they saw.”  Nasir Jones was able to attach names to faces evoking deep-reflection, though Pocahontas was eventually freed from plantation slavery, along with the masses of black people, centuries later. In a poem by Nasir Jones, he describes people who are ‘trapped in slums’ and are subsequently ‘headed for nothing but the state pen, where they cousins be waiting.’  He calls these people ‘ghetto prisoners’ and in the chorus he protests, “Ghetto Prisoners Rise! Rise! Rise Rise!”


nasbiglSuch a declarative plea from Nasir Jones hints that even in the Post-Plantation Slavery Era, there is a yearning for a type of freedom among black youth that was not solidified or secured in the emancipation proclamation or the Civil Rights Legislation; rather, his description denotes that a more structural and still-present structural system is in place, in which masses of America’s black population are confined to ghettos that are characterized by poor housing, education, and decrepit living conditions.   The purpose of the ghetto according to sociologist Wacquant is to function as a “device for caste control” dedicated to the “containment of lower class African-Americans.”  Nasir describes a social phenomenon, in which the avenues for social mobility are so obsolete that black ‘ghetto prisoners’ live a life that consists of drug trafficking and are subsequently funneled into the state penitentiary, as an ever-present and normalized living condition.


blackprisoner2Indeed, Nasir’s observations stemming from looking out of his project windows are supported by a statistical reality. One-third of African-American men who are in their twenties are either behind prison bars, on parole, probation or some tutelage of the prison system. Wacquant notes that, “The rate of incarceration for African-Americans has soared to astronomical levels unknown in any other society, not even the Soviet Union at the Zenith of the Gulag or South Africa during the acme of the violent struggles over Apartheid.”  Indeed, being killed at an early age or facing a lengthy prison sentence is a common social predicament for Ghetto Prisoners, whose incarceration rates are unparalleled in human history.   In the Post-Civil Rights era in which laws aimed at segregating blacks have been overturned, how does one explain this social reality?  It requires a comprehensive understanding of the various peculiar institutions that have existed in American history aimed at defining, confiding and controlling its black population.


The first peculiar institution that African-Americans experienced was plantation slavery, which Nas’ 3rd great grandmother Pocahontas lincolnendured. Plantation slavery was not ended in order benefit black people or to secure social and economic equality for blacks.  This is confirmed by the words of Abraham Lincoln who said, “If I could save The Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it,” as well as, “I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races.” In reality, slavery was ended because it was no longer economically suitable; America had to compete with Europe and industrialize, and thus plantation slavery would end.

blackcodesAfter the end of plantation slavery with the rise of industrialization, in the south the next peculiar institution would be Black Codes and a system of Jim Crow’s laws.  Such laws aimed to keep Afro-Americans confined and excluded them from all social and political institution.  Many blacks would find themselves back on plantations to partake in sharecropping under a system of debt peonage, a de facto system of slavery.  Those who took jobs in mining and industry would be subjected to the most gruesome and dangerous of working conditions.  During this peculiar institution, segregation would be ever-present in every facet of American life and lynching and violence towards black people would be frequent.


neroesJim Crow’s laws mandating segregation by the law largely came to an end in 1965, though de jure segregation would remain and continue to remain in the present.  Segregation has seeped so fully into American political institutions that it was able to continue even without explicit laws.  In every area of American society, from employment opportunities and housing opportunities, to educational opportunities, segregation is the norm.  During the great migration Afro-Americans would en-masse come to the North, where they would still endure segregation and often violence.  Yet blacks would still serve a positive economic function; in northern areas blacks would be utilized as a source for cheap labor in factories and reservoir for cheap labor for the factories of the city.


queensbridgeThe hyper-imprisonment of blacks is not a product of the enduring legacy of political disenfranchisement and segregation from the peculiar institution of Jim Crow as some have theorized; rather, it is a functioning of a current and systemic racialized peculiar institution that operates even with a black President and the removal of Jim Crow’s Laws.  The era of globalization gave birth to a new peculiar institution known as the hyper-ghetto – jobs were outsourced overseas, and the economy of the metropolis transitioned from manufacturing to knowledge-based services.  As a result, Wacquant notes that, “for the first time in American history, the African American was no longer needed in the economic system of the metropolis.”  Wacquant further highlights that the system in place has “consign[ed] the vast majority of uneducated blacks to economic redundancy.”


For black prison inmates, the vast majorit yearned less than one thousand dollars a month and grew up in a single parent household that jungle received welfare, and a significant portion were unemployed when arrested.  But the ‘black question’ for the United States government is what is to be done with this disposable ghetto population who inevitably turn to drug-trafficking and crime and function as a ‘menace to society’?  This is where the prison system comes into place; according to Wacquant it functions as “a human warehouse wherein are discarded those segments of urban society deemed to disreputable, derelict, and dangerous.”  Furthermore the ghetto contains large cases of police containment and brutality; large mechanisms to monitor the populations, as even the school-systems in black communities are over- policed.  In effect, the Ghetto exists as a peculiar institution to direct its black inhabitants to prison.


prisionPoet Big L, a ghetto prisoner of Harlem, describes his childhood upbringing as a chaotic reality characterized by a lack of food, clothing, and adequate shelter.  The crack epidemic ravished his entire community and his parents were non-functioning. He sees his life heading towards a complete ‘dead end’; he partakes in drug trafficking as a means to survive, yet, he eventually recognizes prison life as something inevitable and even preferable to street life, “Where I grew up it was a living hell. When I started to realize – I’m better off in a prison cell.”  After partaking in a robbery he is given a jail sentence, but even after his sentence was over and he is back on the streets, he makes efforts to pull himself up ‘by the bootstraps’ – yet he eventually finds himself in the same predicament, “Either I’ma go back to jail or get murdered, but do I deserve it? All I tried to do was live the one life that I got.  But it seems like I can’t get a fair shot.”

The reason why Big L could not receive a fair shot is because while the oppression of black people has transitioned and altered as America hasdrugwarundergone economic changes, the fundamental reality of a white over black hierarchy has not.  The current mass imprisonment of black youth exists then in Wacquant’s analysis as a “recruiting of the American state to suit the requirements of neo-liberalism.” Henceforth Nasir Jones raises the fundamental question in Ghetto Prisoners,” Who’s to be praised? The mighty dollar — or almighty Allah.”  This is not to say the mere oppression of blacks is simply a function of class, as Wacquant notes, “because America is the one society that has pushed the market logic of commodification of social relations and state devolution to the furthest.”  Rather, it seeks to make invisible racialized oppression a mask, focusing instead on “urban crime”, “criminal underclass” and “welfare-dependency” code words for blacks.  Food deserts, police brutality, gang conflicts, and shootouts are some of the unique social situations within these hyper-ghettoes that characterize it are separate peculiar institutions separate from mainstream, white-dominated American society aimed at defining, controlling, and confining black youth.  The plea for “ghetto prisoners to rise” by Nasir Jones is then a call to overcome white oppression of the black populations.


Nas enslaved ancestors, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots/nas-enslaved-ancestors-receipt-human/12115/

Ghetto Prisoners by Nas

When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh by Loic Wacquant,

The new ‘peculiar institution’: On the prison as surrogate ghetto by Loic Wacquant

Abraham Lincoln, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-lincoln-douglas-debates-4th-debate-part-i/