The Roots of Black Incarceration


Joy James in Boston Review:

Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is startling, instructive, and disquieting. Unearthed in a 2009 Rochester, New York, estate sale and acquired by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, it is a hitherto-unknown confessional by a “free” nineteenth-century black New Yorker who spent decades of his life imprisoned. Reed’s memoir introduces readers to the misdeeds and tragedies of a career criminal who began his misadventures before the age of ten and whose first major crime was to set fire to the house of the white man to whom he had been unwillingly indentured.

Reed worked on Haunted Convict intermittently during his long years of confinement, as well as during brief interludes of freedom. Never entirely finished or published—in fact, unknown in its day—it provides a perfect example of problematic encounters with black captivity: How to be enlightened without treating as entertainment the consumption of black suffering? A historical artifact, the book holds both archive and mirror for the present antagonisms about racism, policing, and mass incarceration, contributing to the ongoing exploration and debates concerning American democracy and racial identity built upon black captivity.

At the same time, Reed’s book in some ways vexes our desire for writing by nineteenth-century blacks to conform to the prevailing narrative arc of American slavery. Although Haunted Convict undoubtedly informs us about the critical period when American racially fashioned slavery began its mutation into the carceral state, Reed, for better or worse, is authentically his own person. His long imprisonment rendered him both a grief-stricken informant and political isolate. He completed his memoir in 1858, the same year that John Brown visited abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Rochester to propose the Harper’s Ferry slave insurrection (Douglass declined to participate). Yet Reed shows no awareness of the radical racial politics occurring in his hometown and dominating the era. Where we might wish that he would contextualize his narrative in relation to other nineteenth-century stories of slavery, he instead draws inspiration from what is most familiar to him: popular and populist tales of moral reform and his relationships with the white men who tormented or comforted him during his lengthy detentions and periodic escapes.

More here.