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Kristina Graaff, Street Literature: Black Popular Fiction in the Era of U.S. Mass Incarceration

Sebastian Weier

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1Mass Incarceration, the multibillion-dollar Prison Industrial Complex it sustains and the racial inequalities it consolidates are three of the most pressing issues in the contemporary United States. A consequence of the War on Drugs that began in the 1970s and further exacerbated during the Clinton presidency, the fact that the United States jails more people than any other country in the world, including a disproportionately high number of people of color, has become iconic for the racist structures continuing to mark U.S. society and specifically the U.S. justice system. Since the publication of Michelle Alexander’s seminal The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in 2010, the well-mediatized killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Freddy Gray, and the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, mass incarceration has also increasingly been noted by a general public as well as American Studies beyond the African-Americanist subfield. Kristina Graaff’s Street Literature. Black Popular Fiction in the Era of U.S. Mass Incarceration is an important and timely contribution to this expanding field and an impressive example of the potential and relevance of Literary Studies for socio-political analysis.

2Combining social and literary analysis with interviews and participatory observation, what most distinguishes Street Literature from other studies is the author’s decision to analyze the politico-cultural matrix of mass incarceration through the topos of “the streets” rather than “the ghetto.” Relying strongly on Loïc Wacquant’s work on the relationship between ghetto and prison (65), Graaff explains this decision by insisting on her perception of the “stigmatizing usages” (36) of the term ghetto, and suggests that “the term ‘streets’ always emphasizes personal experiences and an active and practical usage of urban space” (37, emphasis in the original). Shifting from the ghetto to “the streets” is described as “jumping scales” (a concept that Graaff borrows from geographer Neil Smith) (75-77), that is, as shifting focus “from a larger low-income community to the streets” (133) in order to move from macro-political discrimination to micro-politics of resistance and appropriation. Further underlining how jumping scales condenses her differences with Wacquant, Graaff observes in her reading of J.M. Benjamin’s My Manz and ‘Em: “While Wacquant defines the resemblances between black low income neighborhoods and prison from an institutional viewpoint, the novel illustrates how streets and prisons are interconnected on a social, structural and cultural level in the character’s everyday experiences and practices” (ibid).

3It is this conception of “the streets” as experiential rather than structural that informs Graaff’s definition of street literature as one of the most important genres of contemporary African American Literature, even though not exclusive to it (because there are also non-Black Street Literatureauthors). Nevertheless focusing her analysis on the latter, Graaff argues that street literature both testifies to the disproportionate mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States and to the way that black authors manage to maintain agency in spite of a repressive socio-political environment. The author analogizes the relationship between structural racist repression and agency with the relationship between prison and “the streets” and introduces the concept of the street-prison symbiosis in order to frame and trace how these are not separate but mutually constituting aspects of a continuous process of negotiation of space and power. As Graaff herself writes:

my work investigates the extent to which the fictional texts rewrite the racialized spaces of streets and prison, and how street literature authors and publishers (re)configure the marginalizing environments through their writing, publishing and distribution practices. (13)

4Part I of Street Literature is titled “Conceptualizing The Street-Prison Symbiosis.”Itframes this symbiosis by giving a deeply researched and succinctly portrayed overview of the current crisis of mass incarceration and the related problematics of the Prison Industrial Complex and the “racially biased penal policies and law enforcement [that] are responsible for the disproportionate number of black prisoners” (53). While relying heavily on the early and ground-breaking work aforementioned Loïc Wacquant to theorize this problematic of how mass incarceration is due to draconic sentencing and profit interests of the privatized prison industry rather than a crime pandemic, Graaff delivers a wealth of details drawn from various sources across academia and journalism that makes this section an excellent and dense introduction into the matter and its many ramifications.

5Part II “Street Literature’s Narrative Street-Prison Symbiosis” proceeds to supplant these “hard facts” mostly generated from a quantitative perspective with a close reading of three novels by (formerly) incarcerated black authors. These are Jihad’s Street Life, J.M. Benjamin’s My Manz and ‘Em and Damon Meadow’s & Jason Poole’s Convict’s Candy, which she qualifies as “street literature bildungsroman,” “circulation narrative” and “heteronormative cautionary tale” (81) respectively.

6The close readings here highlight subjective experiential takes on such issues as the nexus between poverty and lack of economic opportunity with criminality, recidivism (a term Graaff criticizes for its pathologizing connotations, 101) or the HIV/AIDS epidemic in prisons and African American communities. All three sub-chapters in Part II trace continuities from “the streets” to the prison and back again. The protagonist of Street Life comes to understand the role of structural racism for his situation during his time in prison, where he also converts to Islam. “[L]iteracy, spiritual and economic empowerment are also important elements for Street Life’s protagonist” (85). However, Graaff also underlines the neo-liberal elements of the “street literature bildungsroman” and “Jihad’s aspiration to write ‘self-help street-fiction’ or ‘Purpose Driven Life Stories from the Hood’” (ibid) that often posit the individual and her or his will power as driving factors for social and economic success or failure, and in so doing obscure the importance of structural discrimination of African Americans in the United States. InJihad’s writing, doing time in prison becomes part of a process of personal maturation informed by “the streets,” enabling his protagonist to return to “the streets” both a better person and economically empowered through having been able to refine in prison the economic skills honed while selling drugs (e.g. costumer relations and distribution).

7The same dynamic is inherent to the “circulation narrative,” which differs from the bildungsroman in that “the main character is unable to extricate him-or herself from going back and forth between street and prison life” (109). In Graaff’s reading, “[t]he lure of the streets and inmates’ attempts to distance themselves from the location is a recurring theme” (118) that the novel My Manz and ‘Em is a prime example of. In it, the protagonist finds support systems inside prison (such as Islam) and decides to pursue a legal life once back in the streets, but then succumbs to the temptation of illegal street business both due to insufficient will power and the structural discriminations (e.g. lack of post-incarceration preparation in prison, draconic parole regulations) that make it excessively difficult for convicted felons to enter regular employment once released. The topoi of street and prison thus become not just spatial referents but also socio-economical fields and horizons of (im)possibility that determine prisoners’ imaginaries. As Graaff writes: “Streets and prisons thus form the only spatial points that occur in the character’s conversations, illustrating how they represent an interconnected and local reference system especially for those with lower-class backgrounds”(ibid).

8Graaff clearly shows this neo-liberal aspect of street literaturein her reading of J.M. Benjamin’s fiction and non-fictional work, pointing out: “Benjamin thus places a large part of the responsibility to break with the street-prison symbiosis on those who are affected by it. As he suggests, in order to break with the movement of cycling in and out of prison, his readers should undergo behavioral, perceptive and eventually business-related changes with the aim to “find a new profession, and a new product” (134.f.). Throughout Street Literature, Graaff returns to the figure of “the street literature writer as a neoliberal hustler” (228) to indicate the intricate interweaving of this genre and its material context with the cultural and socio-political system that determines both conditions in “the streets” and their symbiosis with prison and mass incarceration. In tracing this identification with the existing socio-economic paradigms that are at the base of mass incarceration in the forms of both the ghetto and the Prison Industrial Complex, Graaff thus indicates her perception of an agency through writing that is always caught up in a critical tension between ideas of agency through appropriation and the latter’s inherent risks of cultural and ideological assimilation.

9While gender matters are given due and detailed attention throughout the book, Graaff further nuances her analysis of this dimension of street literature in her chapter on the “heteronormative cautionary tale.” Damon Meadow’s & Jason Poole’s Convict’s Candy is a novel about a transsexual woman who enters prison while in transition and dies there of HIV/AIDS.  Depicting a series of homosexual love acts that ultimately lead to the spread of the HIV virus in prison and, after the prisoners’ release, in black neighborhoods, the novel posits heterosexual norms such as straight masculinity as essential to self determination and survival in both prison life and for communities of color in general. This is also an important aspect in the prior novels, where the desire to be a self-determined man able to financially support his family appears as one motivating factor for engaging in illegal activities in “the streets.” In offering a close reading of Convict’s Candy, Graaff thus further develops her critique of neo-liberalism in street literature by underlining is patriarchal components. In doing this, she sketches the aforementioned dimension of appropriation through which street literature authors embrace socio-economic dynamics intimately related to their imprisonment in order to reevaluate “the streets.”

10This dynamic is also at the core Part III “Street Literature’s Material Street-Prison Symbiosis.”Through an analysis of material gathered through interviews and field trips, Graaff introduces the reader into the writing, publishing and distribution processes of street literature and the material constraints imposed on it by the street-prison symbiosis. Two of the many examples considered by Graaff are the difficulties arising from the laws prohibiting imprisoned authors from earning a profit from their books, or the fact that some criminal practices described in novels have been cited as evidence against their authors during trials (205). This leads to complicated constructions of delegating royalty and copyrights to partners or publishers that open up possibilities for fraud and disputes over authorship between these and the authors (198). After having analyzed how “the streets” frame horizons of legal and economic possibilities and opportunities for those in prison in Part II, Part III looks into how prison (in)forms such horizons in “the streets.”

11In contrast to “the streets” as both an experiential and inspiring locus for writing, Graaff describes Part III as focused on “street literature’s material level” (165) and argues that “street literature appears to have largely grown out of a penal system that shifted from a rehabilitative to a penal approach”(167; emphasis in the original), pointing out accordingly that “writing in prison rarely goes unpunished by prison authorities, although it is officially allowed according to prison regulations” (169). Here, Graaff strengthens her materialist reading of street literature as a mode of cultural production intimately tied to neo-liberal and racist economic structures by emphasizing that many authors turn to writing for lack of alternative job opportunities. Throughout the book, she picks up street literature authors’ explicit statements concerning writing as a way of “self-rehabilitation” (190) and for preparing their life back in the streets, both in terms of financial security and mental preparation and always as an individualized narrative of will and overcoming of odds. After rescaling from the ghetto to “the streets” in order to focus on the dimensions of individual experience and agency rather than the systemic, Graaff thus comes to the conclusion that the agency of (formerly) imprisoned black authors boils down to an imaginary reconfiguration and neoliberal appropriation of the street-prison symbiosis. Rather than offering a path to socio-political change, the ideological infrastructure and material effects of this symbiosis are confirmed and reproduced both within the fictional (narrative, plot, characters, subjects) and practical (writing, publishing, distribution) dimensions of street literature.

12Kristina Graaff manages to maintain her acute socio-political reading of street literature and its material conditions throughout this book. By combining social sciences with literary studies and fieldwork, she offers a multimodal approach to a complex subject for which such methodological framings ought to be the standard. Offering a reading of street literature not just as a genre or for its artistic qualities, but as symptom phenomenon whose analysis permits a deeper understanding of the penal system and mass incarceration specifically (168) and the racist socio-economic structures of the United States in general, Street Literature. Black Fiction in the Age of Mass Incarceration is a detail-rich and important contribution to African American Studies and American Studies broadly that should become reference material for any further research on the subject.

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Bibliographical reference

Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2015. 273pp. ISBN: 978-3-8253-6485-4

Electronic reference

Sebastian Weier, « Kristina Graaff, Street Literature: Black Popular Fiction in the Era of U.S. Mass Incarceration », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2016-2, document 6, Online since 14 May 2016, connection on 21 April 2021. URL :

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Sebastian Weier

Universität des Saarlandes

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