[News] What to the prisoner is the 4th of July?

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Tue Jul 5 14:35:40 EDT 2005

What to the Prisoner is the Fourth of July?
By YaVonne Anderson, WireTap. Posted July 4, 2005.

Being in prison on the Fourth of July is a painful reminder of how
misleading the American story of independence can be.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester
Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. His speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth
of July?" questioned the coexistence of celebrating American freedom and the
practice of American slavery.

Over 150 years have passed since 1852. This Fourth of July, as a young
African-American woman who is currently imprisoned, the time seems long
overdue to again question what this holiday represents and misrepresents. In
the year 2005, the contradictions of Douglass' 1852 may seem all too
clear--even obsolete. But the legacies of those contradictions are still
with us in our growing criminal justice system. In fact, the connections
between the slavery of our past and our mass imprisonment practices of today
are not discreet once we understand history.

The most obvious link is the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865. While many of
us know that this amendment abolished slavery, we often forget its one
exception--that slavery could continue for people convicted of crime. In
fact, this exception was what first made racialized mass imprisonment

So while the institution of slavery as we knew it was abolished, the
institutionalized racism behind that system was able to evolve through that
loophole. Once paired with the Black Codes criminalizing African Americans
for actions only they could be convicted of, like vagrancy and possession of
firearms, prison populations that provided cheap labor through
convict-leasing programs transformed from nearly all-white to overwhelmingly
black. To avoid punishment, some whites even wore black face during

After emancipation, even African Americans who avoided integration into the
newly racialized criminal justice system possessed few freedoms. We were
still hung and lynched, beaten, raped, and otherwise degraded. Although our
forced labor built so much of this nation's infrastructure and wealth, we
were robbed of our self-identity, our family and kinship ties, our worth and
value--to be left without resources for survival and often set up to be
thrown in prison.

Today, institutionalized racism continues to evolve, reminding us that we
are all survivors of slavery and its legacies. While segregation is no
longer legal, it is the reality for most Americans. So when my home state of
California loses $9.8 billion in education spending as it has over the last
four years, those cuts impact our schools the most. Even though crime rates
are falling, the government continues to under fund our schools while
investing in a growing prison industrial complex. Just last month,
California opened its 33rd prison, spending $700 million just for the
mortgage and committing to $110 million each year after that.

It has taken the U.S. government over 100 years to only recently acknowledge
the history of lynching through a formal apology. We are still victims and
survivors of police brutality and the "driving while black" phenomenon. And
the laws continue to eliminate African Americans, as well as other people of
color and poor whites for warehousing in U.S. jails and prisons.

In its jails and prisons, the government reproduces many of the dehumanizing
conditions of slavery. It breaks up our families by taking us far away from
our communities and loved ones, making it hard for them to come and visit.
Like slavery, prisons create conditions where abuse and rape are
commonplace. We are denied human affection, proper clothing, nutritional
food, proper medical care - sometimes to the point of medical abuse - and
education, despite a high demand and need for it. We're deprived of
laughter, love and kindness. There are few programs that prepare us to
re-enter our communities, which contribute to high recidivism rates. And
while under the law, our bodies count for more than 3/5 of a person in terms
of electoral votes, those votes go to the communities we are locked up in,
not the communities we came from. And, as with under slavery, most of us are
still denied the right to vote at all, under felon disenfranchisement laws.

For all of these reasons, I can say that being in prison is a form of
modernized slavery, new millennium style.

Being in prison on the Fourth of July is a painful reminder of how
misleading the American story of independence is. This Fourth of July, we
must re-examine who experiences so-called American freedoms. We must
re-define our cultural values and begin building a world we could all
celebrate. This world would no longer rely on domination, prisons and war as
a way to hide our social problems. Everyone would be able to access quality
education, healthcare, housing, and jobs, regardless of their color, but
also their gender, sexuality, religion or class. Now that would be something
to celebrate.

YaVonne Anderson, also known as Hakim, is a young, self-educated,
African-American lesbian who is currently imprisoned in California. She is
also a spoken-word poet who is featured on the CD, "The We That Sets Us
Free: Building a World Without Prisons," which is produced by Justice Now, a
human rights organization that works with women in prison.

The Freedom Archives
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