[Pnews] Angola 3 - Art Exhibit on Black Panther Challenges Library Patrons to Face Violence of Mass Incarceration

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Sep 21 12:12:42 EDT 2015


  Art Exhibit on Black Panther Challenges Library Patrons to Face
  Violence of Mass Incarceration

Chris Steele
19 September 2015

Libraries are celebrated for serving the community, for being hubs for 
ideas, conversations and community gatherings. Libraries were born out 
of a desire to share resources for a collective use. But in the United 
States, the history of libraries is also intimately enmeshed with the 
history of racial segregation and white supremacy.

Given this history, it was powerful when a recent art exhibit at the 
Brooklyn Public Library's Central Library pushed patrons to face the 
contemporary violence of racism and mass incarceration in the United States.

The art exhibit, "#76759: Featuring the House that Herman Built 
<http://www.bklynlibrary.org/events/76759-featuring-house-her>," was a 
collaboration between artist Jackie Sumell and the late Herman Wallace, 
with support from the Brooklyn Public Library's outreach services 
department. Having finished its run at the Brooklyn library in June, the 
exhibit is now headed to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, 
Maryland, for a one-year show dedicated to illustrating stories of hope.

      Library exhibits have been put in the spotlight for upholding free
      speech and creating conversations.

The origins of the artistic project began in 2003, when Sumell contacted 
Wallace, a Black Panther Party activist and member of the Angola Three 
(Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King Wilkerson), who was in 
solitary confinement for 30 years at the time. Sumell posed the question 
to Wallace, "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 
6-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?" Wallace and Sumell's 
correspondences blossomed into the project "The House That Herman 
Built," which is now an internationally recognized exhibition 
<http://hermanshouse.org/>, book and film 

"We also received feedback that protested BPL honoring the memory of a 
convicted murderer and for glamorizing jail and prison life," Higgins 
said. "These opinions are important contributions to the debate as well."

Reflecting on the feedback, Higgins said, "I think we did a pretty good 
job in staying as neutral as possible and presenting the public with an 
experience that allowed them to come up with their own opinions. I also 
disagree that children shouldn't be exposed to this issue. There are 2.7 
million children in this country who have a parent in jail or prison as 
it is, so I imagine this isn't completely unfamiliar to many children 

*The History of Libraries in the Segregated US*

While most people commonly view libraries as an epithet of inclusiveness 
and democracy, this wasn't always the case in the United States. When 
gazing back at the veneer of history, it is important to remember that 
advancements in civil and human rights have improved due to organization 
and resistance from marginalized populations demanding equality.

As noted by Peter Dobkin Hall, "the colonial elite" had their own 
private libraries; it was the "disempowered - artisans, farmers, and 
aspiring professionals, among whom the new social and economic forces 
were awakening desires for self-improvement, self-advancement, and 
political influence." (1) <http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/#a1> 
Although debated, the first public library 
<http://www.ala.org/aboutala/1731> in the United States, the Library 
Company of Philadelphia, was founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. In 
1828, the Reading Room Society, the first social library for African 
opened in Philadelphia, and in 1833, the Philadelphia Library Company of 
Colored Persons 
was formed.

In 1954, the /Brown v. Board of Education/ Supreme Court decision 
dismantled the /Plessy v. Ferguson/ Supreme Court ruling from 1896 that 
legalized segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine. Despite 
the 1954 landmark ruling, libraries in the South still remained 
violently segregated. /The Right to Read/, by Patterson Toby Graham, 
tells the horrifying story of two African-American ministers, W.B. 
McClain and Quintus Reynolds, who were "knifed, chain-whipped, and 
savagely beaten" on the steps of the Carnegie Library in Anniston, 
Alabama, for trying to apply for a library membership in 1963. Despite 
the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation in public places 
such as libraries, according to Graham, "the Alabama Library Association 
still excluded black librarians."

In 1960, 13 African-American high school students lead a direct action 
"read-in" protest at the segregated Danville Memorial Library in 
The students filed a lawsuit in federal district court. Regarding the 
case, /Giles v. Library Advisory Committee of Danville, Virginia/, the 
judge ruled in the students' favor stating that library segregation was 
unlawful. (2) <http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/#a2> According to 
Graham, "Danville's white citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of 
closing the library to avoid integration." The 13 high school students 
paved the way for a string of "read-in" protests that made their way 
south to Mississippi and Alabama.

      "Solitary confinement, or criminal justice, is not a controversial
      topic in itself. It's much more controversial that it doesn't get
      talked about."

Regarding protests in Mississippi to desegregate libraries, in her 
article titled, "Struggles Within: Lura G. Currier, the Mississippi 
Library Commission, and Library Services to African Americans," Karen 
Cook notes, "There was fierce resistance from white supremacists, and 
many public libraries in the state remained segregated in defiance of 
federal law well after adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1964." (3) 
<http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/#a3> Cook emphasizes that the 
American Library Association (ALA) "did not speak out against racial 
discrimination within the association until the mid-1960s," but the ALA 
did amend the Library Bill of Rights in 1961 
adding that "the rights of an individual to the use of a library should 
not be denied or abridged because of his race, religion, national 
origins, or political views."

While it is evident that some libraries kowtowed to white supremacists 
and upheld racist policies by not challenging dominant ideologies, it is 
also evident that libraries have been at the forefront of controversy, 
free speech and fostering a dialogue of equality. Throughout the years, 
library displays and exhibits have been put in the spotlight for 
upholding free speech and creating conversations. For example, in 1978, 
Library Journal published an article titled "Massacre exhibit sparks 
controversy at UC," detailing how Turkish and Armenian students at the 
University of California, Berkeley, complained about the library exhibit 
and its graphic content. Following complaints, the exhibit was censored 
by removing "inflammatory" materials, but after protests, the exhibit 
was returned to its original layout. (4) 

In 1995, an exhibit on slavery 
at the Library of Congress was postponed after "objections from some 
African-American staff members" stated that the exhibit lacked 
"historical context" and held "a very narrow approach to the kind of 
architecture and culture of plantation life without taking the horrors 
of slavery into account."

Another example can be seen in Linda Alexander's article "Gay Display 
Controversy: A Threat to Intellectual Freedom 
<http://journals.fcla.edu/flalib/article/view/84568>." Alexander 
explained how in 2005, a library employee made a display of 20 books on 
"gay themes for teens" at the West Gate Library in Tampa, Florida. After 
two complaints from patrons, the chief librarian from the county 
inspected the display and told the staff it needed to be taken down. 
After complaints, the display was put back up near the adult fiction 
section and contained books involving gay themes for adults.

Thanks to the work of activists over the course of library history in 
the United States - activists who challenged power with protests and 
occupied spaces through actions like the Danville Public Library sit-in 
- libraries were eventually desegregated and literacy as a civil right 
was acknowledged. As noted by Patterson Toby Graham, considering that 
white administrators in Birmingham, Alabama, had a policy that 
"determined that once black hands had touched a book it could not return 
to general circulation," much has changed over the years that has 
allowed for a greater dialogue of justice to take place in libraries.

*Bringing the Story of Herman Wallace Into the Library*

Just as protesters occupied public libraries to raise awareness, art 
exhibits that occupy public space in libraries provide a similar 
opportunity. The story of Herman Wallace builds a much-needed bridge 
between the roots of US racism and the ongoing violence of structural, 
systemic, institutional and explicit racism in the United States.

Wallace began his time in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at 
Angola in 1971 after being convicted of armed robbery. Angola Prison's 
history dates back to 1880, when Samuel James, a former Confederate 
major, purchased an antebellum plantation called Angola (due to the fact 
that the majority of the former slaves came from the African country) 
and kept prisoners in "Old Slave Quarters 
<http://www.angolamuseum.org/history/history/>." The prisoners were 
forced to (and still do work) in the sugarcane fields. Scholar Dennis 
Childs' reports in his book /Slaves of the State/ that "75 percent to 80 
percent" of the prison population in Angola is African American. Some 85 
percent of all prisoners die in Angola 
- most of them were worked to death in the prison's beginnings 
circa 1900. According to current estimates by the American Civil 
Liberties Union 
(ACLU), "Because of harsh sentencing laws, about 95 percent of the 5,225 
people imprisoned at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola will die 
there. Louisiana is the state with the highest number of prisoners 
serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses in the United 
States, with 429 such prisoners, 91 percent of whom are Black."

As noted in a chapter by Dennis Childs in the book /Violence and the 
Body/, Angola Penitentiary seems to be stuck in time. The prison "stands 
as a /living monument/ to the timelessness of racial subjection in the 
United States." Childs cites an example from the 1998 documentary /The 
Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison/, where 22-year-old African-American 
prisoner George Crawford "is one of a large group of black male 
prisoners bent over picking one of the prison's many crops (which still 
include cotton) while a white guard dressed in camouflage and armed with 
a double barreled shotgun sits on horseback, monitoring their every move."

      Exhibits and displays in public spaces have the opportunity to
      break us out of our ideological box.

In 1971, Wallace and Woodfox established the Black Panther Party at 
Angola. Scott Fleming explained in /Liberation, Imagination, and the 
Black Panther Party/ that the Angola Panthers "risked their lives to 
protect younger and weaker inmates from the rape, prostitution, and sex 
slavery that pervaded prison life." Fleming explained that the Panthers 
sought to unify Black and white prisoners to fight for better conditions 
in the prison, noting that this was a tough task "considering that the 
prisoner housing, dining halls, and worksites were still racially 
segregated, with privileged living arrangements and work assignments 
going to white prisoners." Woodfox and Wallace were well aware they were 
being targeted for their activism inside the prison.

Wallace's 41 years of solitary confinement began in May 1972, when he 
and three other prisoners were charged with the murder of a white guard, 
Brent Miller. The trial has been scrutinized since its inception. 
Riddled with inadequacies, racial bias in the trial (an all white jury), 
corruption and lack of evidence, Wallace fought for appeals for decades. 
For example, Andrew Cohen from The Atlantic reported 
"Bloody fingerprints and a knife were found at the crime scene, but none 
of the prints belonged to Wallace or any of his co-defendants." In 
addition, seven prisoners testified that Wallace could not have been 
near the scene of the murder, and other testimonies by prisoners 
contradicted each other. Wallace was convicted for the murder in 1974, 
and it took 16 years to appeal the case. It was later revealed that 
prisoner Hezekiah Brown was receiving favors from the then-warden Murray 
<http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96199165> for 
being a witness against Wallace. Angola Three member Robert King 
Wilkerson's conviction was overturned in 2001, and Wallace was released 
in 2013 after US District Judge Brian Jackson 
"ruled women were unconstitutionally excluded from the grand jury that 
indicted Wallace; Wallace died from liver cancer a few days later." 
Although Woodfox's release was ordered by US District Judge James J. 
Brady on June 9, 2015, Louisiana Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell 
has appealed the decision.

The #76759 exhibition at Brooklyn Public Library had a life-size 
recreation of Wallace's prison cell, excerpts from his correspondences 
with Sumell, books from his reading list and a model of the dream home 
Wallace designed. The exhibit also contained 108 books that Wallace 
wanted to have in the library 
at his home. Some of the books he requested were /Democracy and 
Revolution/ by George Novack; Stalin; Marx; Trotsky; and his favorite, 
/The Wretched of the Earth/ by Frantz Fanon.

Library outreach director Nick Higgins said the library's target 
audience for this exhibit and related programming were "the people in 
our community who don't often think about criminal justice issues and 
folks who oppose justice reform." When asked if he was concerned about 
controversial exhibits in libraries, Higgins stated:

    I'd actually argue that the topic of solitary confinement, or
    criminal justice, is not a controversial topic in itself. It's much
    more controversial that it doesn't get talked about as much as it
    should in neutral spaces like libraries. The controversy is that
    this is a system that we all support through tax payments and
    through our voting habits, yet the direct consequences of this
    system on individuals, and the enormous collateral consequences of
    this system on families and communities are rarely given space for
    critical public dialogue.

The importance of exhibits and displays in public spaces, especially 
libraries, is that they have the opportunity to break us out of our 
ideological box. To borrow the term "filter bubble," coined from Eli 
Pariser, chief executive of Upworthy, art displays in public places can 
break us from our "filter bubble" of personalized filters that try to 
guess what we are searching for on Google and Amazon based on collected 
metadata from past searches. The danger of these invisible barriers is 
that they can prohibit new ideas from being presented, which stifles 
dialogue. The promise of dialogue is that it will decrease alienation in 
communities. In his article, "Making and Unmaking of Strangers," Zygmunt 
Bauman explains how community or citizenry help to break down the "mini 
Berlin Walls" that we build every day. (5) 
<http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/#a5> Although there is no road 
map on how to break down these walls, it is evident that art plays a 
significant role. Oscar Wilde profoundly hits this point in his essay, 
"The Decay of Lying," stating, "The object of art is not simple truth 
but complex beauty."


1. Peter Dobkin Hall, "To Make Us Bold and Learn to Read - To Be Friends 
to Each Other, and Friends to the World": Libraries and Civil Society in 
the United States (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1995), 9.

2. Patterson Graham, /A Right to Read: Segregation and Civil Rights in 
Alabama's Public Libraries, 1900-1965/. (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University 
of Alabama Press, 2002), 71.

3. Karen Cook. 2013. "Struggles Within: Lura G. Currier, the Mississippi 
Library Commission, and Library Services to African Americans." 
/Information & Culture/ 48, no. 1: 134-156. Academic Search Premier, 

4. "Massacre exhibit sparks controversy at UC." /Library Journal/ 103, 
no. 11 (June 1978): 1106. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.

5. Zygmunt Bauman. "Making and Unmaking of Strangers." /Thesis Eleven/ 
43, no. 1 (1995): 1-16.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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