Tuesday, August 27, 2019
August 27, 2019: Talking We the People: Shirley Prison
[I’ve long been a fan of book talks, but since my most recent book, We the People: The 500-Year Battle over Who is American, is intended to be my most public yet, I’ve redoubled my dedication to talking about it anywhere and everywhere. Since I’m on sabbatical this fall and even more flexible, I wanted to take this week to highlight some of my prior and upcoming talks, as examples that I hope can lead to more such opportunities! I’ll travel and talk anywhere and am happy to pay my own way for the chance to share these stories and histories!]
On what’s different about a book talk for a prison class, and what’s importantly not.
In one of my earliest, November 2010 blog posts I highlighted the inspiring teaching that my colleague and friend Ian Williams was doing (alongside FSU students he brought with him) in Massachusetts prisons; while I didn’t say it there in so many words, clearly I felt that I should find a way to enter those all-too-forgotten and important pedagogical and social spaces as well. I’m ashamed to admit that it took me almost eight years to achieve that goal, but this past fall, thanks to my friend and colleague Kate Smith who has been teaching in the MA prison system for a good while, I was able to talk about immigration with a class of hers at Gardner’s North Central Correctional Institution. The experience was such a positive one (for me for sure, and it seems for the students as well) that we found a way to do it again in the spring, this time at MCI-Shirley and this time focused specifically on the ideas, histories, and stories at the heart of We the People.
To one degree or another I try to connect every book talk (and every talk period) with the specific audience and setting for which I’m giving it, but I felt the need to do that even more strongly in this setting—in large part because this is a community that in so many of our collective conversations receive either no or entirely negative attention and focus. And that was precisely where I chose to begin this talk: by noting that “exclusion and inclusion” as concepts connect to all Americans in one way or another; and by using as an example the ways in which incarcerated Americans are so easily and often excluded from our sense of civic society. I highlighted in particular how many states do not allow convicted felons to vote—virtually all states do not allow them to do so while they are incarcerated (Maine and Vermont are the only current exceptions); and many continue denying them this fundamental right after their release. For a long time we did not even publicly debate those exclusions (Florida’s landmark 2018 Amendment 4 has helped change that, although it is receiving continued exclusionary pushback), which truly reflects how deeply engrained the exclusion of incarcerated Americans from this key civic practice has been.
I don’t know that I would have made that connection without the need to do so for this particular audience and setting, and that’s a small but telling corollary reason to continue finding ways to be part of these classes (for book talks or otherwise). But when it came to the Q&A/discussion after my talk, I would make precisely the opposite point: that conversation did not feel distinct or specific at all, but rather like the best versions of such discussions I’ve experienced at any talks and with any audiences (especially with adult learning communities like the ones I highlighted in yesterday’s post). I hope that doesn’t sound condescending—I’m not suggesting that incarcerated Americans are fundamentally any different from all Americans; but am rather noting that they are generally denied access to things like the internet and many texts/materials, restrictions which you might think would limit where and how such conversations might develop. But my experience in Shirley was, again, exactly the opposite—the questions and responses challenged and extended and deepened my ideas, and I took as much away from this talk as I have from any book talk, with this project and overall.
Next book talk tomorrow,
PS. Ideas or suggestions for future talks, in-person or online? I’d love to hear them!