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Prison Classrooms Reflect White Supremacy

One story is that of a young man in the midst of bizarre, even outrageous interactions with a group of boys. He is inexperienced, but perseveres, learns, and overcomes what looks like a dead-end situation. The other story is about these imprisoned teenagers conveying a notion of their own racial oppression through dialogue with the same man, who is their teacher. The combination of the two is extraordinary.

Jason Trask, exposed to a brand of religious fundamentalism while growing up in rural Maine, served with the U.S. Army in Germany before briefly studying philosophy there. A few years later he is teaching English to teenage boys incarcerated in a New York City prison complex. Almost all of them are African-American or Latino. He reports on that three-year-long experience in a new book, The New Plantation: Lessons From Rikers Island.

The title comes from Trask’s first day on the job. Walking down a corridor, he meets a column of adult male prisoners. Their corrections officer and he and were the only white men on hand. Says Trask: “They’re looking at my central nervous system – somehow they’ve hacked their way in and they’re examining it through the lens of a single question: how afraid is this guy?” Then, “as I pass the last man in line he yells to me in white-man-ese: “Well, golly gee; if it’s not a representative of the Caucasian persuasion coming to watch the neeegroes work the fields … Welcome to the new plantation, Mister.”

Alone with his imprisoned students in a pre-fabricated classroom in a prison notorious for inmate abuse, Trask was by no means confident he could handle, teach, or survive them. Relying on notes and memory, he fashioned a narrative centering on dialogue with the students. Interactions with administrators and fellow teachers are part of his story. In his rendering, talk from the students is full of mostly sexually-tinged obscenities. Their words and behavior alike are provocative and at times even threatening. But what they say often is ingratiating, jovial, and very funny.

They end up liking Trask, and for good reason. He offers respect and relies on ingenuity and understanding. Readers far removed from black and Latino boys imprisoned in a big U.S. city may find themselves cringing as they root for this beleaguered teacher. They will likely end up recognizing his accomplishment. His book is a worthy representative of the so-called “bildungsroman” genre of literature that casts as hero a youngish person embarked upon experiencing and learning about the world. One famous example is Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.

On this score alone the book is valuable, but there’s more. Introducing The New Plantation, Trask identifies his theme. “I was aware,” he writes, “that White Privilege exists. I just wasn’t aware of the degree to which it exists for me. By the time I left the island, there was no way … to deny that America’s reliance on incarceration is racist … Our best hope is that the system is broken. If it’s not what we have is intentional.”

This literary journeyman and previous author of a novel called I’m Not Muhammad wrote this book also in the capacity of a reporter. His beat was a classroom where the talk and actions of boys testified to dreadful harm at the hands of white supremacy. In his own way, Trask was on the path blazed in modern times by novelist John Hersey. Employing literary imagination, Hersey was the first to comprehensively describe both the horrors of the U.S. atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima and the horrors of the Holocaust as it descended on the Warsaw Ghetto. He did so in two books, Hiroshima (1946) and The Wall (1950), respectively.

As a reporter Jason Trask stands apart from the many commentators on the racial divide in the United States who rely on analysis and communication of data. Indeed, we are familiar with grim statistics on the violence, mortality, and poverty afflicting African Americans. We know about the demographics of the U.S. prison population and the numbers of spurned would-be voters.

Our minds have much to feed upon but our hearts, less. To know how victims live their lives, how they stumble and suffer, may be a necessary prerequisite for an emotional commitment to human solidarity. In order to know, we need to hear victims themselves speaking. Through Trask, we listen to teenage boys whose lives had been conditioned by systematic racism.

Trask is in good company. The passion of black historian, sociologist, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois is a case in point. Similarly, black theologian and historian Vincent Harding has a place for our author in his particular notion of resistance.

Harding’s book There Is a River (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), traces the course of enslaved Africans’ resistance to U.S. white supremacy. He too has passion. Resistance for him is a wide river flowing through time. Leaders we know about – Nat Turner, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and others – worked in the depths and in fast currents. There were shoals and reefs: the fugitive slave laws, the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers, contradictions within white abolitionism, and capitalism.

Jason Trask’s students occupy the river’s side streams and backwaters where resistance is latent. They had run afoul of terrible schools, housing impermanence, and families vulnerable to a still festering drug epidemic. Work available to most black and brown families in big cities hasn’t sufficed to relieve distress and poverty, or to provide hope.

The concerns of his students were presumably worlds away from what occupied the minds of their white counterparts. Within the dominant society they were isolated.

In Trask’s hands, the students are resisting and – again presumably – they will be ready to resist. They are clear on the matter of white supremacy. In the book they fight back; their teacher is the available target. They are vigilant. In class they betray an instinct toward collective action.

A recent news item, a tiny one, highlights the overwhelming relevance of Trask’s book.

On August 22 a U.S. politician sought to advance her candidacy for the city council of Marysville, Michigan. Jean Cramer beseeched voters to “Keep Marysville a white community as much as possible.”

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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