Imprisoned by Our Literature: Black Women and Incarceration

By Iresha Picot, sent to us per email. It was also published on the blog Quirky Black Girls

In 2010, I became a collective member of a non-profit prison book program. For the last twenty-two years, the program has been sending literature/books to people incarcerated. One of my responsibilities at this program is to work directly with the women’s book request from a Pennsylvanian Woman’s state prison.

I immediately noticed the difference in the book requests from the women at this prison versus the men, who make up the bulk of our overall letters. The men would request materials on everything from black radicalism, vocational studies, and for GED prep books. The ones, who were not as literate, requested dictionaries, so they could teach themselves how to read (mainly inspired by Malcolm Little [X] and his quest for knowledge).

And the Women? With the occasional gardening and self¬-help book, they were mainly requesting Urban Fiction. Letter after letter, Black Women were making requests for “hood books”; with titles such as ‘Gangster Wife” and “Thongs on Fire”. Why weren’t they requesting protest literature too? Where were their dictionaries or Kaplan book requests? It did not take long, to see that Triple Crown Publishing replaced the Blackness of Third World Publishing and the writings by women of color of the Kitchen Table Press.

I conveyed my feelings to another collective member at the organization, who shrugged and replied, “Maybe that is their reality?” I refused to believe that one type of book made up anyone’s reality; especially Black Women. Perhaps a very small slice, but definitely not a whole. As I would process these letters, and send these packages off, I knew in the pit of my Black Women soul that these Women were being sold cheap with these books. Urban fiction is cool, but what else? With the support of the organization (and financial backing), I created “Everyday Use: A Woman’s Literary Insurgency”. It was a collection of writings put together of Black Women Writers. From Sister Souljah to Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde to bell hooks; this 235-page booklet dripped with the Black Gospel of Black Women Writers. Sistas were getting the prophecy of love, self-esteem, motherhood and the erotica. With every request for a “hood book”, “Everyday Use” was sent alongside their request. Black Women were writing back, stating that they were being introduced to these writers for the first time. They were passing it on to their cell mates and even one woman wrote me and told me that she had sent her booklet home to her daughter, because “she needs it, she needs to read what these Sistas are saying…”.

We were creating a literary community behind those walls.

As soon as we started, it ended. Booklets were being returned. I called the mailroom at the prison. No response. Everyday for about two weeks, I called that prison, and after much harassing on my part, a letter was sent to me, stating that the prison decided that photocopies were not being allowed in the prison. Just like that, they issued a new rule, and blocked our booklet from going through. I wanted to fight this decision on a bigger level, but I knew that this would put all requests in jeopardy from sending future book requests to that prison (a couple of years ago, they rejected our books, because there was too much tape on the packages!). Once again, these prisons win (although in my heart, the forty or so booklets that made it in have lit some Black Woman’s fire!).

I write this essay, so the world can understand that these prisons are not in the interest of the people receiving information for self/communal reliance. They will always prefer a book called “G-Spot” as opposed to “Sisters of the Yams: Black Women and Self-Recovery”. A: “Lick Me All Over” as oppose to a “Use of the Erotica”.

Malcolm X once said, “The ability to read awoke inside of me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.” If we leave it up to the prisons, they would prefer that we keep the minds of our women in death.

Iresha Picot, M.Ed, is a Prison Abolishionist currently living in Philly. You can reach her