Resisting Carceral Cities: A Conversation with Carl Suddler and Garrett Felber

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Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on Resisting Carceral Cities: Prisons, Police, and Punishment in Historical Perspective, scheduled for December 3rd, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Carl Suddler is an African American historian whose research interests are at the intersections of youth, race, and crime. His scholarship is committed to developing better understandings of the consequences of inequity in the United States. Suddler earned his B.A. in History and Black American Studies from the University of Delaware and his Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, Bloomington. He is Assistant Professor of History at Emory University. Prior, he was an assistant professor of history at Florida Atlantic University and a postdoctoral fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory. His work has appeared in the Journal of American History and the Journal of African American History, among others. He has written op-eds for the Washington Post, The Conversation, and Bleacher Report. Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York is his first book.

Garrett Felber’s research and teaching focus on twentieth-century African American social movements, Black radicalism, and the carceral state. Felber is the author of Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement and the Carceral State and co-author of The Portable Malcolm X Reader with the late Manning Marable. Felber’s work has been published in the Journal of American History, Journal of African American History, Journal of Social History, and Souls. Felber is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi and the Project Director of the Parchman Oral History Project, a collaborative oral history, archival, and documentary storytelling project on incarceration in Mississippi. In 2016, Felber co-founded Liberation Literacy, an abolitionist collective inside and outside Oregon prisons. He spearheaded the Prison Abolition Syllabus, a reading list published by Black Perspectiveswhich highlighted and contextualized the prison strikes of 2016 and 2018.

CBFS: You both write in part about the rise of the carceral state in urban America. Can you each tell us a bit about your book and how you came to write this history?

Carl Suddler: Presumed Criminal delves into a critical shift in the carceral turn –between the 1930s and 1960s – when state responses to juvenile delinquency increasingly criminalized Black youths and tethered their lives to a legal system that became less rehabilitative and more punitive. It is a book about New York City and while there are varying reasons that make it an exceptionally New York–story, it lends itself well for comparisons to other major U.S. cities, particularly above the Mason-Dixon line where citizens confronted, resisted, and challenged racist power structures in their everyday lives.

Like most historians, there were both professional and personal reasons tied to how I came to write Presumed Criminal. I wanted to write a book that, as David Tanenhaus described it, examined the history of American juvenile justice, broadly conceived, as African American history. That is, there were historiographical voids that I was not so much interested in filling as much as I was frustrated that they existed. Professionally, I aspired to answer them. Personally, and I write about this in the acknowledgements, I was in high school when I was inspired to challenge presumptions of innocence and presumptions of guilt, which sent me on the journey that sparked the ideas, the questions, and the stories that gave rise to this book.

Garrett Felber: This book began for me as early as 2008, when I joined the Malcolm X Project directed by Manning Marable at Columbia University as a research assistant. The Project culminated with Dr. Marable’s Pulitzer prize-winning biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. During those years of research, I came across examples of political engagement by the Nation of Islam (NOI) that I believed were at odds with his and others characterizations of the NOI as “apolitical.” My dissertation, and eventually the book, set about documenting the sites where those politics were most visible. These invariably centered around the sites of greatest state repression: policing and prisons.

Those Who Know Don’t Say is a dialectical history of the rise of the carceral state and the Nation of Islam’s organizing around police violence and prisoners’ rights. The title is taken from the second half of a phrase that Muslims in the NOI responded with when asked about their political involvement: “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.” The first portion captures the ways knowledge about the Nation of Islam has been formed and disseminated through a constellation of state officials, journalists, and scholars. The second half encapsulates the strategic silence and positioning of the Nation of Islam at various points as either religious or political when it was fundamentally and simultaneously both.

CBFS: Can you share the story of a particular figure or event from your book that our readers might not be familiar with?

Carl Suddler: Sammy Davis Jr. is obviously well-known; an acclaimed singer, dancer, and actor. However, readers often comment, “We did not expect to see him in this book.” In 1956, as Davis was starring in the Broadway production of Mr. Wonderful, he became a voice in the nationwide efforts to curb juvenile delinquency and used his platform to raise awareness. Not only did Davis regularly host and headline events intended to add momentum to local efforts to reduce youth crime in New York City, but he outlined a six-point plan for the entertainment industry, mainly people involved in the music world, to consider how they could join the fight against delinquency. The outline was published in the Pittsburgh Courier and it included a call to establish The Music Industry Council to Combat Juvenile Delinquency; a call on songwriters and composers to create “jingles and songs on the theme;” a call on disc jockeys to utilize the slogan ‘D.J.s Fight JD;’ and a call on jukebox operators to place “eye-catching decals on all their machines bearing hard-hitting anti-delinquency slogans.” Unfortunately, Davis’s plan was never achieved and after countless meetings he learned that it was “agonizingly slow work getting a thing like this going.”

Garrett Felber: In October 1961, Martin X and several other incarcerated Muslims at Attica Prison wrote a message to James X explaining how to file a pro se (Latin for “in one’s own behalf”) writ. They were suing the warden and state commissioner for violating their constitutional right to freedom of religious worship. Martin X (Sostre) would eventually leave the Nation of Islam and become an internationally-recognized political prisoner. As the owner of several Black radical bookstores in Buffalo, New York, he was framed on drug charges by police who believed he was responsible for the uprising of 1967.

In 1961, virtually unknown to all but a handful of New York prison officials, Sostre was an accomplished jailhouse lawyer and organizer. In his message to James X, Sostre broke down how prison officials used solitary confinement as a tool not simply to punish agitators, but also to separate them. “He kept manipulating the brothers like monkeys on a string,” he wrote. The warden would shift Muslims between solitary confinement and general population to avoid their communication with each other and their politicization of other prisoners. But Sostre knew that if they filled the “box” with politicized prisoners, the “whole security system broke down.”

This strategy, which mirrored – and even predated – the rise of “Jail, No Bail” in the southern wing of the civil rights movement, became a well-documented method of undermining jailing as an effective form of political repression by the state. It is not sufficient to simply document these similar strategies. We must also ask why one has been recognized in the annals of civil rights history while the other has gone unremarked. Who do we see as legible activists and, in doing so, what do we see as legitimate activism?

CBFS: Considering the movement against mass incarceration today, the movement for Black lives, and the Black freedom struggle more generally, how does this history help us understand and even act in our current world?

Carl Suddler: Beyond the cliché that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, I hope that Presumed Criminal encourages its readers to stay vigilant. That is, there are countless lessons to be learned from past struggles against what seems to be a legal system whose powers are derived from its ability to be shaped and reshaped by expansion, never revision, and one that continues to prioritize punishment, never prevention. Thus, it is imperative for the movements against it to demand what they want and to convey what they believe is required to fight it.

Garrett Felber: I hope that it helps us interrogate received wisdom about how social movements happen and how to effectuate change. The book documents short-lived coalitions, imprisoned people with few resources, and an array of strategies ranging from direct action and theatrical politics to prison litigation and self-determination through the building of separate institutions. Many of these stories have fallen outside the purview of what we consider the midcentury Black freedom struggle. Their inclusion into that history is not simply about a “fuller” story, but one that provokes us to ask different – and I hope sharper – questions in our movements today.

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