Writing the Perilously Recent Past: Prisoner Rights Movement History, Problems and Possibilities

AHA Session 121
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room A703 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Heather Ann Thompson, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Dan Berger, University of Washington Bothell
Daniel Chard, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Robert Chase, Stony Brook University
Toussaint Losier, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Sherie M. Randolph, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Session Abstract

As the nation considers contemporary debates over cases of police abuse and the racial inequalities stemming from our era of “mass incarceration,” historians have begun to coalesce around the need to write what Heather Thompson has called this “perilously recent past” associated with the construction of carceral states (Perspectives, October 2013).   This roundtable gathers six scholars who have taken up Thompson’s charge that historians must bring to their histories the “ethics of knowledge” to consider how and why the nation has embraced mass incarceration.   

While the session will emphasize intellectual exchange and discussion with the audience, each participant will provide a brief overview of their work with audio and visual samples.   Sherie Randolph will present “’Assata Shakur is Welcome Here’”: The Political Trials and Campaigns of a Black Radical Prisoner and Exile.”  Her work examines the ways in which the criminal trials of Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard) were used by movement lawyers and activists to expose the fallacy of a fair and objective U.S. legal system.  Moving from the court room to the cell block, Toussaint Losier offers remarks on “The Place of Prisoner Litigation in the History and Historiography of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement,” which considers prison litigation at Stateville penitentiary in Illinois during the late 1970s.   Robert Chase will then move from prison litigation cases to the voice of the prisoner themselves in his paper “Rewriting Rebellion and Retrenchment: Prisoner Narratives and The Prisoners’ Rights Movement.”  His work considers over fifty oral history interviews that he has conducted with current and former prisoners who shared with him their life stories, personal experiences and insights, and the fortitude that they acquired through the turbulence and violence of prison life.  Following Chase, Daniel Berger will present “The Afterlives of Confinement: Freedom, Trauma, and the Parameters of Prison Protest.”  Based on social movement theory and oral histories with prisoners, Berger offers a reflection on what might be thought of as two anchors in the study of prisoner dissent: freedom and trauma.  Daniel Chard’s paper, “Navigating Truth in the Absence of Justice: Writing on Prisoners, the Left, and Political Violence,” moves beyond the confines of court rooms and prison cell blocks to explore methodological, ethical, and political challenges that he has encountered while conducting dissertation research on the history of  the FBI's war with domestic leftist guerrillas from 1969 to 1985.  As a lead discussant and roundtable chair, Heather Ann Thompson will provide her insight on the subject of writing the perilously recent past by revealing difficult moments she encountered while writing Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971. 

Collectively, this roundtable reveals how techniques of oral, social, intellectual and legal history has allowed recent scholarship to engage with sensitivity what Heather Thompson has called the “perilously recent past” and the “ethics of knowledge.”   Yet this roundtable also offers the opportunity for historians to rewrite and rethink the declension narratives of the late twentieth century by placing the prisoners’ struggle to turn institutions of criminal justice into spaces of social justice.

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