Few genres of political writing are as common in the history of the United States as autobiography. In the early years of the republic, new citizens looked to the published lives of founding figures to navigate a nation with only nascent institutions, just as titans of industry guided readers through the growing inequalities of the Gilded Age at century’s end. During the antebellum, the formerly enslaved bore witness through slave narrative, just as the incarcerated speak from experience in the “neo slave narratives” published today. Immigrants testify on what it means to be American across centuries. Conservatives narrate their conversions to and from communism in the Cold War and after. In the twentieth century nearly every president published a personal narrative, and today we witness a massive proliferation of political memoirs.

My research is motivated by two questions: for what political purpose have so many thinkers and movements in the history of the United States offered their life stories as a platform for action, and what does this reveal of American democracy? As a scholar trained in the history of political thought, democratic theory, and American political development, I draw on methods of textual analysis as well as their historical and institutional contexts to study these political texts as means of bearing witness, educating the public, and even producing political theory. Across the diverse political purposes of life stories, my research reveals how Americans stage greater claims of popular authority or justice through their own personal and shared experiences. Beyond my book and initial articles, I am currently pursuing these questions in a new research project on prison writing. The following works in progress represent my work thus far.

“The Black Revolutionary Mentality of George Jackson”

Among the leaders of black radical movements in the 1960s and 70s, the author and activist George Jackson has received little attention by political theorists.  Incarcerated in 1960 with an indeterminate sentence of one year to life, Jackson spent the next decade in California’s Soledad Prison where he developed a political theory of black radicalism and Marxism, joining the Black Panther Party leadership before dying in an alleged escape attempt in 1971. The dearth of scholarly attention to Jackson is surprising given his organizational contributions to the Party and the prison movement, his writings on American race and capitalism, and – most importantly – his symbolic importance to leaders like Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis.

This essay presents an initial attempt to explicate the political theory of George Jackson. I consider Jackson’s two books, Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye, and the reverberation of his ideas and image through thinkers Davis, Newton and others. I propose that Jackson’s writings and death reflect a conversation among Party leaders on heroism, martyrdom, and the role of personal experience in mobilizing political consciousness. As Davis wrote elsewhere, black radicals had to present themselves not as individual heroes but in the slave narrative tradition, as lives not unique but exemplifying oppression and solidarity. I focus on Jackson’s descriptions of consciousness, education, and masculinity in Soledad Brother, a compilation of letters addressed to his family, lawyer and comrades.

“‘The State Was Patiently Waiting for Me To Die’: Life without the Possibility of Parole as Punishment”

Whereas the death penalty has long confronted scholars as a unique problem in the United States, attention has recently turned to the “social death” of practices such as solitary confinement and felon disenfranchisement. In this move to understand how carceral practices ostracize offenders as outsiders, little attention has been paid to life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP). Despite its proliferation in past decades, numerous legal and political ambiguities have rendered LWOP difficult to discuss.

This article draws upon the life writing of those serving life to theorize not a definitive but more distinct understanding of LWOP according to what it does for the punished and what it does for those who punish. Witnesses reveal how the possibility of life despite the impossibility of parole comes to punish those sentenced by subverting the goals of human growth and development. Yet to live free in a society without parole is inversely to limit our own sense of possibility: it is to assert that even the deeds and judgments of those who live outside prison may be irrevocable. This article seeks to highlight the lived experiences of those serving LWOP and what such witness reveals of its social functions and greater impact on American democracy.

The Cell and the City Square: The Politics of Prison Writing

These works lay the groundwork for a second book. There I look to the numerous claims of experience written by those incarcerated throughout American history, inspired in part by Alexis de Tocqueville’s and Gustave de Beaumont’s formative writings on the relation between American democracy and incarceration. As they and later theorists have argued, institutions of punishment and confinement uniquely control and challenge the personal and civic experiences of those imprisoned.

Based on early research, my working thesis is that many actors turn to prison writing not to seek inclusion in the broader polity but to summon alternative visions of justice. Among the works mentioned above I find a common critique of redemption: these authors’ recorded experiences within and despite incarceration are turned outward to reveal flaws in American principles and procedures of justice. Future research and chapters will engage the prison writings of Austin Reed, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Berkman, Angela Davis and others. This project considers claims of experience in a new context, with prison writing serving as a wedge between state justice and popular conceptions of justice held by readers.