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