Suicide or genocide?
Policing the womb and killing the carceral state

by Catherine C. Saunders

The Black woman sits at the origins of history, her body a vessel for the social reproduction of the colonial ideologies that continue to dominate the nation.[1] Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body (1997) and Stephanie Jones Rogers’s They Were Her Property (2019) are two of many books that detail the Black woman’s role in birthing the labor force for the institution of slavery. In addition to birthing the labor force, Black maternity acted as a line of demarcation between freedom and bondage. The law of partus sequitar ventram (that which is brought forth follows the womb) made a Black mother’s systemic subjugation her children’s inheritance. Said plainly, the Black mother’s status in early America transformed her into a national tool of social reproduction. This central and essential role assumes contemporary form through Black female correspondence to the prison population. With an over-representation of African American people, the U.S. prison is a re-manifestation of the institution of slavery. This reinvention makes racism the oil to the turning wheels of nation where the African-descended remain subjected to the punitive state. A continued, color-based punitive state chains both the ancestor and the descendant to the belly of the ship re-imagined in the belly of nation, the American prison. However, although the Black woman maintains a pivotal role to sustaining the carceral state, she also plays an essential role in its conceptual unraveling.

In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis reminds us that prisons were not always the default means of punishment. What the masses witness with the present carceral state is an older punitive system transformed. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explains how this transformation remains essential to the U.S. racial caste system and the carceral state that it imbues. A carceral state predates prisons and traditionally made a spectacle of the punished. Whether hung, stoned, or strapped to a searing hot chair, the criminalized endured punishment in variant ways, all of which incorporated the spectacle as a key component of penal consequence.[2] The spectacle also relies upon the toxic relation to visibility that the carceral state creates within the incarcerated person. This toxic visibility humbles the accused by way of humiliation while simultaneously acting as a cautionary tale to onlookers. Additionally, as Michel Foucault demonstrated, the prison system uses a visual panoptican at the center of the punitive site as a symbol of structural control that creates the illusion of continuous surveillance.[3] Consequently, the incarcerated person emerges as spectacle publicly and in their own mind. Davis contends that prisons occupy a position of both visibility and invisibility; however, though still an integral component to the carceral state, visibility does not occupy the role it once did. What I mean here is that prisons remain highly visible in popular culture, yet what it means to be a human being in a cage appears only in glimpses. The Cyntoia Brown story, for example, introduced a young, Black girl (who became a woman behind bars) as a symbol of a broken system that fails those who need it most. Before Brown would receive clemency in January 2019, she received an outpouring of support from celebrities like Rihanna, Drake, and Kim Kardashian who moved the story of her injustice from societal peripheries to the national center. Despite Brown’s poignant portrait of systemic injustice, the effect of its popularity proved transient. Brown’s story, like many others, becomes quickly obscured by the pervasive belief that prisons exist to protect the masses. This belief prompts the masses to summon the police as a solution-oriented gesture to cage those branded as criminals without care or concern to those injured by this myth of justice.

Central to the institutional wrath that prisons incite is the myth that their presence is necessary to maintain order. To a degree, this contention is true, as the over-representation of Black people in prison remains integral to the “order” of white supremacy. This over-representation also reveals the myth of justice as fueled by the ruse of law and order. This myth conveys the carceral state as an essential component to managing social chaos, and this social management remains espoused to racial mythos and color-based oppression. To conceptualize the carceral state as necessary for social order, the dominant institutions as well as popular imagination in the United States present its systemic presence as natural while sustaining the unnatural. Davis writes: “It is as if prisons were an inevitable fact of life, like birth and death” (Davis 15). Her assertion aligns the carceral state with biological occurrences of life and death, a conflation that purposely distorts its wrath. The ideology that perpetuates prison as natural corresponds to beliefs of Black inferiority that historically vindicated national terrors such as enslavement and lynching, deeming them necessary to maintain order. I will explain how a 2011 billboard in lower Manhattan mirrored these sentiments behind the thin veil of reproductive advocacy.

A missed opportunity or mis-conception?
the 2011 billboard and the 21st century native son

In 2011, a Soho billboard proclaimed that the most dangerous place for an African American was in the womb. On the billboard the message is tied to an image of a little Black girl, and in this way the spectacle component of the poster continues the systemic abjection of Black people in the United States as it articulates the racist sentiments of the group Life Always’s (anti) abortion campaign.[4] The billboard relegates the Black mother to spectacle by perpetuating the very logic that vindicates the incarceration of her progeny. To criminalize the Black mother is to cement the carceral state as a lesser evil because it posits the crime as birth (if not conception). When questioned about the billboard, LifeAlways said that their campaign was in response to Planned Parenthood’s services which they argue prey on minority communities.

This admission is ironic given their campaign is neither liberating nor does Life Always depart from the genocidal intentions it attributes to a rival organization. When the Life Always campaign displaced genocidal intentions onto the Black mother, it's like blaming a stabbed man for bleeding while the knife and the hand holding it go unquestioned.[5] This implicit message reveals the billboard does not just oppose abortion, what it supposedly confronts, but rather is genocidal in intent. Nevertheless, though visceral in its impact, the billboard gives insight into the ideology that fuels the carceral state. The carceral state, like the institution of slavery, depicts systemic oppression as inherited from the mother. While this carceral injunction applies to all offspring of the Black mother, it sets up a unique relation to the male offspring who comprise the over-represented faction of the prison population.[6]

Such a cultural inheritance predisposes the male progeny as a native son—born from the womb of white supremacy—a womb metaphorically embodied by the cages that comprise the carceral state.[7] Richard Wright introduces the concept of the native son in his 1940 novel of the same title. His literary depiction conveys a caricature integral to the racial mythos that comprises the national ambiance in the United States and the racial caste system that fuels the carceral state. Native Son, an early portrait of literary realism, follows the downward spiral of a young Black man, Bigger Thomas. Thomas experiences layers of racism that slowly erode his interior, an erosion that precedes his desperate act of self-preservation that costs two lives and his livelihood. Wright posits the “native son” as a canvas for national anxieties that, like the panoptican, create a mental prisoner programmed to culminate in the carceral state with their physical being. Said plainly, Wright depicts the Bigger Thomases of the world as born guilty, a status that cages them in a criminality they eventually turn inside out. The irony of Wright’s title is not lost on the reader who sees that while Black boys and men are not sons of a nation's gifted, systemic nurture and upward mobility. Rather, the Black man emerges as the son of the nation born to the Black woman who is systemically appointed to socially reproduce the cage of racism that remains native to both the dream and the dreamer.[8].

Kalief Browder and the sins of solitary confinement

A year before the billboard would arrive in lower New York City, police arrested sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder for allegedly stealing a backpack. He would end up serving 1,110 days at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Browder’s story gained significant traction after his release, his story conveying how the carceral state is what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.”[9] Kalief, who was adopted by the Browder family in his youth, bears a noteworthy connection to the 2011 billboard. Born into systemically impacted circumstances, he lived in the belly of a nation that programmed his mother for self-destruction and promised him the same fate. The most dangerous place for Browder, therefore, was not in his mother’s womb, but in the womb of white supremacy that dictated his destiny long before his conception. Alexander captures this dynamic in her text where she contends that Black people are often predisposed to the system from birth. She writes: “Practically from cradle to grave, black males in urban ghettos are treated like current or future criminals” (Alexander 162). Born into the system, Browder illustrates his status as a son native to its wrath, his birth marking the inheritance of a burden that he and countless others were literally born to carry.

What is perhaps most pertinent about Browder’s incarceration, though, is that much of his time at Rikers (700 days) was spent in solitary confinement.[10] Davis notes that solitary confinement began as an effort to make the penitentiary mirror a monastic setting with hopes that this solitude would inspire healing. She writes: “The body was placed in conditions of segregation and solitude in order to allow the soul to flourish” (46). Though a portrait of past reform, solitary confinement projects an ideology detached from its original role in the American carceral system. Whether through laws that target Black youth and make them sacrifice said youth in consequence or through judges that pronounce sentences disproportionate to the “crime”—the legal system often proves more criminal than its so-called offenders. The solitary confinement that Browder endured undoubtedly intensified his already toxic environment, but perhaps more significantly, it details the carceral state as comprised of genocidal intentions. While the panoptican makes the carceral state worse by indoctrinating the incarcerated with ideas of continuous surveillance, solitary confinement uses an alternative technique and involves physical and mental isolation as tools of destruction. This destruction, as evidenced by Kalief Browder’s story, often culminates in suicide. Browder’s mistreatment and tragic end continue to yield discussions about a need for reform, but prison discourse implies that reform would derive from the very forces that lead to his systemic demise. That is, Browder’s trajectory not only calls for change, but it challenges us to consider how the carceral state re-forms racial terrorism to continue to implement genocidal intention.

The miseducation of Damon Cook: Hulu’s Reasonable Doubt and policing the carceral performance

A fictional parallel to the Kalief Browder story can be found in the character Damon Cook (Michael Cook) from the Hulu original series Reasonable Doubt (2022). Viewers meet a young Damon Cook when he, like Browder, faces charges for a crime that he did not commit. Also, like Browder, Cook does extensive jail time because of his refusal to accept a plea deal. The men’s choices convey their effort to depart from the myth of freedom to achieve the real thing; they were employing the very integrity that the system seeks to dissolve. The plea deal represents coercion to admit guilt by giving hopes of attaining illusive freedom. It is an integral component of the carceral state, as a Black person’s admission then maintains the racial mythos. While Browder maintains his innocence, Cook eventually gives into the illusion of gaining freedom and admits guilt after serving over a decade in prison.

Cook and Browder make distinctly different choices, but both narratives convey the illusion of freedom as a temptation for those born into a carceral state deriving from genocidal intention. This intention is then actualized in their suicide, as Cook, like Browder, takes his own life, their minds destroyed by the cage that stripped them violently of their sanity and humanity. These cages assume a cognitive force that engulfs the native son into the chokehold of white supremacy and slowly drains the breath from their bodies long after the physical body departs from the cages of the penitentiary.[11] The holding cells that comprise the penitentiary system act as a womb of white supremacy; it engulfs the abjected Black person in the fluid and sustenance of a culture designed for their destruction. Just as the panopticon structure makes it so that the incarcerated behave as if being watched because they never know when they are, in fact, being viewed, those placed into the womb of white supremacy behave as if they are in a carceral state despite whether they are or not, in fact, physically incarcerated.

Reasonable Doubt.

It is this systemic grasp even over the imagination that constitutes the apex of the carceral state and precludes the possibility of freedom. Richard Wright depicts this dynamic in Native Son with Bigger Thomas whose identity, constructed by the racial mythos of a white settler space and fueled by the media, becomes a mask that he wears. At the expense of his sanity, the mask becomes his face. Said plainly, Wright conveys Bigger Thomas as born into a country whose innocence existed because of his mythic guilt. The toxicity of the national environment makes it so that the caricature that precedes his conception is eventually who he becomes. He too accepts the systemic bait offered to Browder and Cook (albeit in a different form). This bait, though appearing to encompass freedom, obscures and precludes it as a viable option. This process of promise and preclusion conveys an integral component to the carceral state: the ruse of freedom. The ruse of freedom, which proves commensurate to a noose, capitalizes on the deteriorated mental state of the incarcerated by appearing to present what the system ultimately prevents. Freedom is, of course, not completely unattainable, but in a carceral space it exists as a genocidal ruse and a pathway to self-destruction.

This self-destruction proves ubiquitous, since the carceral state extends to those who may never see the inside of a prison but remain imprisoned by carceral ideology. In the contemporary culture, this ideology becomes most evident in social media. Although the program is entitled Reasonable Doubt, the social media traction that the series inspired suggests a firm departure from the term as providing a legal measure for denying criminality. The character Damon Cook, who does not seem to receive any reasonable doubt. Instead, the show depicts those over-represented in the carceral state as enduring doubt without reason. This dynamic becomes clear when reading viewer responses on social media that labeled Cook’s character “crazy” without consideration for what informs his downward spiral, emotional dependency, and ultimate suicide.

Similarly, Browder sharing his story proved beneficial for those on social media belonging to the neo-liberal wave of woke culture. That neo-liberal wave considers awareness as activism. Often calls for reform present an opportunity for those aligned with the oppressive class to appear sympathetic but these proposals do not address the larger plague.[12] Popular portrayals do, of course, generate some genuine concern and critical dialogue, but, for example, if we consider the tweets that connected Michael Ealy’s portrayal of Damon Cook to his earlier portrayals of mentally unstable characters (For Colored Girls and The Perfect Guy), we can see how social media conveys the repeated, sensationalized Black narrative that relegates the Black subject to societal peripheries. Said differently, the pervasive nature of the carceral state flattens the native son’s story and compartmentalizes it. The social reality remains beyond the scope of an audience conditioned to engage the Black actor’s performance as entertainment not enlightenment.

Concluding thoughts:
Whose crime is it anyway?

Moreover, the title Reasonable Doubt departs from any basis in the legal function of the phrase; instead, the series corresponds solely to a classic Jay-Z album.[13] Similarly, Damon Cook corresponds to fiction rather than the fact of Kalief Browder and the host of other Black people whose legacies remain confined to the cracks of a broken system.[14] This kind of media engagement connects to larger discussions of Black people and Black pain, but it further indicates that the most dangerous place for an African American is in fact the womb, but the womb of white supremacy that extends to the cage of media. The carceral state is easily “native” and “son” to a supremacy that perpetuates freedom as a trap door. If, however, viewers could perceive the Black male progeny as beyond being the son of a scorned inheritance, then reasonable doubt might become a tool to kill the carceral state. To the kill the carceral state is to take strides toward grappling with the true afterlife of systemic racism and its social affect. This feat is not impossible but a feat that many are unlikely to enact in their lifetime. In fact, the reinvention of the domestic institution of slavery as it transformed into the punitive state of the U.S. prison promises a new vessel of systemic terror that has perhaps already shifted the chains of bondage from our wrists to our fingertips tapping out messages on social media.

Moreover, the Black maternal womb is not the most dangerous place for an African American. If this womb fails to socially reproduce the throes of bondage, it becomes the most dangerous place for the carceral state. A world where black youth inherit their mother’s freedom and not the promise of imprisonment would thwart the genocidal intentions of colonial mythos as perpetuated through the carceral state. As a result, the Black female womb evolves from the fecund soil of systemic terror into the place where carceral dreams go to die. To kill the carceral state not only enables Damon Cook and Kalief Browder to hold hands across fact and fiction, but it creates a space where genuine and reasonable doubt replaces color-based certainty. Doubt replacing color-based certainty takes a big move toward the liberation that the carceral state would make impossible. Nevertheless, the ultimate crime against humanity remains color-based, systemic disfavor.