Black Women and the Carceral State

Black Women and the Carceral State

Two new books illustrate the central role of black women’s convict labor in the construction of the Jim Crow South, white womanhood, and American capitalism writ large.

Women prisoners wait in line at the Parchman Post Office, circa 1930 (Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity
by Sarah Haley
The University of North Carolina Press, 2016, 360 pp.

Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South
by Talitha L. LeFlouria
The University of North Carolina Press, 2016, 280 pp.


Sometime around 1910 in rural Georgia, a woman named Emma Wimms shot and killed a man named Raymond High. Wimms had confronted High about his abuse of her daughter, with whom he was involved. According to trial records, High had beaten the younger Wimms “severely.” When challenged by the mother, he came at her with a razor. She put him in the ground. But Wimms was black and this was Jim Crow Georgia. So there was only one place where an act of defense like hers led: the state prison farm at Milledgeville. Wimms became one of the thousands of women working on the chain gang in the “New South.”

When you think of convict labor in the postbellum South, you probably think of men. Consider the cultural touchstones: John Henry driving steel in West Virginia, Robert Burns’s I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, the manacled singers in Alan Lomax’s field recordings, Nat Adderley’s classic “Work Song” (“Breaking rocks out here on the chain gang/Breaking rocks and serving my time”). Or perhaps not—by far the finest rendition of “Work Song,” after all, is Nina Simone’s. By singing Adderley’s song, Simone made audible what has been systemically silenced: the historical experience of black women subjected to coerced labor and state violence. While the repression and coercion of black women have been constant features of American life in one form or another across the centuries, they are also today the site of a vital strand of political resistance. The appearance of two historical works on the subject, then, is significant. Talitha L. LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, and Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, represent the most thorough historical accounting of the system of carceral labor inflicted on black women.

These are books for our moment. African-American women—queer, black women in particular—have been critical in local organizing against police violence, and have emerged as the leaders of the nation’s most significant national movement for racial justice, Black Lives Matter. Partly, this reflects a long tradition of black female political leadership; partly it is the product of the relative invisibility of state violence against black women. In the story of Emma Wimms, which is told in No Mercy Here, it is difficult not to hear the echo of cases like that of Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman sentenced to twenty years after firing a warning shot to protect herself from her abusive husband. (Alexander received a new trial following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 for killing Trayvon Martin in 2012, after the details of the cases and their outcomes were compared.) As women protesting racial violence and state repression in the last few years have repeatedly pointed out, the deaths of Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and even Sandra Bland have received far less attention than those of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. The mainstream account of mass incarceration tends to see it fundamentally as a male problem, a product of blue-collar job loss for liberals, or of black male youth culture for conservatives. All the while, the incarceration of women has risen at a rate 50 percent higher than that of men since 1980, according to the Sentencing Project; of these, of course, a large portion are women of color. This suggests a different interpretation, one known to prison abolitionists since Emma Wimms’s day: crime begins with the state and the social order it enforces; punishment reflects the prerogatives of those who rule, not the choices of those who deviate.

LeFlouria and Haley both focus on Georgia, a state often seen as the central link in the Southern chain-gang system. No other state so embraced the modernization project of the “New South,” laying railroads, digging mines, clearing forests, and paving roads in a postbellum frenzy of development. Historian Alex Lichtenstein demonstrated a decade ago the critical economic role of convict labor in this process, showing how Southern progress was built by the lash and the sweat-box. There was a reason that the Thirteenth Amendment, while abolishing bonded labor, made an explicit exemption for those undergoing punishment for a crime.

LeFlouria adds gender to this analysis. “Black women prisoners were a fundamental asset in the development of Georgia’s postbellum industries,” writes LeFlouria. In particular, Chained in Silence insists that it is too simple to account for the phenomenon of convict labor as a form of “neoslavery,” as a number of scholars have done. Individuals caught in the system were fatally split between a free self and an enslaved one.

The process of industrial modernization in Georgia required the breaking of old mores about who did what work. LeFlouria argues that the convict labor system allowed Georgia to try out new racial and sexual divisions of labor on its captive population. “The barriers that had impeded ex-bondwomen and their daughters from moving beyond the fields and domestic service were unsuitable to Georgia’s penal enterprises. Paradoxically, the mutability of Georgia’s carceral structure thereby expanded the possibilities of black women’s labor in the New South while, simultaneously, immobilizing female detainees.” Georgia’s gulag archipelago was not, in other words, a throwback; it was a laboratory.

The merger of laboratories and prison camps is, of course, a hallmark of the darkest moments of modernity. While women’s convict labor was valuable to the enterprises that employed it, the number of women never matched men in terms of the raw supply of forced labor to pave Georgia’s country byways. But the incarceration and coercion of women was a process of experimentation for the state’s modernizers, for whom black immorality was an outpost of primeval barbarity in their midst. LeFlouria quotes a group of doctors writing on an imagined syphilis epidemic: “Until some curb is placed upon this promiscuous sexual communication in this class of these people, or until proper therapeutic measures are forced upon them, syphilis will run rife among them and threaten those of us with whom they come in contact.” Sexual lasciviousness, drunkenness, and laziness rendered African Americans worthless as labor—the only thing they were good for, and the thing fast-growing Georgia needed—exasperating “the more ambitious white man, and especially so since he knows he is supporting these same worthless loafers anyhow.” White Georgians saw black criminality as a fundamentally scientific problem, LeFlouria argues. Confining African Americans in camps and forcing them to work was the scientific solution. It was especially critical to reform black women, whose deviance, while numerically less frequent, seemed more extreme and threatening.

LeFlouria gives accounts of successive forms of penological experimentation. Lease camps, where women were rented to private employers to make brooms, manufacture bricks, fell trees, pick cotton, and dig coal and iron ore, were the first. The violence in these settings was extreme. Joseph Brown, for example, was the owner of a complex of prison mines and furnaces in northwest Georgia; he instructed the whipping bosses in his mines, “You have no other alternative but the strap. As there is no other way to enforce discipline with more humanity, you are obliged, when the necessity arises, to do so by whipping.” LeFlouria characterizes corporal punishment and even torture as a curative “elixir” in the minds of lessee bosses. At Brown’s Rising Fawn Furnace, prisoner Carrie Massie disobeyed the whipping boss, and was made to “ride the ‘blind mule’.” LeFlouria continues: “a rope was tied around the girl’s wrists, then threaded into a pulley. Next she was hoisted into the air until her toes barely touched the ground, with the weight of her sagging body bearing down on her wrists. For six hours she remained in the same position.”

Massie was also repeatedly raped by bosses. Sexual violence emerges from this history as the central—if unofficial—correctional device of Georgia’s carceral laboratories, from the private lease system to the state-run prison farms that succeeded it. Rape was extremely widespread. In LeFlouria’s words, echoing sociologist Orlando Patterson’s classic description of slavery as a form of “social death,” the ubiquity of sexual violence constituted a form of “social rape.” The act, she writes, “produced a total loss of control or power on the part of the victim, through the use or threat of violence, and involved a calculated effort on the part of the assailant to oppress, disempower, terrorize, humiliate, and ‘bodily disfigure’ the victim.” If black criminality was an expression of biological racial difference—a deviance even more pronounced among women—then social rape was the ultimate cure: the effacement of the very selfhood that was deemed deviant. The prison camps in which Georgia held black women captive commonly had children running underfoot—the products of rape, with nowhere else to go. What white Georgians imagined as the disease to be cured—hypersexuality and excessive fertility—became a weapon of punishment.

LeFlouria’s Chained in Silence provides a powerful social history that accounts for the scope and depth of violence and depravity in Georgia’s prisons. She carefully estimates the extent of sexual violence, and tallies the epidemiological consequences of the convict labor system on women’s health. Importantly, she unearths many of the subtle ways in which women resisted their jailors: burning clothes, for example, was a way to contest the reality of the carceral state—to refuse, even if only for a moment, to wear the defeminizing, dehumanizing stripes.

Haley’s No Mercy Here, however, while less of an empirical work of social history, is the more profound in its interpretation and argument. The disciplinary difference between the scholars is evident: LeFlouria, a professor at Florida International University, is trained as a historian; Haley, who teaches at UCLA, comes from the feminist and African-American studies tradition. No Mercy Here sets out to understand not just what the state of Georgia and its capitalist class did to the black women convicted of crimes, but what this system of punishment meant. Josef Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz were not significant only because of the horror he inflicted, and the moral outrage this horror evokes; they were also significant because of what they tell us about the ideology of Nazism—where it came from, and the role it played for those who believed in it. Just so with Haley’s account of the little Mengeles of Jim Crow Georgia’s prisons. “Imprisoned women are important to the history of white supremacy and the southern penal regime, not merely because they were there, but because their cases and lives represented the terrain of an ideological contest that transcended the penal world.”

Haley shares LeFlouria’s account of events and the general outlines of her argument. She too sees Jim Crow as a modernizing force, and the penal labor system as exemplary of that modernity. No Mercy Here, however, goes a step further: the destruction of black womanhood by the carceral system was, Haley argues, a necessary component in the construction of white womanhood. The chain gang did not simply reflect the gender ideology of Jim Crow; it produced it. What the punishment factories produced was not so much bricks or roads as it was white womanhood, built upon the destruction of black women. White womanhood, in turn, was one of the main ideological struts of the Jim Crow regime overall—one need only think of the central place of the imagined rape threat in racist ideology. “The malleability of the black female subject in the white imagination reinforced the fixity of the white female subject and her traditional social role as politically, economically, and socially subordinate to white men.”

Policing, Haley shows, produced black criminality. Black women were more than five times as likely to be arrested in 1880s Georgia as white women. Commonly, they received chain-gang sentences after being unable to pay fines for profanity, drunk and disorderly conduct, failing to abate a nuisance, or occupying a house of ill repute—in other words, lifestyle crimes. The point of broken windows policing in turn-of-the-century Atlanta, as in today’s neoliberal New York, was to reinforce white racial superiority and power by targeting people of color with state repression and eliminating them. (Southern belle then, urban gentry now.) “The sight of black women on the streets in black neighborhoods,” Haley writes, “perhaps with their voices raised, was an assault on the model of a docile black woman in the white domestic sphere, and therefore subject to punishment.” Haley sees this in the moment when locals in Griffin, Georgia, attempted to break a white woman free from the chain gang at the sight of her toil; one wrote to the local newspaper that “to make a white woman work with manacles, on the public street, and amongst negro hands, is a crime against that chivalrous regard for the sex which the south especially claims to hold.” A white woman could not be on the chain gang, because to be on the chain gang was not to be a woman. “Georgia’s Jim Crow carceral regime produced women every day, and all of the women were white.”

Haley elaborates this argument across multiple areas and moments in the history of the Georgia prison camps, but her argument is most bracing when she turns to the fusion of domestic sentimentality and violent punishment under Jim Crow. She shows how the Georgia prison system paroled black women directly into the service of white householders, turning private homes into individual work camps. Multiple white Georgians wrote to the warden of Milledgeville to request that the state convey Emma Wimms—with whom this essay began—to their houses for service. “I would like to have this old woman,” was all that Emmett Barnes, the local notable who acquired her, had to say. Mattie Reid cried every day during her forced service in the home of Mrs. J.L. Archer, who boasted that she treated her servant “just like a member of the family.” Archer later sought to punish Reid by seeking her return to the state farm.

No Mercy Here follows a subterranean river of resistance coursing beneath Jim Crow Georgia. Some currents, like those detailed in Chained in Silence, consisted of sabotage, flight, and refusal of work. Others consisted of expressions of desire and refusal whose power lay in their meaning to black women rather than blows they struck at the prison system or the white patriarchy. These Haley calls “stayed woke dreams,” and she finds them above all in the blues. A vast body of Southern women’s music addresses the carceral experience; across it, Haley notes, the singers evince utter disrespect for the authority of the law and reclaim willful subjectivity—stripped from them by their jailors—for their own. As Bessie Smith sings in “Sing Sing Blues,” “All the judge tryin’ to tell me, my lawyer pleadin’ self defense/The judge said, ‘Listen Bessie, tell me why you killed your man’/The judge said, ‘Listen, Bessie, tell me why you killed your man’/I said, ‘Judge you ain’t no woman, and you can’t understand.’” In the moral universe of the song, the question of the singer’s guilt has no bearing on the legitimacy of the state’s authority over her.

In Chained in Silence and No Mercy Here, LeFlouria and Haley have written sobering books that detail how a modernizing, liberal regime put black women in concentration camps where agents of the state raped them, tortured them, worked them to death, and rented them out as props to would-be Southern belles—all within memory of the emancipatory eruption of 1863–1877. These books do not claim that we live in that same moment, nor that we face the same evils; only that patriarchal white supremacy has historically been central to American capitalism. LeFlouria and Haley do not sentimentalize the agency of captive black women nor promise that their heroic resistance was rewarded. But their accounts establish a certain context for our struggles for racial justice today: they serve as reminders of the lengths to which the American state has gone to reproduce white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism; and what it has taken for African-American women to endure it.

Gabriel Winant is a PhD candidate in history at Yale University.

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