The Black Woman in the basement: A note on segregated reading

It only really hit me after coming to the United States to study. It had always been there at the back of my mind, dispersed as unconnected memories of conversations with friends. But now those memories have cohered to form a narrative. The catalyzing event that facilitated this fusion was, and continues to be, my experience of segregation in Washington DC. This is the narrative of segregated reading practices across axes of race and gender. White readers self-segregate in ways that reflect and reinforce physical boundaries that account for persisting racialized gender tensions and inequalities across the country. Segregated reading practices involve avoiding literature by other races and genders, particularly those who have been historically subjected to discrimination. It is a form of literary solipsism where the self, and close approximations to it, is the only candidate worthy of attention in a book of fiction. This literary self-segregation engenders a narrow reading of the world that does little to dismantle prejudicial attitudes and unconscious biases held by those in power. 

More often than not the Black people I see within and around my university’s campus are often working in positions of servitude. On seeing this, I wondered whether this accounts for the few times that white students or professionals in the area engage with Black people on a daily basis. Can you imagine that almost every time you see a Black person – especially if you are white – it is to be served by them? And then, when speaking to people about their favorite novels you realize that they rarely ever mention reading books about women and men of color? Can you imagine living in a country where everyone who is not white is flattened and exists outside the range of a white person’s engagement with fully realized human beings, both in the realms of the physical and fictional? 

Men do not read enough novels by and about women. This is a simple truism that can be expanded through a race and gender disaggregation. White men do not read enough novels about white women or people of color, white women do not read enough novels about people of color, men of color do not read enough novels about women of color. Women of color, especially Black women, and especially Black women who are queer, occupy the bottom of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s metaphorical basement and have had to read up the ladder of human experience with little reciprocity. This isn’t to say that fiction is a panacea for society’s ills or that it can or should function as a replacement for engaging with actual people. There is certainly a performative aspect to some people’s reading practices, as though reading about Black women, and acquiring the language to speak about them and their experiences, are enough. It isn’t.

However, there is something to be said about the way that people’s lives are separated in the physical realm, and how that gets translated to their reading of the world. There have been too many conversations with men, both white and Black, who would rattle off their favorite books of fiction by other white and Black men while failing to mention a single novel by a white or Black woman. I’ve also often read several online pieces, such as The New York Times’ By the Book, where public figures proudly list the books that impacted them most in life. The majority, if not all, of those books center a white male imprint on human experience.

Another note on segregation. Trains in DC, at least the ones I take, perform a sort of magic. When I get onto the train in central DC there are crowds of white people who are tired after a long day of work, eager to get home, like me, to relax. As the train travels further away from central DC, this crowd slowly disperses until all the Black people – previously hidden among a sea of white – are revealed. Except, this isn’t a magic trick. I almost always know when the last white person in the train car will get up to leave before it ventures into more “dangerous” locales. This is the work of systemic racism that bleeds into how neighborhoods are organized. It bleeds into who we associate with, live next to, empathize with, humanize, and spend time with in books. I knew about segregation and gentrification prior to moving to the U.S. Knowing that didn’t diminish the culture shock. 

I’m somewhat pleased to note that efforts are now being made to include more women of color – within and beyond the global – into the fold of lionized literary wunderkinds. Recall former President Barack Obama’s summer reading lists, this year’s Booker Prizes long and short lists, this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and the ever-increasing number of “woke” Bookstagrammers sharing their favorite books by women of color and discussing intersectionality. That most of these Bookstagrammers are women is not surprising, but it is my hope that, with time, the effort to read more books by Black and Brown women will occur in tandem with increased efforts to desegregate neighborhoods and dismantle systemic racism. Whether it’s Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo, Beloved or The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, or Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, it’s time to destabilize privileged locations of storytelling by reading about the constellations of women’s experiences; of women who continue to exist in the margins in the mind of country plagued by a white pathology.

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: ThoughtCo / Robert Alexander / Getty)

Black women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day

BobbyLee Worm

Stacey Lannert grew up in the middle of the United States, in Missouri. Her father sexually abused her, starting when she was eight years old. On July 5, 1990, at the age of 18, Lannert walked into her father’s bedroom and shot him, twice, killing him. The `final straw’ was her father raping her younger sister. Two years later, in December 1992, Lannert was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In January 2009, at the age of 36, Stacey Lannert was released, thanks to the outgoing Missouri governor, Matt Blunt, who commuted her sentence: “After eighteen years, I was allowed to be Stacey Ann Lannert instead of Offender #85704. I’ll never completely shed the number, but I did start over.”

Wilbertine Berkley would like to start over as well, but the State of Florida has other plans.

In the United States, over five million people cannot vote because of past criminal offenses. One million of those people live in Florida. In one state alone, a million people who have served their time are disenfranchised. Of that million, almost 300,000 are African American.

Wilbertine Berkley is a Black woman in Florida who struggled with drug abuse, spent time in jail, turned her life around, joined a program, got clean, went to college, and gave back to the community in volunteer work. She was awarded the Presidential Volunteer Award. She did everything she was supposed to do and more, and the State response has been to `alienate’ her, to identify her as frozen in the past. Her good work counts for nothing.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9, 2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency will vote on whether to make it even more difficult for former prisoners to be re-instated. The proposed change would include a five-year mandatory waiting period before being able to apply for `clemency’. Florida’s Attorney General sees this as a fight against entitlements: “I believe that every convicted felon must actively apply for the restoration of his or her civil rights and that there should be a mandatory waiting period before applying. The restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement…The burden of restoring civil rights should not fall on the shoulders of government, but rather it should rest on the individual whose actions resulted in those rights being taken in the first place.”

Wilbertine Berkley wants and deserves respect for who she is today, for who she has become, for what she has made of herself and of her world. She made a mistake. She worked hard. She paid her debt.

But for Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

Ask BobbyLee Worm. BobbyLee Worm is a 24 year old aboriginal woman prisoner in the Fraser Valley Institution, a Canadian federal prison that describes itself as “a multi-level facility for women…. Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs is called Management Protocol.

Management Protocol is “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” Established in 2005, seven women prisoners have been on Management Protocol. All seven have been aboriginal women.

Management Protocol is open ended, unrestricted solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deems `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How does one leave Management Protocol? One earns one’s way out. How does one earn? What are the wages? No one knows.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She is a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She has spent the majority of her time in segregation, paying off the debt of years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and trauma. For Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

These stories are typical of the conditions of women, and girl, prisoners around the world. Girls whose only `crime’ is being the daughters of asylum seekers, or of being born into oppressive communities, are stuck into detention centers, such as the Inverbrackie Detention Center in Australia. Once there, they suffer nightmares, turn violent, and refuse to eat. What is their crime, what is the debt to society that must be paid? They were born in Iran, they sailed to Australia.

Around the world, women of color, Black women, and their daughters, sit in prisons. Their debt grows incrementally by the second. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. Today is March 8, 2011, International Women’s Day.  These women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day.

 

(Photo Credit: British Columbia Civil Liberties Association)