I’ve been teaching a unit on prisons in my first-year writing course, “Building Stories.” We read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which offers a persuasive argument about how racial discrimination lies at the heart of the American prison system, even in the absence of explicit racial animus. Alexander doesn’t mention the French philosopher Michel Foucault, but when she describes the way in which our American disciplinary system has “perfected” itself, accomplishing social control in ever more subtle and insidious ways, she could be taking a page out of Foucault’s 1975 playbook, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Alexander and Foucault offer brilliant, eye-opening critiques of the criminal justice system, but in the immortal words of Carly Simon, “Nobody Does It Better” than poet Etheridge Knight, who, writing from prison in the 1960’s, tells us everything we need to know—and plenty that we might not want to know—about race and the American prison system.
To appreciate Knight’s genius, it helps to understand a bit of Foucault. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault develops a theory of “panopticism,” based on Jeremy Bentham’s 19th century model of the “panopticon,” a circular prison with a central watchtower. Foucault uses this prison prototype to illustrate a cultural shift in European disciplinary systems from the old, heavy style of thick-walled dungeons to a lighter and seemingly more enlightened style of perpetual surveillance. In this new model, prisoners assume they are under constant watch by the guards and thus begin to police themselves, or as Foucault puts it, “the major effect of the Panopticon” is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (319). By internalizing the condition of being watched, the inmates become part of a disciplinary system that controls not only their bodies, but also their minds; they become “caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers” and begin watching themselves (319).
Etheridge Knight’s 1968 poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” offers a glimpse of a panopticist disciplinary regime from inside an American prison and from the perspective of its African American inmates. The poem depicts the way the inmates internalize a mode of surveillance, watching their folk hero Hard Rock and making assumptions about their own condition based on his behavior. What makes Knight’s poem so striking—and so disturbing—is that it reveals how the modern, “enlightened” system of criminal surveillance remains tied to the old system of whips and chains that disciplined black bodies during the era of slavery.
The unnamed speaker of the poem speaks in the first-person plural “we,” serving as a spokesman for the other inmates. He gets his authority from the common folk he cites, a collective voice who claims Hard Rock was “‘known not to take no shit / From nobody.’” Although we first learn of Hard Rock through word of mouth, the bulk of the first stanza is devoted to a visual description of the legendary hero. Folklore may proclaim his mythic status, but it is his visible “scars” that “prove” his greatness:
Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
Across his temple and plowed through a thick
Canopy of kinky hair.
The final detail, a “canopy of kinky hair,” is also the most significant racial marker, visually signaling the importance of race in defining Hard Rock’s defiant position within the disciplinary regime.
Although the “WORD” acquires significance through its capitalization, the act of watching dominates the poem: “we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,/To see if the WORD was true.” As in the first stanza, visual evidence assumes primacy over word of mouth. Power must be verified through a system of surveillance. Thus, when “the testing came,” it is a test “to see if Hard Rock was really tame” (emphasis added). The definitive answer to the test comes when Hard Rock returns from the “Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” after being subjected to a lobotomy as punishment for his defiance. He “just grinned and looked silly / His eyes empty like knot holes in the fence.” Deprived of sight, Hard Rock is dispossessed of power, reduced from his formerly heroic proportions to the pitiable object of the inmates’ collective gaze. Rather than being empowered by their own ability to watch Hard Rock, the inmates are shamed by his diminished status. They turn away, their “eyes on the ground. Crushed.” As the inmates see Hard Rock reduced from a “Destroyer” and “doer of things” to a passive, unseeing fool, they see themselves reflected in his tragically reduced image. Like Hard Rock, they are rendered powerless and incapable of doing anything:
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
The fears of years, like a biting whip,
Had cut deep bloody grooves
Across our backs.
Here, the simile of the “biting whip” symbolically transports the inmates back to the conditions of slavery. The “fears of years…cut deep bloody grooves,” linking the system of panoptic surveillance to the violently racist regime that preceded it. Knight’s poem thus allows us to see what Foucault overlooks: the role of race in the systems of discipline and punishment that govern our modern, democratic society. Nearly half a century later, Michelle Alexander is drawing our attention back to a problem, which hasn’t gotten any better, even if it is less visible. Read her book, and see what you think.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindedness. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Ways of Reading. 5th ed. Ed. David Barholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 312-342. Print.
Knight, Etheridge. “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 1997-2003. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.