Reading Street Literature, Reading America’s Prison System

Street Literature, also known as Urban Fiction or Ghetto Lit, has established itself as a new type of African American popular fiction since the late ‘90s. Initiated with novels like The Coldest Winter Ever (1999) by Sister Souljah and Teri Woods’ True to the Game (1999), the genre now consists of thousands of works, many of them written by first-time authors. Produced and distributed through a complex network of self-publishing writers, independent African American publishers and mainstream presses, including Random House, Kensington and Simon & Schuster, the number of these novels is constantly growing.

Despite their success, however, Street Lit narratives continue to be a topic of controversy, as Wendy Solomon explains in her article“Street Lit’: Rapper 50 Cent lends his name to raw gangsta fiction” (20 September 2007): “The books are taking some heat from critics who say street lit, variously called ghetto lit, urban fiction or urban noire, is not only bad fiction, it’s no better than the stereotypes and misogyny perpetuated in gangsta rap. Others say street lit is a legitimate form of artistic expression of hip-hop culture, and an important and genuine reflection of a subculture.” Although the novels are regarded in some circles – especially among librarians – as being a vehicle to make reading more accessible, in particular to people who can identify with the stories’ grim inner city life, Street Lit narratives are subject to negative criticism for their inarticulate writing style and hyperbolic accounts of drug trade and conspicuous consumption.

Fear of an overall “degradation and sexualization of black fiction has been expressed by the author Nick Chiles in his article, “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut” (New York Times, 4 January 2006), reflecting a general concern on the part of the “more literary” African American authors that they will be pushed out of the market by the better-selling popular writers. As recently as last October, Chiles reconfirmed his opinion on the negative effects of Street Literature in the online magazine The Urban Book Source, by deploring the failure of Street Lit writers to “humbly approach[…] that blank page with a desire to say something about the human condition, to explore some of the peculiarities of trying to stay alive and thrive in a complicated age” (“Nick Chiles: A Critical Look at Street Lit”, October 2009).

Many of the novels are indeed rife with misogyny, depicting female characters as “pieces”, “dimes” or “trophies”, promote a double standard of sexual behavior – women being expected to remain monogamous while men are accepted to be “natural whoremongers” – and display gritty scenes of murder that go unpunished or are otherwise glorified. Be that as it may, merely dismissing the entire genre as being worthless and lacking literary value would do an injustice to an often contradictory, multifaceted and developing narrative form.

A particular important facet of the genre is how it is inextricably linked to the US penal system on multiple levels. Not only is Street Lit probably the genre with the largest number of authors and readers, who currently are, or formerly were, incarcerated. Imprisonment is also a central theme in most storylines, and also the novels’ distribution and marketing have become closely connected to America’s prison apparatus.

Book: True to the Game

Author: Teri Woods

Publisher: Grand Central

Publication date: 2007-05

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/g/graaf-trugame-cvr.jpg

Thus, a study that considers prison as a central theme, location and trope of Street Literature not only pays attention to the novels’ promotion and commercial use of violent crime. It also reveals how – on the levels of production, distribution and marketing – the genre attests to the presence of a large group of African Americans, who – recalling Chiles’ words – do indeed “try[…] to stay alive and thrive in a complicated age.”

In order to fully comprehend the connection between Street Literature and America’s prison system, one first has to look at recent international and US prison statistics. According to the yearly reportof the International Centre for Prison Studies the US ranks not only at the top of the World Prison Population List (Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List”, International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London, 26 January 2009). With over two million people currently imprisoned in local jails and federal prisons, America has the highest reported incarceration rate per capita in the world – even more than far more populated China. Retracing records of the inmate population over recent decades, we also find a reversal from approximately 70 percent white inmates in the ‘50s to around 70 percent African American and Latino prisoners in today’s correctional facilities.

The latest Bureau of Justice statistics attest to the fact that the black population of the United States is affected disproportionally by the country’s prison system. According to the bulletin for 2008 there were a total of 591,900 black inmates, making up the majority of prisoners held in state and federal prisons as well as in local jails (William J. Sabol and Heather C. West, “Bureau of Justice Statistics. Bulletin Prisoners in 2008”, December 2009). In view of these numbers, it’s possible to imagine how the carceral system permeates and structures the lives of large parts of the African American population. Organizing family visits, shipping goods to often remote facilities, limited job opportunities for released prisoners and continuous supervision by probation and parole officers are just a few examples of how the prison system affects not just the convicts, but their families and friends, as well.

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the omnipresent prison experience has also found its way into the popular genre of Street Literature. Using examples from selected novels and correlations to their larger production and distribution contexts against the backdrop of America’s prison statistics, this essay will show how Street Literature simultaneously incorporates and critically reflects upon the effects that the prison complex has on many black citizens.

Prison as Transition

Photo “California Department of Corrections” (partial) found on 805 Politics

Prison as Transition

While life after prison is not portrayed in the cautionary tale, imprisonment appears as an educative transition phase in what I term the Street Lit bildungsroman.

Starting on the plot level, prison as a location or topic can convey different narrative messages, depending on its implementation into the novels’ storylines. One of the classics and more eloquently written examples of Street Literature, Sister Souljah’s novel The Coldest Winter Ever, illustrates how prison can be used to turn the narrative into a cautionary tale. Narrated in the first person through the voice of the spoiled protagonist Winter, the story revolves around her attempts to continue a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption after her father, a former crack dealer, who had at one time had all of Brooklyn “locked down”, has been sentenced to life.

With Sister Souljah inserting herself as a character into the storyline – playing the role of an activist similar to the role she has in real life – who counterbalances Winter’s ruthless and ego-driven behavior, The Coldest Winter Ever takes a clear moral stance.

Following Winter’s slow downfall, during which she attempts to maintain herself through various illegal hustles that involve preying upon all supportive friends, the narrative ends with Winter’s own incarceration. She receives a mandatory 15-year prison sentence in New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and eventually grows to accept prison as her home: “Sometimes when we be playing cards and listening to the radio, it’s almost like we at home. I got enough family and friends on the inside. That’s why I don’t get no visits. Everybody’s already here. ”

In the final scene, after having served seven years without a single visit, Winter is allowed to leave prison for a brief moment to attend her mother’s funeral, who has died as a result of her crack addiction. Closing with an eerie family reunion at the cemetery, the novel shows Winter, like her father in handcuffs, facing her estranged siblings at her mother’s grave. Souljah thus deploys her cautionary tale not only to illustrate the destructive outcome awaiting those involved in the crack trade, but also to represent prison as a just punishment for those partaking in criminal activities.

Book: Street Life

Author: Jihad

Publisher: Kensington

Publication date: 2007-06

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/g/graaf-streetlifecvr.jpg While life after prison is not portrayed in the cautionary tale, imprisonment appears as an educative transition phase in what I term the Street Lit bildungsroman. Jihad’s novel Street Life (2004) represents an example of this kind. Like Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever a coming of age narrative written in the first person, Street Life tells the story of the African American protagonist Lincoln, who grows up in a rundown housing project in East Atlanta from the ‘70s to the ‘90s.

Having been caught and bailed out several times as a juvenile for minor delicts, Lincoln finally ends up serving a seven-year prison sentence for his involvement in the local crack trade. Undergoing a process of self-realization during incarceration that in many ways parallels the narrative structure of Malcolm X’s autobiography – from Lincoln’s introduction to literature to his conversion to Islam – prison is presented as a liminal space, essential to the protagonist’s coming of age process.

Central to Lincoln’s maturation is also his awareness of the changes in the criminal justice system that were introduced in 1986 with the “War on Drugs” initiative during the Reagan administration. Experiencing first hand sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine, the introduction of a conspiracy law “where physical evidence wasn’t needed to convict” as well as the replacement of parole with a mandatory minimum sentence, the novel’s protagonist calls attention to the racial implications of current sentencing policies. The controversial issue of cheap prison labor is also raised in Street Life, illustrating how the Federal Prison Industry employs prisoners to produce a variety of “products like shoes, clothes, mattresses, helicopter harnesses, bullet-proof vests, office furniture, and much more. “

Jihad’s novel finishes in line with the three-step development of the rite of passage, using prison to turn his gone-astray character into a religious, literate and politically aware individual. After his release Lincoln re-enters the hood — this time, however, to the benefit of his community.

In this sense, the Street Lit bildungsroman challenges the view that prison possesses a rehabilitative function by showing it to be a profit-generating institution that relies on race-related sentencing practices for low cost labor. At the same time, however, this type of narrative also portrays prison as a space for reflection that transforms the characters, who then, upon their release, find their legal place in society.

In a rather pessimistic, though one might say also more realistic stance, prison is integrated into numerous Street Lit narratives as an inevitable and recurring part of the characters’ life. In what might be termed stagnation narratives – referring to the African American migration narratives that usually depict the move from the South to the Northern cities – characters permanently oscillate between streets and prison, without ever managing to escape the vicious circle between the two worlds. Corey, a Bronx crack dealer in Shannon Holmes’ novel Never Go Home Again (2004), can be described as such a stuck character, continuously going back and forth between the two poles, never being able to return “home again.”

Even the novel’s chapter divisions, alternately named “In the System”, “In the World”, “Time” and “Back on the Block”, recapitulate Corey’s dilemma. Corey indeed has a certain awareness that prison and hood are inextricably linked institutions that become increasingly similar, a realization made clear in his statement “Same way on da streetz, same way in jail.”

Nevertheless, in contrast to the protagonist of the Street Lit bildungsroman, who overcomes mental incarceration while being physically imprisoned, the main character in the stagnation narrative does not succeed in extricating himself from the cycle. In the case of Corey the narrative ends with him being shot by police officers in the streets. Characteristic to the Street Lit stagnation narrative is therefore less a didactic stance, but rather a laconic voice that emphasizes the deterministic impact of society and its institutions on the protagonist instead of his or her agency.

Book: Against the Grain

Author: Freeze

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2008-09

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/g/graaf-againstgrain-cvr.jpg Finally, in what Street Literature’s critics might term glorifying tales, prison is accepted as an integral part of the “crack game” and often regarded positively. This type of narrative neither depicts incarceration as a justified punishment for criminals, nor questions the political implications of the magnitude of the prison apparatus. Instead, in novels like Freeze’s Against the Grain (2008), which he wrote while doing a nine-year sentence for selling drugs, prison is not only presented as a network location to connect dealers and prepare their return to the streets. For the protagonist Kay, a prison record also serves as a form of cultural capital, a necessary tool for the accumulation of street credibility. As in the case of Kay, the prison experience also positively follows the freshly released males. With their radiating skin, muscular and testosterone-filled bodies, they possess what is termed “prison glow”, usually depicted as being highly attractive to the female inhabitants of the hood.

Glorifying tales thus deploy prison neither as a didactic tool nor as a trap or space for developing self-awareness. Rather, their storylines engender an entertaining momentum in the usually successful trickeries that are used by the drug-dealing protagonists to avoid or easily overcome incarceration. Against the Grain illustrates a characteristic ending: the former dealer and prisoner Kay gets away with a $13 million check, while his partner in crime, Shu-Shu, leaves the US to continue her life in Africa.

The same holds true for Joe Black’s novel Street Team (2003), which he penned during an almost 20 year prison sentence he had received for dealing crack in the Bronx. Consistent with an overall trivialization of the depicted crimes – including drug distribution and murder – a large part of the narrative centers around the protagonists’ efforts to minimize the charges against them as much as possible once they have been caught. Providing insight into the intricacies and injustices of a complex sentencing system, whose outcomes depend not only on the attorney’s reputation and fee, but also on the criminal defense motion practices, Street Team shifts its focus from just punishment to the individual’s fight against a system that is depicted as being just as corrupt and ruthless as the novels’ drug dealers.

Glorifying Street Lit narratives puts readers to the test, tempting them to take side with the criminals, and to accept a street code, where betrayal is worse than murder, and revenge necessary to keep one’s honor. The glorification of crime promoted by this type of narrative is undoubtedly problematic and may be particularly alarming when the author is an inmate whose release is yet to come. The observer, however, should keep in mind that these are fictional works, whose popular appeal is largely drawn from hyperbolic descriptions and the transgression of social norms, designed also to satisfy the readers’ longing for escapism and entertainment.

In all these kinds of Street Lit stories – be it the cautionary tale, bildungsroman, stagnation or glorifying narrative – America’s prison system represents an omniscient element, structuring the narrative, advancing the plot and forming the characters. Prison, however, also plays a central role in the novels’ production, with many authors penning their stories while being incarcerated. Not surprisingly, the personal histories of Street Lit authors, who have first hand prison experiences, often resemble those of the characters. Hence, numerous authors are currently serving time in prison, some of them, like Kwame Teague, author of the Teri Woods produced Dutch series (2003, 2005, 2007) and The Adventures of Ghetto Sam (2003) even life sentences. Jihad, like his protagonist Lincoln, has spent “over seven years in six different federal prisons”, and has since returned to support his community. In addition to writing what he calls “conscious hip-hop fiction” and his recent self-help book The Survival Bible: 16 Life Lessons for Young Black Men (2009), he also works as a motivational speaker.

Prominent female authors like Wahida Clark and Vickie Stringer have also managed to overcome their prison experiences successfully. Both women wrote their first novels while incarcerated and founded their own publishing houses upon their release. Vickie Stringer established Triple Crown Publications in 2001 – today one of the largest independent Street Lit publishers, and Clark launched two publishing companies in her home state New Jersey in late 2008: Green & Company Printing and Publishing, a firm producing self-published books for self-paying authors, and Wahida Clark Presents Publishing, which specializes in Street Literature.

Much like the protagonist of the stagnation narratives, some authors have been in and out of prison. Jason Poole, the writer of Larceny: The Cruelest Lie Told in Silence (2003), is one of them. In this novel he processes the conspiracy charges made against him by a former childhood friend. Poole has fought for over ten years against his 22-year-sentence for drug possession. Released in January 2007, he was sent back to federal prison in 2009, charged with a drug-related crime.

The blurring in Street Lit narratives of fictional prison accounts, author experiences, and actual prison conditions, becomes particularly clear when considering the novels’ acknowledgements, pro- and epilogues. Many of them are used to address imprisoned readers, like Shannon Holmes’ B-More Careful (2001) that opens with ” (T)o all my peoples on lock down. ” Fore- and afterwords are also deployed to send political messages as done by Vickie Stringer, who, in the epilogue to Let That Be the Reason (2002), denounces the “disparity in the Crack Law verses Powder”, affecting in particular “People of Color”.

Most surprising might be judging fictional characters, and using a published book to promote her own agenda, as done by the editor Nikki Turner in her closing remarks to Freeze’s novel Against the Grain. Blaming the protagonist Kay for his cooperation with the authorities she writes, “I, in no way, shape, or form, believe in snitching, cooperating, corroborating, or any other synonym used to justify sending someone to prison solely to avoid taking responsibility.”

In any case, the authors’ references to real-life prison experiences are a narrative strategy used to authenticate the fictional content and increase their suspense and entertainment value. However, Turner’s statement shows that the fictional accounts of Street Literature are also seen as participating in and speaking back to contemporary experiences of African Americans, especially those within the country’s penal system.

Photo (partial) found on Hello Beautiful.com

That writing too close to one’s own experience, however, can actually also lead to imprisonment has been well exemplified by the writer Asante Kahari. In his book The Birth of a Criminal (2002), he provides detailed descriptions of his experiences, including providing readers with precise instructions on check and wire fraud. Devoid of any narrative distance from Kahari’s own experiences, the story was used as evidence by the prosecuting district attorney. According to the case file on the controversial admission of the title as evidence, “the government learned of the book from Kahari’s website, which described the book as ‘the new autobiography from Asante Kahari’”. Referred to by the district judge as “the most damning piece of evidence I’ve ever seen, ” The Birth of a Criminal is now considered a collector’s item and can be purchased for $195 at Amazon.

An Agent for Inmates

Photo (partial) by Alamy found on Daily Mail.co.uk

An Agent for Inmates

With the growing number of imprisoned writers, we even find inmates building publishing infrastructures from inside prison.

Turning to the distribution and marketing of Street Lit novels, we find numerous strategies that are specifically geared towards imprisoned readerships. Take for instance author and self-declared “marketing machine” Relentless Aaron, who came up with an innovative bookselling practice that earned him a title story in the New York Times arts section (Corey Kilgannon, “Street Lit with Publishing Cred: From Prison to a Four-Book Deal”, New York Times, 14 February 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/14/books/14rele.html).

Book: The Birth of a Criminal

Author: Asante Kahari

Publisher: Gutter

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/g/graaf-birthcrim-cvr.jpg During our interview in September 2006 he described regularly boarding the “prison busses” in downtown Manhattan that take visitors to the state’s secluded facilities, accompanying the inmates’ family members and friends to sell them his Street Lit novels while “going upstate”. His own prison past turned out to be ‘helpful’ not only because it afforded him inside knowledge of a prison-related infrastructure unknown to commercial publishers and distribution firms, but also because it helped him for establishing connections with potential book buyers.

Serving the incarcerated readers on a larger scale is Sidibe Ibrahima, an African immigrant from the Ivory Coast, who moved to Harlem in 1999. After establishing a network of bookstands mainly on Harlem’s 125th Street that specialized in the sale of Street Literature, he opened his bookstore and distribution firm Harlem Book Center. Realizing there was a demand for Street Lit novels among inmates, Ibrahima registered with various correctional facilities as a book supplier, and now regularly ships prepaid titles to the avid readers. As he remarks during an interview earlier this year, providing prisons with Street Literature requires a lot of manpower and storage space due to the large quantity of books being ordered — as Sidi puts it: “they consume a lot.”

This line of work demands being up-to-date about new releases, since the prisoners keep abreast of current publications, using various sources. Apart from having the latest novels sent to them from family members and friends, prisoners read magazines like F.E.D.S. (Finally Every Dimension of the Streets) and Don Diva, which promotes Street Lit titles in ads, provides bestseller lists and articles on the latest development in the Street Lit scene. But they also stay informed through catalogues that Street Lit publishing houses ship to the various correctional facilities. Wahida Clark, who realized the need for such a service, even founded a separate company – WahidaClark.org – that is especially geared towards orders placed by and for prisoners, not only through the same-named website and via phone, but especially by means of her catalogue Books & Thangs that lists over 250 Street Lit titles.

Book: Larceny: The Cruelest Lie Told in Silence

Author: Jason Poole

Publisher: Vickie Stringer

Publication date: 2004-07

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/film_art/g/graaf-larcenycvr.jpg With the growing number of imprisoned writers, there are even inmates building publishing infrastructures from inside prison. Seth Ferranti, a rarity among Street Lit writers because he is white, is currently serving a 25-year sentence in federal prisons for selling marijuana and LSD. He came up with the idea of founding his own publishing house, Gorilla Convict, after several publishers rejected his manuscript for Prison Stories due to his imprisonment.

With the aid of this wife Diane, Ferranti founded Gorilla Convict in 2005. While Diane takes care of the business part, Seth is responsible for reading and editing manuscripts, approving covers, placing ads, and using his connections with other Street Lit authors on the outside and “go[ing] by what other prisoners like. ” As he stated in an interview with the hip-hop blog The Smoking Section (TSSCrew, “TSS Presents 15 Minutes with Seth Ferranti”, 15 July 2008), he initially had to deal with strong resistance from the prison administration, which tried to stop his publishing activities through numerous transfers and solitary confinements. They nevertheless had to give in after Ferranti was able to use in his own favor case laws precedents set by imprisoned authors like Mumia Abu Jamal and Donnie Martin, who successfully defended their right to write and promote their work.

He could also demonstrate he was in compliance with the Bureau of Prison policies that bar prisoners from “engage[ing] actively in a business or profession” (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Program Statement” No. 5267.07, April 14, 2003), by showing that Gorilla Convict Publishing is not operated under his name.

There can be no doubt that the American penal system permeates the genre of Street Literature on multiple levels. Neither the stories and their production, nor their distribution, publicity or consumption can be considered independent from the ubiquitous prison apparatus. Even those Street Lit narratives that depict prison in such a way as to gloss over the protagonists’ crimes can be seen as a reference to “mass imprisonment” – a term coined by the sociologist David Garland not only to visualize the current extent of America’s prison system but also to point out that we are dealing with a “systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population” (“Introduction. The Meaning of Mass Imprisonment”, Punishment & Society, 2001).

Photo (partial) found on CCounty.com

Although most Street Lit authors don’t “humbly approach[…]” their work in the manner wished for by Nick Chiles, but rather opt for explicit and blunt writing styles, the genre is worthy of acknowledgment and analysis beyond a simple binary decision between good or bad literature. The genre is not only valuable because it embodies and illustrates the omnipresence, magnitude and repercussions of the prison apparatus like no other literary genre or artistic expression at the time, but also because Street Lit’s constant growth and expansion into other media forms such as the play, Every Dog has its Day (based on the debut novel by Dana S. Hubbard), performed in Hampton, Virginia in May 2009 and films in the making based on Relentless Aaron’s novel Extra Marital Affairs as well as Omar Tyree’s novel, Leslie. Also announced is a film adaptation of Teri Woods‘ True to the Game. Such endeavors may grant the neglected issue of mass incarceration a more prominent place in America’s cultural and political agenda.

Kristina Graaff is a Doctoral Fellow at the Transatlantic Graduate Research Program Berlin – New York at the Center for Metropolitan Studies in Berlin. She is writing her PhD Thesis on Street Literature.

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