By: Scott Ellingson (email@example.com), Section Editor, The Bloc[k] Beat
There are steel bars on the door, as it closes, you confront the small room. It is silent except for the buzz of the fluorescent lights. The windows are concrete and glass. You are not in prison, but rather you are on the UIC campus, at “Black/Inside” at the African-American Cultural Center.
The Black/Inside exhibit, on display until November 21st on the second floor of Addams Hall, considers “how a system of imprisoning black men and women in the United States has been sustained from colonial times to the present” says the official “zine” accompanying the exhibition.
The cell featured at the end of the exhibit is labeled “The Prison-Industrial Complex,” it is made of wood and even though the door is not metal, it is as striking a visual image as you will find in a normally staid university environment. As you step into the cell, the walls are adorned with modern protest posters announcing gatherings and marches demanding reform of the North American prison system and decrying the fact that despite both white and black Americans taking illegal drugs in the same proportion, black Americans are disproportionately punished for it.
Black/Inside is a dense but concise travel through American institutional racism. The curator focuses on the voice of primary sources. There are newspaper clippings advertising rewards for retrieving fugitive slaves from the 1850s, the original publishing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from the 1960s and the free “zine” distributed with every written evaluation of the exhibit, features the prison writings of well-known figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King to less-known women like Mae Mallory and Assata Shakur.
In addition to reading and experiencing the photographs on the walls, visitors are encouraged to listen to a collection of “negro prison blues” songs from the early 20 th century and Bob Dylan’s song “George Jackson” written in support of the jailed black activist in 1971. The exhibit’s multimedia elements are enriching and add a more visceral experience to the intellectual and political concerns of the exhibit.
“I think the strength of it is the presentation of a lot of great information that made me think and go back and remind me of things I had forgotten about the history of America. It made me want to get involved, it exposes you to things you don’t normally think about.” says Brenda Little, assistant director of the African American Cultural Center.
Other than the cell that reaches ten feet in the air, one of the most striking images of Black/Inside is a quote from W.E.B. DuBois stretching across the length of an entire wall in black type: “Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a black man of a crime.”
The statistics are well-known, but still shocking that the Land of the Free holds only five out of every hundred people on planet earth, but holds one out of every four incarcerated people on planet earth. In addition to reiterating familiar political facts and the stories of famous incarcerated black figures, the sheer amount of information in the exhibit means that any visitor is guaranteed to learn something new about the history of race in America.
Focusing on the “free state” of Illinois, the exhibit informs visitors that in 1819 Illinois passed its first “black code” law, requiring all free black citizens to register with the government and restricting them from owning property, signing contracts, suing in a court of law, or holding a seat on a jury. The irony of these laws, had they been passed, is that they would have prevented Jean-Baptiste DuSable from buying property at the mouth of the Chicago river and founding the City of Chicago as we know it.