It's an old trick of what I call strategic reading-especially useful for exploring philosophical texts-that one may fruitfully begin at the last page and work backwards. I encourage the method among my students as a way of discovering first of all the final purpose of an essay, which may then be used as a guide for exploring whatever pathway has been cut toward the intended destination. So I want to talk about the prison abolition movement in lights that might be provided by David Walker, but I want to begin with the final paragraph of his appeal.
Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World was published in 1829, not too long before the author turned up dead near his second-hand clothing shop near Boston's Brattle Street. Never mind for the moment that Walker's appeal invited the apocalyptic destruction of America's slave system-a prophecy that was surely fulfilled during the Civil War. Where we want to begin is with Walker's last paragraph:
I must close this article by relating the very heart-rending fact, that I have examined school-boys and young men of colour in different parts of the country, in the most simple parts of Murray's English grammar, and not more than one in thirty was able to give a correct answer to my interrogations. If any one contradicts me, let him step out of his door and into the streets of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore, (no use to mention any other, for the Christians are too charitable further South or West!)-I say, let him who disputes me, step out of his door into the streets of either of those four cities, and promiscuously collect one hundred school-boys, or young men of colour, who have been to school, and who are considered by the coloured people to have received an excellent education, because, perhaps, some of them can write a good hand, but who, notwithstanding their neat writing, may be almost as ignorant, in comparison, as a horse.---And, I say it, he will hardly find (in this enlightened day, and in the midst of this charitable people) five in one hundred, who, are able to correct the false grammar of their language.-The cause of this almost universal ignorance among us, I appeal to our schoolmasters to declare. Here is a fact, which I this very minute take from the mouth of a young colored man, who has been to school in this state (Massachusetts) nearly nine years, and who knows grammar this day, nearly as well as he did the day he entered the schoolhouse, under a white master. This young man says, "my master would never allow me to study grammar." I asked him why? "The school committee," said he, "forbid the coloured children learning grammar-they would not allow any but the white children to study grammar." It is a notorious fact, that the major part of the white Americans, have, ever since we have been among them, tried to keep us ignorant, and make us believe that God made us and our children to be slaves to them and theirs. Oh! My God, have mercy on Christian Americans!!! (Harris 23-24).
And this is the concluding paragraph of Walker's abolitionist classic. As David Walker surveyed the various and connected abominations of white power in America he saved his last word for miseducation in grammar.
Working our way backward through David Walker's Appeal, we also find complaints about over-educated pretentiousness, exhortations toward "good sense and learning," a call to disseminate "education and religion" to youths, a polemic against complacent happiness with low employments, an excoriation of Thomas Jefferson's infamous opinions about the alleged inferiority of black capacities, and a shocking story about the escaped slave who helped a black slave driver get back on his horse, just in time to help recapture 16 fellow slave escapees. Walker recognizes the dangers of his pen, and he predicts that his appeal may cost him his life. But Christians must be called to judgment, and Christian treatment of Africans must be exposed to the judgment of God. "The whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious, and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority" (Harris 14). And they have invented for African Americans the most barbarous form of slavery ever known. Yet, "the Lord knows, that there is a day coming when they will be glad enough to get into the company of the blacks" (Harris 9). Meanwhile, it is apparent who forgets that God rules (Harris 5).
Returning to the end, however, where northern education is amply administered in racist heapings, David Walker shudders that grammar is the forbidden key. So it is with David Walker's final sentences that I would like to dwell. What's grammar got to do with abolition?
I ask the question because I have seen what happens when education and religion enter prison, and I have witnessed what it's like when they are withdrawn. When David Walker says that, "there is great work for you to do, as trifling as some of you may think of it," and when he says that the "aim of your labours" is to dissemeninate education and religion among your fellows, especially among your youth, he is speaking as a serious abolitionist and should be taken seriously for it (Harris 22). Although I can understand how, if you have not seen the power of education and religion in prison, you might be inclined to discount even so great a voice as David Walker's.
For two years I served as volunteer coordinator for a religious education program at Green Haven prison in Stormville, New York. At Green Haven I worked with a core group of prisoners who had earned masters degrees at Sing Sing prison under the auspices of the New York Theological Seminary. The Sing Sing Seminary school has been administered by Dr. Bill Webber, a Methodist theologian who has written about the theory and practice of urban ministry.
The Sing Sing graduates at Green Haven formed a team of teachers who developed curricula and organized a program of intensive religious education for five nights a week. Students for the program were selected by the Sing Sing graduates from among the Green Haven population. All had high school or GED equivalence, and many had college level experience, either from classes taught in prison or from prior education outside.
Every week night, two Sing Sing grads (who I should probably call New York Theological Seminary grads) would teach the classes of about 15 students in subjects such as Bible, history of Christianity, personal counseling, or sociology of religion. Each class of students attended a full year's worth of education under this model and were then awarded a certificate by the New York Theological Seminary-a certificate in ministry, later renamed a certificate in human services.
This program was invented as a way of maintaining some level of college instruction following the withdrawal of college programs in 1995. Perhaps you have seen the documentary film about the last graduation at Green Haven. Some time in the Spring of 1996 I visited Green Haven for the first time. There a few Sing Sing grads (I mean NYTS grads) asked me to coordinate the program. Here is where scholarly activity gets confusing. How much do I tell?
Do I tell about the palpable sense of fear conveyed by the prisoners as they looked into a prison future without college education? Prison is a fearful place by all accounts. But even fear admits of degrees as Aristotle might say, and prison without college is prison without college teachers coming in and out. The fewer people who come in and out of prison, the fewer eyes there are, the fewer ears to hear, the fewer hands to shake and people to talk to. The gates just open to admit the guards. That's it. And maybe the occasional family visitor.
The Bible is a very clever book. David Walker, who had no use whatsoever for American white Christianity, could express his sense of outrage and justice through the language, imagery, and values that he found in the Bible. As Angela Davis notes in her unfinished lecture on liberation, "... Those passages in the Bible emphasizing obedience, humility, pacifism, patience, were presented to the slave as the essence of Christianity. On the other hand, those passages that emphasized equality, freedom, and happiness as attributes of this world as well as the next--those that Frederick Douglass discovered after teaching himself the illegal activity of reading--were eliminated from the official sermons destined for the slaves....Yet there is no lack of evidence that new criteria for religious piety were developed within the slave community: the militant posture of a Frederick Douglass, a Harriet Tubman, a Gabriel Prosser, and a Nat Turner, and the fact that the Christian spirituals created and sung by the masses of slaves were also powerful songs of freedom demonstrate the extent to which Christianity could be rescued from the ideological context forged by the slave holders and imbued with a revolutionary content of liberation" (Harris 107). Once again, I have seen this with my own eyes.
A typical night of study at Green Haven would be a night of Bible study where we would sit in a circle of 15 to 20, sometimes accompanied by students from the Marist College campus. A passage would be designated for attention, and we would go around the room taking verses, reading them aloud, and commenting on the meanings that emerged. If one is looking for reality, truth, and freedom, one can find these things in the Bible. I have been to my fair share of Sunday schools, youth retreats, and seminars on Kierkegaard, but reading the Bible in that circle of prisoners, night after night, at Green Haven University, taught me something liberating. The Bible is not a book without wisdom, judgment, hope, or shrewdness. As a Gayraud S. Wilmore argues in his third edition of Black Religion and Black Radicalism, "Black faith as a folk religion is still available as a motivating force for revolutionary and nationalist movements...Black theologians must learn to appreciate and understand these roots before turning to white scholarship for the essential content of their reflection on the meaning of God, human existence, and freedom. Folk religion has been a consistent factor in every important crisis in the African American community. We ignore it only at the risk of being cut off from the real springs of corporate action" (Wilmore 275-276). A colleague of mine once asked me if I was trying to be black. Come to think of it, he asked the question during my heyday of Green Haven Bible study. When Wilmore talks about black faith, I know what he means. We might also want to speak about David Walker's black grammar. And if I think about myself as trying to be black at least I can get some conceptual content into the idea that abolition is about the abolition of whiteness.
It was just before Thanksgiving of 1999 that the Green Haven Bible study was shut down and disbanded with historic force. The NYTS grads were shipped to various gulags with obscure upstate names: Comstock, Malone, Auburn. And the last time I spoke with a top official from DOCS (the New York Department of Correctional Services) I was interrogated about the role we all played in the busted attempt to organize a massive prisoner strike in conjunction with the Y2K millennial celebrations.
As best I understand the facts, it was October of 1999 when Green Haven prisoners began showing signs of collective solidarity as they began dressing alike in state-issued green uniforms and came to dinner with a self-imposed imperative to make not a sound. Apparently the experience of seeing and hearing a dining room full of New York's most maximum security prisoners all dressed in code and not making any noise not even rattling their trays as they moved to and from their seats--as I say, all this was sufficiently un-nerving that the dining room soon became a VIP visiting area as top guns from Albany came down to see the thing for themselves. And yes, there was talk about a strike.
I worried about the prisoners when one student told me that the anticipated computer outages and systematic disruptions would be so extensive around the country on Jan. 1, 2000, that it would be nearly impossible for the state to respond to a prisoner's strike on that day. No, that's not going to happen, I said. He looked betrayed.
As I understand it, the prisoners had made a list of demands in preparation for their Y2K negotiations. One thing they wanted was their college education back.
If Angela Davis is correct to argue how the form of prison looks more and more like the form of slavery, and if she is correct to note how "slavery's underlying philosophy of punishment insinuated itself into the history of imprisonment"--with the centrality of racism intact--then we have further reason to notice how slavery's racist worldview is predicated in part on the rationalization of miseducation (Davis 102). That is why prison populations are already disproportionately illiterate and why they must be ever further dumbed down. One of the motivations for Bill Webber and his urban theology is that hope that masters degree grads from Sing Sing can serve as a pool of college-level instructors in all the state's prisons and that the resulting college educated students can serve as teachers for prisoners who still need help with fourth grade through high school. A state law mandates instruction for all prisoners no yet at eighth grade proficiency, but the law is honored more in the breech, as one would expect in a society still operating under vestiges of racist slavery traditions, from southern-style labor practices, to northern-style education.
On the face of the issue, it looks like a campaign for prison education may be suspected of reformism, and reformism is something abolitionists want to avoid. But if we consider what David Walker said about the deeper implications of grammar, and if we consider how Bible literacy has been a constant companion of folk liberation, and if prison abolition is conceived as but one interlocking component of abolition that must take seriously the prison industry's context within a racist system of miseducation, then perhaps we can argue that abolition requires attention to "education and religion" just as David Walker suggested.
If David Walker's grammar exhorts us toward "education and religion" from within the abolitionist impetus, then we can theorize and strategize in behalf of prison literacy in the hope that some version of prison education can be found that is consistent with abolition.
It might even be suggested as a provocative afterthought that a refusal to address prison literacy begins to look like a perpetuation of the kind of grammar deprivation that insures the continued system of white power in racist, Christian America.