by Max Brantley
It turns out we were not alone in being struck weirdly by the image adorning a recent cover of Front Porch, the publication that goes out to members of the Arkansas Farm Bureau. (Wednesday update: A reader objected to my original crop of cover image, which was available on link I supplied, so I've substituted full image.)
Another was Caleb Smith, a Fayetteville native who teaches English and American studies at Yale. It so happens he's author of a prize-winning and widely lauded book, "The Prison and the American Imagination." In it, he wrote of a "poetics of penitentiary" in which some seem to find something enobling in the redemption promised for servitude and degradation visited on American inmates.
But never mind me. Let's just let Smith comment on the photo. (Parker Westbrook can comment on the illegal punctuation on the possessive of Arkansas — it's Arkansas's not Arkansas', since a pedantic reader demands more info.) He sent us the letter below. "A bad joke," he says, underlying a darker theme about prisons' resegregation of America. "Cool watermelon recipes" indeed. His letter:
I’m a native Arkansan with a longstanding interest in our prison system.
When I first saw the cover of the latest issue of “Front Porch,” the official magazine of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, I thought it was a bad joke. The racist picture shows an African American inmate standing in the fields of one of the state’s prison farms. He holds a rusty, beat-up hoe, and his head is wrapped in a rag. Behind him, a guard on horseback oversees the scene. The visual connections to the history of slavery and segregation are obvious.
Historians like David Oshinsky, the author of “Worse than Slavery,” have worked hard to show how prison farms emerged as replacements for the plantations of the Old South. In the post-Reconstruction era, the criminal justice system was reinvented to serve the interests of wealthy planters and white supremacists. And legal scholars like Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow,” have shown how today’s prison system is working to resegregate America, pushing back against the advances of the Civil Rights era. I discussed some of these problems in my own book, “The Prison and the American Imagination.”
If anyone doubts these facts, I would encourage them to take a look at the numbers. According to The Sentencing Project, Arkansas imprisons African Americans at a rate four times higher than whites, and 9% of the state’s black population has been disenfranchised by our criminal justice system. These statistics only begin to tell the story of the many lives that have been disrupted and destroyed by the system of mass incarceration.
What makes the issue of “Front Porch” such a strange, startling document, though is the way it presents this racist system as a normal, inoffensive reality. The headline cheerfully announces, “Ag[riculture] a big part of inmates’ lives.” Just below these words, the magazine promises “Cool watermelon recipes.” Is this 2011, I wonder, or 1861?
Associate Professor of English and American Studies
New Haven, CT