Photo: Rikers Island, ca. 1915, Museum of the City of New York
Incarceration will occupy much of my fall semester. With Radhika Subramaniam, I am teaching the course that will build the New School’s contribution to the exhibition on the history of incarceration overseen by the Humanities Action Lab. Twenty universities will be teaching a similar course, each contributing a piece to the exhibition based on a local site. Ours is Rikers.
We started researching Rikers in the Spring 2015 course that I taught with Eric Anthamatten and Jeff Smith. The course drew graduate students in urban policy and a mix of undergraduate students; few had particular interest or experience in archival research. I am used to teaching students who are not history majors since I work in a program in which most students are designing their own path through the curriculum. But this task is specifically a historical one and yet the topic is so very present and acute. This creates particular challenges.
The artist and activist Liza Jesse Peterson, a guest in our Spring 2015 class, gave us a free-write exercise: fill in the sentence “Prison Is….” It yielded a flood of responses, from sustained rap-like incantations of the deplorable dehumanizing conditions of prisons to the ongoing privileges of whiteness. But the prompt also reinforced the tendency to think of prisons now rather than then. Final presentations generally followed this pattern as well, seeing continuity from the past – especially in the galling and clear racism that made smooth the transition from slavery to incarceration.
I realized that I had not stressed enough both foundational pillars of historical thinking: continuity and change. To say that racism remains constant is a generality that is less helpful than in understanding how racism works, morphs into different structural and systemic patterns across time. Instead of seeing only similarities, I should have challenged them to articulate differences. I may add another free-write exercise to “Prison Is…” this semester: “Prison Was….”