Angela Davis’s seminal collection of essays If They Come in the Morning loses none of its urgency or prescience nearly 50 years on. From the likes of Black Panthers Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins and Huey Newton to Soledad Brother George Jackson to philosopher Herbert Marcuse, we are given a scathing analysis of the American prison system that remains sadly applicable today. When the book was published, around 30–50 per cent of the US prison population was black and brown; in 2013 it was 60 per cent.
At the time of its release Davis was an African-American icon whose activism within the black liberation struggles and membership of the Communist Party had led to her 18-month imprisonment. Davis subverted the state’s attempts to silence her through incarceration, transforming it instead into a period of intense activism and consciousness-raising. She would later be tried and acquitted of the charges of conspiracy, murder and kidnapping.
If They Come in the Morning opens with a letter penned by the social critic, novelist and playwright, James Baldwin. In it Baldwin emphasises the need for all Americans to rally to free Davis ‘for, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night’. For Baldwin the state violence that was being meted out to Davis meant all those deemed to be a voice of dissention could also be hounded by the authorities. His call for a collective response to the systemic injustices black Americans encounter becomes a theme running through the collection.
The essays, letters, speeches and poetry brought together in the book are not solely about the singular figure of Davis. Her desire was to present the scale of racial injustice in how the judiciary and prison systems operate in America. Davis shone a spotlight on the numerous victims of those structures and in doing so exemplified how the accounts that appeared in the collection were only a drop in the ocean, a mere glimpse of the awful predicament in which thousands of black and brown Americans found – and still find – themselves.
Davis and Bettina Apetheker, in their essays on the social function of prisons, delineated how America’s penal system acutely focused on punishing the poor and black. Crucially, in doing so both prisons and the judiciary were being used as the means through which the centuries-old subjugation of black and brown people could be crystallised and cemented. Apetheker cogently outlined how they were ‘disproportionately arrested, tried and convicted and sentenced to much longer terms than their white counterparts’. This reality, they suggest, necessitates an understanding of the intrinsically political position black and brown prisoners occupy in US society.
Yet an unintended consequence of the state’s brutality towards its black and brown prison population was an increasing politicisation and resistance, the very things it would seek to diminish. From the ‘Folsom Prisoners Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Oppression Platform’ to the brief accounts of activists whose participation in the black liberation struggle and progressive politics made them state ‘targets’, the book gives voice and humanity to those who had been dehumanised and caricatured to gain public support for such repressive actions.
One such case was that of Ruchell Magee, given life imprisonment for being involved in a brawl and carrying a joint. Ridiculed for having an IQ below 75, the accepted vision of this prisoner was that he deserved to have his entire adult life served behind bars. Through his letters to Davis and his request to appear as his own legal representation, we discover a very different man. Though entering prison illiterate, Magee was able to teach himself how to read with the American constitution and became the go-to person for fellow prisoners who needed legal petitions to be written on their behalf.
Hope comes in the overriding sense of community that courses through the collection. The repeated reference in letters to fellow prisoners dotted across the country, many of whom had never met each other, as ‘comrade’, ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ could be taken, with our modern hearing, as clichéd linguistic tics. That, though, would miss an important feature of their use. There is a definite sense of all belonging to one family, sharing one goal, that provides some relief to the harrowing personal tragedies of prison life.
Perhaps what is most saddening about the collection is that the urgent, strident and steadfast belief that the revolution will someday prevail continuously jars with today’s reality. Almost half a century on, nothing has changed. America, as far as prisons are concerned, is somewhere bleaker than the writers of this collection would have hoped. The unholy alliance between law enforcement, the judiciary and, in some cases, private enterprise continues to disempower working class black and brown people.
The US prison population has risen by an astonishing 700 per cent between 1970 and 2005, far outstripping population growth and rates of crime. Today one in three black men will serve a prison sentence in their lifetime. Imprisonment rates for women have increased eightfold. Black women are three times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts. That Obama’s presidency signals the dawn of a post-racial America is revealed as a grotesque fallacy.