Representing Prison Rape: Race, Masculinity, and Incarceration in Donald Goines's White Man's Justice, Black Man's Grief

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In April 1981, in the early years of what Randall Kennedy terms the racial “darkening” (134) of America’s jail and prison populations, the New York Times reported that a New York Criminal Court judge refused to send a young, middle-class white male to the city’s Rikers Island jail on the grounds that the defendant would almost certainly be sexually assaulted by the jail’s predominantly African American and Latino inmate population. “We take judicial notice of the defendant’s slight build, his mannerisms, dress, color, and ethnic background,” the judge wrote in his opinion, “and are cognizant of the unfortunate realities that he would not last for ten minutes at Rikers Island.” Arguing that “the State of New York could not guarantee [the man’s] safety in prison surroundings,” the judge predicted that the defendant, if sent to jail, “would be immediately subject to homosexual rape and sodomy and to brutalities from prisoners such as make the imagination recoil in horror” (Shipp B3).1 As the somewhat baroque language of that final sentence attests, the possibility that a white man could be raped in jail by African American or Latino inmates exerts a powerful hold over the American racial imaginary. As Ted Conover puts it, the “rape-of-the-white-guy trope” is “a fixture of how middle-class America thinks about prison” (262). At the same time, this “trope” is at least partially rooted in statistical reality: as Patricia Hill Collins notes, “male prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse is not an aberration,” but “a deeply rooted systemic problem in U.S. prisons,” and, since the 1970s, the most common form of interracial rape in US jails and prisons has been committed by black inmates against white ones (234). “White men rarely rape Black men,” Collins observes. “Instead, African American men are often involved in the rape of White men who [like the above defendant] fit the categories of vulnerability” (238). It is also true that black and Latino prisoners—particularly at urban jails such as Rikers—have outnumbered whites for decades. Indeed, by the late 1990s, ninety-two percent of the fifteen thousand Rikers inmates were black or Latino, despite the fact that “blacks and Hispanics represent [only] 49 percent of the city’s population” (Wynn 7). What may be most striking about the above judge’s opinion, however, is not its basis in “fact” but rather the troubling conclusions that it draws from those facts. By using a selective representation of interracial male rape to rationalize keeping a white man out of jail, the judge not only contributes to the ever-worsening problem of racially disproportionate incarceration, but also uncritically affirms a broader—and more deeply problematic—set of racial and sexual narratives that are embedded in popular perceptions of America’s post-Civil Rights carceral landscape: namely that while African American males naturally belong in prison, white males do not. He also affirms that as America’s jail and prison populations have become blacker and browner since the 1970s, these institutions have become problematic not because of the damage they do to African American men and minority communities, but rather because of the bodily destruction they may cause to white men unlucky enough to be incarcerated. 2 By sliding past the many factors—structural racism, socioeconomic inequality, racially biased policing, and inequitable bail and sentencing procedures—that produce such populations in the first place, the judge’s take on interracial rape feeds what David Savran calls “the fantasy of the white male as victim” (4) and what Auli Ek refers to as the “fantasy that black inmates control prisons” (84). In these cultural narratives, black-on-white prison rape becomes the most extreme manifestation of how white men have been disadvantaged by the social and racial transformations in American society since the 1960s. In what follows, I consider how this deployment of interracial rape and the reactionary narratives it authorizes were anticipated, complicated, and hotly contested by White Man’s Justice, Black Man’s Grief, African American pulp writer Donald Goines’s prescient, neglected, 1973 prison novel. Written at the dawn of what has come to be a contemporary American epidemic of racialized incarceration...

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Inspired by Didier Eribon's La société comme verdict, this dissertation examines how the novelistic representation of racism and racialization in French-language texts can push back against a collective social verdict in France that stigmatizes non-white peoples as lesser and as other. Though discussing the existence of race is still taboo in France, I show that this stigmatization is in fact a racial verdict, or one that operates through racialization, as opposed to a verdict predicated on sexuality, gender, or class. To do so, I analyze the representation of racial hierarchies and the experience of racism in six novels written in French: Daniel Biyaoula's L'Impasse, Gisèle Pineau's L'Exil selon Julia, Leïla Sebbar's Le Chinois vert d'Afrique, Zahia Rahmani's "Musulman" roman, Cyril Bedel's Sale nègre, and Bessora's 53 cm. As I argue, these authors resist racial verdicts by writing about and examining the place of the ethnic minority individual in French society. In so doing they also issue counter verdicts that condemn society, individuals, and the state for their complicity in maintaining an unjust status quo. I first demonstrate that the racial hierarchies introduced during the colonial era to justify the exploitation and domination of non-white peoples continue to mark French society, operating as a collective societal verdict that marks those perceived as "colored" according to the sign of stigma. This judgment is first and foremost tied to phenotype–the inescapable physical body–but also includes fluid markers like religion, speech, dress and culture. Second, I examine this racial verdict through three lenses–"blackness," "arabness," and "whiteness"–interrogating both how the authors present its impact on society and individuals–, thus proving its very existence–and how they refute it. Once exposed, verdict is countered through the rehabilitation of stigmatized identities such as blackness, the indictment of the impulse to categorize individuals based on race, the condemnation of the French state for its exclusion of its own citizens, and the revelation that whiteness–the source of the racial hierarchy–is both colored and founded on emptiness.
The field of popular fiction is a relatively unexplored terrain in African American as well as American literary history and criticism. Reasons for this exclusion or oversight are manifold and range from academic practices and aesthetic standards that qualify a text for inclusion in the canon, to the politics of publishing, and the stereotypes or myths that persist about African American readers and their reading habits. In the fields of literary criticism and the teaching of African American literature, for example, scholars and critics alike have restricted their efforts to reviewing, promoting, and canonizing only those texts that fit the prevailing aesthetic and literary standards. While this paradigm - the New Criticism and the reading practices it has encouraged - has allowed for the inclusion of a few women writers and writers of color, it has kept in place a rigid division between high and low, or elite and mass culture, an emphasis on invention over convention, and a distinction between literary and commercial forms of literature that have shaped literary scholarship and reading practices to this day.