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The Arts of Reading and Writing in Prison: Notes Towards Day 19 (Tues, Feb. 28)

Anne Dalke's picture

I. (2:25-2:30, Anne):  coursekeeping
welcome back to the ill?!
copies of the answer sheet for TOSL for anyone who wants them?!
re: your first set of papers--we’ll be responding differently—
Jody in e-mail, Anne on-line (and switch this up, next time ‘round)

tomorrow, we'll spend the first part of class discussing our praxis postings,
so look over the last set of these; we'll spend the remainder of our time
watching a film Farida recommended, Out in the Night--& she'll say why!

follow-up to
13th: some of the stories that were not given there are included here,
w/ a focus on the role that race, gender identity and sexuality play in our criminal justice system;
also about what it means not to take the plea bargain

if anyone going to RCF
wants to share the opportunity to co-facilitate,
we'd be glad to have you join us in planning, 1-2 tomorrow, and to help run the class on Friday;
just let us know after class, via e-mail...

also, there's a talk
@ the Lang Center @ Swat @ 7 p.m. tomorrow,
"tackling the truth about the U.S. prison system," that might interest you:
Brian Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama,
clinical law professor at NYU, & author of the first text we read in here,
the first chapter of Just Mercy, about going inside for the first time.
His title tomorrow night is "American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference."
I'll post the details on Serendip.

Wednesday, March 1 7–8:30 p.m.
Lang Performing Arts Center, Pearson-Hall Theatre
500 College Ave, Swarthmore, PA 19081

II. (2:30-2:45, Jody):
3 short essays about teaching inside:
Megan Sweeney, Introduction, Reading is My Window: Books and The Art of Reading in Women's Prisons
Deborah Appleman, “Teaching in the Dark: The Promise and Pedagogy of Creative Writing in Prison,” &
Dan Colson, “Geographies of Prejudice: Self-Narration and Radical Teaching in the Prison

Sweeney, p. 17: As I understand it, my task as a cultural critic is to build a bridge between the daily
work that imprisoned women perform through their reading practices, and the work of
transforming the structures in institutions that keep so many women in prison.

count off by 3's, to break into three groups,
one to focus on each of the three essays:

what is the task the teachers describe themselves as doing?
how does it relate to this challenge of bridge-building?

some quotes to work with (if needed):
Appleman, pp. 27-29: the students compiled an anthology of letter to young men....kind of outreach or distant mentoring....through their words, they become present in the free world....students everywhere walk with poetry prose inside of them that is ready to break out...It is our responsibility to issue that invitation...."My son. It has been twenty years now; so much time squandered, given away in a fit of rage. I am sorry for that. I am sorry for all of the time that we never had together as father and son....I am sorry that I never got to meet your mother " (!).

Colson, p. 53, p. 55 : One of my persistent frustrations when teaching on campus is the constant need to remind students that racism stil exists....When teaching in a prison, however...I saw the extent to which my students knew racism....I imagined a similar critique of...problematic gender relations....I hear a quiet but steady stream of homophobic was the experience of racism that allowed my students to dissect U.S. race relations...Yet, these same experiences brought them to an all-male prison...where they experience the need to perform specific forms of masculinity....How do we...account for students' experiences of powerlessness and privilege?....How do we encourage participation while...students...sometimes narrate themselves against others?...ask students to approach material relationally....(?)

Sweeney, pp. 15-16: "what do I want, wanting to know you or me?'"...I have wanted many things. I wanted to know....I wanted to understand....I wanted to know....I wanted to know....I wanted to bring into relief....I also wanted to bring women to life on the page....I wanted to foster dialogue....I wanted to offer imprisoned women an image of themselves....The weight of such wanting is already too heavy for one project to bear....I have taken pains to make my own desires, expectations, and fantasies "open to critical scrutiny"....

(2:45-3:00) come together: what's emerging?

III. (3:00-3:15, Anne): take this discussion now to thinking
about our praxis sites, guided by two of your postings.
Stay in large group to read

m r r: (I was absent from my praxis class this week, so I'm reflecting on that in a different way)

I am roused from my exhaustion-induced nap with a nudge from my hall-mate. As much as I love sentimentality, in this moment I’m feeling very disconnected from some of the seniors reading to the frosh during Bedtime Stories. Never having seen, let alone spoken to half of these people, it was surreal to witness them tearing up, hugging each other and contemplating their last Flower day here, in their dorms, in their school. I was disheartened more by the disconnect I felt between me and my dorm-mates than by the philosophical and tear-inducing children’s books they chose to read aloud. Some seniors remind us that we have each other to lean on during difficult times in life, in school, within ourselves, etc. But I still feel so new, and don’t feel comfortable “leaning on” 99% of the other students I see. I do like the idea and practice of Traditions at our school, but it also feels sometimes a forced uniting of the student body.

Back to the scene of Bedtime Stories, I groggily sit up and attempt to tune in to the last reading with about three or four seniors sitting together to read. In the midst of feeling disconnected still, I hear a senior announce “We are going to read Phenomenal Woman,” and I feel a weird spiral of ambiguity opening up inside me.

“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies….” A senior begins in a timid voice, still unsure of her secret, maybe. As this senior in front of me reads aloud, the memory of the woman’s voice who first read this aloud for my ears to hear rings stronger in my mind.
….“The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman

If you aren’t in the off-campus book club, you may not know that we read this same exact poem aloud just weeks ago, in a correctional facility that was not built with the intentions to make any person feel phenomenal. But that didn’t stop the woman inside the walls of the prison to read as if she is anything less than phenomenal, strong, confident, tack on any positive word you can think of. Although some readers in our book club did read a bit more timidly, I can remember quite a few people reading this poem in bellowing and playful voices. I really have more questions than answers about my first two times hearing this poem:  

Is it just the seniors crowd-fright, reading in front of dozens of dorm-mates?  

Why has the most powerful and unique reading been read aloud inside a prison meant to take away all power and personhood versus a cozy dorm, surrounded by resources of education(which gives some power)?

Comparing these two readings of the same poems, both in institutions, both in large groups, but with an uncomfortable and in a way gross gap of privilege. I think about the community reading together brings. Whether it’s a tradition like bedtime stories at a college, or a book club inside a prison. After the lights come up, some people even including myself, will not reach outside of the established circle of people they talk to now. I wonder how the people inside the correctional facility feel about their interactions with each other. I wonder if the weekly book club ever feels like a forced uniting. When the chairs are taken out of that circular group, does someone walk back to a lonely cell? Do people within our class avoid interacting with each other in every other part of the prison except for the classroom we sit in?

(3:15-3:30) Break back into your small groups to read a second posting together
jane doe:
This week I was not able to go to my praxis placement because school was closed for the midsemester. I have been playing a lot with what my role is in the framework of this organization, but leaving out what exactly the role of this organization is in the framework of the educational institution. While the school seems to invite organizational work within the students, I am not sure the organization that I am representing sees that as the immediate goal for the students. The teacher in the classroom was very excited to have them do things for the community, and the organization I represented professes a goal of disrupting the school to prison pipeline, but it does so in a very individualistic way. So much so that while there is an acknowledgement of the pipeline, the emphasis is on that student to reroute, redirect, work within that framework to create another exit for themselves, but not for the whole.  How can that student create a school to business pipeline? How can that student become an organizer? While I don’t believe there is an intention to inspire only the students inside the classroom to transform themselves, there is little intention put on having students transform the structures around them. Schools, prisons, and society so heavily rely on this individual understanding of the obstacles that one faces at the detriment of the furthering of those groups those individuals belong to. When looking at how prison systems strip individuals of their citizenship, this becomes especially salient. Citizenship is not just what I have the agency to do for myself, but the agency to do for my fellow human being. 

This morning there was a headline that said “An Indian engineer was killed and two others injured when an American man opened fire on them after allegedly yelling “get out of my country,” with the local police calling it as a ‘possible hate crime’. “ The night before I had the opportunity to watch I am Not Your Negro, a film that uses James Baldwin’s notes to hold a conversation between Medgar Evans, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , and Malcolm X, a conversation between the future and the past, a conversation between those who are citizens and those who are wards of this state. I was moved to write this poem in response: 

this land was your land this land was my land
fom the California to the New York Island
from the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and
This land was made for you and
This land was made for you and and and and

This land was never mine and yet this land was always mine
My ancestors are growing under the dirt
Pushing me up up up
to bloom under the American sky
a sky I still can’t see
a sky they never got to see
cut down to soon by the gardener
he must have mistook them for a weed

where have all the flowers gone?

a girl in a history of Africa class says she’s sorry she’s so sorry, but what more does she have to give?
Her question shocks me into silence and I laugh
Cause my bank accounts has been empty and as far as I knew the bank didn’t accept checks made from white guilt
And her long stem still blocks me from the sun
And her salty tears took what little nutrients were left in my soil.

where have all the flowers gone?

an Indian engineer was killed by an American man
who was said to be screaming get out of my country
they aren’t sure but it’s being called a ‘possible hate crime’
i still can’t figure out where the uncertainty lies
it has never been a crime in America to hate black and brown people

where have all the flowers gone?

i watch another film where i must see myself swinging on a rope
this time I don’t look away i don’t recoil
this is what blooming looks like
hanging off a tree

this is where I’ll go 

3:30-3:45: return to large group?