How Race and Criminality Are Embodied in Memoir and Film: An Investigation of Jamaa Fanaka and Austin Reed

  • Ravi ShankarEmail author


The earliest known prison memoir is by the African-American writer Austin Reed, written in 1858, about New York’s infamous Auburn State Prison. Recently discovered and authenticated by a team of Yale scholars, his memoir The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convicts sheds light on the long-standing connection between race and incarceration in America by looking at a moment in American history right before the Civil War and the beginning of Jim Crow. Frank Jones was incarcerated on many occasions. Serving a life sentence for a murder he claims he did not commit, Jones scavenged colored pencils from prison bookkeepers and drew what he called “devil houses” in red and blue, symbolic and spiritual representations of the Huntsville Prison where he found himself. The Blaxploitation film Penitentiary (1979, Jamaa Fanaka) offers a common enough prison paradigm about a wrongfully accused man. Poised on the edge of a constant threat of violence, the film replicates in its cinematography the claustrophobic space of the jail cell. The way race interacts with criminality has been explored by writers, visual artists, and movie directors and in contributing to this focus, this chapter will examine these historically and artistically distinctive responses to American incarceration.


  1. Alexander, M. 2012. The New Jim Crow. New Press.Google Scholar
  2. Brandum, Dean. 2016. Fear of a Black Phallus: Jamaa Fanaka’s Welcome Home Brother Charles (1975). Senses of Cinema.
  3. “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP. April 5, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  4. Day, Eli, Nathalie Baptiste, Adam Federman, and Ali Breland. “The Race Gap in US Prisons Is Glaring, and Poverty Is Making It Worse.” Mother Jones, February 2, 2018. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  5. Du Bois W. E. B. 2015. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Fanaka, Jamaa. 2010. Welcome Home, Brother: The Jamaa Fanaka Interview.
  7. Foucault, Michel. 2009. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. S.l.: Vintage.Google Scholar
  8. Howard, Josia, and Jamaa Fanaka. 2018. “Jamaa Fanaka: Portrait of an L.A. Rebel.” The Grindhouse Cinema Database. April 4, 2018. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  9. James, Joy. 2016. “The Roots of Black Incarceration.” Boston Review, October 24, 2016. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  10. Kenigsberg, Ben. 2017. “Film Series in NYC This Week.” The New York Times, September 21, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  11. Kundera, Milan. 1999. Immortality. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  12. “Lamenting the Greater Fall: 19th Century Prison Reform and the Women’s Prison Association Records.” 2010. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  13. Lopez. 2014. “Watch the Number of US Prisons Skyrocket.” July 14, 2014. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  14. “Now on Blu-ray: Jamaa Fanaka Philosophizes Prison Pugilists in PENITENTIARY & PENITENTIARY II.” ScreenAnarchy. April 24, 2018. Accessed December 14, 2018.
  15. Penitentiary. Directed by Jamaa Fanaka. Performed by Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur ‘Hi-Fi’ White, Thomas M. Pollard. USA, 1979. DVD.Google Scholar
  16. Reed, Austin, and Caleb Smith. 2017. The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict. New York: Modern Library, an Imprint of Random House.Google Scholar
  17. Tangney, June P., Jeffrey Stuewig, Debra Mashek, and Mark Hastings. 2011. “Assessing Jail Inmates’ Proneness to Shame and Guilt.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 38, no. 7: 710–34. Scholar
  18. “Three Years Ago Kalief Browder Hanged Himself After 33 Month Rikers Imprisonment Without a Trial.” Daily Mail Online, June 6, 2018. Accessed December 14, 2018.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of SydneySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations