Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

These are the words that sustained Anthony Ray Hinton’s emotional wellbeing as he endured three decades of torture and solitary confinement in the Alabama State Prison system. The passage comes from the Bible, Mark chapter 11, verse 24.

Mr. Hinton was convicted of killing two Alabama fast food restaurant employees in 1985, and referred to by the state prosecutor during his trial as “the most dangerous criminal in the city of Birmingham.” Hinton spent 30 years on death row before he was exonerated and released from jail, just two months ago. Hinton’s conviction had been “sealed” by one piece of evidence — a ballistics test that linked the bullets used in the murders to a gun owned by his mother. Keep in mind that this testimony came from an “expert” witness that had a severe vision impairment and could not demonstrate his ability to operate the apparatus used to compare the bullets while on the stand.

As a graduate coordinator for the African American History Program at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, I had the honor of interviewing Anthony in the summer of 2015. Despite experiencing the precarity of living 30 years at the mercy of a racist criminal justice system, HintonHosbeyHinton is still an affable man, maintaining a sense of humor and an openness towards everyone that he encounters. When he speaks to you, he looks into your eyes intently and directly. He is a soft spoken man, but he does not mince his words. He explained that after 30 years on death row, he treasures the ability to look another human being in the eyes, make that person laugh, and earnestly engage in meaningful conversations. In preparing for the interview, I read several news pieces about his case, and I listened to a few of his recorded interviews. For this interview, I wanted to facilitate a space where Mr. Hinton could speak openly and honestly about his life and experiences, both behind and beyond prison walls. I did not want to ask him hackneyed questions that he had already answered before. I wanted to know more about his critiques of the criminal justice system, particularly the ways in which he thought that racial bias affected his case, and others like his.

Mr. Hinton believes that the American criminal justice system cannot be reformed in a way that would eliminate antiblack racial bias from jury selection, prosecution, and sentencing. Despite this poignant critique, he believes that the only way to blunt the genocidal impulse of mass incarceration is to categorically end the death penalty in America. Mr. Hinton described to me that 1/10th of all people that are sentenced to death in the Unites States are exonerated, because in his own words, “It is better to be rich and guilty, than poor and innocent.” Mr. Hinton comes from a lower working class background, and worked as a night laborer in a warehouse when he was arrested and charged with murder. Because of his economic positioning in our society, he could not afford a lawyer that would forcefully and competently argue his case. He was convicted on two counts of capital murder, despite the fact that his supervisor testified that he had watched Hinton complete his nightly work in the factory at the exact times that the murders were being committed. In fact, at Hinton’s job, the warehouse’s doors were locked for every night shift, so workers literally could not leave the premises. With this alibi, how could Mr. Hinton possibly have been convicted?

In the interview, Hinton listed 5 reasons that he believed led to his conviction.

1.) There were 8 white people on the jury, and 5 black people.
2.) The state prosecutor was a white man.
3.) The judge was also a white man.
4.) The murder victims were both white.
5.) His attorney was white.

The confluence of these factors led to 30 years of incarceration on death row for Anthony Ray Hinton. One question that I posed to him was, “why?” His conviction seemed so gratuitous…why would the state work so hard to convict a man for crimes that he obviously did not commit? Hinton explained to me that the prosecutor was running for a local political office, and wanted to use Hinton’s case to gain political capital in the greater Birmingham community. What bothers me most about this, is the unadulterated excess that Hinton was the victim of. His life, the life of his family, and the dynamics of his community were irrevocably shifted by his conviction, merely so that a regional Alabama prosecutor could advance his parochial political ambitions? This lack of moral restraint is indicative of a political system and civil society that believes that Black Lives do not matter, a nation that can only find blackness comprehensible when it’s in relation to excess or death.

Mr. Hinton knows that the only reason that he was convicted is because he is a Black man, a population that the state eagerly uses to satiate its genocidal thirst. He also knows that there will be no accountability for the prosecutor and ballistics expert who lied and misrepresented evidence to secure his conviction. Those are all human beings who have moved on with their lives, decades and lifetimes removed the from the mid-80s prosecution of Anthony Ray Hinton. Meanwhile, Hinton has to piece together fragments of a life that has been irretrievably stolen, after being in a claustrophobic warping of both space and time for 30 years. This is torture. This is genocide. If the Equal Justice Initiative had not intervened with the resources to argue Hinton’s case all the way to the United States Supreme Court, he would have been executed for two murders that he did not commit.

Despite fact that he may never be able to find or fully reconstitute the pieces of his life, Hinton’s faith demands that he continue fighting to recover his life, for “if you believe that you have already received it, it will be yours.”

I hope that I will one day be as compassionate, as resolute, and as strong as Anthony Ray Hinton.

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New Orleans-Natchez-Mississippi Delta: Plantation Imaginaries

“Too bad for you men who don’t notice that my eyes remember
slings and black flags
which murder with each blink of my Mississippi lashes
Too bad for you men who do not see who do not see anything
not even the gorgeous railway signals formed under my eyelids by the black and red discs of the coral snake that my munificence coils in my Mississippi tears”
— “Mississippi,” by Aimé Césaire

In the summer of 2014, I was able to participate in an Oral History project to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer. I love going to Mississippi, and am grateful for the opportunity to meet and interview elders and activists who were deeply and actively invested in the Civil Rights project of the mid-20th century. Every time I visit the Mississippi Delta, the way that I see the world is transformed. I am assaulted by the longue durée of racial slavery for every second that I breathe Mississippian air. I call it an assault because it is a particularly violent encounter — both emotionally and spiritually. But this is an important and necessary violence. The relentless visual assault of plantation pasts, presents, and futures reveal much about the fundamental antagonisms of the American racial state.

While consucting my dissertation research, I am living in New Orleans, the nexus where the Middle Passage meets the Mississippi. New Orleans is dominated by cartographies of slavery, antiblackness and its attendant genocidal processes (from slavery, to the responses to Hurricane Betsy and Hurricane Katrina, to the ongoing displacement and dispossession of Black New Orleanians). I drove from New Orleans to Natchez, Mississippi to meet the Oral History Project team and begin the field project. I chose to drive through Baton Rouge and along the Mississippi River to reach Natchez. This route allowed me to see much more of the scenic and beautiful Louisiana, but I really wanted to see the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola State Prison. I’ve always wanted to see Angola Prison, but the desire became more immediate after my first informal interview in New Orleans. This interview was with my neighbor, immediately after moving my last piece of furniture into my apartment.

My neighbor is African American grandmother who was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, who was relocated to Houston after the storm, and now resides in our neighborhood, Gentilly. I shared with her my preliminary research questions, and some of the issues that are important to me resonated with her as a grandmother with children in New Orleans public schools. She shared with me that her 9 year old grandson had been having serious discipline issues in school. In order to teach him a lesson, the boy’s father had the police come to his home one day, handcuff and arrest his son, and take him to the police station. My neighbor told me that her son was in tears, watching his 9 year old wail as he was handcuffed and put into the back of a police car, despite the situation being an agreed upon “scared straight” style simulation. She said that her son kept saying, “I’m doing this now so he doesn’t have to go to Angola when he gets older. If I scare him now, he will never have to go to Angola.”

Angola Prison Inmates
Angola State Penitentiary is a prison farm, and the largest maximum security prison in the United States (Keep in mind this is in Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate of any state in the country). Angola, the size of Manhattan, was formed by the consolidation of four plantations of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana in the 1860s. The prison carries the name Angola because the bulk of the enslaved Africans who worked those plantations were captured Angolans.

What does it mean when the name Angola becomes associated with the terror and brutality of a plantation past, present, and future? What does it mean when Angola, named after a country in the ostensible motherland, becomes a place in the black imaginary where one must never go? A place of unspeakable horrors and deprivations? Here, I am pressed by geographer Katherine McKittrick’s work, particularly her article Plantation Futures (Small Axe 42, November 2013): “What are some notable characteristics of plantation geographies and what is at stake in linking a plantation past to the present? What comes of positioning the plantation as a threshold to thinking through long-standing and contemporary practices of racial violence?”

Driving up to Natchez, past Angola Prison, there are countless plantations, the sight of which are jarring. Long before this trip, I told myself, “You will never step foot onto a plantation.” I did not want to physically inhabit these sites of barbarism, antiblack genocide, violence, and suffering. Once arriving in Natchez and beginning the first round of interviews, unbeknownst to me, our team were invited to an actual plantation. I should have known something was foul, because on the road to the plantation, our van passed this structure:
Mammy's Cupboard
This is an actual restaurant in Natchez, Mississippi, called “Mammy’s Cupboard.” By entering the door under Mammy’s skirt, visitors can dine inside of a 30-foot symbolic corpus of an enslaved Black woman. Consider the barbaric and necrophilic implications of such a monument. Who would eat here, and why? One consumes more than just food when dining in this space.

As we got closer to our destination, it was announced that we were actually visiting a plantation, much to my own consternation. The owner of the plantation worked at the site that we were conducting interviews, and wanted to show us the splendor of her multi-generational property (which is apparently the only plantation built with English-style architecture in Natchez, which was historically dominated by French and Spanish Creole architecture).

Frankly, this was a traumatic experience. It was unexpected and there was no way to back out of it once I realized what our final destination was. If the trauma is difficult to understand, the only analogous gesture I can make would be for a Jewish person being driven to a former concentration camp. Getting to the plantation, and hearing the owner speak of the plantation and its history, while simultaneously and strategically positioning her rhetoric to distance herself from and obliterate the black flesh that bore the brunt of the barbarism and suffering that occurred on this site. It was an appalling display. This rhetorical distancing is a performance — its purpose is to normalize the totalization of brutality that occurred on the plantation. With this move, the grotesque “plantation” is forgotten, an becomes a benign “farm”. A site to appreciate the beauty of the Mississipi forests and colonial architecture, sieving the racial terror that I could hear wailing behind this facade.

Luckily for my mental state, the “big house” was not part of the tour, but we were taken to the building that the owner actually inhabits. It used to be the plantation’s standalone kitchen, but there were additions made to the structure to make it more liveable by contemporary standards. At this point, some of us in the group began to press the owner on the issue of slavery, particularly since she would not speak of the very labor force that drove the plantation! Apparently, the enslaved Africans who were the plantation cooks lived directly over the kitchen, and this is now where the owner resides. How does one conscionably live within the very place where countless beatings, rapes, and murders occured with inpunity? What does it mean for a white person to not only inhabit a plantation space in 2014, but feel no qualms about bringing a multiracial group of students to “relive its splendor”? What kind of psychological distancing mechanisms are at play, that would allow one to not even consider the terror that a black person might feel while visiting a plantation?

At this point, the ignorance and chauvinism became too much, and I went back to the van. The owner then wanted to show us another building on the plantation, the church. I didn’t want to be there anymore, so I stayed in the vehicle while the group took pictures in front of the structure. My mind was racing, though. “What kind of lessons were taught to the slaves in this church? Or, were they allowed to worship in the church? How many people escaped this prison? How many died trying? Where are their remains? How many people were forced to resign to their fate as fungible commodities?”

In many parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, there an obscene, perpetual, highly performative reenactment of an American racial caste system dominated by slavery and white domination, and local geographies/cartographies become patterned around this preoccupation. From Angola Prison, to Mammy’s cupboard, to the Antebellum plantation tours, to the contemporary labor relations in the Mississippi Delta. Reflecting on this most recent experience in Mississippi, I think of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to a passage that has always resonated with me:

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for an occasional request for color she said practically nothing — until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.

When is enough, enough?

So much, yet so little

So I’ve been back from New Orleans for about two weeks now, and I’m now beginning to look over my field notes and process my thoughts about the summer. The summer in the field was remarkable in that I learned so much, yet so little.

My data collection strategy was twofold: My first objective was to conduct semi-structured interviews with people in New Orleans who were navigating the public school system. I wanted to engage individuals across all levels of the system – administrators, teachers, parents, and former students. Through networking with my roommates in New Orleans, and leaning on advice from dissertation advisor, I was able to build a chain-referral sample that eventually reached people interacting with the public school system across all of these social/bureaucratic scales. I also conducted participant observation at local school board meetings and community events organized around stopping the criminalization and incarceration of Black youth in the city.

My second objective was to collect GPS data on where schools are located in New Orleans, and then map them out using ArcGIS. After Hurricane Katrina, over 90% of the public schools were damaged, so there are massive construction projects ongoing, to reorganize and rebuild the city’s educational infrastructure. Initially, my goal was to locate and plot all of the schools that are no longer in use, and then plot where schools are currently being built. However, I did not have enough time to collect all of that data (long time field work objective!), but I was able to plot the locations of the schools that are currently in use, and then use census data to explore the racial demographics of neighborhoods that schools are being built in.

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I’m still trying to analyze all of the data I collected this summer, and work through them analytically to construct an argument about what I have found. Ultimately, in my interviews with parents, teachers, administrators, and students, I was stunned by how racial and class inequality become patterned topographically, vis-a-vis elevation in New Orleans. Just looking at the map, the areas where there are majority black populations are the areas that are most vulnerable to flooding: New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward. The areas where majority of white New Orleanians live corresponds with the “Sliver By the River,” a natural levee built up from millenia of flooding in the region. And even beyond class, Gentilly (a neighborhood that is more diverse in terms of racial and class composition but is still majority black) experienced the collapse of the London Avenue Canal Floodwall, and was decimated in 2005. One parent I interviewed explained to me at length about the ways that the Hurricane wiped out the black middle class in New Orleans, leaving many people with no friends or family to turn to for help, because everyone was suffering. Medical anthropologist Vincanne Adams’ recent book, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina, provides vignettes of the lives of working/middle class African Americans of Gentilly who were wiped out by Katrina. Triangulating these geographically explicit inequalities that reach across class with the politics of urban planning and charter school construction, a profound argument beings to crystallize. The majority of the Orleans Parish Public Schools, which are managed by the locally elected school board and not the Louisiana State Legislature, are in majority white neighborhoods. These are also traditionally the highest performing schools, and despite being “open enrollment,” have some of the most stringent policies for student admission (one school requires 20 hours of volunteer service a month from parents in order to keep their children enrolled).

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colton

At the same time the Hurricane wiped out the material base of the black working and middle classes, the Louisiana State legislature was working to gut the political influence of the black working and middle classes by firing every teacher and administrator in the New Orleans Public School system. As explained to me across many of my interviews, these are career paths that have traditionally bolstered the black middle class in New Orleans. All Americans have been affected by the retrenchment of the state and the cutting of civil servant jobs, but working and middle class Black people have been disproportionately affected by these cuts.

Between the interview and participant observation data, and the mapping that I did, I realize that at the core, my dissertation will be devoted to exploring the fundamentally antagonistic relationship between black people and the state. The Trayvon Martin situation, spending time at the Florida Capitol with the Dream Defenders and learning about the legislative rationales for racial profiling and the school to prison pipeline, seeing the movie Fruitvale Station, hearing the story about a 15 year old Black kid being denied a heart transplant because of his academic and disciplinary history, and talking to parents and even teachers who remarked that black students “change the culture” of high performing schools AND seeing the state move to protect high performing schools’ ability to ferret out poor and working class black children in an “open enrollment” system, makes it clear that there is a fundamental inability for many people in this country to see African Americans (particularly poor and working class ones) as human beings. With this humanity constantly being in question, there are no citizenship protections for poor and working class Black people in this country. In putting into conversation the work of Frantz Fanon and Frank Wilderson into my own work, I must recognize that this is our (black people’s) relation to the state – permanent, irreconcilable antagonism.

So as an anthropologist, I question many of the precepts of my discipline, as well as its ability to solve or address the question of antiblack racism. If anthropology moves in concert with a philosophy of a common “humanity” without coming to terms with the fact that at its core, this notion of “humanity” was designed specifically to exclude Black people, how can it ever address or analyze the material, symbolic, and structural realities of antiblack racism? Antiblack racism is encoded not only into the constitution of this country, but into the epistemology of the idea of “humanity” itself. Any study of institutional or cultural racism must recognize and accept this fact, I no longer see the utility of any analysis of “white privilege” or progressivist interventions that call for the state to “do more,” as if antiblack racism is merely socially constructed and can change by awareness campaigns. It is foundational to the state and reinforced culturally, politically, economically, and legally. The state is antiblack, and doing fieldwork in American public education crystallizes this reality for me. In seeing the geographies of injustice and antiblack racism in New Orleans, my goal is to move forward with my long-term fieldwork with a more targeted aim at exploring these questions, as well as the ways that school privatization schemes serve as an apparatus for the American penal regime.

An Anthropology of Infrastructure in New Orleans

All pictures credit to author.

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To say that New Orleans has no infrastructure would be an exaggeration. There is definitely infrastructure present, but its ubiquity varies, depending on the neighborhood you’re in at the time. Because I am interested largely in how different people use public space in New Orleans, I have been making sure to pay attention to how people are living and moving in my neighborhood, how they choose to navigate the city’s infrastructure. Whats so cool about N.O. is that there is a different, more relaxed set of housing and residential codes in this city (this is a mental note to myself: go research the building codes of this city.) Businesses, cafes, stores and shops are littered in between residential spaces, sometimes popping up between two shotgun row houses. Almost everybody here sits on their porches/stoops for at least a few hours a day, people watching and socializing with their families and neighbors.Image
New Orleans is one of my favorite cities on planet Earth, largely because I think this city makes the geographies of exclusion clear in a way that many other American cities go to great lengths to try to hide. I am living in a home in the Bywater area of New Orleans. The neighborhood is clearly being gentrified, but I have never seen such a dizzying juxtaposition of the realities of this clash of economic resources, race, and culture. On the main thoroughfare by my home, St. Claude Ave, one can find check cashing place, next to a hipster record store, next to a fried seafood fast food takeout, next to a old blues dive bar, next to a yoga/pilates studio, next to an H&R block office, etc etc. Seeing poor and working class black folks bumping elbows with presumably middle class young white adults on their bikes and in foreign cars, navigating the same streets, while occupying separate and distinct social spheres in the same exact physical location. This part of the city appears to be at a mid-stage level of gentrification, so I am interested to see what the local politics are, in addition to talking to people to gauge their perceptions of crime, safety, and danger in this area. I’m gonna try to join the neighborhood listserv (if there is one) to keep tabs on the gentrifier pulse.
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I have also been driving around, and intentionally getting lost. I want to see all of the local HBCUs here, so far I have only seen Dillard University, and I walked around the Gentilly neighborhood. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what I’m seeing, so I have been taking good fieldnotes and jotting down my impressions. I saw this sign while in Gentilly, which is at the location of the London Avenue Canal breach. Note the “offering” of crawfish shells at the base of the memorial. I wonder what an archaeologist would say about that 200+ years from now.
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I peeped over the floodwall to see the waterflow. To me, the most disconcerting and scary part about New Orleans is the overwhelming presence of water. Maybe its just me, but being surrounded by this much water and faulty infrastructure is unsettling. I wonder how people who actually have property around these areas feel about living in these zones (another mental note: Ask them!)

I stop whenever I see a school building, and take pictures. Most of the public schools that I have seen are shuttered and closed up, presumably since the storm. I want to figure out who are the major players in school rebuilding, as well as school marketing, in New Orleans. This photo below shows construction workers building a new KIPP Charter School on St. Claude Ave, about half a mile from my home. What role do these new schools play in neighborhood gentrification? Do they buffet it, conform to it, or are they irrelevant to it?

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I also stopped every time I saw schools being advertised. I have never seen such targeted marketing to black folks in my life, lol. In my rapidly gentrifiying neighborhood, I have yet to see 1 white child walking around, playing, frolicking, but I’ve seen several white adults. But when the neighborhood turns around, surely people will begin raising families here? Or are these purely investment properties for people to live in for a certain season, after which they will retreat to suburban family life? Just a few questions I have.

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This summer enrichment program is sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers.
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I’m trying to figure out who the major players are here in terms of educational infrastructure. Thus far, I have seen KIPP, Capital One, and other financial institutions as being major players, but there are many more.

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This is a boarded up/shuttered school, you can still see the advertisements of the registration day, August 17, 2005, and advertising the student return on August 18, 2005. Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005.

Headed to the N.O.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
—Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers
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This summer, I will be blogging as I conduct my preliminary dissertation research in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am extremely excited about the chance to collect some ethnographic data in one of my favorite cities in the world. New Orleans is a city of extreme contradictions and jarring juxtapositions, and has been since its founding by the French Mississipi Company in 1718. The city where “les bon temps rouler” is also a city marked by incredible inequality, poverty, and much human suffering, as shown after Hurricane Katrina and in the recent shooting of 19 people during a second line Mother’s Day parade. This is what draws me to the city — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I remember the first time I visited N.O, it was November 2010. I was in town for a conference, and I searched for the New Orleans city bus schedule online on my last morning there. After finding the nearest route, I walked from the Superdome Holiday Inn to a bus stop three blocks away, to catch the city bus #88 to get to an area that seemed close enough to the Lower 9th, a New Orleans suburb called Arabi. During my bus ride, I could get a sense of the topography of New Orleans, a truly remarkable city by any urban planning measures. Its remarkable that people have attempted to live on such flood prone areas for hundreds of years, forging intimate, daily connections to water, particularly in the lower lying littoral zones where may of the urban poor of New Orleans lived. In Where Rivers Meet the Sea: The Political Ecology of Water, Stephanie Kane argues that the infrastructure of coastal cities (like New Orleans, the largest port in the United States based on total cargo volume), are places where the power of the state is made manifest through its confrontation with nature. This is where lines are drawn to demarcate those who are to be excluded and forgotten (Kane 2005). I got off the bus in Arabi, and I walked a few blocks northwest to reach my final destination. I noticed that the closer I got to the Lower 9th, the less noise I heard. The chirping of birds began to disappear, the sounds of cars and buses became more distant, there was no wind to cause a rustling of leaves, or flapping of shutters. The only sounds were my footsteps. As I reached the top of the road and looked out onto a panoramic view of the Lower 9th, I saw the absolute, unmitigated destruction. Leveled houses, homes that were leaning as if their foundations had been bent, dead, fallen trees, upturned cars, spray paint across the front doors, faded pictures on the ground. I expected to see cranes, tractors, some vestige of infrastructure, but there was nothing but chaos, like Katrina had happened last week. There were no birds, no children playing, no doors slamming, no wind, no cars, no life at all, except myself. For the first time in my life, I understood what deafening silence was.

My own research is interested in urban planning and education policy in New Orleans. You may not know this, but shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the majority of public schools in the city were transformed into charter schools. My own research agenda is to understand out how this charter school system plays out in a city marked by such segregation and inequality. This summer, I will be conducting interviews with some school administrators, local parents, and collecting some spatial data at school construction sites. I’m still formulating my research questions and hypotheses, so I hope that the feedback from this blog will assist me in that process, and maybe help my colleagues with similar questions and issues in their summer research projects.

References

Kane, Stephanie C. 2012 Where Rivers Meet the Sea: the Political Ecology of Water. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.