Stanzas of Oppression and Hope
Voices of Incarcerated Black and Latino Boys
Focusing on the interactions and routines of a youth detention facility in Austin, Texas, this chapter builds from and specifies our previous analyses of the gendered antiblack dynamics of surveillance and dispossession. It draws from ethnographic insight accumulated during a writing workshop, of which i was a facilitator with two other colleagues, Czarina Thelen and Rene Valdez, between 2008 and 2012. A node in the constellation of circular and transgenerational factors producing social death, the youth detention facility serves as a two-way passage between what the young incarcerated people call the “free,” the “outside” world, and the “inside,” the unfree. It will become evident that, due to the ever replenished and articulating technologies of social death, the difference between the free and the unfree is of degree, not nature. The youths transit between detention and neighborhood life only to be reminded of their always subjugated, dispossessed, and vulnerable lives. Yet, as chapter 1 suggested, youths differently situated by gender, race, sexuality, and nationality experience vulnerability differently. How are such differences manifested in the juvenile detention facility? Are there moments of identification, even if oblique, between Latin@s and Blacks? If so, what precisely are such manifestations of oblique identification, how do they occur, and what are their meanings to Blacks and Latin@s? More broadly, how is the logic of antiblackness manifested in social interactions of captivity?
To analyze institutionalized dynamics of social death, this chapter and the next, which continues the examination of the juvenile detention facility, develop around the following axes. First, the everyday social dynamics of the juvenile prison: How does the prison function, what are its protocols, how are the protocols translated into staff and youth comportment, and how do the young people navigate the institution? In short, what are the routines and the social climate inside the facility? Here i will be attentive to the relationships among the kids themselves; among the kids and the staff; and among the staff members themselves.
Second, the writings the youths produced in the workshop, some of which were selected and published in two chapbooks, Does Heaven Have a Ghetto? (2009) and I Come from a Teardrop (2010): the first one contains writings by young men, the second, mostly by young women; they reflect two gender-segregated units within the detention facility where the workshops were conducted. What are the main themes emerging out of the writings? How do they relate to the cyclical and transgenerational patterns of surveillance and dispossession analyzed above? Do they suggest evidence of oblique identification between Latin@s and Blacks, and if so, what are the specificities such forms of identification acquire, and what are their meanings in terms of interpersonal relations?
Third, the assumptions, expectations, and methodologies the facilitators, the young people, and the staff shared, negotiated, and fought over: Even if not always consciously or apparent, the assumptions, expectations, and methodologies at play during the writing workshops provide a window into the challenges youth institutionalization, and the carceral logic more broadly, pose to individual desires and organized projects of freedom. This embattled field deserves close attention as it reveals (a) the not always recognized nature and extent of the convergence and difference between the institution’s narratives, the young people’s perspectives, and those we used in the workshop, and (b) the experiential commonalities and contrasts of kids differently situated by race, gender, nationality, and sexuality, as they engaged the institution, interacted with one another, and made plans for when they were released back in the “free.”
The workshops were conceived as political acts insofar as they drew from raúlsalinas’s oppositional writing programs that challenged forms of dehumanization, principally among the imprisoned youths; they were instruments of relative empowerment in environments defined by radical disempowerment. To restrict the workshops to their “political” qualities, however, empties them of perhaps their most effective outcomes. Such outcomes were not always political, if by political we understand modes of action engaging and pushing back against forms of power. At times, the workshops provided unencumbered, amorphous imaginative possibilities beyond carceral confines—not just the confines of the facility itself, but also the confines of the always embattled and diminished existence in the social spaces the young people came from and to which they looked forward to returning. When discussions, readings, sounds, and imaginative flights departed from the already known to the yet to be, to the there and then, they became the most devastatingly innovative, they became the most difficult to contain, and they therefore became the less obviously “political.”
At other times, the workshop orientations were difficult to distinguish from ever present discourses of respectability and redemption, including the prison’s protocols. Although we opposed the prison’s very existence, constantly criticized its practices and its dehumanizing effects on the young people it supposedly assisted, we the facilitators were not free of contradictions. Like many of the staff, we operated under the desire that, if only our workshops could generate part of the impact we wanted, the young people so needlessly brutalized (in their communities and their imprisonment) would come out with added awareness, critique, self-possession. We wanted to be part of a dialogical process that would, in time, repossess, reconstitute, and re-member the young men and women whom confinement, and indeed the social world writ large, had dispossessed, broken down, scattered, and dis-membered. In our desire resided a hope of an undefined yet urgent, insurgent renovation that in many ways, paradoxically, merged with institutional orientations to which we were fiercely opposed. Of course, the institution’s redemptive orientation did not include the aspiration to help its clients become politically transformative or even progressive subjects imbibed in an ethics of social justice and freedom. Yet, the prison staff, like us, wanted to send the youths back to the “free” with added and improved skills that would enhance the kids’ navigation in/of the social world. The three facilitators—idealistic as we were—and the institution operated from a general assumption that the youths we worked with could be reoriented, competitively equipped, and even substantially modified. This assumption required another, less examined, and nevertheless complex premise: that the youths and their actions, once outside the institution, could be legible in ways that did not preemptively diminish, dispossess, or recriminalize them. So not only could the youths benefit from their time locked up; once adequately reformed, our youth would impress on social actors and institutions their legitimate, productive, and much needed social membership. We, the facilitators, were cognizant of the various difficulties and challenges the impoverished Black and Brown young people would certainly face—challenges only compounded by their institutionalization. Yet we had confidence in progressive visions that would provide invaluable intellectual and spiritual tools with which the young people would somehow thrive. We didn’t expect to make an immediate impact, but we did hope our efforts would eventually add up to small openings and incremental changes. All of which is to say that, although aware of the theory and multiple experiences of Black social death as an ontological given, i often operated as if antiblack social structures could be somehow, if not modified, then at least managed. Part utopia and part willful ignorance, this orientation provided a type of activist sustenance whose practice contradicted the sociological evidence presented in chapter 1, the antiblack underpinnings of the lifeworld of social death presented in the Introduction, and as we will see in this chapter, the insights the youths shared in writing and action.
Weaving its way around these three axes (social dynamics within the facility, the writing in the chapbooks, and the ideological terrain), this chapter grapples with the narratives of redemption the youth, the institution, and we the facilitators utilized, negotiated, and often revised. How do these narratives of redemption emerge? What purpose do they serve? If and when they produce counter-narratives, what do they suggest? Although narratives of redemption operate from diverging political perspectives, most have in common the assumption that the incarcerated youth can be reintegrated into society as legitimate, autonomous, productive, and mindful individuals.
In a state of confinement where Latin@ kids are the numeric majority but Black kids are by far the most intensely overrepresented, paying attention to how narratives and counter-narratives of redemption resonate in and between these two groups will highlight some of the effects of shared warehousing. What do Black and Brown kids’ similar and/or divergent responses to narratives of redemption indicate about their collective experiences and prospects? What are the points of recognition and disidentification between Latin@ and Black kids emerging out of the forced shared experience of incarceration? How are such interpersonal dynamics indicative of structuring antiblackness?
• • •
The writing workshop conducted in the juvenile facility was part of Save Our Youth (SOY), an initiative the poet and activist xicaníndio raúlsalinas developed in previous decades and implemented in schools and juvenile justice institutions throughout Texas. Engaging poetry and music as means to facilitate debate, the workshop was designed to encourage critical thinking, foster confidence, and cultivate awareness. Officially, the workshop aimed at building “self-esteem and develop verbal/written communication and conflict resolution skills.” Depending on the semester, the workshop lasted eight to ten weeks. Each week, we conducted two ninety-minute sessions at the detention facility, where youths between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, arranged in gender-segregated units, served sentences averaging about twelve months.
Sequentially organized according to a syllabus, each workshop followed a similar structure: short stories and poems were read; a discussion about them ensued, wherein main themes were identified and debated; individually and in groups, the youths wrote about one of the emerging themes; the writings were shared among the young people and the facilitators; and performative readings of the day’s work concluded the session. My role was to play bass during the sessions and at times facilitate discussions based on a theme, an author, or a poem. For example, on March 5, 2010, when discussing the ways in which the personal connects to the collective, Rene Valdez and Czarina Thelen selected the lyrics of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Rene, Czarina, and the youths then proceeded to take turns reading the poem while i presented them with different melodic lines and rhythms. The reading became a musical, collective, and coordinated event. A discussion on the process of writing ensued, which was then followed by an analysis of the social conditions described in the lyrics. We asked how the social problems Grandmaster Flash addressed in the late 1970s related to issues the young people today encountered in their communities. Based on recurring themes the youths brought up—unemployment, poverty, teenage pregnancy, violence, and imprisonment—we asked how they, the youth, could positively affect their communities. The young people were then instructed to write about these themes. They could relate the themes to personal experience; they could create related fictional stories; in short, they were free to go wherever they wanted, as long as they engaged the collective discussion. Most chose to write about the problems rather than the solutions, an interesting trend given the overall optimistic approach not only we, the facilitators, employed, but also the staff, who, as we will see, at times joined in the activities and discussions.
Many of the youths who participated in our workshops were later transferred to a halfway house, the last stage before release. The mural that youths in the halfway house collectively painted with the assistance of community organizers (Figure 4) provides a visual representation of many themes discussed in the workshops: schools as prisons, prisons as schools, and their ubiquitous presence in their neighborhoods; AIDS and HIV, gambling, gangs, and the allure of money; the belief in education (i.e., that the closed fist that holds a diploma is able to break the chain, and supposedly end the cycle of poverty and imprisonment); the valuing of family, Christian religious iconography, and indigenous traditions; popular mobilization (“Sí, se puede” and a mural of Cesar Chavez attract one’s gaze to the back of the mural); as well as free time, contact with nature, and utopian representations of physical and imaginative projects. The heart, limbs, roots, and branches that fuse together in the mural’s center connect the different scenes and temporalities (tradition, confinement, spirituality, and the yet to be) and affirm struggle as a condition and as a process—“En Lucha.” Multilayered, the space of the barrio is wretchedness as it is redemption; it is confinement as it is transcendence; it is a space whose temporalities suggest both unfreedom and freedom; dispossession and repossession; the space of the barrio is embattled, confined, yet triumphant.
The ghetto represented in the mural, enclosed in barbed wire and a brick wall, is a Latin@ ghetto, a barrio. Whether the Latin@ barrio and the Black ghetto, via the forced passage of young people into institutions of confinement, become comparable, and perhaps conversant—this is an overarching question organizing the chapter. This question builds on the analysis of the mechanics of incarceration presented in chapter 1, and specifically focuses on the dynamics and effects of Black and Brown forced coexistence in spaces of confinement defined by unique demographic traits. Among those traits is a Latin@ numeric majority coexisting with a Black overrepresentation. What, if any, lines of communication, and social and ontological recognition, occur between Black and Brown people in a juvenile facility that feeds from and spits out young people? To what extent, if any, are Latin@ lifeworld tropes, as represented in the mural, an indication of communicability with Black experiences? Is the mural an indication of a foundational Blackness shared and embodied by Latin@s who see themselves, transgenerationally, occupying structural positions analogous to those of Blacks? Or, as was intimated at the end of chapter 1, is the mural, and especially its attention to redemption, an illustration of Brown oblique identification toward Blacks? Does the mural confirm a fundamentally distinct, noncommensurable Black positionality vis-à-vis that of nonblacks, including Latin@s? Or can we speak of both oblique identification and incommensurability?
The metaphor of an asymptotic relationship may be useful for reflecting on how Black and Brown experiences relate to each other. According to a geometry formulation, an asymptote of a curve is a line whose distance to the curve tends toward zero as both the asymptote and the line tend toward infinity. In Figure 5, the x and y axes are the asymptotes of the curve. The curve is graphed based on the equation y = 1/x, where x is other than zero.
My intent is not to reduce social interaction to mathematical entities. Rather, it is to use the graph as a rudimentary conceptual analogy to show how the collective trajectory of Latin@s, which we can approximate as the curve, may become increasingly closer to the collective trajectory of Blacks, which we can approximate as the asymptotes. The asymptote metaphor may help us grasp some of the dimension of oblique identification. Consider the curve. As the values of x augment, the y values become increasingly infinitesimal, suggesting a point at which the curve will almost touch the x and y axes. If we imagine the increasing proximity between the asymptote and the curve as representing a possible process in time, then we can further extrapolate from the graph and suggest the following: given enough time—given enough opportunities for the expansive antiblack cycles of surveillance and dispossession to actualize themselves and affect nonblack constituencies; given enough forced interaction between social groups distinctively positioned in the structure of U.S. antagonisms, which in turn would affect the very structure of positionalities—Latin@s and Blacks begin to share an increasing number of experiences. Over time, according to this model, Latin@ and Black experiences will become close enough to be commensurate. Hypothetically—and this is a working proposition i will test when analyzing the experiences of incarcerated Black and Brown kids—identification, even if oblique, takes place. It is the passage of time in close proximity to, and indeed within, Black ghettos that allow students of Latin@ social dynamics to take a step beyond recognition and affirm that, in certain places such as Houston, the common experience of subjection leads to a “fusion of Black and Latino subjectivities.” A “trans-individual subjectification,” this fusion is able to “overrun the grasp of . . . biopower and should be understood, in Michael Hardt’s . . . terms, as a form of ‘biopolitical militancy.’”
The possibility of common experiences between Black and Latin@ youth is not equal to the possibility of a change in the structure of antiblack positionality. As discussed in the Introduction, the structure of positionality shapes experience and its representation. In this structure, vis-à-vis the nonblack, the Black is the absent presence, abject yet fundamental in the establishment of all nonblack positionalities. The demographic and ethnographic data examined here suggest that, despite common experiences of segregation and punishment, the stark and subtle differences in Black and Latin@ trajectories indicate distinct logics informing their experiences. When and if there is experiential convergence between Blacks and nonblacks, rather than an ontological “fusion,” this convergence indicates a temporary approximation. This temporary convergence is not so much an indication of an inflection in the antiblack structure of positionality as it is evidence of how this structure produces distinct logics.
Thus, it is not the suggestion of a smooth progression toward an eventual encounter that is useful in the graph. Rather, the graph as an allegory is interesting because, just as the idea of a line and a curve becoming joined in the infinite requires abstraction, so is the idea of Blacks and Latin@s becoming connected by a common subjectivity. Indeed, neither the actual “touching” of the asymptotes and the curves can be represented graphically, nor the merging of Latin@ identities into a “foundational Black” identity can be assumed, much less demonstrated. It does not escape me that, in fact, the asymptote analogy works more effectively for the argument about the ultimate incommensurability of the structural Black positionality, itself a product and example of the afterlife of slavery: as the lines and curves don’t touch, so the Black and nonblack positionalities never intersect, and neither do the nonblack acknowledge, let alone recognize, the Black subject. Nothing seems more distant from this configuration than the idea of a nonblack–Black subjective fusion.
Still, for the sake of an analysis that proceeds without guarantees, and so that the structural argument is not made impermeable to and overdeterminant of social processes, i want to leave open the possibility that, over time, the accumulation of actual lived experiences affects the map of structural positionalities. This possibility, as discussed in this book’s introduction, is dismissed on the theoretical and experimental grounds that (a) social processes have shown to have no bearing on the structural map of relationalities, fixed as the tableau on which modern subjectivities emerged and continue to operate (think of the enduring socially shared, transracial, subliminal Black–ape association); (b) the Black position and the accompanying antiblack violence are foundational to all other positions, and that all other positions, therefore, depend on the Black subject’s absent presence; and finally (c) the Black position is irreducible to other positions and ontologies. By allowing for input into this otherwise structure-centered theory of relational positionalities organized by and dependent on antiblackness, we are potentially able to further reflect on the theoretical significance and applicability of social death theses, and grapple with ongoing social processes of forced proximity and their impact on what it means to be Black, non-Black, anti-Black, and ante-Black. Let us move into the juvenile prison.
• • •
To pass through the doors and checkpoints of the youth facility is to experience increasing layers of surveillance and dispossession. These mark thresholds of intensified isolation, from the “free,” as the young people call the world outside the facility, to the residential units, where individual bedrooms, the shared bathrooms and shower, the time-out solitary cell, and the permanent flickering of fluorescent lights demarcate confinement spaces. Linking the free and the unfree, corridors, multiple doors, combination codes, surveillance stations, and closed-circuit cameras and monitors make apparent each increasing level of separation from the outside world. To reach the unit is to be reminded of the many layers of isolation and dispossession defining the experience of incarceration. The reverse trajectory, from the lockup unit to the “free,” should, in theory, have the opposite effect—that of peeling off layers of sedimented surveillance and punishment on the captive bodies. Yet it does not: the walk back to the “free” brings with it an added awareness of the unfreedoms in/of the inside, the unfree, as well as the unfreedoms in/of the outside, the supposedly free. This impression was shared not only among us, the facilitators, but also, more important, was relayed by many of the formerly detained young people. TK, one of the youths we kept in touch with after his release, often remarked on how behavior protocols, instilled in him while inside the facility, emerged in unexpected ways in his routine after incarceration: the brisk, early morning waking up, followed by the mechanical tidying up of his bed and room; the robotic search for a line to join; the urge to assign himself a number he’d be prepared to utter out loud; the anxious expectation of reprimand shouted by a staff member; the avoidance of eye contact with authority figures; and hands going automatically to his back while thumbs and index fingers formed a diamond shape. Leave the prison you may, but the prison hardly leaves you.
Over time, beyond the facility, the protocols of subjection experienced while incarcerated gain dimensions that far exceed the period one spends confined. It’s not just muscle memory, reflex behavior, and anxiety that remain. These residue conditionings dilute into, and become expanded by, a myriad of similar protocols kids are likely to experience at school, in the streets, and in their homes. The free, after all, is already populated by forms of degradation that render prison rituals mere satellites in a vast constellation of related forces of control and punishment (see Figure 3). Even though a juvenile’s record is sealed and in theory is immaterial to a person’s adulthood, the experience of early institutionalization makes it that she will be three times more likely to enter the adult prison system than a juvenile without that experience. Despite the trauma it causes, early imprisonment is not a drastic inflection point in the child’s life. Rather, early imprisonment is part of a cyclical continuum in which the prison’s rituals are sequel to and preparation for the brutality that the child is likely to experience before incarceration and once thrown back in the “free.” Already saturated with the logic and practices of confinement, the free, including schools, is itself the blueprint for imprisonment. And imprisonment invariably affects one’s future experience in the “free.”
In what follows, i approach Rene Valdez’s “Praying for Freedom,” published in I Come from a Teardrop, together with the writings of kids who participated in our writing sessions, as an ethnographic account of the workshops. Valdez’s descriptions catalog frictions, small victories, and the larger dreams informing and emerging out of the time spent with the youths:
Sliding past first line of personnel,
We are led down a hall.
Us—a ragtag army carrying bent pens, torn paper,
& an upright bass . . .
Thick steel doors with small rectangular windows
Separate us from locked-up Black and Brown youth.
With a single turn of their skeleton key,
Where they do their time.
Our passage through the facility’s entrance, to the various internal checkpoints, and finally to the unit, was usually hurried and clumsy. It was not only the large objects we carried that made the walk awkward. Depending on the unit we were going to visit, after the obligatory pat down, we’d get in the elevator, wait for clearance, go up a few floors, wait in a chamber, face the closed-circuit cameras and security control room, and wait again for another clearance. To coordinate our escort, staff spoke with one another on walkie-talkies: “Poetry group, three people coming in.” “All clear.” We were then led through long corridors, cream colored, shiny floors, no windows, and a few heavy, large metal doors, each an entrance to a unit. We’d catch glimpses of scenes revealing the uninterrupted flow of incarceration producing abundant raw material, the prisoners themselves: young people whose presence in those spaces at first seemed deeply incongruous. Scene 1: three men staff escort a very young-looking Latino kid, who could not have been older than thirteen, much shorter than the staff, shackled at his ankles, waist, and wrists. He avoids our gaze; we meet again in the unit. Scene 2: the visiting room. Young men in their green or khaki jumpsuits, white socks, and cream plastic slippers talk to people whose physical resemblance suggest they are relatives: mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, grandparents. Most are Latin@; a few Black families; every now and then a White family. Their gazes are low, their voices hushed. An unarmed guard monitors them, but there is no need for warnings. Some of the young people cry and are consoled by their elders. The rituals seem well-known. The uneasy yet fluid choreography suggests familiarity with the scenes. As we, the facilitators, experience our apprehensive and hurried ritual of passage unfold, we don’t immediately process the brutal, transgenerational, and widespread reach of the juvenile system so forcefully illustrated in those fleeting scenes. Instructed to stop in front of our unit, we watch the staff member take out his skeleton key, and we enter:
. . . Scratching symbols on paper
praying for freedom—
freedom from this madness,
letting go of this sadness.
to learn how to be human again . . .
are we not human? One youth asks
if they thought you was human would you really be here?—is what I want to tell him but “staff” sits there—
Watching every move, listening to every word
Once in the units, we the visitors conducted our workshops under the ever present gaze of staff workers, cameras, and the youth, who practiced their own form of sousveillance. The units were divided by gender and type of offense. Our session usually began with a few youths helping the facilitators arrange metal tables together to produce a larger table around which we all sat. Meanwhile, one of the staff would summon the other kids to come out of their rooms, which, together with the staff’s offices, bathrooms, and the solitary cell, were arranged around the common area. “Drop out of your rooms! Drop out of your rooms!” the staff yelled. The kids would then appear, reluctant, dragging their feet.
Besides their reluctance to follow the staff’s orders, the young people had in common what seemed like a permanent somnolence. Over the years, it became evident that most kids were heavily medicated. The nurse’s visits to the unit and the administration of medication soon became part of the workshops’ routine. Some of the conversations between the youths and the nurse, even with the music and chatter, were perfectly audible, so it was often collectively known who was being treated for what condition. Bruises, cuts, acne, fungus, colds, headaches, stomachaches, lice, and other minor conditions were closely monitored and treated. It was not difficult to gather that many of the kids were also being treated for psychological problems, including anxiety and depression. Those conditions were not discussed as openly. But occasionally, concerned about a child’s gloomy mood, staff would ask in front of other children whether he had been taking his medication regularly, and whether the child noticed any improvement in his mood. “Keep taking your medication, things will get better,” i heard staff say a few times to dejected-looking young people.
To introduce ourselves and convey to the kids that we were trying to create a safe space, one where they’d be able to enter candid dialogue with their peers and with us the facilitators, we explained how Save Our Youth came about. We talked about raúlsalinas, his origins in San Antonio, and his youth in East Austin, which we emphasized knowing most of the kids came from that area. We discussed raúlsalinas’s experience in the U.S. prison system following a few arrests for drug possession. Drawing parallels between his life path and that of other activists who had spent time incarcerated like Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Ramona Africa, and Safiya Bukhari, we suggested that one’s confinement provided evidence from which to reflect on the social world, and formulate both a critique and a plan of action. The idea was to empower the youths via critical thinking, making them less vulnerable to what often seemed like inevitable outcomes in their lives: school suspension and expulsion, unemployment, police harassment, and incarceration. Reflecting on the lives of raúlsalinas and other activists, the discussions provided the youths with examples of study they could initiate while inside and action they could take once back in their communities. We pressed the point that incarceration, as indeed life marked by imposed marginalization (punishing, uncaring schools; underserved, polluted, violent neighborhoods), was part of a continuum of institutionalized dehumanization. As we stressed the dispossession effects of confinement—severance from social networks, exclusion from formal employment, added social stigma, higher likelihood of future incarceration—we also tried to provide the kids with a perspective of their personal trajectory that was intimately linked to the trajectories of other people in their communities. Interconnectedness was graspable: the young women and men were quick to recall family members and friends who had experienced incarceration. Many of those young people had kids of their own, or were expecting children. Some of the young women were pregnant; others struggled with the separation from their infants. To reconnect, to remember, and to be able to articulate a critical perspective on their condition: these forms of conscious agency, we suggested to the young people, were as much about reclaiming their forcibly suspended humanity as they were about making more attainable their survival, in and out of the facility.
At first, the young people seemed apathetic; their rare smiles were shy, tentative; when they happened to shake off what seemed like a perpetual lethargy, they’d soon become exhausted again. Yet, when successful in reaching them, even if temporarily, we the facilitators noticed how much the young people craved attention, recognition, acceptance. When they finished a piece of writing and asked one of us to read it, or they read it aloud, their hopeful, momentarily excited yet hesitant gaze, their crisp yet uncertain movements, their enthusiastic yet fearful eyes betrayed intense experiences of bodily abuse, including sexual and psychological brutality. In their manner and in their writings emerged frequent experiences of neglect and violence, symbolic and physical, perpetrated on them by teachers, school administrators, police officers, counselors, peers, and family members. The young people were eager to be recognized, accepted, embraced, to have their truths acknowledged. Their enthusiasm—precious yet fragile enthusiasm—was a commentary on and an emergent critique of their experiences at school, in their communities, in the detention facility: experiences that were often defined by, precisely, nonrecognition, isolation, cruelty, imposed disposability.
To witness these evanescent moments of self and mutual re-cognition and re-membering was daunting. Transparent joy materialized out of the simple yet rare moments when the kids felt cared for, guided, engaged. But transience was the best we could hope for—the workshop would soon be over, and who knows what would happen next. Besides, the writing and dialogue sessions had a potentially perverse side effect: providing a channel through which the young people examined their own lives, described painful moments, recognized personal shortcomings, and formulated social analyses, the sessions also rendered them more vulnerable. Because they read their writings out loud, some of their fears, weaknesses, and longings became collective knowledge and, as it happened a few times, were used by other kids as means of ridicule and contempt. Their budding articulation of social critique made them more sensitive to, and often more assertive against, the workings of the youth prison. So, on the one hand, the kids became increasingly eager to share their newfound insights, wanting to communicate with other kids and, occasionally, with the friendlier staff. On the other hand, because they seemed more curious, assertive, and aware, our kids became more susceptible to institutional retaliation. As they vocalized against the wrongs they perceived in the detention facility, they were promptly reminded of where they were: a place that was extremely hierarchical and structured against, precisely, the kids’ expressions of autonomous agency, including critiques of the detention facility. The performance of some of the sentences they carefully crafted over a few weeks—sentences full of personal and collective truths and critique—occasionally led them to insubordination and to solitary confinement, which ended up adding time to their incarceration sentences.
Still, we pressed forward. Our calculation and hope was that, first, the critical insights and self-confidence gained in those precious moments outweighed the potential side effects, and second, those gains would generate other insights, would affect other people, and would remain with them. And to provide a bridge between our sessions and the time when the kids were released, from day one we emphasized our commitment to reconnect with each one of them in the “free.” In many sessions, we mentioned Resistencia Bookstore in Austin, gave them contact information, and encouraged them to show up. We offered internships, social networks, and support, explaining how those could aid in the young people’s quest for work, and to expand their social circles:
. . . Just watching.
Watching every move, listening to every word
That’s my rhythm—a young Mexica says enraptured,
Smiling as fingers thump a sick Coltrane bass line:
A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme.
breaks thru this thick smoke of violence & abuse
of yes-Sir’s and no-Sir’s and can-I-get-up-to-get-my-notebook-Sir and can-I-get-up-to-go-to-the-john-Sir and DO WHAT I SAY AS SOON AS I SAY OR GO STRAIGHT TO SOLITARY.
raw bass sounds disturb this physical and spiritual brutality
shakin’ em up outta bondage.
Rhythms—wordsnotes—chants—prayers, for a moment,
Breathe . . .
We Shape-shift into spiritual vessels:
Spitting their slang about surviving the streets,
Hustling for a quick dime
Busting into homes on the run.
In there they don’t get to feel the sun on their skin.
Our circle is broken by random searches—
rummaging through their personal belongings,
looking between mattresses,
pulling up the sheets,
even thumbing through notebooks
We tell them to focus
They can’t corrupt our circle of strength—I tell them.
They find nothing—no weapons,
Just family photos
and letters folded in books.
One of the Chicanitos reflects—for some strange reason,
the music “goes” with the searches
like in a movie . . .
and the cipher continues
like Black improvisational music
what is it?
A Coltrane solo as a form of freestylin’.
A young brother tells us the music calms him.
It bears repeating that the sessions took place under conditions of acute surveillance. We were under the constant, attentive watch of staff: male staff in the boys’ units, female staff in the girls’ units. The staff members were White, Black, and Brown women and men whose age varied from their mid-twenties to their sixties. Each session started with the staff asking that one of the kids say a pledge, which another kid would then repeat. Those pledges were variations around a general pattern: “I pledge to respect my peers and staff, speak in turn, pay attention to the facilitators, avoid the glorification of crime and gangs, and avoid inappropriate language.” At least two staff oversaw our sessions. In the young women’s units, one of the staff looked over the entire group, usually on a chair removed from the circle we formed; the other staff sat next to young women in greater need of assistance due to medical conditions and/or reading and writing challenges. For example, a Latina young woman, fourteen years old, was having a difficult time adapting to the facility’s routine and being away from home. She seemed extremely detached and depressed during the writing sessions’ first few weeks, cried constantly, and barely participated. A staff member—a White woman in her late forties—sat near her, patiently tried to help, and calmly accompanied the young woman to her room or the bathroom, and mediated the conversation with the nurse.
Such moments of seeming genuine concern, especially between women staff and young women, were not rare. They reflected institutional guidelines according to which “the juvenile correctional system places an emphasis on rehabilitation. Even when it is necessary to incarcerate youth, the setting is not punitive but rather is protective and designed to educate youth about discipline, values, and work ethics thus guiding them toward becoming productive citizens.” Staff behavior seemed to reflect the assumption that, even in confinement, the youths still possess that which defines their ontology: their theoretically extended and plastic, malleable personalities. They can be educated, guided, taught to be responsible—in other words, they can be rehabilitated, reinserted in society as productive, law-abiding subjects. A better future is theirs to be conquered. No limits exist to their accomplishments. Or so it seemed. It is quite telling that only once, over the years we conducted the writing sessions, did i hear a staff member explicitly demonstrate frustration about a youth that was allegedly beyond rehabilitation. In the staff’s word, the young Black man, who constantly challenged his overseers, was “a criminal and not a child.”
Still, this exceptional moment of staff unselfconscious frustration brought home the norm. Insofar as the codes by which staff are supposedly governed stress potentialities yet to be actualized, they reveal surprisingly idealistic traits. Engineered to structure the very dystopian spaces of confinement where they are practiced, such idealistic traits, however, reflect a complicated orientation, which, after all, is coterminous with the social protocols and physical boundaries that constitute the circles of surveillance and dispossession with which the youths are so familiarized. Yet, as this orientation stresses and indeed generates practices that point to a yet-to-be-realized future, it suggests an approach hardly distinguishable from those of progressive camps whose politics (like those of the facilitators) are, in theory, diametrically opposed to that of the juvenile prison. After all, we, too, stressed potentialities, becoming, a future re-membered, re-constituted, autonomous.
It is hardly surprising that a repressive institution employs concepts that negate, or at the very least render compassionate, its practices of dispossession and confinement. The naturalization of imprisonment, and in particular that of young people, depends on this and other similar ideological processes by which the time and spatial experiences in confinement are represented as ultimately beneficial to both the incarcerated and to those who are not.
Still, there is a puzzling symbiosis between official clichés of juvenile confinement and that which the incarcerated youth, as well as those of us who work with them, believe in and want to implement. If only accidental, temporary, or strategic, the symbiosis is a vexing problem for it forces us to confront the political nature of our interventions in less forgiving ways. Indeed, it compels us to interrogate the very nature and definition of politics. What happens when we, supposedly oppositional people and organizations, as well as those incarcerated, share with the carceral institution concepts such as personal responsibility, community accountability, taking charge of the future, and hope? The question becomes more complex when we recognize that, by cultural default, by force of hegemonic consensus, the range of interpretations open to political actors in this particular field—staff, prisoners, program facilitators (us)—is limited, and therefore, even if originating from distinct political camps, the traffic between and fusion of meanings is intense. If the intended meanings are different, even oppositional to start with, they become jumbled up in the commonsensical ideological melting pot. For example, we, the organizers, wanted to help the kids get jobs when they were released. And so did staff: they provided educational and job-training programs intended precisely to help released youth be absorbed in the ranks of formal labor. Even though we the facilitators had critical analyses of the gendered and racial inequalities of the job market, we made efforts to provide kids with social networks, mostly around the bookstore, that would give them a chance of finding employment outside not only the minimum-wage tracks (knowing full well that even low-paying jobs were scarce) but also the informal and so-called illegal economy. We reasoned that personal connections with lawyers, teachers, professors, artists, and independent entrepreneurs, like the bookstore caretakers, would improve the kids’ chances of staying out of the reach of the carceral system. That the juvenile facility staff was perfectly fine with our post-confinement arrangement—and indeed encouraged it—indicated that, after all, we shared with them similar views on how to break the cycle of incarceration.
In our twice-a-week meetings, there were many examples of the ways our own meanings and purposes fused with those of the staff. On Saturday, November 13, 2010, as we talked with a group of young women about community involvement, intervention, and change, the staff member in charge, a middle-aged White woman who had overseen our work since 2008, and who, in this period of time, went from begrudgingly tolerating us to trying to help us, decided to take part in the discussion circle. The staff member openly supported the idea of community involvement, and enthusiastically suggested that young women join or start local discussion groups and political organizations. Making herself the fourth facilitator, the staff member earnestly engaged the ensuing discussion about the problems in the communities from where the youths came. She supported the youths’ desire for improved, more nurturing schools, free of violence. Especially interesting was the staff’s apparent support of our effort to denounce the repressive aspects of zero-tolerance educational policies and the ways they contributed to those young people’s incarceration.
How do we begin to understand and break up this ideological symbiosis? Are we to believe, after all, that caring staff members reflect a humanitarian institutional architecture? Or is there something more complicated and nefarious going on? Let us remember that as part of a cycle of transgenerational dispossession, juvenile confinement is anything but humanitarian, much less progressive—it is indeed a node in a web of constantly self-replenished, biased institutional practices that are rendered naturalized, acceptable (at least to the broader public), and redemptive. These practices and their ideological justification, which produce the concrete effect of moving bodies between already confined spaces of dispossession (the ghetto, the school, the prison) until they are finally deposited in cemeteries after comparatively shorter lives of disproportionate suffering, are quite dystopian. The point is this: independently of what is stated in TJJD’s bylaws, regardless of the caring staff (and keep in mind that not all staff are caring—far from it), the data we analyzed unambiguously show that juvenile incarceration produces consistent discriminatory patterns, and indeed requires and feeds a cycle of antiblack, gendered, racialized disadvantages closely tied to where one is born, lives, and goes to school. Rather than the stated intentions that appear in the institution’s self-descriptions, and individual staff behaviors, which are at times indeed compassionate, what is relevant when reflecting on the juvenile prison’s orientation are its accumulated and recurring effects over time. How do we begin to critically understand the workings of a perverse institution that routinely employs and encourages redemption tropes—an institution that often sounds and looks like its precise opposite, an institution that functions through the work of seemingly well-meaning and caring people?
An entry point for analysis—where this façade begins to crack—is the revealing fact that the staff seldom paid much attention to what we the facilitators said to the kids. Their attention was squarely on what the youths were doing and saying, or not doing and not saying. Gang signs, fidgety behavior, inappropriate looks, and a host of other demeanors, including speaking Spanish, were the object of swift and routine reprehension. When, in 2009, we proudly showed the staff and their supervisor, a Black woman very much supportive of our program, the first chapbook, Does Heaven Have a Ghetto? featuring the young people’s writings done in our workshop series the year before, we were deluged with a series of questions and accusations. Caught by surprise, at first we thought the objections were against the introduction, where Czarina Thelen unapologetically linked the young people’s incarceration to patterns of U.S. structural racism. We were wrong. The administrator and staff’s vehement frustration had to do with the many allusions to gangs they saw in the chapbook. From the cover, to many of the drawings depicting gang clothing, deportment, and slang, and to the actual naming of gangs and gang territories in the poetry, the chapbook was deemed inappropriate. We the facilitators thought the incident would be the end of our sessions. But since we strategically apologized, and we were one of the few among the many groups that worked at the facility that did not charge a fee, we were allowed to continue our workshops provided that we were more vigilant about preempting any kind of “gang glorification,” as the institutional jargon put it.
It is this intolerant disposition toward the youths that allows us to zero in on the dystopian nature of youth incarceration, despite its apparent, mostly discursive friendliness to notions of education, reform, and redemption. To focus on these types of quotidian staff interventions allows a finer appreciation of profoundly authoritarian practices. When thought of as part of the same universe of control protocols, repressive interventions and progressive tropes render each other that much more appealing and effective. Control protocols, and indeed authoritarian demands, when framed as part of the effort to reform and educate, gain a veneer of compassion; and tropes of reform and redemption, when coexisting or applied with repressive measures, suggest a pragmatic, rational, we-do-this-for-your-benefit type of approach. So the genuine concern, and even occasional affection, between the staff and the youth, need not be considered exceptional behaviors in an otherwise brutal institution. To the contrary, the juvenile institution’s brutality—the brutality that it assumes and generates—and the greater collectively sanctioned and historically inflicted cycle of brutality of which it is a part, are so effective and pervasive precisely because they are able to weave into their operational machines very recognizable, often authentic, expressions of care. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the most palpable aspect of the juvenile facility, as we shall see below, is death. As staff carefully watches the youths, death is as present as the brutal dystopia the juvenile facility embodies.
• • •
Bass lines created a sonic membrane around our workshop participants. Not only a rhythmic and melodic accompaniment to the reading and writing, this sonic membrane was also meant as a barrier to shield the youths and us from noise coming from the staff. Telephone and walkie-talkie rings and conversations; the constant clatter, near and far, of heavy doors opened and closed; the movement of personnel and chained inmates circulating in and out of our room, including the nurse’s seemingly caring yet imperative administration of drugs during which she demanded that the youths raise their tongues and keep their mouths open to make sure the drug was ingested—all such noises were constant, predictable events around us. They were part of the everyday mechanics of the detention center. Even the moments that seemed, at first, examples of crisis—fights among the young people, or between them and the staff, often leading to solitary confinement; and the occasional unannounced searches, when all rooms and personal belongings were combed—even those became routine.
There was also a more vaporous noise that came from staff walking behind the young people to check on what they were writing, staff gazes and gesticulations that indicated inappropriate behavior or imminent reprimand, and signs and looks of all sorts (friendly, flirting, menacing, defiant, jocular) traded among the young people that interfered with the workshop. Over time, the facilitators and i came to rely on recognizable bass lines that would bring back the youths to the tasks at hand, and isolate us from the staff’s controlling impulses. One of those bass lines, from John Coltrane’s “Acknowledgment,” the opening movement of the A Love Supreme suite, became one of the young people’s favorites. We discussed Coltrane’s recorded performance as an example of collective collaboration and improvisation, rhythmic variation and precision, and political and spiritual work. We stressed his uncommon practice routine that often involved twelve to sixteen hours of daily dedication. At the end of a day’s writing session, when the kids were asked to read what they had come up with, I’d be asked to play the line. We experimented by having a few of the young people snapping their fingers on the second and fourth beats of a 4/4, mid-tempo song, while others marked the quarter notes, and yet others were free to sprinkle the rhythms with random accents.
However, these moments of focus, collaboration, and creativity were not shielded from the facility’s routine forms of control. As much as our writing groups managed to create and inhabit temporary spaces of sounds, words, and imagination in which, in Valdez’s words, “time is suspended,” reminders of where we were—reminders that the kids were immersed in time of a much different quality—often came crashing in as rude awakenings.
• • •
In a 2008 session in a boys’ unit, most of whom were there for drug offenses, the facilitators and i were still trying to find an optimal workshop design to engage the youths. We were at the beginning of our twelve-week program. It was a large group: fourteen young men, eleven Latinos (including two born in Mexico), one White, and two Black. The staff unit leader, a White man in his mid-forties, repeated a few times that they were “good kids, they get out of hand sometimes, and we do what we have to do, but most of them are smart, bright kids.” We quickly found out that the unit was quite embattled. When not overtaken by drowsiness or frustration, the kids were sharp. They were in constant disputes among themselves and with the staff. At first, they were unwilling to focus on the texts we brought and the activities we had planned, and instead used the sessions to test how far they could push the boundaries imposed by their overseers. (When we started our sessions, the kids saw us as yet another set of overseers.) They took turns asking to get water, to go to bathroom, to fetch belongings in their rooms—anything to disrupt the session and get the staff’s attention. If their intent was to get the staff to lose their cool, they eventually succeeded. At some point during our second session, when they were supposed to be writing about their communities, the kids managed to overwhelm the two staff members in charge that day. As one of the young Latinos left his chair to get water, another one made his way to the bathroom. The staff unit leader told the kid going to the bathroom, who at that point had taken a few steps away from our group, that he needed to go back, sit down, and put his hands on the table. Looking frustrated, the kid told the staff that he, the staff member, had given him permission, to which the staff member snapped and yelled, “Do as I say right now or go straight to solitary!” The Latino kid hesitated, looked at the staff member with contempt, and scanned the other kids for hints on what to do. He stopped walking but did not go back to his chair either. At that point, the staff unit leader, and the other staff member who until then had remained aloof writing notes on a desk nearby, stood up and ordered the kid into solitary. The unit leader warned that if the kid resisted he’d sound off the alert and call reinforcements. “Just go in and don’t make this worse for yourself,” the staff member said.
A small, brightly lit cubicle with a concrete bed on top of which lay a thin mattress, the solitary cell was separated from the rest of the unit by a heavy door with a small window; it was located in the center of the unit. JG, the youth sent to solitary that day, did not resist the orders and entered the solitary cell calmly. As we continued our workshop, he stretched and tiptoed to peer through the door window. His grimaced gaze suggested helplessness and the onset of a deep sadness. Gone was the playful verve he and his peers displayed earlier. Gone was any kind of positive energy we the facilitators and the young men could muster for the remainder of the writing session. The last half hour was a strange concoction of silence in the group; JG’s ever present, contorted, and increasingly desperate gaze piercing through the small glass window; and now-meaningless bass sounds interspersed with the sequential recitation of half-baked lines of writing the young men had put together based on that day’s earlier discussion.
Over the next few weeks, the facilitators and i slowly built some trust with the young men. Rene and Czarina brought in short, suggestive, good-sounding poetry; our sessions became more dynamic, participatory; a community activist, a formerly imprisoned Latino poet in his fifties, accepted our invitation to speak with and read for the kids, to talk about his time locked up, and share how writing poetry kept him sane, focused, and determined. We had decided that instead of playing the bass only during the reading parts of the workshops, I’d do so during most of the sessions. It became apparent that the music enhanced the sense of collective participation and protection. Even though not physically isolated from the unit and its staff, we nevertheless enjoyed a modicum of separation created by the sonic waves. Bass lines for mid-tempo, twelve-bar blues, in half time, usually started us off. I’d walk the half notes and occasionally have the kids snap their fingers in rhythm. Even those who did not make a sound would, invariably, immerse themselves in the communal cadence by either moving parts of their body or by simply relaxing. As the conversation got going, and the young men became absorbed in the exchanges, I’d double up and walk the quarter notes. Most of the time unnoticed, a melody and an improvised solo would follow. When the sessions switched gears—from reading a poem to discussing it; from discussing to writing; or from writing to reciting—there would be a corresponding change in the music. It happened frequently that kids would memorize certain tunes and ask for them when they were writing or when time came to deliver their words to the group. Sometimes they’d ask for specific beat patterns, by singing them or using their fingers, hands, and feet, which I’d try to follow while maintaining the chord and melodic structure of the songs i knew. Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” and “Au Privave,” Miles Davis’s “All Blues” and “So What,” Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” “JuJu,” “Pinocchio,” “Fall,” and “Adam’s Apple,” Joe Henderson’s “Jinrikisha,” and John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” and “Equinox,” among many others, became part of the young people’s repertoire. Even when they did not remember the names of songs and composers, they’d ask for them by humming excerpts. I’d happily oblige.
What happened next is registered in Valdez’s poem. The stanza that starts with “Our circle is broken by random searches” describes an unannounced search staff conducted without providing any justification. While the writing session was taking place—and it happened to be one in which the young men and us the facilitators were absorbed in creative discussions about the ways in which schools and prisons interact—three staff briskly entered our unit and proceeded to rummage each of the young men’s rooms. They lifted mattresses, separating them from sheets, squeezed pillows, opened books, and closely examined the kids’ few belongings. The young men and the facilitators momentarily stopped our activities, only to be told by the staff in charge to continue with our business and keep our eyes away from the rooms. The kids gave one another looks that seemed surprised at first, but then quickly became resigned; one of them noted, as i resumed playing a mid-tempo funk groove, how the music gave the raid a perfect soundtrack: “For some strange reason, the music goes with the searches, like in a movie.”
I interpret the search as both a reaction to our somewhat successful attempt at establishing a zone of dialogue with the young men, and a demonstration, by the facility’s staff, of their indisputable, unpredictable, and invasive powers. There would be no moment of respite; even though staff and service providers (us) seemed friendly and supportive, the kids were to be assured that they were dispossessed of time, space, and agency. The resulting immobility that many of the young men and women constantly talked about is addressed in the writing below, done by HP, a fifteen-year-old Latino:
I’m locked up ’cause there’s
No movement in my space.
I can’t see my family or friends.
And it’s a disgrace.
I can’t see the sunlight or
Smell the fresh air
I’m in a green suit and can’t
Except my gym, to exercise,
But it’s a negative feeling and
Ubiquitous, the “negative feeling and vibe” defines confinement. The recourse to prayer, to a metaphysical realm, in this context is intimately tied to the realistic assessment that, once institutionalized, one is completely overwhelmed, overpowered, immobilized. Like other Latino and Black kids in his unit, HP often despaired at being confined:
Dear Lord, I’m in residential.
I shouldn’t be here ’cause
I have too much potential.
Although the narratives of redemption he heard in the facility supported his self-assessment that he had “too much potential,” he found his forced immobilization unjust and often unbearable. In 2008 HP was a small child—he was the one of whom we caught a glimpse when escorted through the corridors by two brutish guards. As on many similar occasions we witnessed inside the unit, the shackles around his ankles, waist, and wrists seemed utterly out of place not only because of his size, but also because of how much younger he seemed than the other fifteen-year-olds. His comparative youth, in turn, only rendered even more absurd those kids’ confinement—they were, after all, just kids. And even without the incongruous chains, the kids were constantly restrained and punished by being forced in isolation either in their rooms or in the solitary cell. The fragile membranes of sounds and recognition we built during the writing sessions allowed for momentary breaks from the place’s overarching brutality. Yet the membrane was too easily breached.
JZ, also fifteen in 2008, a Latino resident of the same boy’s unit, shared HP’s claustrophobic powerlessness. Like HP, he was able to both acknowledge and write about a painful past and yet muster hope for a life outside the cycles of dispossession that landed him in confinement. “Addicted to money,” as he wrote in one of his pieces, JZ wanted to find new directions:
Growing up around crack houses,
Dope fiends, and thieves,
Look at me now:
Stealing and smoking weed,
. . .
It’s still not too late.
I’m only fifteen.
I can still change my life
And hope to succeed.
There were two Black kids in this unit. They were quieter and did not interact much with the other youths. They did engage with the assignments, yet were transferred out of our unit before we could work with them on editing and preparing their writings for the chapbook. For this reason, their writings did not appear in Does Heaven Have a Ghetto? One of the Black youths, AJ, often acknowledged enthusiastically the poetry and music. After the search raid i described above, he noted, to the group’s silent agreement, that the music calmed him down. He was glad that while he was vulnerable to the staff’s capricious decisions, in that particular episode he countered his anxiety with the soothing effect the music had on him. AJ’s demeanor and his writing, as i remember it, was not as boisterous as other kids’. Compared to those of the Latino kids, AJ’s poems had similar descriptions of drugs, violence, and a child he fathered and about whom he often wondered. Like many of the Latino kids, he, too, came from the 78723 zip code area.
AJ’s reserved demeanor was partly due to his introspective nature. It was also a result of the Latino majority. Even though there were two, occasionally three, cliques that would, at different times, coalesce around charismatic young men, AJ, the other Black kid, and the one White kid, were outliers. AJ seemed confident in his capacity to engage abstract ideas and convey his own perspective in writing, as well as in his ability to navigate the facility’s environment and be part of a numeric racial minority. There were several Black staff members, most of them older than the unit leaders, and this Black presence may have created a sense of assurance for the Black kids. AJ, like the other Black youths, seemed more mature than most Latino kids. Still, besides his temperament, the demographics of the unit, and the considerable presence of Black staff, i suspect AJ’s marginal and more reserved position was also related to how he evaluated his own prospects after incarceration. While Latinos were able to both (a) express (and often brag about) their outlaw and morally questionable conduct, and (b) still genuinely believe in—or at least write enthusiastically about—the hopes and tropes of redemption and personal transformation, such was not the case for Black kids.
This difference between the ways in which Latino and Black youths related to narratives of redemption was subtle but important, as it correlated with the differentiated patterns of punishment in the juvenile system examined in chapter 1—which in turn are part of a broader cycle of dispossession and surveillance that includes urban space, schools, and prisons. These differentiated patterns of punishment consistently disadvantage Blacks in ways measurably more intense and consistent than for Latin@s. Antiblackness is the fundamental principle informing and being reinforced by these patterns of punishment. AJ’s aloofness was an oblique commentary on how narratives of redemption work differently for differently situated youths: in the midst of the various forms of dispossession and vulnerability that emerged out of their writings, Latino youths seemed to have (or at least expected to have) the support of social networks—mostly parents and relatives—in ways that were not as evident for young Black men. In a pattern that will become more apparent when we engage the young women’s writings in the next chapter, the social damage caused by intergenerational dispossession was far greater, indeed of a distinct nature, for Black youth. Reflecting a historically persistent trend, incarcerated Black kids came from single-parent families in far greater frequencies than did Latin@ kids; Black families were under greater institutional oversight than were Latin@ families; Black families were the most negatively affected by economic downturns; and Black kids had a far greater probability of finding themselves under state custody than did Latin@ kids.
It is not only the criminal justice system, articulated with punitive schools as well as violent and underserved neighborhoods, that disproportionately affects Black people. As part of a cycle of dispossession and surveillance that includes a constellation of institutions, the foster care system provides yet another angle through which to analyze the specificity of the Black social condition. Over a decade ago Dorothy Roberts noted, “42 percent of children in foster care nationwide are Black, even though Black children constitute only 17 percent of the nation’s youth.” She continued, “Black families are the most likely of any group to be disrupted by child protection authorities. Black children even stand out from other minorities. Latino and Asian children are underrepresented in the national foster care population. Latino children make up only 15 percent children in foster care although Latino children now outnumber Blacks in the general population.” Young Black men’s comparative nihilism is thus grounded in an awareness and experience of social facts whose intensity and duration are without analogy. How does one start over in the same conditions of dispossession and expect to produce different outcomes? Latino youths did express skepticism and moments of utter rejection of hope, redemption, and their attending narratives, as JG did when he consciously chose to resist orders, obtaining with his insurrection a fleeting victory (he stood up against authority), which nevertheless amounted to a painful stay in solitary. CM, a Latino young man, wrote:
Hell ain’t shit compared to life—Protect me God it’s rough.
If I should die b4 I wake, tell the world I came and went,
my last wordz here was
“Fuck the world”—
Be strong and represent.
CM’s familiarity with death, and the rejection of the social world that flippantly discards lives, would be an apt description of Black social life as social death. Recognized as social death, Latino social life, in the young Latino’s nihilistic perspective, becomes apparently commensurate to Black social life—a point of contact in the asymptotic relationship between Latinos and Blacks. These moments of utter negation suggest possibilities of Latino recognition of the Black position. Do they, or can they, reveal structural convergence? In other words, while AJ’s aloofness can be read as a diagnosis of a collective and historic condition (even though AJ’s perspective is also built from his own specific experiences), can the same be said of CM’s revolt? Are CM’s revolt and his rejection of assimilation into normative sociality indications of a possible confluence between his lived experience and the structural characteristics that define social blackness? Are the forms of social death defining the juvenile facility grounds on which Latin@ and Black experiences, otherwise separated by distinct patterns of surveillance, punishment, and dispossession, become mutually recognizable? Is CM’s awareness of his social worthlessness an indication of oblique identification of Black social death?
Most of the Latino young men we interacted with considered the door into lawful social integration not completely shut. Like HP, they believed in their potential, their future. Black male kids, despite their more obvious reticence about their prospects, also nurtured varied forms of guarded optimism beyond their time in confinement. Latino optimism surfaced in line with Latinos’ relative advantages vis-à-vis Blacks (social networks, the prospect of work and marriage, etc.); Black optimism surfaced despite Black foundational disadvantages. CM’s rebellion marks a point of potential articulation between his personal prognosis in the normative social world and the structural constraints defining Black social life of social death. CM’s experiences suggest oblique identification with imminently Black experiences. It is an oblique form of identification because it does not occur with the explicit mention or awareness of Black life; there are no attempts at drawing parallels between CM’s experience and that of Blacks. Yet CM’s narrative defines social death, the paradigmatic Black social condition. Whether this type of oblique identification can become actualized in effective recognition is difficult to establish. There were certainly moments of friendship between Black and Latino young men in confinement, yet most of the time the two groups remained distant from each other. Whether the common subjection Blacks and Latin@s experience translates into sustained and intentional articulation beyond the walls of confinement is also difficult to ascertain. The machine of confinement far exceeds the institutions of captivity. And although the machine indeed affects Blacks and Latin@s (and increasingly Whites), it does so in different ways for differently positioned bodies—even when these bodies are removed from (and are returned to) the same zip codes. Zones of dispossession are not homogeneous and do not inevitably produce bridges of articulation. In trying to evaluate realistic possibilities of recognition, we must be attentive to the foundational social–cognitive role the Black gendered body has in producing all other, nonblack positionalities, as discussed in the Introduction. A Latino recognition of the Black would necessitate a grasp of both Black experiences and their antiblack structural underpinnings. A Latino recognition of the Black would require an acknowledgment that, if and when Latino experiences converge with those of the Black, they remain distinct, informed by a logic that is related to antiblackness yet different than the logic that undergirds Black social death. The articulation of social death that at times emerges out of Latino experiences is a form of oblique identification with the Black because, while it engages experiential aspects that are defining of the Black condition, it is not able or willing to grapple with the structural aspects of antiblackness. Because oblique identification does not recognize the structural aspects of antiblackness, it is not able to distinguish between temporary experiential convergence and structural incommensurability. The analytical and political challenge is to be able to distinguish between oblique forms of Brown–Black recognition and forms of recognition based on the actual acknowledgment, or even inhabitation, of the structural positionality defining blackness. Moreover, the challenge is to ask what are the analytical and political consequences of oblique identification in the context of ever expanding antiblack technologies of surveillance, confinement, and transgenerational dispossession. The next chapter, focusing on young Black and Latina women’s experiences while incarcerated, continues the exploration of oblique identification. Specifically, it asks how Latina and Black young women make sense of their experiences leading to, during, and after incarceration. What, if any, are the points of experiential commonality between Latina and Black detained girls? It must be remembered that, as interested as i am in the specific mechanics of youth incarceration in Austin, i also want to establish possible points of resonance between the United States and Brazil. Patterns of antiblackness drawn from the everyday dynamics of youth imprisonment in Austin will serve as references from which to investigate related patterns as they materialize in Rio de Janeiro. To focus on antiblackness is to inquire about its transhistorical, diasporic, and structural manifestations.