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New York City's Times Square 1977
Photo credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor

For Black History Month, Global Forum Online curated a special selection of essays and poems from Black and mixed-race contributors. They write about memory, history and the complex experience of race and racism in America. Some celebrate achievements despite the obstacles, while others mourn tragedies of the present with deep roots in the past.

It is widely known that the criminal legal system aggressively and disproportionately targets Black people. That doesn’t make the facts any less disturbing. The United States incarcerates more people — and at a higher rate — than any other country in the world. Black Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population but 38% of the prison and jail population. And the incarcerated, of course, are not the only ones who suffer. According to FWD.us, a bipartisan political organization with a focus on immigration and the criminal legal system, Black adults are three times more likely than White adults to have had a family member who is incarcerated.

No list of stories about the Black experience in the U.S. prison system can be completely representative of everybody in the community. But we hope that these reflections, which PJP published between 2021 and today, shed light on some of the realities faced by Black Americans before, during and after incarceration.

—PJP Editors


New York City's Times Square 1977

Painting Life’s Canvas: The Journey From 1970s Harlem to Recidivism to Redemptionby Reginald Stephen: On the eve of his 60th birthday, Stephen reflects on his personal history growing up in Harlem and what conditions he encountered there that helped pave his way to prison. “[For] a Black child in 1970s New York, certain dangers lurked beneath the surface of all that excited and enticed,” Stephens writes. “It was not long before I discovered a tawdry underbelly.”

A white truck with the words "Ice Cream" is parked in front of a small house with a white picket fence.

Guns, Ice Cream and the End of Innocenceby Carnell Wingfield Jr.: In a spare and mournful essay, the writer remembers a childhood of sweetness and violence. “When we were younger, I was the big bro that bought us all the ice creams from the ice cream truck after the driver sold us some weed. When my bros started killing people, I went from being their big bro to being their hustler. I sold them their guns.”

Statue of John Harvard at Harvard University

What It Takes to Go From Incarceration to Harvard” by Shani Shay: This defiant essay begins with a proclamation: “I am a 33-year-old Black woman whose very existence challenges assumptions about who can go to Harvard and what someone with early life trauma and incarceration can accomplish.” Shay goes on to chart her history from a life of exploitation and incarceration to the august halls of Harvard University.

No Gray Area: My Awakening to the Myth of Race in Americaby Fred Barker: When Barker was young, a kid asked him, “Are you Black or white?” And thus began a lifelong reckoning with the social fiction that is race and Barker’s own identity as a biracial man. Barker writes, “I was suspicious of white non-family members. I felt more comfortable and accepted in Black circles. That is, until someone would treat me like I wasn’t Black enough.”

George Jackson to George Floydby Kevin D. Sawyer: In this essay decrying police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Sawyer reminds readers of all the “Georges” who came before. “Half a century after George Jackson was murdered, with so many Black lives slain since then, it’s wise to remember that everyone is a potential George until wanton police violence against all people is stopped.”

Photo by  zhao chen  on  Unsplash

Can You Hear Them Now?by Jeffery Shockley: Shockley pens a poem dedicated to the people who perished in the Zong Massacre, in which 130 enslaved Africans were killed in 1781 by the crew of the British slave ship Zong.

Confessions of a Young Black Maleby Steve Brooks: In this biographical poem, Brooks reflects on the nihilistic worldview he adopted as a younger man. He writes, “A first born son struck dead by a plague, with blood on my doorstep, a rag on my head. / A servant of the people, suffering ills of a nation. / I broke several commandments because of temptation.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

PJP uses this byline for our Collections features and other roundups of PJP stories, as well as As Told To stories written by PJP staff. It is intended to signal the institution’s collective editorial voice.