A few years ago I started a series of drawings of incarcerated Black men. For each individual prison identification number, I chose a year from African American history in which a history-changing event took place. My thinking was that each Black man (or woman) who finds himself (or herself) under the watchful eye of the prison industrial complex is a walking representation of the tragedies and struggles that have marked our history as a people.
The numbers worn by the men in this drawing mark the following dates:
1845: In this, the year that Frederick Douglass first published his famous narrative, he gave a speech titled “My Slave Experience in Maryland” in which he detailed the physical and spiritual brutality of his years in bondage.
1764 (partially obscured by the left arm of the center figure in this drawing): In this year Brown University was founded. Several members of the Brown family either owned or were involved in the slave trade.
1919: This year marked the “Red Summer” in which bloody race riots took place across the nation, from Arkansas to New York. Many African Americans were killed in this epidemic of anti-Black violence, and even more were displaced from their homes, their places of work often destroyed.