Blood in the Water: An Author’s Response

This is the final day of our roundtable on Heather Ann Thompson’s book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy. On Sunday, Michael Ezra introduced the roundtable and Kali Nicole Gross discussed how to approach trauma in historical writing. On Monday, Dan Berger described the book’s value within the historiography of the carceral state. On Tuesday, Danielle McGuire related Blood in the Water to a history of resistance. On Wednesday, Robert Chase placed the Attica Prison Uprising within a broader political movement. On Thursday, we featured posts from two historians, LaShawn Harris and Russell Rickford, who reflected on the legacy of the Attica Prison Uprising. In today’s final post, Dr. Thompson responds to the roundtable.

Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people. (AP Photo)

It is rare when one has the opportunity to have a group of historians whom they respect so deeply read their book, and do so with such care and wisdom. Their essays made me think again about my own subject position as a writer, they made me consider how I might have more powerfully problematized some key points that I tried to make in the book, and, finally, they raised a question about the concept of “justice” that I suspect I am not alone in finding both vexing and vitally important.

I found myself facing the question about how my own history might shape my recovery and retelling of Attica from the moment that I began Blood in the Water. How could I be a historian whose job it is to make sense of the heroic as well as heinous acts of prisoners and members of law enforcement, of lawyers and judges, of radical activists and military brass, and blacks as well as whites, when my own family is populated with all of these people—people who each shaped me, people whom I love, and people who so often see the world very, very differently from one another?

For good or ill, the way I tried to mitigate against the perils of my positionality was by trying truly to “hear” from as many of Attica’s actors as possible and, then, take seriously how they understood what were doing in any given moment–even if their actions were, from our vantage point, weak or reprehensible. In short, my goal was first to humanize and then to take the step back necessary to place their actions in a broader historical context. Some in my book would, in the final analysis, be villains, and some would be heroes and heroines. But all, I hoped, would be understood.

I am deeply thankful that my efforts to humanize Attica’s many actors were recognized by the historians in this forum, as was the depth and breadth of my source base. I am also so grateful, however, they also pushed me a bit in both areas. For example, although LaShawn Harris commends the book for situating prisoners “at the center” of the struggle to bring about a “transformation in prison policies,” Russell Rickford also rightly points out that my focus on certain prisoner sources over others perhaps gave short shrift to what he calls “the global sensitivities” of their struggle. And Kali Gross wonders about the book’s focus on so many non-prisoner, and white, actors—be they villains, heroes, or even victims themselves.

On the one hand, and as I think a close look at the book’s notes indicates, this history is indeed, and throughout, prisoner-driven and -centered. It was these men’s decades-long efforts to speak out that provided me with the sources to tell readers not only what was happening in D Yard, but also during the bloody retaking, throughout the months of their brutal torture, and during the state’s extensive cover up. The book begins with how they experienced and resisted Attica, and it ends with why it is they who make what happened there still matter.

Old Cell Block and Guard Tower at Sing Sing Prison in 1938, Ossining, NY, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Yet, it is also the case that a great many of the men who shaped what happened at Attica–from those who ran the prison, to those who planned the massacre, to those who carried out the torture, to those who litigated the cases, to many of those who orchestrated the cover-up–were not incarcerated. These men were deeply privileged, some had unimaginable access to power, and all were white.

Readers, I believed, needed to experience both an Attica that was suffered and resisted by Black and Brown men who fought mightily to be heard, but whose history largely unfolded well outside of the nation’s headlines and halls of power, as well as an Attica that was controlled by powerful white men who used their public authority either to cover up that trauma or to lay it bare in a court of law. That there is a tension regarding whose history most drives this book, therefore, is perhaps inevitable. Nevertheless, I am left wondering about how I might have been even more careful to manage this tension so as not, even if unwittingly, let the same actors who shaped the headlines in 1971 in any way dominate the history of that year or its aftermath.

There are questions raised in this forum about Attica’s actors that are equally valuable. Dan Berger, for example, wonders if the attempt to humanize everyone in this book runs the risk of the very real differences between them being flattened. What are, he asks, the “limits of empathy”?

Those who shaped Attica’s history were indeed individuals who could experience pain but also, at the same time, mete it out with ease. And thus, it was critically important to me, that readers see Attica actors not necessarily as sympathetic, but certainly as complex. Similar human experiences of trauma, however, do not mean equal experiences. Thus readers see that Attica’s prisoners suffered a degree of “racialized fury”—to use Rickford’s term—that the Attica COs did not. And, I hope, that they also see that hostage empathy was indeed limited. Even though the COs suffered terribly at the hands of the State of New York—and the reader feels this along with them—I make clear that they refused to see or treat prisoners as allies, let alone equals. Still, I am prompted now to think even harder about how best to tell the history of one subjugated group when it, in turn, subjugates another. Empathy for one set of historical actors should never imply equality of experience between them.

The same applies to the writing of violence, and this forum generates invaluable questions about that as well. Violence is so central to Attica’s long history that, needless to say, writing this book led me to fret endlessly about how to write it. How would I recount the full scope of the atrocities carried out without somehow numbing the reader to their horror? How could I make sure that the violence I described was not read as either spectacle or pornography? As worrisome, how might I tell the violence of prisoners and troopers alike, without in any way muting the fact that the horrors perpetrated by members of law enforcement and the state were incalculably greater?

I am deeply honored to the readers in this forum for taking the time to note the ways in which the book “narrates violence” effectively and does not, as Robert Chase put it, allow the horror of physical abuses “to overtake” this history, nor to distract readers from the broader point that it is “state prevarication that allows such violent systems to continue unabated.” And I am likewise glad that they saw it as significant that I did in fact recount stories of prisoner violence too, rather than present readers with some sort of, as Kali Gross puts it, a “sanitized image” of them.

Still, as Dan Berger asks, might the book more explicitly addressed the ways in which the prison itself is an instrument of violence—a deeply sexualized and racist on-the-ground manifestation of state violence? And, also related to this question of violence, Gross asks, was the “sustained trauma of Attica’s prisoners” ultimately as “legible” as that of the guards?

There is no doubt that Blood in the Water does not particularly engage the question of state violence as intrinsic to the prison itself, and this is indeed something that I might have probed more deeply and more explicitly foregrounded. And, yet, regarding the book’s treatment of violence visited on prisoners, I do feel that their trauma was not only rescued and recounted; I actually feel that it is drove the narrative in a way that the guards’ trauma did not. Yes, readers hear directly from white hostages about how they felt about being shot, and what this violence meant in their lives thereafter. Readers hear even more, however, directly from the Black and Brown prisoner victims at Attica about how they experienced and were impacted by the racialized violence that only they most specifically suffered. Be it from individual Brothers such as Shango who narrates his own trauma for the readers, or from the many other men who told their stories of nightmares and flashbacks in court, readers, I hope, hear and feel how they experienced Attica in ways uniquely horrific. As one prisoner, Howard Partridge, speaks of his trauma so chillingly, “I remember those blue eyes,” he explained. “I had never seen so much hatred in anyone’s eyes.”

And, yet, Gross is absolutely right to push here. Simply reproducing the words of these men for the reader, even if throughout and in great depth, may well be an insufficient substitute for fully articulating an analysis of what she has called the “interiority of black trauma.” I am glad that readers such as Danielle McGuire found it important that I “never told us that something horrible was horrible” and instead “showed us bit by bit….how violence and terror slowly, yet surely erode lives”. But, when it comes to making clear to readers that all violence is not experienced equally, Gross is so right to ask whether some more “telling” might well be needed.

Delegates to the Eighth International Penal and Penitentiary Congress held in Washington, D.C., in 1910, Bain Collection (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The last big question this forum posed about Blood in the Water is one that I think is so important for all of us who write the history of racial justice activism and work to recover the history of racial violence to grapple with: As Berger asks it, “What would it get justice?” Or, in McGuire’s words, “one wonders if there is truly any way back; if there is any kind of justice.”

Simply put, this question still haunts me. Would it have been “justice” if the troopers who had shot and tortured prisoners been tried, convicted, and jailed back in 1971? Well, only if one believes that the prisons to which they would have been sent were indeed about levying justice. My book is unequivocal that they are not. Would it have been justice if the architects of the assault at Attica had simply admitted responsibility and had owned the trauma they had wreaked? Well, only if one believes that their apology included the acknowledgment that racism undergirded the abuse they visited on black bodies, and suggested that they were actually and actively working to dismantle the very structures of white supremacy and the apparatuses of white privilege that gave them the power to carry out such abuse in the first place. The book makes clear that neither were possible.

And so, ultimately, I could only sum up what the Attica’s survivors themselves had concluded about their own decades-long fight: what they got wasn’t justice. It wasn’t even close to justice. But it was the closest thing to justice that they would ever get. Indeed, there was only one thing about the concept of “justice” in this history about which I had become unshakably certain: The struggle of the men to be heard at Attica “testifies to the irrepressible demand for justice. This is Attica’s legacy.”

Heather Ann Thompson is an award-winning historian at the University of Michigan. She is the the author of Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its LegacyShe also edited Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s. Follow her on Twitter @hthompsn.

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