By Briana Whiteside
Every Wednesday, I go into a maximum-security prison in Alabama to teach African American Literature. I come into contact with at lease 8 officers during my 2 hour visit. I’ve noticed however, that the officers are becoming increasingly interested in what I’m teaching in my class.
Usually, there is one officer who sits in the classroom to maintain order if needed. Yet, they are becoming students in the class as well. Though they do not read the texts that we are discussing, they are eager to comment in discussions. For instance, we were discussing book one of Native Son (1940) by Richard Wright and students were talking about the characteristics of Bigger. They were uneasy about what Wright was doing and wanted answers as to why Bigger “seemed bipolar.”
As we were thinking through these comments, one of the officers pulled his chair closer to our circle and raised his hand to participate. Though not familiar with Bigger’s character, he paralleled the comments that he heard to being a black man in America. From there, students started to think about the similarities between their thoughts processes as youths and Bigger’s. It appeared at that moment students and the officer realized that Bigger seemed to share some of their circumstances.
When class was over and the officer walked the students back to the prison yard, he asked me about the book. He said, “I usually don’t read but you’ve inspired me to read more because this stuff is really deep.” I gave him the title of the book, author, and the overview of the time period when the book was written.
When I made it back to the check-in desk to leave the prison, another officer asked for a copy of the book as well. He said, “I heard about your class, and I’m really interested in it.” I told him I would bring him a copy of Native Son next week.
Ultimately, my presence in the prison is not just transforming the minds of those incarcerated, but those who work there as well.
• Critique of Manhood: Reading Native Son in an Alabama Medium Security Prison
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student at the University of Alabama and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.