Despite their ostensibly progressive intent, media portrayals of Black life in prison reinforce superficial and dangerous conceptions of Black culture and Black life.
Many people have found the show “Orange is the New Black” to be an empowering–even radical–portrayal of the complexity of the prison experience and the experiences of Black women. The show’s progressive intent is clear and it is at times self-reflective on the dangers of superficial liberalism such as the shows not-so-subtle critique of voyeurism of NPR. However, the show boils its analysis down to dangerously simplistic understandings of Black culture, with very real political implications.
The show’s engagement with education and Black art reinforces problematic notions about the importance of culture. On one hand, it portrayals the power of Black women performing spoken word poetry in jail, attempting to capture experiences of prison life as empowering. On the other hand, Black culture is shown as a superficial hedonism when the women hold a “rap battle” to celebrate the release of a fellow inmate. The show’s portrayal of Black culture on the surface appears comprehensive and varied, but in actuality unites in deploying representations of Black culture as primarily emotional expression for the pleasure of the show’s white audience.
Without judging the value of these representations (i.e. debating about whether what they do is valuable), one can see unifying characteristics in what they fail to do. The complexities of the cultural expressions shown in both the spoken word performance and the rap battle are not meaningfully woven into the character development or the narrative structure of the show. They exist in insolation from the storyline. This is in contrast to other non-Black characters in the show. Tryan Manning’s Doggett character “Pennsatucky” is defined by her relation to white Appalachian poverty and religious culture (contextualized in the show). Kate Mulgrew’s character “Red” is defined by her cultural notions of honor and family that come from her Russian background (also contextualized in the show). Constance Shulman’s character “Yoga Jones” gets an extended monologue to explain the conditions the brought her to jail, as well as time to discuss her cultural relationship to mindfulness. By leaving out any deep engagement with culture on the part of the Black characters in the show, “Orange is the New Black” advances a narrative in which Black artistic is less substantive than other forms of cultural expression.
This acontextual approach can also be seen in the show’s treatment of the character played by Danielle Brooks aka “Taystee” (the character who does the spoken word poetry). The conditions that bring her to jail are never explored. When she is released, instead of making her life outside of prison an integral part of the show, the season gives her one scene showing her post prison housing plans falling apart. A few episodes later, she simple reappears as part of the cast in the prison. The show has a powerful scene where she attempts to describe to a fellow inmate the perils of life outside of prison but the usefulness of this scene is severely undermined by the show’s inability to see that life as a story worth telling. Underemployment and isolation are taken as givens, as obvious truths to the (mostly) white HBO audience. As such, the show does not need to show to them; the audience can simply fill in the blanks with common notions of Black communal pathology. It is important, to see this narrative failure as linked to the show’s presentation of Black culture. After all, the moments outside the jail not shown offer no catharsis or exhilaration to white audiences and so are left out.,
The danger of such simplistic portrayals of Black culture is that when culture is taken out of its social historical context and rounded down to mere artistic escapism, it obscures the possibility to see Black culture as a resource to repair the psycho-social damage of white supremacy and the prison industrial complex. While the show promotes the white lead character’s desire to restart the GED program as the solution to the her problems, it ignores the possibility of seeing the organic cultural work being done by women in the prison (e.g. Tastyee’s spoken word poetry) as an alternative or even a preferable starting point for a reform agenda.
The Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle affiliated program Kariz Kidz takes this alternative approach, creating a curriculum based around artistic expression to teach valuable social and computer skills to youth. They have taken this curriculum into youth detention facilities to build upon the organic cultural expression already in play, giving young people not just role models, but a narrative through which they can see themselves reintegrating into society through engagement with their past and culture, not abandoning it to integrate back into a “mainstream society” that never had room for them in the first place. By seeing culture as a resource, programs like Kariz Kidz create a structure and identity that fights the pessimism and the “institutionalization”–concepts “Orange” touches on but has no tools to engage substantively.
These points are not merely academic – representations of culture have very real effects on politics. Its easy to see how the cultural representations in “Orange is the New Black” could have very real negative effects on the perception of programs like Kariz Kidz. After all, if black cultural expression can be reduced to a few stanzas of spoken word without cultural or historical context, while positive prison reform involves more GED programs, spoken word poetry will be deemed as inferior, a way of teaching “improper English.” In so doing, these depictions actually hurt the truly valuable prison reform efforts (i.e. teaching to GED standards of “proper English”). It is only in a communal, historical, cultural context, one the show explicitly omits, that a program using spoken word poetry makes sense as an anti-recidivism effort.
Even worse, the representations of rap battles advance the conclusion that teaching of hip hop in jail promotes racial violence. In reality, the legacy of hip hop as an open and inclusive art form, as well the self confidence that comes from having a form of humanizing organic cultural expression, has been found to produce the exact opposite effect (one need look no further than the statistics showing the successes of the Kariz Kidz program in reducing violence). It is precisely these sorts of simplistic over-generalizations that led to another LBS affiliate, Friend of a Friend, being banned from several prisons in Maryland despite providing free rehabilitate services from a race-conscious perspective. Friend of a Friend was seen as “divisive” and “promoting division” by a correctional system more interested in promoting social control than rehabilitation.
The creators of “Orange is the New Black” would surely contest these claims, arguing their show promotes the values of diversity and is a tool to fight these overgeneralizations. The problem is that without both explicitly framing racism/white supremacy as an institutional and explicitly highlighting the cultural tools of Black institutions to challenge these issues, the social inertia of whiteness overwhelms the progressive possibilities of the show’s representations. Indeed, nowhere in the show’s first season does anyone say that Taystee should stop doing poetry and pick up a copy of Ulysses (a book she dismisses as overhyped) but the problem with how whiteness functions in American society is that no one has to.
By constructing “traditional” “pragmatic” colorblind options (i.e. GED programs) as the solution to hyper-incarceration, and embodying this advocacy in the form of the show’s white female protagonist with her attendant cultural framework (in response to attempts to be baptized the protagonist proudly proclaims herself as a believer in “Science, Nate Silver and Neil Degrasse Tyson”) the show replicates the narrative that successful reform means reintegrating into society on the terms of the norms of the dominant (read white) society. This approach promotes Eurocentric cultural norms that have been shown by years of data on high recidivism rates to be dysfunctional. Meanwhile, programs like Friend of a Friend and Karix Kidz are pushed the periphery of the social justice agenda, and even actively undermined, because they don’t fit the narrative of producing “proper” reform–proper in this case representing docility and assimilation.
The protagonist’s allusion to Neil Degrasse Tyson is illuminating here, for the creators of “Orange is the New Black” would almost certainly promote the success of his Fox program Cosmos as exactly the type of progressive liberal diversity they believe advances the cause of racial justice. This, however, is an excellent example in the case against liberal multiculturalism, as the Tyson’s “universal” acultural approach to science ignores the myriad of incredibly productive, essential tools Black radical artists provided in teaching about the cosmos. The poetry of Saul Williams and the music of Sun Ra and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble have been tools LBS has used for years to inspire kids to learn about space, after often intense initial resistance on the part of students who saw space as irrelevant (“you don’t see stars in the hood”) until being taught the relationship between the black experience and ideas of space presented in these artistic works.
Given the nature of multicultural white supremacy, however, Tyson becomes the expert on the Cosmos, the paradigmatic example of how Black people should engage science. This framework can then be used to violently suppress other perspectives from the Black artistic tradition, whose politics become seen as distractions from the “superior science” brought by Tyson’s quantitative approach. Tyson’s success thus becomes a tool wielded against culturally competent teachers, who would be seen as negligent if they used the beauty Octavia Butler’s race conscious Afrofuturism or the complexity of Saul William’s stream of consciousness interrogations of slavery and the space/time continuum as their entry point to science education, for the “universally accepted” superior starting point of acultural science.
Just as the politics of Saul Williams and Sun Ra will certainly not find their way into Cosmos, the cultural reflection of the Black radical tradition on the prison industrial complex will likely not find its way into “Orange is the New Black.” Instead, we may see a widening void in show’s creative universe, a Black hole which sucks in the important message of programs like Kariz Kidz and gobbles up the show’s progressive potential.
Lawrence Grandpre is the Director of Research for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. His focuses include criminal justice, police accountability, and community-based economic/educational development. He is the co-author of “The Black Book” and his work has been featured in The Guardian and The Baltimore Sun.